THE GAME CHANGER by Richard Reese Richard Reese has published alternative history with HISTORICAL FEATHER recently, and other short stories in different genres with The Moon and Coffin Bell this year. He attends the Iowa Writers' Workshop annually to work with other writers and luminaires such as Richard Thomas and Eric Goodman, to name a few. He is married, have two boys and a beagle mix that watches him when he is writing.
“Sir, General Jackson is here to see you.” With that, President Jefferson Davis’s appointment secretary withdrew when his Chief nodded permission to show his unwanted visitor in. Davis stood up from behind his desk, and started to walk over to the French windows overlooking Richmond. Before he could complete his ambulation, the double doors opened softly and slowly on their hinges, led by Davis’s secretary. Behind him in the worn but neat uniform of a brigadier general, Thomas J. Jackson followed. Davis turned to meet his arrival with a small smile that belied the coldness he felt toward this officer.
“Sir, it is an honor to meet you,” Jackson said in his courtly voice. Well-disposed to good manners even though of low breeding, Thomas Jonathan Jackson moved with a bearing that patrician Davis sensed was genuine. After the perfunctory greetings and small chit-chat of “welcome to Richmond” and the like, both men settled into the deep leather chairs across from one another, which were strategically placed facing one another in front of Davis’s presidential desk. Outside, on this clear late October 1861 morning, the muffled bustle of traffic below could be heard. A grandfather clock in its corner of the presidential office, chimed the half-hour. Both men were aware of that cue. The President of the Confederacy, and one of its most intriguing generals, then began to debate their opposing strategies to win the war for Southern Independence.
“Let me begin, if I may, President Davis with a question for you, Sir?”
Davis looked at the face of his questioner, and searched its lines and shape closely. But it was the eyes which telegraphed a touch of madness and brilliance into Davis’s own. The President shifted ever so slightly in his chair. He was not used to any subordinate staring directly, and so confidently, into his soul. Not even his wife possessed this touch in their private moments. Except for Davis’s beloved older brother and departed father, no man ever looked and probed the way this rough-looking soldier did sitting across from him.
“What is your query, General?”
“Sir, do you know how to win this war?” The question took Davis by surprise. He felt irritation percolate to anger at the impertinence - - much less a belying impudent whisper of greater martial ability - - behind Jackson’s words. While Jackson spoke them softly and respectfully, had any third party been privy to this discourse, they would witness two fighters squaring off. Davis and Jackson both knew this question, and its subtle tones, conveyed a message between them.
We are going to duel.
“General, let me be certain I understand your point behind this question. Are you in possession of some knowledge I am unaware of? If so, what is your thinking behind this query?”
Jackson seemed to shift straighter in his seat, even more than he was already. His eyes never left Davis.
“Mister President. With all due respect to your martial education at the Point, and brilliant military service in Mexico, I would never presume to instruct you on the principles of politics and war. We both read our Clausewitz as cadets, to be sure, and it is from our mutual understanding of that great opponent of Napoleon’s that I wish to proffer an opinion.” Jackson paused, and studied the impassive face before him. Then he moved swiftly to his next answers.
Davis sat still. Outside, a blue jay shrieked at another. The clock ticked away the seconds. Somewhere across the street from the presidential office, voices were momentarily loud enough to be heard through the windowpanes; during which, they rose and fell again and again, until finally fading into silence. Jackson noticed his host’s distraction, however he waited for Davis to return to the business at hand. In the presence of this unwelcome visitor, Davis collected himself and returned from this brief reverie, and sighed inside. Another military officer with another plan. It was enough that Joe Johnston came up with some notions of his own. And, of course, the current Secretary of War sometimes tossed his two cents worth.
Sensing that his listener was concealing “wool gathering” poorly, Jackson aimed his rhetoric like the proverbial dueling pistol straight at his opponent’s body. He fired his shot to wound and disable his opponent. With this tactic in mind, Jackson addressed his commander-in-chief.
“President Davis, Sir, we can win this war with twin bold strokes.”
“How, pray tell?”
“As you know, wars are won by being on the offense, and especially when a decisive battle presents itself. So far, we have won defensive battles merely to thwart the enemy from executing an offensive themselves, which would compel us to lose the war. I propose for your consideration another angle to our problem of winning by not drawing indecisive battles.
“Hannibal struck at Rome. The heart of Carthage’s enemy. He did not wait for Rome to come to him. True, Hannibal in the end was defeated by overreach, and from a superbly capable general in Scipio Africanus. Napoleon won every major battle he undertook to secure France her empire. When he lost his way by attacking Russia with dire consequences from his overreach, he lost everything even before Waterloo…”
Davis grew impatient with both his speaker in his professorial hectoring, and contradictory statements about battles lost instead of won. Waving his hand gently from its arm rest, Davis pointedly interrupted Jackson. “General, I apologize for my cutting you off from your lecture, but get to the point. I have other appointments and business which I must attend.”
Jackson’s eyes betrayed his outward calm. Davis saw glints of madness and irritation in equal proportions.
“Mister President. I sincerely did not mean to hinder your day with my ‘lecture’, as you put it. I deeply apologize. I will get straight to the point, with your indulgence.”
Davis said nothing. Jackson pressed on.
“Sir, I propose an invasion of the North as expeditiously as possible.” Seeing Davis sitting stone-still, Jackson continued. “The Army of Northern Virginia must cross the Potomac, invade Maryland, and drive northward deep in Pennsylvania. By taking Harrisburg and then swinging southeast to fall on Washington, from the rear, we can wreak havoc everywhere among our enemies. Every main railroad hub, the key mines and factories, many farm fields and all their livestock, most of the telegraph communications, and her domestic economy will be torn apart, or torched. And our army will live off the largesse, to boot.
“Certainly, the Union will reel at first from our blow. I expect that McClellan will be dispatched from our eastern gates to save Lincoln from capture, or even death. At that point, whatever reserves we have must be in place to attack their capital in force from our Northern Front. Thus, the Lincoln government will be crushed between our hammer and anvil. In conclusion, Sir, such a series of campaigns based on offense and boldness, might prompt an end to this war in our favor.” When Jackson finished, he seemed to shrink a little, as if the pressure within released itself from his body. Davis was convinced that Jackson was truly touched, not by genius, but from madness. The drawn-out silence between the two men lay over them like death’s shroud.
