The Man in the Dark
Theory of Infantry Tactics
In the decade of the 1870s, a public dispute arose between James Longstreet and most of the surviving general officers of the Army of Northern Virginia who were present at the Battle of Gettysburg. Longstreet had taken offense at remarks made by Lee’s aide, Walter Taylor, in an article published in the Philadelphia Times, and in his book Four Years with General Lee. I give here the essentials of the back and forth argument that passed through the papers of the Southern Historical Society in that decade.
“I declare that the invasion of Pennsylvania was a movement that General Lee and his council (Longstreet here means himself) agreed should be defensive in tactics. . . ; that the campaign was conducted on this plan until we had left Chambersburg, when, owing to the absence of our cavalry, and our consequent ignorance of the enemy’s whereabouts, we collided with them unexpectedly, and that General Lee had lost the matchless equipoise that usually characterized him, and through excitement and the doubt that enveloped the enemy’s movements, changed the whole plan of the campaign, and delivered battle under ominous circumstances.” (Lieutenant-General James Longstreet, First Corps Commander)
“I never thought that our failure at Gettysburg was due to the absence of Stuart’s cavalry, though I can well understand the perplexity . . . it caused General Lee before the enemy was found. He was found, however, without the aid of cavalry, and when found, though by accident, he furnished us the opportunity to strike him a fatal blow. . . It is difficult to perceive of what more avail in reporting the movements of the enemy Stuart’s cavalry could have been if it had moved west of the mountains, than individual scouts employed for that purpose.” (Major-General Jubal Early, commanding division in Ewell’s corps)
“In the afternoon (of June 27 at Chambersburg) I met General Lee at his tent. He called me to where he was seated, and unfolding a map of Pennsylvania, asked me about the topography of the country east of South Mountain in Adams County and around Gettysburg. He said with a smile, `as a civil engineer you may know more about it than any of us.’ After my description of the country, he remarked and I quote verbatim: `Our army can be concentrated on any one point in twenty-four hours or less. I have not yet heard that the enemy has crossed the Potomac. . . When they hear where we are (which most definitely they would) they will make forced marches to interpose their forces between us and Baltimore. . . They will come up, probably through Frederick, . . . strung out on a long line. . . . When they come into Pennsylvania, I shall throw an overwhelming force on their advance, crush it, follow up the success, drive one corps back on another, and by successive repulses and surprises before they can concentrate, create a panic and virtually destroy the army.’ At the conclusion of our interview, he laid his hands on the map, over Gettysburg, and said hereabout we shall probably meet the enemy and fight a great battle.” (Major-General Isaac Trimble, a native of Maryland and Pennsylvania railroad engineer.)
“When General Lee had crossed the Potomac, the absence of his cavalry. . . obliged him grope his way in the dark, and precipitated him, by the want of timely notice, into a premature engagement with the enemy. While waiting for information at Chambersburg, the first intelligence received by the movements of the enemy was his arrival at Emmitsburg. General Lee ordered a rapid concentration of his forces at Gettysburg. Early in the forenoon of the first of July two Federal corps arrived at that place and almost simultaneously the head of the Confederate columns arrived.” (A.L. Long, Military Secretary to General Lee during the Gettysburg Campaign.)
“The Federal army crossed the Potomac upon the 26th June. General Lee heard about it the night of the 28th, from a scout. It is well known that General Lee loitered (Italics original), after crossing the Potomac, because he was ignorant of the movements and position of his antagonist. For the same reason he groped in the dark at Gettysburg. (Fitz Lee, cavalry division commander accompanying Stuart in his ride around Hooker (Italics added.))
Captain B.H. Liddell Hart, British Military Theorist
Let us endeavor to establish a simple and scientific tactical tree which conveys the essential principles of war. We will examine the simplest kind of combat: that between two individuals. From their correct course of action, we can deduce the essential principles and apply them in the conduct of war.
But it may be argued that the conditions of war are entirely different from those of a straightforward fight between two men; that in war the enemy’s movements and location are hidden from us until we are actually at grips with them.
Certainly, we agree, but the situation in war will resemble that of two men fighting under similar conditions, such as in the dark, wherein a man can only locate and reconnoiter his enemy by actually touching and feeling him. Thus the man-in-the-dark resembles the commander in modern war.
Let us examine the correct principles of action which a man seeking to attack an enemy in the dark would naturally adopt. First, he must seek his enemy. Therefore, the man stretches out one arm to grope for his enemy, keeping it supple and ready to guard himself for surprise. Second, when his outstretched hand touches his enemy, he would rapidly feel his way to a highly vulnerable spot, such as the latter’s throat. The man will then seize his adversary firmly by the throat, holding him at arm’s length so that the latter can neither strike back effectively, nor wriggle way to avoid or parry the decisive blow. (This is the “fixing” phase) Then while his enemy’s whole attention is absorbed by the menacing hand at his throat, with his other fist that man strikes his opponent from an unexpected direction in an unguarded spot, delivering out of the dark a decisive knock out blow. Before his enemy can recover, the man instantly follows up his advantage by taking steps to render him finally powerless. This is the principle of immediate exploitation of success.
