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Historians have spilled more ink about the Battle of Gettysburg than any other conflict in human history. Still, people often lose sight of the critical role artillery fire planning played in the attack against Cemetery Ridge.

Confederate Fire Support Plan

When General Lee decided to attack Cemetery Ridge on July 3, he fashioned a plan

Brig. Gen. Wm Pendleton
Confederate Artillery Chief, Brig. Gen. Wm Pendleton

that depended on a massed artillery preparation. He intended to have the artillery fire pave the way for Pickett’s, Pettigrew’s and Trimble’s infantry divisions. Yet, Lee’s plan fell short of its potential. Lee's Army had not developed the degree of centralized fire planning necessary to achieve his purpose. The army’s chief of artillery, Brigadier General William Pendleton, viewed his role as a logistics planner, not as a tactician. He only contributed to the fire support plan by tasking the batteries in Hill's and Ewell's Corps that faced the objective to join the bombardment. Responsibility for directing the artillery fire against Cemetery Ridge devolved upon Colonel Edward Porter Alexander who commanded the I Corps (Longstreet's) artillery reserve battalion. Alexander amassed enough guns to pound Cemetery Ridge. Eighty-four guns from I Corps, seventy-two guns from III Corps and another sixteen from II Corps would fire the preparation.

Col. Edward P. Alexander
I Corps Artillery Commander Col E. P. Alexander

The batteries deployed along Seminary Ridge that ran parallel to the objective on Cemetery Ridge. The guns had a broad sweep of the Union lines but the limited depth of the objective presented a challenge. The gunners needed precise range estimates and accurately timed fuses to strike their targets. Lee counted on the 172 guns to soften up the Union infantry and take out their supporting artillery. However, the Confederate fire support had one inescapable limitation. Lee had planned a frontal attack. The Confederate infantry had to pass through their own artillery batteries on the way to the objective. That meant the artillery could not suppress the Union guns during the infantry approach march and final assault.

Missed Opportunity

The Confederate fire support plan had another, needless, flaw. Neither Lee nor

Attack Against Cemetery Ridge
Confederate Attack Against Cemetery Ridge

Pendleton planned artillery fire to encompass the whole battlefield. More than 40 guns belonging to Ewell's II Corps stayed idle during the attack. Pendleton left them out of the battle because II Corps was not involved in the attack. This decision violated an important artillery precept to maximize the use of available fire support assets.

To make matters worse, the II Corps guns had the best position for suppressing the defenders on Cemetery Ridge. The Union defense resembled a fish-hook, anchored on Round Top in the south and Cemetery Hill in the north. The long dimension of the front ran north-south along Cemetery Ridge. The south-facing II Corps guns had a chance to rain devastating enfilade fire down the length of the objective. The gunners only had to align their guns with the ridge and not worry about the range. Their shells would land somewhere along the defensive front. Furthermore, these guns could keep firing throughout the infantry attack until the final push masked their fire.

Union Fire Support

MG Henry Hunt
Union Artillery Chief, Maj. Gen. Henry Hunt

In contrast, the Union chief of artillery, Major General Henry Hunt, supervised all the army’s guns. He even oversaw the allocation, positioning and targeting of the guns under the direct control of the corps commanders. Hunt arrayed his batteries from Little Round Top in the south to Cemetery Hill farther north. From these positions, Union artillery covered the valley separating the two armies with deadly interlocking fire. Hunt also trained his battery commanders to fire at a deliberate rate to conserve ammunition and preserve accuracy.

Artillery Battle

The effectiveness of the artillery fire on July 3, 1863 reflected the tactical expertise of the two artillery chiefs. The Confederates unleashed a concentrated and sustained bombardment but the massive preparation failed to blast a hole in the Union line. The gunners had difficulty setting the proper range on their guns. As a result, the shells mostly overshot the objective.

At first, the Union batteries returned fire, leading to an indecisive artillery duel. Union General Hunt intervened to stop the duel. He ordered his batteries to cease fire. He knew the upcoming infantry attack represented a greater threat and a more lucrative target for the Union’s remaining rounds. Across the battlefield, Colonel Alexander halted the Confederate preparation once ammunition ran low. This left the Confederate infantry to break the Union line on their own. A key piece of Lee’s battle plan had fallen short.