Davis looked coolly at Jackson. The grandfather in its corner loudly wheezed when one of its weights dropped a tired cog. Outside, the world spun on its axis. Richmond prepared for another lunch hour on a glorious, sunny day. Inside the presidential office, time seemed to stand still. Finally, he finished collecting his thoughts, and spoke bluntly to his general.
“General Jackson. Your ideas on this strategy have come my way through General G.W. Smith… your commanding officer… I believe. His letter was most interesting. Because I found your impertinence intriguing, and that is my fault, Sir. Nevertheless, out of respect I decided to hear you out.
“Let me be quite specific. Your theory has its merits, to be sure. I want an end to his war as much as you do. However, to even consider mounting such a series of campaigns against a much larger foe in his den, so to speak, is impossible. We do not have the manpower, or materiale, now available to defend and offend simultaneously. Winfield Hancock has given Lincoln a deadly strategy against us. Exactly like the proverbial anaconda wrapping itself around a goat it plans to digest, the Union blockade on sea, and the several armies in the West and North of us, are beginning to squeeze the South in a death grip.”
Jackson fidgeted in his seat. His face grew flushed from its normal pallor. Davis saw this, and proceeded to speak cautiously but firmly. He fired his shot in this duel.
“General, I am of the same mind about drawing Lincoln to his political doom, and perhaps winning the war. But what you proposing cannot happen under the present circumstances. I have an entire Confederacy to protect, to defend, and to sustain. A gamble of this magnitude would put our Nation at risk. Just having the Army of Northern Virginia marauding without sufficient reserves in place to assist this push, only to see it cut off from lines of retreat, is unthinkable.
“Secondly, we are fighting this war for our independence, not depredation, or to attain some pyrrhic victory on the battlefield, while the Lincoln government blunts any peace talks with our government for its advantage with other forces…”
Impatiently, Jackson interrupted. “By other ‘forces’, Mister President, are you speaking of outside powers?”
“Frankly, General, diplomacy and policy in this case are different breeds from the same dame. You can speak of war and policy to your superiors, and, obviously, even to me this instance. But I must again remonstrate quite clearly that what you seek by an invasion, now or in the immediate future, will not be supportable by necessity, or the wherewithal presently at this Government’s disposition.”
Jackson expected some argument, but not repudiation in the manner Davis expounded his objections. Sensing that the interview was an end, Jackson started to rise from his chair, just as Davis signaled he was about to do so. Only the grandfather clock in its corner sighed at the end of this inconclusive duel which left both combatants still standing, and farther apart than before in each other’s estimation.
“Mister President, Sir, I respectfully wish for you to think about my idea. I understand your grave doubts, and clear reasons at this time. In that light, I thank you for graciously allowing me as your general and a citizen to speak my mind so plainly.”
“General Jackson. Your acumen is like your courage, redoubtable. I appreciate your coming all this way to see me. Allow me to escort you.” As both men reached the double doors, Davis concluded with a gesture he thought was perfectly in line with professional courtesies. “General Jackson, I believe your continued service to the Nation is invaluable. Certainly, your victories in Virginia indicate greater laurels ahead for your brow. I thank you for your patriotism from the bottom of my heart.” With that, the doors opened as if by themselves on cue. Jackson went into the outer office where Davis’s secretary stood, and waited to usher this guest out.
When Jackson was gone, Davis took out a piece of foolscap and wrote a note to Joe Johnston. Fortunately for Davis, Virginia, and the Confederacy later, the note was discreetly ignored.
After the bloody battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863 some weeks ago, General of the Armies Robert E. Lee sat in his tent awaiting Lieutenant General Thomas Jonathan Jackson’s arrival in a few minutes. Outside, Lee could hear the comforting sounds of men sitting at their campfires, horses nickering, garrulous laughter, and officers’ boots, some with spurs passing by. When the tent flap parted for an expected visitor, Lee’s paladin entered; while one of the two sentries resumed his stance as before. Jackson quietly took his folding seat opposite of Lee. A kerosene lamp illuminated both men in warm golden light. The sounds of the surrounding camp faded into oblivion.
“Well, General, I have it on good authority that President Davis approves our advance into Maryland, a second time. This, with the proviso we invade Pennsylvania and break her in two!” Lee looked at Jackson whose face was etched in strength, which seemed to come right from God Himself; almost glowing in its own right without benefit of the lamp in front of him.
“General Lee, it is my sincerest wish that our campaign into Pennsylvania will bring about an expedient and successful conclusion to this war. This last battle certainly will draw Meade into our jaws for a final chewing. He and Lincoln cannot let Maryland slip from their grasp. But by the time they strike back, we shall trash southern Pennsylvania and beyond with sharp, swift strokes, and see what havoc we unleash in Washington proper.”
Lee mulled over this last statement. In his mind, Jackson was absolutely correct. Wars are won by attacking vigorously, strategically, and boldly, against a large enemy with resources beyond measure. Also, with poor leadership on its side to be an unwitting and unwilling ally of the Confederacy. So far, in the East there were no Union generals able to best Longstreet and Jackson. Rumors of Grant and Sherman being more than able, reached Lee’s ears from the West. If the North had their “Jackson and Longstreet” at Lincoln’s beck and call instead of Davis’s, the South surely would be crushed by the weight of defeats instead of victories.
Lee looked at Jackson for a moment, then lifted a finger for a moment of contemplation. Jackson understood. Second Manassas forged an intimate bond between both men. They both valued silence when necessary, as another means of understanding one another before speaking their minds.
This was one of those moments.
Chancellorsville changed the war picture into fantastic possibilities, like a kaleidoscope. Three miracles happened for the Confederacy, and the Army of Northern Virginia. Lincoln suffered another catastrophic defeat. The first was another bloody loss in a long string of military disasters, which ought to convince Lincoln to think seriously about peace. Perhaps another major defeat, say, in Pennsylvania, the home turf of the North, might hasten interested outside powers to intervene on behalf of the South. The second one was the swift recovery of Jackson from a shoulder wound that left is left arm paralyzed, instead of amputated. The unfortunate Confederate sentry, who mistakenly fired upon Jackson and his party, thinking they were Union scouts, was personally pardoned by Stonewall himself; once Jackson was told his near ‘assassin’ awaited a courts martial, and certain death by firing squad. Jackson would have none of it. All the General lost was time, and the use of an arm. The young man whose sharpshooting skills proved able would be needed sometime later this summer, if all things held true and well.
