Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Squabble over Light Division command at Gettysburg

At the recent Emerging Civil War symposium, I was chatting with Gettysburg Guide Matt Atkinson, and he told me of an account of generals squabbling over who should lead the Light Division after Pender's wounding on day 2 of Gettysburg.

So I tracked down the source: Writing and Fighting the Confederate War: The Letters of Peter Wellington Alexander, Confederate War Correspondent. Alexander was born in Georgia, a graduate of the University of Georgia, a lawyer and newspaper reporter. He was the war correspondent for the Savannah Republican. The book was edited by William B. Styple and contains 200 letters that Alexander wrote for various newspapers.
William Dorsey Pender

On July 4, 1863, Alexander wrote a very long piece on the battle of Gettysburg. He goes into detail about the attack on the Confederate right on July 2. Alexander writes: "Mahone, on the other hand, declined to proceed unless Posey and Pender's division on his left should do so at the same time. Upon this fact being made known to Pender he rode forward to examine the ground, when he received a wound and was disabled. The question then arose amongst his Brigadiers as to who was the senior officer, and this point was not settled until about sunset." (164)

William Dorsey Pender took command of the Light Division after the promotion of A. P. Hill following the battle of Chancellorsville. In the reorganization of the Army of Northern Virginia, the Light Division was reduced from six to four brigades. Brian Wills, in his recent biography of Pender, makes no mention of Mahone in connection with day 2 at Gettysburg. Pender was ordered to support Rodes or Anderson's divisions if the "attack became general." But the attack never quite happened, and Pender was left to supervise skirmishers to his front. According to Wills, in an effort to get a better view of the terrain, Pender "rode the lines" and "dismounted and perched atop a boulder, from which he hoped to give himself a better vantage point." While on this boulder, a "Union shell suddenly burst nearby" and a piece of shell "tore into Pender's thigh." (233-34)

Lane would write that he observed Pender riding to his right late in the day on July 2.

The Light division consisted of Lane's North Carolina brigade, Brig. Gen. Edward L. Thomas's Georgia brigade, McGowan's brigade, under Col. Abner M. Perrin, and Scales's brigade, under Brig. Gen. Alfred M. Scales. At the time, right to command was based upon seniority of rank, or, who had held that rank the longest. Lane's promotion to brigadier general dated to November 1, 1862. Alfred Scale's promotion was dated June 13, 1863. He was also wounded on day 1 and replaced by Col. William J. Lowrance. Now to Edward Thomas, whose promotion to brigadier general also dated to November 1, 1862.

So, if there is an argument, it is between Lane and Thomas. If I understand the ranking question, next, the generals would have looked at who was at the previous grade the earliest. Thomas was promoted colonel of the 35th Georgia Infantry on October 15, 1861. It was his first command of the war. Lane served as major and then lieutenant colonel of the 1st North Carolina volunteers, and was promoted to colonel of the 28th North Carolina Troops on September 15, 1861. Lane was clearly senior to Thomas.

There is a lot of discussion about the Light Division not coming to support of the troops doing battle on the evening of July 2. Was that Lane's fault? What we really lack is a timeline. When was Pender wounded? When did Lane learn that he was in command? Just how aware was he of where the other brigades were posted, and of the plan for the day?

There are two things that throw the whole debate over seniority into question. Lane writes in his official report of the battle of Gettysburg that "Capt. Norwood, of Genl. Thomas's Staff, that Genl. Pender had been wounded & that I must take command of the division..." If Lane and Thomas had been arguing over who had seniority, then there was no need for a staff officer to inform Lane of who was in command.

The second piece comes from Peter Wellington Alexander. He recants the whole story. On July 26, 1863, Alexander writes: "I was led into an error in regard to the cause of the delay of Pender's division in going into the action on the second day at Gettysburg. The delay did not arise from any squabble among the brigadiers after his fall as to seniority in rank. On the contrary, that point had been settled at Fredericksburg to favor of Gen. Lane, to whom Pender turned over the command immediately after receiving his death wound. (178)

I wonder if Alexander witnessed any of this......... 

1 comment:

William McGrath said...

I don't think it would be necessary of any future dices sion since it seems the matter was clarified by General Pender, unless I'm missing something here!