The American Civil War like most wars had a variety of ways the opposing armies met in battle. In this series we will be examining the command decisions that went into the planning and execution of key battles of the war.
In some cases they met in what is called meeting engagements. The opposing forces simply collided into each other without a well-thought out plan. Many battles despite the best planning started by accident with elements of each army clashing before the commanders planned that they would.
In some respects, the pivotal battle at Gettysburg was a meeting engagement. Despite the extensive planning of General Robert E. Lee and his chief subordinate Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, once the two sides collided all planning was out the window.
The Battle of Chancellorsville was another hybrid-type battle that was extensively planned-out by Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker and his subordinate commanders. But once across the Rappahannock and enmeshed in the confining Wilderness of Virginia all of Hooker’s planning was for naught.
Other battles were instigated by one side or the other. The First Battle of Fredericksburg was a fight that the Union army instigated when it crossed the Rappahannock River. In the Western Theater the bloody clash at Shiloh (alternately known as Pittsburg Landing) was started when the Confederate Army of Mississippi attacked the encamped Union Army of the Tennessee.
During the American Civil War command decisions were based on human intelligence. Both armies utilized forward scouts and spies to seek out the locations of their opponents. Perhaps, the best known of these was Henry Thomas Harrison who was employed by General Longstreet before and during the Gettysburg campaign.
Both armies also used their cavalry in scouting role. General Lee described J.E.B. Stuart‘s cavalry as the “eyes and ears” of the Army of Northern Virginia. When Stuart was out of touch with his commander before the Battle of Gettysburg the Confederate Army was blinded to the Union Army’s positions.
There were also a fair number of spies in both sides’ capital cities. They were able to elicit confidential information using a variety of methods. They would then smuggle the information to their side. All of this took a great deal of time and sometimes the information was of no use when it finally arrived at its destination.
Despite all of the information that was gleaned from this variety of sources, the commanders had to sift through the rumors, hearsay and sketchy reports. In some cases lost or captured orders were deemed to have been planted to cause confusion and were not properly utilized by commanders.
Many orders were sketchy and imprecise causing confusion for subordinate commanders. Lee’s imprecise order to Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell is one of the best known. Lee ordered Ewell to assault Cemetery Ridge “if practicable.” Ewell given such a wide latitude felt that his corps was too tired to carry the Union positions.
As we go through some of the major command decisions made by both Confederate and Union commanders the methods that they used to decide where and how to fight will become clearer.