Of course, that was a big “if”, wasn’t it? He thought to himself.
The third miracle came about shortly after Chancellorsville. Lee persuaded Davis that Jackson’s invasion idea was the only option left to shift the war from futile and debilitating defenses, until the South was partitioned and devoured from too many fronts. It was the only one remaining where the South might shatter the North with enough offensive strikes to pressure Lincoln into peace, one way or the other.
Since that conversation between them--and with grudging approval from Richmond--Lee knew this was a much larger “if” all the way around. Coming back to reality, Lee’s attention gradually returned to his general.
Jackson observed his commander was in deep thought. He waited patiently for his friend to speak.
Then Lee looked straight at Jackson. His eyes captured the soft glow from the lamp on his portable secretary. “General Jackson, let us arrange our matters in compliance with military necessity. The proposed drive across the panhandle of Maryland and the southerly tier of Pennsylvania, will require the utmost in provisions for fighting a long and hard series of battles.
“The General dogging us by his screening maneuver is a good tactician in his own right. He will have ample manpower, adequate stores, and able subordinates who are well-aware of our own abilities in every department.”
“General Lee, what are you proposing we do?” Jackson leaned back slightly on his folding chair, and then sat up most attentive to listen to what Lee had in mind.
“Thomas”, Lee sometimes addressed his friend and brother in arms using Jackson’s name on occasion. This was one those. “I think we must use your superior logistics and battle array skills for this campaign.”
Jackson smiled with all the warmth he could muster toward Lee, and replied. “General Lee, I request that I spearhead our advance with General Longstreet and General Hill protecting our flanks. General Stuart must provide an initial screen now, and then sortie and fall upon Meade. He is our eyes. Everything to aid General Stuart in his mission to locate Meade’s weak spots, must be made available to him.”
“I concur”, Lee said softly. “Thomas, your thinking conforms to mine. In addition to speed, we must compensate for the lack of surprise. Richmond informed me that Halleck and Meade are aware of our plan at large. Sharpsburg was not lost on them. Militarily, the Union does not want to lose Maryland, and with her, the national capital. Had we the strength to finish the army in front of us, the campaigns of this year so far would be needless. We did not, and now we have another campaign before us. I am gambling the entire Army in this throw of the die. If we defeat Meade, we defeat Lincoln. Richmond understands the stakes quite clearly.”
“General Lee, what if we lose the battle and not the Army? Will our chances be so reduced as never to mount another attack, another offense, to end Northern resistance?”
Lee pondered his friend’s strategic question. If we lose another battle comparable to what McClellan suffered last September, and the Army to boot, we are done. Only a matter of time before we bleed ourselves to death before the North does. Lee smiled gently, even while he evaded answering Jackson.
“Thomas, I have looked at two topographical maps of Pennsylvania for your consideration, and advice. The first is the terrain in and around Philadelphia. The other is for Harrisburg. Let me see what your eye catches, and brain digests, for consideration.”
Jackson rose from his stool, and leaned over the first map. Lee stepped back and to the side of a camp table, where both maps and a mechanical compass lay with its prongs at the ready. Jackson picked up the mathematical tool, and began a series of arcing sweeps from a central point not far from one of the Pennsylvania-Maryland border entrances. Lee watched his friend’s brow wrinkle in deep concentration. Outside, a sentry called to another, as each gave the password to assume guarding Lee’s mobile headquarters.
“Hey, y’all! There’s some good salt pork and tack, yonder.” The relieved sentry tossed back, “Yep, if’n you and your friends ain’t done with them vittles like you say are still on the skillet.” Lee smiled to himself. It was good to hear such banter, even in this night where a weighty decision must be made which might cost both youngsters dearly.
Jackson took the other map and laid it over the first. Picking up the compass resting on its side, he resumed his calculations. All the while wrinkling his brow, and saying absolutely nothing. After two more shuffles of the maps, he then laid one carefully folded next to the other, also folded, so that Philadelphia and Harrisburg were parallel to what he would say next.
“General, Sir, let me share my observations and calculations with you.” Lee moved closer to Jackson’s left side, fully aware that the latter’s left arm hung uselessly in its gold-braided sleeve. Jackson took his cue and began his analysis.
“General Lee, when you compare the terrain maps, several advantages--and disadvantages --appear forthrightly. Let’s look at Philadelphia first.
“Philadelphia is a large city. A valuable city. A psychological and historical prize in itself. If we enter Philadelphia with raiding, invading, burning and disrupting her for whatever time we have, to a point where the city is left out of the war, we gain immeasurably. The city is full of resources the North requires to prosecute the war now; and if these were denied, or delayed, it would be to our benefit.
“That be said, let me explore with you the disadvantages. First, the Army would have to brush by strong Union forces positioned north of the capital here in Maryland. With telegraph and rail, Meade would be able to screen and then attack, as we proceeded in an arc trajectory from the southwest to the northeast. Our Army stretches like a snake about to coil around a stubborn stone. If Meade falls upon any part of that snake, he can cut it to pieces in detail, sooner than the snake head and tail can combine in its defense.
“Furthermore, let me say this, for the sake of argument, that if Meade is not as slow as McClellan, nor over-confident like Hooker, and we enter and sack Philadelphia, the prize becomes a trap. Our Army will lose its cohesion between streets and byways we are not familiar with. Civilians, reservists, and Union troops, can provide enfilading fire from every roof top and window we must pass by in single files. Our casualties would then mount; our expenditures in ammunition would deplete in proportion what the enemy can rain down upon us. Finally, trying to reform and retreat in orderly fashion would be a command and control burden; almost beyond every officer and subaltern still standing. In sum, as tempting as Philadelphia is, her siren song would cast us into oblivion.”
