Wednesday, September 28, 2005

If at first you don't succeed, destroy all the evidence that you ever tried

That used to be conventional wisdom in patent law, but times have changed. More on that later.

The quote actually comes from a book on the Civil War, Lost Triumph: Lee's Real Plan at Gettysburg -- and why it failed. The book argues that Lee's real plan on July 3, 1863, a three-pronged attack, has been concealed or, at least unappreciated, for the last 142 or so years.

Everybody knows about Pickett's Charge. Mildly interested people know about the (earlier) attack on Culp's Hill. The author, Tom Carhart (once a lawyer), argues that Stuart's cavalry attack, to reach Baltimore Pike, has sort of been covered up. We have language: "Nothing good for the South could come out of Lee admitting to anyone that he had tried to turn a Union Wing with a cavalry-infantry combination." While the text "nothing good could come out of admitting...." reminds me of some aspects of HR 2795 on patent reform, Stuart's cavalry attack is not exactly a secret. For example, the special issue of Civil War Times Illustrated on Gettysburg, published years ago, had a rather complete story on Stuart's attack (and also had some lesser known facts, like that Gettysburg had been occupied by the Confederates the week before July 1). And, on US 30, east of Gettysburg, there are plenty of signs marking parts of the cavalry engagement. George Armstrong Custer was in large part responsible for turning back Stuart, and perhaps deserves more credit for his role at Gettysburg. But the cavalry action is known to people serious about Gettysburg.

***As a further note on the Civil War Times Illustrated

The special issue I refer to, Gettysburg!, was I believe initially published in
and republished in 1980. The article "Cavalry Fight at Gettysburg" was written by Wilbur S. Nye, and appears on page 29 of the issue. The first two sentences state: Early July 3 General Lee told Stuart to protect the army's left flank. Additionally Stuart hoped to attack the Federal rear if Longstreet's assault was successful. A later sentence states Early in the afternoon a hot firefight began, which was the first phase of the battle.


A more "secret revealing" book from a few years ago suggested that Lewis Paine, frequently portrayed as a dumb, ox-like creature in the Lincoln conspiracy, actually was an agent of the Confederate government, and had previously worked with Mosby.

From the NPS account of Day 3 at Gettysburg:

Intense fighting erupted on Culp's Hill at 4 AM on July 3, and by 11 AM Union troops had secured the hill, firmly anchoring the point of the Union "fishhook" line.[one of Carhart's prongs] With the loss of his advantage at Culp's Hill, Lee decided to alter his strategy. Having already ordered his cavalry chief, "JEB" Stuart, to ride around the Union position and attack the Union supply line[Carhart's "hidden prong"], Lee decided to strike what he thought to be a weakened Union center on Cemetery Ridge where he observed few troops and only a handful of batteries.

Within the hour [after Pickett's Charge], a courier informed Lee of JEB Stuart's defeat three miles east of Gettysburg at what is known today as East Cavalry Field. Stuart successfully marched east of Gettysburg and turned his force south where they encountered a strong Union cavalry force blocking the Hanover Road. A spirited battle ensued with troopers of both armies fighting on foot and horseback. Southern charges meant to slice through the Union line were stopped cold by Union cavalrymen led by Brig. General George Armstrong Custer. His attempt to raid the Union rear thwarted, Stuart withdrew and retired toward Gettysburg.

***from Wikipedia

General Lee wished to renew the attack on Friday, July 3, using the same basic plan as the previous day: Longstreet would attack the Federal left, while Ewell attacked Culp's Hill. However, before Longstreet was ready, Federal XII Corps troops started a dawn artillery bombardment against the Confederates on Culp's Hill in an effort to regain a portion of their lost works.

There were two significant cavalry engagements on July 3. Stuart was sent to guard the Confederate left flank and was to be prepared to exploit any success the infantry might achieve on Cemetery Hill by flanking the Federal right and hitting their trains and lines of communications. Three miles (5 km) east of Gettysburg, in what is now called "East Cavalry Field" (between the York and Hanover Roads), Stuart's forces collided with Federal cavalry: Brig. Gen. David McM. Gregg's division and George A. Custer's brigade. A lengthy mounted battle, including hand-to-hand sabre combat, ensued. Custer's charge, leading the 1st Michigan Cavalry, blunted the attack by Wade Hampton's brigade, blocking Stuart from achieving his objectives in the Federal rear.

***from a review of Wert's Gettysburg, Day 3

The only thing that separates this Day Three study from the rest is the detail it gives to the 4 cavalry actions on July 3rd. Generally most only mention Custer's and Stuart's action southeast of the field and Kilpatrick's assault on the Confederate right.

***from the Patriot-News
Confederate cavalrymen under Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart took position on the field, three miles east of Gettysburg. Their objective was to exploit the anticipated success of the Confederate infantry assault on Cemetery Ridge in Gettysburg. Stuart hoped to sever the Union line of communication.

Brig. Gen. David McMurtrie Gregg, commander of the Union second cavalry division, thwarted Stuart's attack, however. In the encounter at Rummel farm, Stuart had not counted on the accuracy of the Northern artillery which repeatedly knocked out his gun crews.

***from a book review of Carhart's book

While reading the book I could not help thinking of the highly fictionalized 1941 Errol Flynn movie They Died with Their Boots On. The movie by accident said the same thing Carhart does: In a scene at the War Dept., Winfield Scott exclaims that Stuart was moving into the Army's rear or flank (can't remember which) and there was no one to stop him. After dramatic movie cavalry charges, the War Dept. scene comes back saying Stuart was retreating because of Custer. I could not stop thinking about this clip all through reading this groundbreaking book.

Also a thread at Tacitus

Of this thread, there is some
specific criticism
of the plausibility of Carhart's conjecture, specifically as to how much impact Stuart might have had if Stuart not been checked by Custer. In short, even if successful, would the "real plan" (successfully implemented) have produced a Confederate triumph at Gettysburg? Who can say? But Carhart's point was that the three-prong strategy had been covered up all these years.

No one on Tacitus addressed the issue of the Culp's Hill prong being over before Stuart or Longstreet/Pickett attacked (i.e., there was no third prong) or the issue that Stuart's engagement has hardly been concealed over the years. There is no evidence that the "exploit any success" motif is inconsistent with what happened.

A more critical analysis of Carhart's book appears in a blog entry by
Eric J. Wittenberg


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