The whole action of our man-in-the-dark can be simplified into two categories: Guarding and hitting. The man guards against two dangers. First, that of personal injury from the enemy’s blows; second, that the enemy may avoid his knockout blow, and thus cause him to overbalance. The man guards against these two dangers by extending one arm in front of him ready to parry and take the sting out of any blows aimed at his body; by using this arm to grope for and feel the enemy; and, finally, when he has located his enemy, by seizing the enemy so firmly at a spot (the throat) so vital that he will be forced to concentrate all his energy on its defense.
When the man has fixed his enemy, he delivers a decisive knockout blow. It will be obvious that the harder this blow the more likely it will be decisive. Hence the man must put his maximum possible force into it, while he only uses the necessary minimum of strength to carry out the preparatory operations.
Each unit should move with an advanced guard or forward body—the outstretched arm—pushed ahead in the probable direction of the enemy, whilst the main, or maneuver body, follows in rear. The latter will thus be ready to maneuver against any enemy which the forward body encounters, and by its mere presence will protect the flanks of the forward body. The forward body should fix the enemy firmly, so that the maneuver body can strike his flank and deliver the decisive surprise blow. Thus when the fire of the enemy holds up the forward body, its duty will be to keep the enemy immediately opposing him fixed to his ground and to absorb his attention by maintaining a vigorous fire. . . any slackening of pressure by the forward body will only result in the defense being able to turn and meet the flanking attack.
The reserve body is the means by which the commander exploits success or retrieves failure. At the moment the objective is taken, the enemy will be disorganized and probably demoralized, but if the attacking unit halts on the objective and is content to send out a few patrols only, the golden opportunity of exploiting the enemy’s local reverse will be lost. If the troops which carried out the assault have to be reorganized for pursuit, precious minutes will be lost. If a separate unit under a different commander is used for pursuit, delay is bound to occur, and the pressure on the enemy will be relaxed, thus affording him a chance to recover. Hence a fresh body, but one which is under the control of the commander who has taken the objective, should be used for pursuit.” (The Man-in-the-Dark Theory of Infantry Tactics and the Expanding Torrent System of Attack, by Captain B.H. Liddell Hart, 1921 The Journal of the Royal United Service Institution; see also Liddell Hart’s books: Strategy, Frederick Praeger, NY, 1956; Through the Fog of War, Faber & Farber, London, \; The Current of War, Hutchinson & Co. 1941; The Rommel Papers, Collins, London, 1953.)
The Confederate Generals Describe What Happened the First day of Gettysburg
“General Lee witnessed the flight of the Federal through Gettysburg and up the hills beyond. He then directed me to go to General Ewell and say to him that it was only necessary to press those people in order to secure the heights and that, if possible, he wished him to do this. I proceeded immediately to Ewell and delivered the order of General Lee. Ewell left the impression upon my mind that it would be executed. In the exercise of that discretion General Lee accorded him, Ewell deemed it unwise to make the pursuit. Major-General Edward Johnson, whose division reached the field after the engagement and formed on the left of Early, in a conversation had with me since the war, assured me that there was no hindrance in his moving forward.” (Colonel William Allan, aide to Ewell)
“I arrived about 3:00 p.m. from Heidlersburg. The enemy was then holding his line on the north of the town pretty firmly, and his right was pressing back Rodes’s left brigade. Without waiting to communicate with Ewell, as soon as the division was formed in line the advance was made with three brigades, Smith’s brigade being posted near the York road to protect our trains and flank. Gordon first struck Barlow’s division and drove it back in great disorder. Hays and Avery then advanced beyond Gordon’s left, and struck another line, retired back from the first, and routed that, driving it through the town. Hays alone entered the town, Avery going into the open ground on the left of the town. Gordon’s ammunition was nearly exhausted, and he had stopped to refill his cartridge boxes. The movements of my brigades had been very rapid, and brought them in rear and flank of the force confronting Rodes. That force then commence falling back, and the rout soon became general. I sent for Smith’s brigade, but Smith did not come up, and I sent a second time. I rode into the town, passing prisoners streaming to the rear, and found Hays forming line along a street on the left of the town. The enemy had begun firing artillery from Cemetery Hill. . . I met a staff officer of Pender’s (of Hill’s corps) and told him to go tell Hill that if he would send forward a division, we could take that hill. None of Hill’s troops advanced. Colonel Smead of Ewell’s staff came to me and said Ewell had sent him to say Johnson’s division was coming up, and to ask me where he should be put.
