[July 1, 2015] I walked the grounds at the Gettysburg battlefield more times than I can remember; studied the terrain, the movements of troops, the reasons why the battle was fought, and to also see the cemetery where my relatives are buried. The massive battle took place over three days beginning July 1, 1863 and was to be the most important engagement of the U.S. Civil War. Most important for us in the study of senior leadership is that politics determines the objectives.
It was a chance engagement between Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and Union General George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac. Lee’s Army was headed to a Union supply camp near Harrisburg but before arriving Lee found an opportunity to again rout Union forces just as he had done at Chancellorsville, Virginia. Although Lee had many objectives, both political and military, Gettysburg itself was never part of it.
Let’s take a closer look at the real objectives. For General Lee, there were several primary strategic objectives determined by the politics of the war that a victory for the Confederates would help achieve:
- Gain diplomatic recognition of the Confederacy by Britain and France, possible alliances, and assistance.
- Northern politicians would give up prosecution of the war with Confederate troops deep into Union territory and threatening Washington, D.C.
- Strengthen the Northern “Copperheads” peace movement that had been gaining credibility and political power.
- Boost the morale and confidence of the Southern states.
Yet we are often taught that the following were the real objectives of General Lee. However, they were secondary to the main strategic effort:
- It would upset the timetable for the Union’s campaign the rest of the Summer of 1863.
- Would allow the Confederate Army to threaten Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C.
- It would relieve pressure on the Confederate garrison at Vicksburg that controlled the “mighty” Mississippi River.
- The Confederates would live off the bounty taken from Union stores and the Northern farms, giving Virginia a much needed rest.
Battles teach us many things but they should never be viewed solely from the battle itself but from within the context of the war itself. Carl von Clausewitz once wrote that “War is politics by other means.” By this he meant that war is not just a political act but a political instrument to carry out the same by other means.
Today we honor those who sacrificed so much in all wars and specifically during the U.S. Civil War.
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