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Gettysburg: The Meade-Sickles Controversy (Military Controversies) Hardcover – January 1, 2003
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General Sickles was the only non-professional Corps commander in the Army. Rather than acting in accordance with the intent of General Meade Sickles moved his Third Corps about 3/4 mile in front of the line General Meade intended for him. Sickles's line had its focus at the Peach Orchard and left Little Round Top uncovered. Sickles's line was well in front of and isolated from the main Union force. At 4:00 the Confederate First Corps under Longstreet attacked Sickles with great fury. Meade sent reinforcements. The Third Corps line was destroyed. The Union position on Cemetery Ridge waivered but survived intact.
The controversy that the above events provoked between Generals Meade and Sickles, their supporters, and generations of historians is the subject of Richard Sauers's study "Gettysburg: The Meade-Sickles Controversy" (2003). Sauers is a military historian and his written extensively on the Civil War. This book appears to be the first that focuses exclusively on the Meade-Sickles controversy and its aftermath.
Sauers shows an excellent grasp of the Battle of Gettysburg and presents a summary of the events of the first and second days of the Battle in his opening chapters, focusing on Sickles's move to the Peach Orchard line.
The third chapter of the book describes Congressional hearings and contemporaneus newspaper disputes in which Sickles and politically-motivated members of Congress and Union leaders tried to blame General Meade for his conduct at Gettysburg and to cast Sickles and his Peach Orchard salient as the saviour of the Battle.
The book continues in chapter 4 with further efforts by Sickles to defend his actions subsequent to the death of General Meade in 1872. Chapter 5 of the book was for me the most fascinating. Sauers presents a history of the history of Gettysburg. He describes how each major historian of the Battle treated the Meade-Sickles controversy on day 2 of Gettysburg and the reasoning on which each historian relied. The remainder of the book consists of Sauers's own examination and resolution of the issues at stake in the controversy.
Sickles offered four justifications for moving forward with his line on July 2: 1.General Meade had not given him orders (or at least not clear orders). 2. The position on Cemetery Ridge was on low ground. It was controlled by the Peach Orchard and, in any event, Meade's line was too long to be defended. 3. Sickles's advance prevented Meade from following-through on his plan to retreat from Gettysburg before the battle even began. 4. Sickles had located movements to the Federal left by the Confederates under Longstreet and moved his Corps to counter the threat.
In each of the four final chapters of the book, Sauers carefully examines and rejects each of these assertions. He finds that Meade had given clear orders, that the Cemetery Ridge position Meade assigned to Sickles was defensible, that there was no plan to retreat, and that Sickles had not early in the day located a movement by Longstreet's troops. He declines to speculate on what might or would have happened if the Third Corps had remained on Cemetery Ridge.
Sauers offers a careful and thoughtful account of the controversy which goes far in restoring, to the extent disagreements remain, General Meade's reputation for his conduct of the Battle of Gettysburg. But one of the fascinations of history and of the study of important events is that questions remain. There are still knowledgeable scholars somewhat sympathetic to Sickles. For example William Glen Robertson's essay "The Peach Orchard Revisited: Daniel E. Sickles and the Third Corps on July 2, 1863", accepts much of the critique and analysis that Sauers offers. But Robertson argues that Sickles may have succeeded in spite of himself by advancing the Union line, serving as a "break-water" for the Confederate attack on the Cemetery Ridge position, and , possibly, saving Little Round Top from capture. This conclusion to be sure involves a degree of speculation but it cannot be dismissed entirely in considering the effect of Sickles's move. Robertson's essay is reprinted in "The Second Day at Gettysburg:Essays on Confederate and Union Leadership" edited by Gary W. Gallagher.
Sauers's book will interest those readers who have a basic familiarity with the Battle of Gettysburg and want to explore in depth a major issue involving the Battle. On a broader level, Sauers's book is an excellent study of the practice of history and of the difficulty in arriving at a historical understanding of a weighty and controversial event.
Well researched and well-written; couldn't put it down!