Artillery Fire at Gettysburg
Union Battery in Action

When the Confederate infantry divisions approached Cemetery Ridge, the Union guns inflicted appalling casualties with canister shot against the exposed infantry. Rather than stay put, one aggressive Union battery surged forward and flanked the Confederate formation. Their guns then shattered the attacking infantry with deadly enfilade fire. As the attack reached its decisive stage, the Union guns punished the Confederates with heavy losses.

To read a more detailed description of the assault on Cemetery Ridge, I invite you to read my previous publication, More Terrible Than Victory,

Conclusion

In sum, ineffective Confederate artillery fire planning squandered a chance to deliver a damaging blow to the Union position on Cemetery Ridge. This oversight allowed well-planned and well-managed Union artillery fire to cripple the assault.

When I was a battalion commander, I confessed a military truth to my troops. “I can’t win a battle. I carry a .45 cal. pistol—no way can I defeat an enemy force. It takes riflemen, tank crews, squad leaders, sometimes junior officers, to win a battle…But I can sure lose one.” I finished with a commitment. “If you follow orders and fight with vigor, I’ll do my part to follow sound tactical principles that will give you the chance to win.”

The relationship between troops and their commander depends on this implicit bond. When either party falls down on their promise, the results can be terrible.

When Troops Fail

Military history provides a few examples of troops failing to deliver victory despite

the clever and bold plans of their generals. General Grant caught Lee off-guard during the Overland Campaign of 1864.

Assault at Petersburg
Army of Potomac assaults Petersburg

He sent a large force south of the James River to attack a thin Confederate defensive line around Petersburg while Lee guarded the front north of the river. The Union troops, already depleted by heavy casualties at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor, mounted only a half-hearted assault against a small but determined Confederate force. Grant’s army squandered this opportunity to break the Confederate defense and had to spend another nine months investing Petersburg. At Kips Bay, New York in 1776, Washington had pre-positioned a patriot force where the British made an amphibious landing. The patriots barely fired a shot in the battle. Washington became apoplectic when his troops panicked and fled before the small British landing party.

Even in these situations, commanders do not escape responsibility for the poor performance of their men. In the above examples, Grant had allowed the fighting spirit of his command to dull through heavy losses and lack of confidence. Washington should not have expected the ill-trained and inexperienced militia unit to stand firm against a bayonet charge from British regulars.

When Generals Fail

The sadder and more common tragedy arises when brave, capable soldiers die needlessly through the errors and inattention of their commanders.

General Gerow
General Gerow

The 1944 fight on the Schnee Eifel portion of the Siegfried Line, discussed in my book Battle Hardened, demonstrates the effect of poor decision-making and faulty terrain analysis. The V Corps Commander, MG Leonard Gerow, channeled the 4th Infantry Division into a forlorn attack on the wet, wooded ridge that lacked roads to support a major advance. The division’s attack plan forced the 12th Infantry Regiment to fight along the narrow crest of the Schnee Eifel, a plan similar to climbing a fence by crawling over it lengthwise. The American infantrymen outfought the slapped-together German troops, from one pillbox to the next, in a series of localized shootouts. The narrow crest road, often interdicted by German artillery, constricted the Americans’ maneuver and supply operations. Instead of breaking through, the attack crawled, even though the GIs killed and captured the defenders they faced.

Poor Tactics

History provides several egregious examples of generals ignoring basic tactics.

In 1758, General James Abercrombie brought an overwhelming force against the French at Fort Carillon, now known as Ticonderoga. Abercrombie disregarded a commanding hill that he could have used to pummel the French flank with artillery. Instead, he left his guns in the rear and threw his infantry into a frontal attack against hasty French entrenchments.

Attack on Fort Carillon
British Troops Attack Fort Carillon

The French infantry swept the ground with musket fire from behind breastworks that could have been blown to pieces by artillery. The British, with the help of some colonial troops, pressed the attack but withered under French musket fire. When his first attack failed, Abercrombie ordered another, unsupported, frontal attack with the same result. The British suffered 2,500 casualties in the futile assaults. Abercrombie still had a huge advantage in strength but decided to withdraw. The rapid retreat stunned the French who could hardly believe they so easily defeated the massive British force.

