Howard's Torpedo Part I

An article entitled “General Meade and the Second Battle of Gettysburg” in North & South magazine, Volume 8, number 1 included the following passage:

“On that bloody 1st of July, to conceal his own inept leadership of the XI Corps, the newly demoted [Oliver O.] Howard laid blame for the final Federal collapse in the day’s fighting on the other Union corps involved, the I Corps.  This was exactly contrary to fact – it was the rout of Howard’s XI Corps that precipitated the collapse, and it was the I Corps that held out to the last ditch.”

And later:

“However, the aspersions cast on the I Corps by Howard (passed on to [George G.] Meade by [Winfield S.]Hancock) provoked Meade to make a change.  He promptly displaced [Abner] Doubleday…”

As a rule, North & South articles include source citations, and this one is no exception.  But the source listed by the author for all of the above (and then some) was Hancock’s dispatch to Meade on 7/1/63, found in the OR Volume 27, Part 1, page 366.  The portion of that document which relates to O. O. Howard and what I call the Torpedo he allegedly launched at Doubleday consists of one line: “Howard says that Doubleday’s command gave way.”

There’s nothing new or exciting in the claims made by the author.  This story has been around and generally accepted for many years.  And it can be argued that it is the job of the historian to not only recount what can be verified by documentary evidence, but to interpret events when documentary evidence is lacking.  But when such interpretations cannot be supported by documentary evidence, and perhaps fly in the face of contradictory information, it is incumbent upon the author to clearly identify his opinion as just that – opinion; and to clearly identify the basis of that opinion.  In this case, the author failed to do either.

The problems with the statements in the article are numerous.  There is no documentary evidence to support the statements regarding Howard’s intent (to blame the Federal collapse on First Corps) or motive (to conceal his own inept leadership).  There is no evidence to support the statement that what Howard told Hancock (and the only evidence we have to that effect is the single line quoted above) did anything more than relay events as Howard understood them at the time.,  Even taken in conjunction with Howard’s dispatch to Meade that day (“The First Corps fell back, when outflanked on its left, to a stronger position, when the Eleventh Corps was ordered back, also to a stronger position”), neither the suggested intent nor motive are supported.  It is impossible to explain the presence of 1st Corps on the heights south of Gettysburg on the evening of July 1st without conceding that they did, in fact, give way or fall back.  (As an aside, it is also far from accepted fact among Gettysburg scholars that the collapse of 11th Corps precipitated that of 1st Corps.)  If the accepted story is true, Hancock’s use of the term “gave way” and Howard’s use of “fell back” are also curious, since “broke” or “broke and ran” would have been more commonly used to describe bad behavior.  In fact, a reader has to carefully parse these dispatches in order to find some criticism of Doubleday’s command.  If Howard’s intent was really as described, why would he fire such an obtuse projectile?

Part II Tomorrow

Harry (I apologize for the late post – life has a nasty habit of interrupting our hobbies)