I rode to Ewell in the town. I pointed out to him Culp’s Hill as the proper position for Johnson, and urged pushing on and capturing Cemetery Hill. Ewell asked me to ride with him up the street to scout the hill. Ewell was not disposed to make the advance until Johnson arrived, because Rodes’s division had sustained heavy loss.
When the enemy was driven through the town it was about 4:00 p.m., and it was now getting towards sunset. I rode to see about my two brigades confronting the enemy. I was sent for by Ewell and found him with General Lee on the back porch of a small house north of town, near the road from Carlisle. It was now sunset, and Johnson had arrived and his division was halted near the college, in the northwest of the town adjacent to the Mummasburg Road. Johnson did not get on my left until after dark.
The most that the capture of Cemetery Hill on that day could have accomplished would have been to throw the enemy back on the line of Pipe Creek, which Meade had already selected as the position for receiving our attack, for he would not have attacked us at Cemetery Hill. (Jubal Early)
“On June 28th I reached Carlisle. I told Ewell Harrisburg could be taken, and I thought General Lee expected it. I volunteered to capture the place with one brigade, and it was arranged that we would start before daybreak on the 30th. The night of the 29th, Ewell received by courier from General Lee a dispatch that the enemy had crossed the Potomac, the dispatch came with an order to cross at once South Mountain, `and march to Cashtown or Gettysburg, according to circumstances.’ These were the words (Italics original) We marched via Heidlersburg to Middleburg thence to Gettysburg. About 2:00 p.m. Hill and Rodes had driven the enemy on our right, and Early, having reached the field on our extreme left, encountered a heavy body of the enemy, who were driven back in confusion and with heavy loss.
I rode with Ewell through the town. . . At this time, about 3:00 p.m. the firing had ceased entirely, save occasional discharges of artillery from the hill above the town. Ewell moved about uneasily, a good deal excited, and seemed to me to be undecided what to do next. I said to him: `General, are you not going to follow up?’ He replied that he had no orders to proceed. I said, “We should secure our advantage.” He made no rejoiner, but was far from composed. (Major-General Isaac Trimble)
General Lee’s Military Mind Was Ahead of His Time
General Lee was forced by the pressure of politics to pretend, in taking the army into Pennsylvania, that it would only engage in battle under circumstances in which it was attacked by the enemy’s army. In fact, he planned to meet the enemy’s advance as it came to him near Gettysburg and attack it from two directions: first, with A.P. Hill’s corps he meant to fix the enemy advance facing west and then have Ewell’s corps attack its right flank and rear, sending it in retreat, with full pursuit, toward the Mason-Dixon line. Moving rapidly after the retreating advance, Lee meant to use the Emmitsburg Road to turn Meade’s left flank and take possession of Frederick. Turned from Pipe Creek, Meade’s only practical choice then was to take position outside the Washington forts, blocking the roads between Frederick and Baltimore and Washington, or abandon the roads to Baltimore and take post inside the Washington forts. Of course, Meade had a third choice, and that was to advance to attack Lee at the Monacacy, assuming Lee was not then already moving east to attack him. In planning the encounter battle at Gettysburg, Lee used the principles Liddell Hart articulated so well in his articles and books before World War I and, continuing through War World II and the Cold War.
What the scholars are missing about the idea of Stuart's absence making Lee "blind" is the difference between cavalry standing at a distance observing the head or flank of a marching column and reporting that fact, vs the situation where masses of infantry approach each other to engage in battle. The infantry is "blind", the men "in the dark" as they approach: they must first grapple, and as they do squads, companies, regiments probe here and there, estimating the power of the enemy directly in their front, reporting to the officers what they are finding, all along the three mile line. . . the officers reporting up the chain to Lee, who then begins to get a feel for weak points in the enemy line and then increases force in that sector to attempt breakthroughs.
So then Lee didn't really need Stuart's "eyes" for much of anything. The fact that Early was at York necessarily meant that eventually as the enemy army came into Maryland it would naturally tend toward covering York, in order to cover Washington. . . the only uncertainty was how long the enemy would hold back from advancing north to engage his forces. Given the news the scout brought the night of the 28th, Lee knew that the enemy was two days march away from Gettysburg and so, to invite them to come toward his main body in the Cashtown Gap, he caused Early and Ewell to fall back from the Susquehanna which he knew would mean to the enemy that Washington was no longer in danger, so the pressure mounts to take the offensive, something Meade definitely did not want to do, did not intend to do, and do not expect Reynolds would do. This is what Liddell Hart would tell you and he is the recognized expert of massed infantry movements and tactics.
Sherman: Soldier, Realist, American written by B. H. Liddell Hart
Joe Ryan Original Works
About the author:
Joe Ryan is a Los Angeles trial lawyer who has traveled the route of the Army of Northern Virginia, from Richmond to Gettysburg several times.
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