Jackson paused as he placed the Harrisburg map over the Philadelphia one. Lee thought of a magician doing a clever ledger-de-main trick, while using his patter to draw attention from what he was really doing. If the matters before him were not so serious, he might have applauded Jackson’s performance at the camp table.
Looking at Lee for approval to continue, Jackson then moved the kerosene lamp closer to shed more light.
“General, let me examine the Harrisburg map with you.
“From where we are on this side of the Potomac, a quick cut across through Maryland and into Pennsylvania keeps our Army from stretching too far. If we move in a wedge formation, our flanks can deflect any attack from whatever quarter where Meade happens to be. Our supply wagons carrying only ammunition are less exposed to Union predations by horse and infantry. We can defend ably, and simultaneously engage Meade in terrain of our choosing, rather than his.
“Bearing these possibilities in mind, Harrisburg offers two singular advantages, and one major disadvantage. First, she is the capital of the state. Seizing the statehouse and razing the governor’s mansion when we retreat will do nicely. But our real purpose is to cut the rail hub and telegraph offices when we torch warehouses, and rip up railyards to render them useless. The other advantage, Sir, rests in the Army incisively cutting Pennsylvania into two parts. Naturally, they will reform as soon as we withdraw, but the material damage and economic devastation will not so easily combine to our immediate disadvantage. In fact, Harrisburg might prove to the North of what we are capable of, and can repeat again and again, if necessary.” Here Jackson stopped for a moment to give Lee a chance to weigh the variables so far presented in both cases. Once Lee acknowledged he wanted the rest of the briefing, Jackson then pushed on to his conclusion and recommendation.
“General, the disadvantage to this plan, however, lies in the fact Meade will be in the neighborhood, too. Once he knows the direction our Army is headed, he will make haste to close on us. If we can defeat him and destroy his army, then Philadelphia is within our grasp - - after Harrisburg falls first. On the other hand, if Meade achieves our delay, and fights us to an inconclusive draw like Sharpsburg seemed to present us last year, then our seed corn is expended for naught. The South shall surely starve militarily for want of a final victory.”
Lee watched the expression of Jackson’s face. Like one of the maps on the table, Jackson’s face conveyed a terrain of brilliant insight and doubtful outcome. Of course, there was the counsel of Longstreet to be added to this mix. Lee could not finalize any plan without the warhorse Longstreet contributing to the Pennsylvania Campaign his analysis and recommendation.
“Your recommendation, General?”
Jackson looked Lee right in the eye, and drew a breath before answering.
“Harrisburg. It poses risks we can manage, and, perhaps, an opportunity should Meade take us on in a decisive battle.”
Lee let another gentle smile cross his lips. “General Jackson, your advice and thinking are sound. Pray tell, I should consult with General Longstreet with the same maps; and afford him the same opportunity to analyze and recommend to me his arguments as you just did. Is this agreeable to the General?” Jackson knew that Lee already made up his mind to consult Longstreet. To Jackson’s way of thinking, he would do the same if the tables were reversed. He would want his case to be plead likewise before the commander-in-chief. Courtesy and strategy dovetailed neatly in Jackson’s mind. And Lee was well-aware of the fact he needed both warhorses in tandem to pull this chariot successfully across the finish line.
“General Lee, I would not want it any other way. I am your servant, Sir.”
Both men shook hands. Jackson begged off a cup of coffee, and made his way out the tent flap. Lee then asked one of the sentries to fetch General Longstreet.
Robert E. Lee sat on his camp stool, his head in his hands, in thoughtful contemplation. Longstreet already finished his review and analysis of both maps. While he favored a strike at Philadelphia, he opted for Harrisburg. His reasoning was simple, and cut right to the bone. Philadelphia was too much of a risk for the Army, no matter what the riches promised. The Confederacy was stretched almost beyond its limits, just trying to defend too much territory with too little resources. The Fall of New Orleans in 1862 proved, in reverse, according to Longstreet’s thinking, that the South can’t even hold its most strategic port city in the Gulf. Then how on God’s green earth can any counterstroke at Philadelphia be mounted - - much less held - - to do what its planners thought might be possible? To convince Lincoln, and the European powers, the time arrived to negotiate a peace settlement! With that said and done, Longstreet begged off Lee’s hospitality, and went to his own tent for a hasty nap.
Lee was now left to his own thoughts. And a crucial decision that was his alone.
While he mulled over how second invasion of the North was to accomplish and succeed, Lee looked up at the tent ceiling as he felt a cold breeze at the same time. Strange. Where is that chill coming from? The late June night was sultry outside his tent, but inside he felt like it was one of those crisp early December mornings with frost on the surrounding grounds of Arlington. Lee rose to find the source of the cold all about him as he moved in the tent. Yet, everything seemed to be in order. The two sentries were at their post. A horse whickered softly in the darkness. Somewhere, the sound of a dog barking could be heard. Feeling the cold get stronger, Lee thought of asking one of the guards if he noticed a change in the night temperature. Then he thought the better of it, and decided not to bother the man. Instead, he was about to reach for his light blanket on the cot, when gradually he heard whispers all around him.
The kerosene lamp flared white hot.
At the camp table where the compass and two maps lay, Lee watched in amazement as the instrument seemed to rise on its own accord over the Harrisburg map! Alarmed, Lee took two steps back toward the tent flap to quietly summon both guards inside, and have them assist him somehow with these phenomena.
Only his voice would not work. He tried to call out loudly, but his vocal cords remained soundless.
The whispers grew more intense. Louder. Now they became comprehensible to his mind. Stupefied, he saw the compass begin to vibrate and slowly float above a map. Watching the compass make slow arcs, as if guided by some invisible hand, wild thoughts tumbled like acrobats across his imagination. He was seeing and hearing what was about to happen as his Army marched into Pennsylvania. Motionless, he felt like he was being drawn into a fiery vortex. The tent shimmered in front of his vision, and seemed to flow like liquid syrup around him. Deeper and deeper his mind descended into greater clarity while the whispers and images before him revealed a great battle. As if suspended in air over this battlefield with its blue and grey contestants writhing in mortal combat, Lee felt he was observing a ballet--a danse macabre-- of such intensity, he could hardly breathe.
