Lee's Biggest Mistake at Gettysburg

Jun 2014
177
Cal Poly
What do you think was Lee's biggest mistake at Gettysburg?

One could argue it was invading the North in the first place, but I'll say his biggest mistake was (surprise!) Pickett's Charge. Now it seems that Lee wasn't crazy, he had legitimate reasons for believing the attack would succeed (poor artillery support and underestimation of resistance on Cemetery Ridge surely didn't help). However, marching 12,000 troops across a mile of open ground with Union artillery firing on them from all over was just a poor idea in general. His army was exhausted and even if the initial charge had succeeded, there would have been only a few thousand troops on Cemetery Ridge at most. Meade could still send his reserve in to knock them right back off unless AP Hill's own reserve got up there in a hurry, which still may not have worked (goes back to Lee's underestimation of the Union forces and overestimation of his own strength).

As for other mistakes, I would think not ordering Ewell to take the heights on the first day turned out to be a big mistake. Also, choosing his plan for attack on the second day rather than moving his forces around to the south was a bad choice in retrospect. What do you guys think?
 

Fiver

Ad Honorem
Jul 2012
3,765
What do you think was Lee's biggest mistake at Gettysburg?
Just about everything Lee did at Gettysburg was a mistake, but Pickett's Charge is probably the worst.

As for other mistakes, I would think not ordering Ewell to take the heights on the first day turned out to be a big mistake.
A direct order to take the heights would also have been a mistake due to other failures of Lee. Ewell's left flank was open since Lee hadn't used his available cavalry properly. This forced Ewell to have to divert troops guarding the flank. Lee also refused Ewell's requests for support from AP Hill and from the artillery. Thus when Ewell did attack the hill, he had no support, it happened too late in the day, and the attack failed.
 

Viperlord

Ad Honorem
Aug 2010
8,109
VA
It's worth pointing out that when people are talking about the "heights" as Lee was originally referring to them, they're actually talking about Cemetery Hill, the heights near the center of the Union line. There was absolutely ZERO chance of Ewell budging the Union off that line. In addition to the other forces that had fallen back there, there were 40 cannons and fresh Union troops that had been held in reserve. Ewell never could have taken Cemetery Ridge. By the time Ewell could mount any attack, there were already nearly 20,000 Union soldiers positioned to defend the heights, most of them positioned near Cemetery Ridge. What Ewell decided to do instead, when Lee rejected his request for reinforcements for an attack on the Union center, was take Culp's Hill on the right, which was actually the key to the entire Union position. But he felt that given the condition of his forces and their positions, he needed to wait for his other division, Johnston's, to arrive, and it did not do so in time for any more action that night. Culp's Hill was certainly more lightly defended than Cemetery Ridge, but neither was it unoccupied; I Corps remnants were on the hill, and probably by the time Ewell could have made an attack, Union XII Corps elements would have been in the vicinity as well.
 

skizzerflake

Ad Honorem
Mar 2010
2,141
Baltimore, Maryland
It's worth pointing out that when people are talking about the "heights" as Lee was originally referring to them, they're actually talking about Cemetery Hill, the heights near the center of the Union line. There was absolutely ZERO chance of Ewell budging the Union off that line. In addition to the other forces that had fallen back there, there were 40 cannons and fresh Union troops that had been held in reserve.....
I took a drive up there a couple years ago, recall standing on that hill, thinking about the union troops dug in, confederates trying to take it, got a visceral feel for the place and for Lee making that order and being a subordinate, wanting to say, "you want us to do WHAT???" Sometimes Lee's greatest strength was being bold and daring but sometimes it was his worst fault. At the best, they might have taken it but lost so much on the way that there would be hardly anyone to raise the flag.
 
Jul 2014
230
Santa Maria
Interesting how Lee did not take into account his experience from the Battle of Cerro Gordo in 1848.

General Santa Ana had been dug in on one of two hills with a numerically superior infantry force with artillery. The highway to Mexico City ran through them and so they needed to be taken so the Americans could advance.

Scott knew that they could not attack directly, even with their own batteries in support, so he decided to go around one of the hills ( the relatively undefended Atalaya Hill) to take it and mitigate the Mexican advantage on the opposing hill (El Telegrafo)

It was Lee himself who discovered a path going around Atalaya Hill and so he managed to get a battery of artillery on the hill while Scott ordered a diversionary assault on Santa Ana's position on the opposing hill. When the American artillery began to fire, Santa Ana ordered a withdrawal.


Lee could have done something similar at Gettysburg during the first day of fighting, against either of Meade's flanks (Round Tops on the left and Culp's on the right), but nothing was done. On the second day he did assault the hills but they were well defended and instead of bypassing the completely he ordered a futile assault against the flanks and they failed.

Old age I guess.
 
Jul 2014
31
Maine
I would think Pickett's Charge. Lee completely ignored Longstreet's warnings, and the Army of Northern Virginia never recovered from it. The loss of men and material were never made good.

I remember going to Gettysburg last year for the 150th, and my friends and I stood on the spot almost to the minute when Pickett's Charge happened. Looking out over the field, imagining Union troops pouring down fire from above, my thought was "Yeah, this was never going to work." My second thought, seeing the Virginia memorial in the distance, was wondering what Lee and Pickett felt looking on as their forces were destroyed. Did they have any idea this was the High Watermark? I wonder.
 
Jul 2014
230
Santa Maria
I would think Pickett's Charge. Lee completely ignored Longstreet's warnings, and the Army of Northern Virginia never recovered from it. The loss of men and material were never made good.

I remember going to Gettysburg last year for the 150th, and my friends and I stood on the spot almost to the minute when Pickett's Charge happened. Looking out over the field, imagining Union troops pouring down fire from above, my thought was "Yeah, this was never going to work." My second thought, seeing the Virginia memorial in the distance, was wondering what Lee and Pickett felt looking on as their forces were destroyed. Did they have any idea this was the High Watermark? I wonder.

"General Lee, I have no division!" -Pickett
 
Jul 2014
31
Maine
"General Lee, I have no division!" -Pickett
Yeah, my friend who organized it made us both watch Gettysburg and read The Killer Angels before we went; I think it was only when I stood there that I truly understood the weight of it.