Another British general, Thomas Wentworth, failed as miserably. He commanded a British and colonial American expedition that tried to capture Cartagena in 1741.

Cartagena Castle
Castle Walls at Cartagena

The British had to seize a stone castle that dominated the Caribbean town. Rather than batter down the fortress walls with artillery, Wentworth ordered several thousand infantrymen to assault the castle. The redcoats approached the fort only to discover that their ladders could not reach the top of the parapets. With no breach in the walls and no way to climb them, the attacking force stood helpless beneath the castle. Exposed to enemy fire, they suffered heavy losses. The attack accomplished nothing, except waste lives.

Conclusion

These examples illustrate the point I originally made. The troops are the ones who kill the enemy and break his will in battle. As stated in the U.S. Army’s leadership manual, “What they ask in return is competent leadership.” The general’s role is to give the soldiers the chance to achieve victory. He does that by giving them the resources they need and employing them in a tactically sound manner. Failing that, victory becomes unobtainable.

Shortly after the Normandy landings, the German Army noticed something about the American Army’s fighting habits. “There was usually a lull in the fighting during the nights.” The Americans seldom continued a fight after the sun went down. A reading of American unit journals confirm that little action occurred during the hours of darkness. Only the Germans used the dark to launch attacks.

The Advantages of Night Operations

The Germans made excellent use of nighttime for “tactical regroupings, unit transfers, the forward movement of replacements and supplies…tactical movements in preparation for an attack…movement into defensive positions…disengagement, and retreat.” With Allied planes roaming the skies, the Germans risked exposure to air attack if they moved at all during the day. Pressed during the day by American infantry and Allied air, the Germans felt a huge sense of relief to have nighttime to themselves. While the Americans slept the Germans used the night to recover and reset their defense.

The Americans sacrificed several tactical advantages by restricting offensive operations to daytime. First, the added concealment of night could’ve saved lives when American riflemen had to attack over open farmland. Second, darkness shortened the effective range of defensive weapons making it easier to close with the enemy. Third, the infantry missed the chance to infiltrate German positions under the cover of dark. When German resources dwindled too far to put together a solid defense, they began defending a line of forward isolated outposts backed by reserves. Their combat outposts often blunted American attacks and cost the Americans a lot of casualties. The American infantry could've compromised this strategy by slipping between the outposts at night.

Why Didn’t the Americans Attack at Night?

General Blumentritt
General der Infantrie Gunther Blumentritt

The natural difficulty of controlling movement in the hours of darkness explains some of the reluctance. A German general, Gunther Blumentritt, once noted, “Night is no man’s friend.” Given the inexperience of the leaders, American units may have considered a night attack too risky. Fatigue also played a part. After planning and supervising attacks during the day, commanders and staffs did not have the energy to extend operations into the night. Fatigue does not justify losing lives. If commanders thought they could attack successfully at night, they would've exploited that tactic. Why did they lack confidence in their ability to attack at night? I have an explanation for why American units avoided night attacks.

Tactical Doctrine

The Army’s field manuals from the early 1940s discussed night attacks but always from the view that such an operation was employed under exceptional circumstances. Manuals at company, battalion and regiment levels emphasized the difficulties of night operations but seldom mentioned the potential benefits. Doctrine imposed extra reconnaissance and movement control measures. Units required special training and rehearsals before any night attack could be considered. Given the daily grind of offensive operations in Normandy, commanders had no opportunity to plan and prepare such complex operations. As a result, the American Army slogged away, day-after-day, against German defenses in the light of day.

I had my introduction to the Army’s tactical doctrine when I served as a lieutenant at Fort Hood. I put together a field training event on the night attack. After pulling out my rifle company field manual (FM 7-10), I read through all the requirements for a successful night attack. I programmed each step in the tactical exercise. The company performed daylight and evening recons of the objective. Men stayed behind to maintain observation on the objective. The platoons posted guides to

Field Exercise
Author (2nd from R) Fort Hood 1973

help with night navigation and rehearsed for an assault in the dark. All this preparation took hours. A relatively simple night movement bogged down when the platoons wasted time just linking up with the right guides. Even then the guides themselves had trouble navigating to the correct positions for the final assault. The attack dragged for more hours.