His mind reeled, and then recoiled, at the horrors unfolding like a kaleidoscope gone mad. If this is a dream I somehow am having, I must be going insane! What am I seeing and hearing here? Why? My God, is all this possible? Where am I? Lee was confused, amazed, and frightened all at the same time.
Gradually, the whispers and images began to fade. The shimmering about him slowly dissipated. The kerosene flame collapsed into a burr of its former luminosity. The intensifying cold around him, vanished as quickly as it began.
Lee found himself gripping the camp table with whitened knuckles, while sweat ran down his face and back, soaking his shirt from fear and wonder of things foreseen; now receding from consciousness. Staggering from the work table, he went to the tent flap, and peered at the two sentries. Both snapped to attention instantly.
“Guards,” Lee croaked. “Did you see or hear anything to disturb me?”
“No, Sir!” both in unison respectfully answered back. With that, Lee retreated into his tent. I need a drink. Lee reached into his footlocker and drew a small bottle of brandy. Uncorking it, he filled his tin cup with two fingers, and slowly sat down on the camp stool to drink. After another cup, his head slowly cleared, and he began to puzzle out just what his senses experienced. Did I have a stroke? No. Perhaps a touch of the influenza? Possible. My heart has been bothering me of late. Perhaps a mild seizure of some sort. Yes! That would explain my being disoriented. Wouldn’t it? How come I didn’t feel any chest pain? When one of these spells would come and go, I would feel a tingling in my left arm before it passed. I believe I shall consult the camp surgeon, once the sun is up. I am weary. I shall take to my cot and rest a bit.
Lee crept cautiously to his cot, and then like a very old man, lay upon it. He fell into a deep sleep, and never heard the sound of the bugle arousing the rest of his Army the next morning. One of his junior officers was later admitted to arouse Lee from his slumber.
He dismissed the night’s mirages stemming from an over-active imagination, or too much stress on nerves. Lee never summoned the camp surgeon that morning. He had an Army to march into Pennsylvania.
At a war council held on 27 June, the first evening of Lee’s arrival in Pennsylvania, the three commanders met to confer on how best to exploit the desired situation: drawing the Army of the Potomac into a decisive and, hopefully, disastrous defeat. As Lee, Jackson and Longstreet huddled for several hours, during the course of their animated conversations and varying opinions, one thing became quite clear. In Lee’s mind, he needed to balance the powers his subordinate generals brought to the invasion. Jackson was aggressive, imaginative, daring, and calculating in all his endeavors. Left to his own devices, “Stonewall” could produce victories out of near defeats, and visit defeats on his overconfident and incompetent opponents who expected easy victories over this “madman!” James Longstreet, on the other hand, was a superb commander, who literally could read Lee before Lee needed to speak. Solid in combat, and swift to put out fires before they consumed Confederate soldiers and brigades from superior Union forces, Longstreet knew what to do, and when to do it well.
The third luminary in Lee’s constellation was James Ewall Brown Stuart. Flashing, dashing and daring, “JEB” Stuart was a brilliant cavalry general with an uncanny ability to hurt Union troops and horse whenever the slightest opportunity appeared on his horizon. Lee gave him the most important assignment in the battle to come. Be innovative, but use your skill when gathering the whereabouts of the enemy; when engaged, deprive our opponents any succor anyway you can. If possible, strike behind Meade with all your might, no matter the cost to yourself, and give us the advantage of surprise the way Blucher did for Wellington at the precise moment required.
On the third day of Gettysburg, Stuart did just that.
Lee needed all three generals’ unique talents synchronized just so for when--and if-- George Meade could be drawn into his doom.
Lee had a plan. With two full corps at his disposal facing the Army of the Potomac, whichever corps commander engaged Meade first, the other would immediately enter the fray to make developments favorable to the Army of Northern Virginia happen. Because Meade had larger and better equipped forces, the sheer size of the Army of the Potomac could be turned to Lee’s profit. Meade knew that Lee was in the vicinity of his Union forces. But not exactly where or when Lee would stop marching and marauding of to fight. The only thing for sure, was that the Army of the Potomac must doggedly parallel the Army of Northern Virginia, step by step, by playing the blocking role of screener and spoiler.
Because Lee kept the initiative to move and strike at will, while forcing a much larger force to string itself out as it paralleled the compact and smaller invader’s, this fluidity gave the Southrons three advantages. First, the smaller Army of Northern Virginia travelled fast, and could maneuver appropriately wherever opportunity arose. Second, Jackson and Longstreet were better tacticians in every respect than any Union generals under Meade. And third, Stuart and his cavalry- - illusive and deadly-- was “somewhere and hereabouts” to befuddle Meade; despite his sending Custer on a futile “wild goose chase” to find the enemy horse.
Wherever and whenever the decisive battle occurred, Lee felt it in his bones that he would prevail.
Meade, for his part, was untested against opponents, such as Lee, Jackson and Longstreet. And he knew it. Lincoln had only one dog in this fight. Meade was it. Grant and Sherman, the equals of Lee, Jackson and Longstreet, were preparing to win a major victory elsewhere at Vicksburg, which would split the Confederacy in two. One wonders if they had faced their counterparts in Pennsylvania, how this battle would turn out.
But Meade had an ace in the hole of his own. He knew he must keep the Army of the Potomac intact, come what may. And he must avoid being drawn into a battle of Lee’s choosing, and under conditions that could tip the balance in favor of the Army of Northern Virginia.
Events almost went Meade’s way.
No one expected a small, out-of-the-way college town of nameless importance, outside small farms and hamlets, to be the site of a battle between titans. Gettysburg was close to the border on the hard side of Pennsylvania facing Maryland.
With rolling hills and corn fields dotted by orchards or milch pastures, life was bucolic at best. Quiet. Predictable. Pleasant.
All this changed on July 1, 1863.
While roving patrols from both armies were riding about looking for one another, the day’s morning coolness slowly gave way to summer’s promised heat. When riders spotted others in different uniforms, shots rang out, while runners hastened to report their respective enemy was nearby. Very quickly, men and their officers tumbled across the land surrounding the outskirts of Gettysburg; eager to engage in something much larger than a fire fight.
Stuart began his ride north and east, racing ahead of the Army of Northern Virginia now itself aroused. Lee, Jackson and Longstreet moved with deliberate speed. The wedge formation slowly shifted into a convex shape, as First Corps bulged forward and Second Corps formed a rear bulge temporarily; ready to shift concave in support of her sister corps when circumstances or opportunities permitted.
As the hours passed in rapid succession and with mounting casualties, Meade realized that he needed to shift rapidly to a strong defensive line, with a concomitant rear space available for fighting--or retreating--in good order. The surrounding hillocks known as Little Roundtop, Big Roundtop, and Cemetery Ridge, offered the lucky side advantages for costly attacks--or expansive repulses-- if either army was quick about it.
The Army of the Potomac had seized the high ground.
The Army of Northern Virginia was forced to take the Devil’s Hindmost.
Meade had to hang on, no matter what. And to keep two aims in mind. First, to fight the Army of Northern Virginia to exhaustion and defeat soon. Second, to deny another set-piece battle similar to Chancellorsville’s two months earlier, where Lee cut up Hooker like so much fish bait.
Lee now had the woods and sloping land around the hillocks to make good use of the terrain available. And under circumstances not exactly of his choosing. Open ground, true; however, with hundreds of defenseless yards where Union artillery and fusillades could inflict terrible losses on men running up to fight their foe above. Yes, the woods with their open skirts, would equally provide Colonel Alexander’s cannon much to have their say in the long-range duels between gunners. Also, Lee knew that if he prematurely deployed Stuart in the open killing field between both sides, Stuart’s cavalry would perish. A loss Lee would resolutely prevent. He had enough infantry to absorb the cost of keeping Stuart viable, for what Lee and Jackson and Longstreet hoped might be the decisive stroke--if the chance presented itself. That chance presented itself. But the costs to Lee were horrendous.
It was on the third day of the battle when another price Lee had to bear, needed to be paid.
After two days of bloody assaults against Meade’s fish-hook defenses, including the heart-breaking repulse of Alabama and North Carolina by Joshua Chamberlain’s 20th Maine at a critical moment, Lee and his paladins decided one more effort was necessary to break Meade. If that failed, the Army of Northern Virginia itself might be irretrievably ruined--if not outright destroyed. Everything depended on one last throw of the dice.
Lee looked at the drawn faces of Jackson and Longstreet while they were hunched over a table assessing their positions, after the sun set with an angry blood-shot eye that evening over the foolish affairs of men. “Gentlemen,” Lee opened the discussion. “I have in mind a lesson drawn from Wellington for our situation.” Jackson looked up, while Longstreet still kept his eye on the dispositions before also looking at Lee.
“Meade cannot be dislodged by the tactics we so far arrayed against him. His tenacity is worthy of our respect, to be sure, but it is one of little choice. He cannot come down from his perch. We cannot climb up without greater cost the way things stand.”
Jackson shifted on his feet, and then spoke. “General, what are you thinking of to change our situation of seesawing?” Longstreet waited in silence to hear Lee answer, and then see which way his advice, or opinion, could do the most good. “I have it on good authority that General Stuart is in the vicinity. He is poised to contribute one more blow when the time comes. We must make that time come sometime by late tomorrow, or else we will have to break off and return to Virginia as best we can.”
Longstreet broke his silence.
“General Lee. Totaling up our losses, resources, and placements regarding the Army of Potomac, we may well be wise to probe one more time, but if the battle appears to shift in favor of Meade in the slightest, and regardless of what Stuart may, or may not do, we must preserve the ranks first and foremost; even if victory is not attainable. Any pyrrhic victory will not do, either.”
Lee was calm as he faced Longstreet. Inside, he was quite perturbed. Longstreet was right, of course. What he hoped for was Jackson’s thoughts. If Jackson even slightly concurred with Longstreet, perhaps disengagement entirely this night - - or very early on the morrow - - might be the best recourse. A defeat was better than destruction.
“General Jackson, Sir, your thoughts?” Lee looked intently at Jackson, Lee’s brown eyes were now like dark pools. Jackson found them inviting to swim in; unlike Longstreet who politely averted such notions.
“Sir. I think we need a coordinated frontal assault to keep Meade busy. I firmly believe General Pickett is capable of this diversion. I favor taking my best two divisions for a right flank strike. Then, if General Longstreet concurs, he moves two of his divisions to the left flank. It should make Meade stretch his lines to the point where a breakthrough at one of these three points is possible.
“If General Stuart can provide us any immediate assistance from the rear, we might be able to roll up Meade and destroy his forces in detail. Colonel Alexander must expend all his firepower as best he can. In short, General Lee, the Army of Northern Virginia can acquit itself well… unless God favors Meade…. But I have faith in Him Above, and in you and Longstreet here, that we can do this to our advantage.”
“General Jackson, your perspicuity is well-known to me. Field Marshal Blucher did indeed fall upon Napoleon from his rear, just as Wellington gambled to close in with one last grappling. Blucher’s unexpected attack, and Wellington’s determined one, combined to defeat the French at Waterloo. I gave General Stuart such instructions, should he fashion the means to do so. We may need this hammer, too.
“Sirs, do either you of have another alternative to wage this battle for one more day?” Seeing no objections, Lee pressed on. “Generals Jackson and Longstreet, we have much work to do this evening. Let us try to make Meade have his ‘Waterloo’ in the coming morning, or afternoon.
George Gordon Meade met with his generals in another war council. His men were nearly at the breaking point. Casualty reports indicated the Army of the Potomac had barely the strength required for another day of killing. Not of Confederates. But by Confederates. Ammunition tallies indicated drawdowns might carry the Union a bit longer, depending on how many assaults Lee hurled at Meade come the next morning and afternoon. The artillery showed extensive wear and tear. Caissons and cannons were made of wood and iron. They felt no weariness like flesh and bone. Their artillerymen, however, did. Still, what repairs that could be made even this night were better than nothing. Then, there were the wounded. Army surgeons did what they could to staunch bleeding. All opiates gave out long ago. Spirits vanished…well…like spirits; so, they were no longer available to numb the maimed, or brace the doctors themselves. As Meade caucused with his generals, one thought was on everyone’s mind. The third day would be decisive--one way, or the other. There would be no fourth day in this spot for either side.