Conclusion

At the end of the training exercise, I got together with the other lieutenants to discuss the operation. All of us agreed that the whole attack grossly violated the KISS formula (Keep It Simple Stupid). We felt that a single recon of the objective followed by careful map reading and a little compass work would’ve gotten us to the objective a lot sooner. The conclusion—the Army’s tactical doctrine was way too complex and difficult to execute.

In truth, tactics for a night attack should mirror those for a daylight attack. Had the troops of 1944 been taught and trained that way, they might’ve seized the advantages of night operations and put relentless pressure on the German defenders.

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After the euphoria of victory in Europe wore off, the western Allies paid grudging homage to the fighting ability of the German Wehrmacht. People noted Germany’s early successes in World War II and vigorous defense in the war’s last stages. Despite the massive Soviet and Allied forces arrayed against Nazi Germany in 1944-45, they held out for eleven months, fighting a two-front war. Military leaders admitted that Nazi Germany had been a formidable opponent.

Most historians attributed the tough German defense to their combat experience, superior generalship and Allied supply challenges. Years later military historians started making a more controversial assessment. Colonel Trevor DuPuy, citing battlefield statistics, stated “the German ground soldier consistently inflicted casualties at about a 50% higher rate than they incurred from opposing British and American troops UNDER ALL CIRCUMSTANCES. This was true when they were attacking and when they were defending.”

German Infantrymen
German Infantrymen in Normandy

Others, such as Max Hastings and Antony Beevor, also remarked on the superior battlefield prowess of German infantry. The fanatic SS troops earned special mention for their fierceness. These historians credited the fighting skills of the Nazis for much of the German Army’s success. The Nazis' willingness to prolong the fight against overwhelming odds helped keep the Allies bottled up in the Normandy hedgerows for seven weeks.

Did German infantrymen outfight their American counterparts?

My research into the 4th Infantry Division’s combat actions from June 6, 1944 to May 8, 1945, draws a different answer, depending on the time frame of the action. In Normandy, yes, the Germans fought with greater skill and determination than the Americans. After the devastating loss in the Falaise-Argentan Pocket, no. American infantrymen matched and sometimes over-matched the Germans. After the Battle of the Bulge, just the opposite. The GIs trounced the demoralized German troops, even the ardent SS, as they drove into the Fatherland.

Two Battles with Different Results

Besides the slow pace of the Allied advance against the out-numbered Germans, the campaign in Normandy provides plenty of anecdotal evidence of Germans getting the better of the Americans.

Private Dick Stodghill related an incident when 4th Infantry Division troops attacked across an open field south of Carentan. The American infantry trailed behind six tanks when German anti-tank guns knocked out the tanks in rapid succession.

Tank and infantryman
Tank and Infantryman Fighting in Normandy

Machine guns pinned down the American riflemen in the field, stopping the attack. The enemy, members of the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division, were not content with merely stopping the attack. A dozen Panzergrenadiers jumped over a hedgerow and ran to the abandoned American tanks. Before the Americans could shoot them, the SS soldiers climbed into the tanks then turned the tanks’ guns against the exposed American infantry. It was that kind of bold, confident and clever action that frustrated the Allies in the summer of 1944.

An attack by part of the 4th Infantry Division, nine months later, tells a different story. A battalion-size German force from the 212th Volks Grenadier Division, augmented with a company of SS, defended a series of bunkers inside a woodland. A battalion-size American force, augmented with tanks, attacked the entrenched Germans. The American infantry concentrated their fire against one bunker at a time. After suppressing the defenders, a tank came forward to blast the bunker. An infantryman finished off the dug-in Germans with a satchel charge. Down the line the experienced American infantry repeated the process and dislodged the German defenders. In a desperate attempt to turn back the Americans, the Germans counterattacked but got mowed down by tank, machine gun and rifle fire. The battle ended with the Americans killing twenty Germans for every man they lost.

Stay Tuned

What accounts for the disparate outcomes? In future posts I will address the issues contributing to the German soldiers’ initial combat advantage and the Americans’ ability to turn the tables on them.