“Gentlemen,” Meade sighed. “General Lee has one of two recourses. He can try one major assault, throwing everything he has at us. The question before you and me, is: Will he thrust a spear point at our center, or one of the flanks which is the weakest? Or, will he attempt a simultaneous series of assaults, with emphasis of drawing our attention from the one spot he can penetrate, while we try to deny him any spots?
“The second question is simple, and probably moot. Will Lee simply vanish, either late tonight or right at dawn, to avoid further bleeding of his Army from futile and costly offensive operations? Personally, I am of the mind he will try one more attack. Jackson will be the galvanizer for Lee, instead of Longstreet; who is more practical minded, in my judgment. What say any of you to these queries?
General Winfield Scott Hancock looked around the circle of officers, and then directly at Meade. “General, in my opinion, General Lee will try one more attack. He really has come too far, and spent too much, to admit failure by withdrawal. I think your calculations of a major assault are accurate--up to a point.” The other generals seemed to close in, like a wolf pack about to circle Hancock. Not in a hostile way, but to protect one of their own.
“General Hancock, please feel free to fill in the ciphers as you see them.”
“Well, Sir, I think Lee will try one more time to hit us hard where the 20th Maine stands. To convince us otherwise, he must attack the other flank with as much force he can to draw our strength in that direction. Then will come a frontal assault he hopes will carry the day; no matter how expensive our canister may make it for him. At one of three points, or perhaps two of them--if he is lucky, or capable--a hole will open for him to defeat us in detail when we are rolled up, and our back is compromised.”
General Alfred Pleasanton spoke up. “General Hancock, your framing of Lee’s possibilities makes good sense. However, I beg to differ on one point. Lee must divide his forces in three unequal parts. If the center is his main ploy, then he must concentrate enough manpower to carry the day. That leaves any flanking on either of our defenses only able to draw fire; not carry one or both flanks by themselves, since the center has the massed power. On the other hand, Lee could weight one of his generals, and I guess Jackson, with more troops to carry his objective, while the center and Longstreet apply simultaneous pressure on our defenses to enable Jackson his moment.” The others looked at one another or nodded in agreement with Pleasanton’s foray into the deliberations.
Meade stared at a point on the opposite wall before he spoke. “General Pleasanton, I wish to God I knew how you could fathom the mind of Lee so well.” Pleasanton took the compliment in stride, and in silence. Then Meade resumed. “Gentlemen, now we have Lee facing a dilemma; one of his own making. We must react well to whichever choice he makes, and best him, as it is revealed almost when he is on top of us.”
The third morning blossomed under a fiery red sun rising over the town of Gettysburg, and the thousands of men encamped on both sides in front of the once sleepy burg. To one private the sun looked like one of Death’s orbs, as he made his way from the latrine. For another sergeant getting his battery ready to belch some fire of its own, the baleful sun betokened his last day on earth. Union or Confederate, the soldier and sergeant thought the same thoughts, feared the same fears, and hoped the other side would give up instead, so everyone could go home.
Lee rose from his bed. Already clad in his uniform shirt and pants, he bent to pull on the boots nearby. The room was already stuffy, and quite warm; despite the slight breeze fluttering the lacy curtains from the sun streaming through to announce its presence to witness more carnage again.
As he stretched to ease a kink, his aide-de-camp knocked gently on the door. Lee was about to say, “come in”, when a cold breeze from somewhere, other than the only open window, enveloped him in a chill. What, the? Am I coming down with another attack? Not now, Dear God, please, not now of all days! The sounds outside his room coming from the window, or his aide tapping behind the door, vanished. The room shimmered in front of his eyes in any direction he looked. Unusual lights flickered in front of his eyes, like fire flies, and then winked out, only to return with vivid colors to dazzle his retinas.
Again, visions and sounds appeared just like the last time. Lee broke out into a sweat. He heard his voice croaking, but the words coming from it were unintelligible. Suddenly, and with great impact in his brain, images spun one after the other foretelling the day’s events. When the last image faded from his mind, the eerie ambience about him also vanished. What he thought was hours in time, only happened to be no more than a minute or two. The insistent rapping from outside his door brought Lee back to his own time and place.
It was another stroke; of that I am now convinced! Lee rationalized to himself, as he granted leave for the aide to enter with his light breakfast, and announce that Jackson and Longstreet were on the side lawn waiting for him. Finishing his coffee and toast, Lee put on his jacket and hat. Looking back one more time over his room, Lee turned and strode out to greet his generals. He must be at his best today. Today would decide the fate of two nations, two armies, and two chess players of unequal strengths. Both men, opposing one another, were aware each would command the destinies of their men across a checker board whose squares in white and black represented life and death, upon which this game plays.
Lee was ready. Meade had no choice.
First the guns had their say. Southern and Northern spoke to each other using iron words, punctuated by the grammar of fire and fury, going back and forth. Men in the woods began to form up. Other men behind whatever natural and man-made barriers, patted their weapons. Most men on this day licked their lips, made silent prayers, thought about loved ones to calm nerves, and hoped somehow to get past this trial alive, at least. All feared the oblivion that exploded in their head when canister shot, or a Minnie bullet sent a man hurtling into eternity.
The officers remaining to fight this day felt all these feelings, and one more. Would I be worthy of my superiors and subordinates as an equal in bravery and honor this day? On this day, Lee and Meade each had the most doubts about themselves being “worthy” to their fellow officers, and, most importantly, to the soldiers under their command. Both commanders knew that one of them would wear the laurels of victory to the cheers of their troops. Both knew the loser would bear forever the shame of defeat, the pain of all those lives lost for naught. Both leaders also understood that war was unforgiving when a nation fights to preserve its unity; or acting as violent midwife in birthing a new nation.
Gettysburg, a small college town nestled in the skirts of southern Pennsylvania, ended another day in its history. Gettysburg, the Battle, on the third day of July 1863, however, made history far and wide, too. In the Battle’s aftermath, foreign powers made their choice to leave “These Disunited States” to try and finish its internal war, and end it as “The United States”. Four months later, Lincoln would address the People from a national cemetery filled by Americans bearing the dead of both sides, who wore different cloth in life, and now in death the same black shroud. His words would ring out as the Gettysburg Address. On dawn that morning, all this was in the near future. On that morning instead, life and death watched from their sidelines - - and waited. The day grew hot. The air sultry. The struggle begins.
Like rain softly falling at first and then becoming torrential, Confederate sharpshooters in buildings north of Cemetery Ridge began the storm. Union sharpshooters returning fire back at the southern outskirts of Gettysburg, gradually cleared the northern wall of Cemetery Ridge of rebel snipers; while batteries aimed at the woods where more Confederate troops waited, peppered the air with thunder and cascading shot. Lee watched as Longstreet moved his corps to the left. Jackson his corps to the right. For Jackson having his famous “Stonewall Brigade” with him was especially gratifying. One way or the other, to his mind and soul in ongoing prayers, he and his corps would sweep the day.
With Alexander’s batteries providing cover, the two corps steadily maneuvered into attack positions. Lee had Pickett’s division stationed in front of him. At the precise moment he unleashed Pickett, Stuart must arrive in the heat of that assault, and fall on Meade from his rear to wreak havoc. Lee looked at his pocket watch, and mused to himself. General Stuart, the day may end well with your horse. Shakespeare almost had it right when King Richard, fallen to the ground, said something about ‘my kingdom for a horse!’ Well, Sir, your horse may well gain our kingdom. Then Lee’s thoughts turned to the battle at hand.
J.E.B. Stuart was already in place with his troop to execute Lee’s wheeling maneuver before the first streaks of breaking dawn heralded the last day of battle. Lee and Meade anticipated the use of their cavalry would be critical to the battle’s final outcome. Meade assigned George Armstrong Custer to provide a screen to block, and blunt, any surprise from Stuart’s light cavalry may proffer. Stuart, on the other hand, knew that somewhere west and north of Meade’s rear lines Union riders were waiting to block his road--and mission--at all costs. Both commanding generals knew that the front door would be bludgeoned hard. The backdoor must hold, come what may; and Lee was determined to make “come what may” happen, smashing that rear entrance at precisely the same time the front door buckled about to give. Meade knew his Waterloo lessons well, too. He provided what he thought were iron braces to hold his back door “come what may” --should Lee send his Blucher in this battle and make history repeat itself.
Stuart’s scouts reported two Yankee cavalries about, blocking the west and east approaches to Meade’s rear. Plus, light artillery stationed on all avenues of approach as an extra precaution. Stuart pondered how best to evade Custer. A diversion would be needed to draw some of the blue away. The Union artillery emplaced on the road to act as corks to keep out Stuart from breaking into the bottle, was another matter entirely.
A plan was needed, and fast. Stuart sent one of his best riders to let Lee that his “grey ghost” was where he was supposed to be, but a diversion or two were needed to keep Meade’s light artillery from stopping a timely rear-fall surprise from happening. When Lee received this dispatch, he immediately signaled Longstreet and Jackson to create this, so Stuart might have a hole to pass through and hit the Union hard on its ass, while Meade’s teeth and jaws were being shattered from Lee’s dentistry.
Longstreet and Jackson each hided off a battalion apiece. Moving with the precision of “foot cavalry” north left and north right, these battalions had some of the best snipers and sharpshooters prepared to disable blue-coated cannoneers long enough for Stuart to have his “hole”. At least, that was the idea. Lee sent back the messenger to Stuart telling him help was on the way, and soon.
As the sun climbed higher and higher to have a better vantage while the carnage raged below, Lee watched his side of the battle take on the western and eastern flanks of his opponent with mounting casualties of his own he thought were worth sustaining. Meade shifted his core forces in whichever direction the Confederates on his flanks were applying pressure. His casualties mounted, as well. But his defenses held well, too.
Longstreet ordered a series of undulating waves, one right after the other, in his area of the struggle to beat upon the rocky hillocks. Jackson did the same. The strains on both Union flanks showed, but their giving away would not happen for another three hours.
Stuart evaded Custer long enough for the sacrificial battalions to engage the blocking artillery. By two in the afternoon, Lee was convinced the time was ripe to unleash Pickett in the center. Just as Longstreet saw the first lines running across the open field toward Meade, Jackson broke through on the right with a series of staccato blows; and began pouring in like a grey flood as the blue dike started to crumble.
Jackson was in the thick of it. Never content to hang back in the rear while his men fought forward, he started to move up as his brigade poured through the burst right flank. Longstreet pushed his troops harder and harder to make his penetration from the left become decisive.
Meade threw everything he had at the right-flank flood of rebel troops. Just as the left flank began to cave from Longstreet’s assault, Stuart flew at Meade’s breaking northern line. The distraction made some difference. Stuart died waving his sword, and shouting, “Let’s carve these boys like chickens for our supper!”
In less than thirty minutes, Union resistance all but disappeared. Longstreet and Jackson watched as Pickett swarmed like an incoming tsunami at Meade. It was bold, brave, and by this time, not necessary. The North lost more than a battle in out-of-the way Pennsylvania. She lost the war by the time prisoners and guards began marching away from the hillocks; now copiously covered with the dead and wounded from both sides.
That evening, Meade surrendered his sword with the other arm not in a sling. The victor declined the vanquished’ sword out of courtesy and honor. Lee offered Meade and his remaining generals, the use of his headquarters to sleep. With thousands of Union prisoners needing food, and the wounded of both sides requiring medical care, Longstreet and Jackson detailed their commissaries and surgeons to provide succor to everyone now in their immediate charge.
The Battle of Gettysburg ended on the third day as a triumph for the Confederacy.
Jackson’s idea of an invasion to bring the war directly to the Union paid handsomely.
Davis was dignified when Lincoln entered the Richmond White House for a private tête-à-tête, before their secretaries of state inked the peace Treaty of Richmond on September 30, 1863. In the privacy of Davis’s office, the two presidents held a brief conversation. Then, to an honor guard drawn of blue and grey, Lincoln and Davis went to the coach waiting to bear Lincoln away. In another anteroom, ambassadors from the great European states waited for their Confederate host’s reception and dinner that evening.
The First Partition of the United States was complete.
Lee, Jackson, and Longstreet were feted by a grateful Confederate States of America.
All three quietly retired to their private lives. Rich with memories of service to the new Nation and her People.
Richard Reese Copyright©2018. All Rights Reserved