Gettysburg, Day 1: Intelligence and how to get it

“It started as a minor scrap with a few militia. The next thing I know, I’m tangling with half the Union army.”

A lovely line from the book “Killer Angels” and then the movie adaptation “Gettysburg.” General Henry Heth’s summary of the donnybrook his division had initiated on the morning of July 1, 1863.

And most readers are familiar with Lee’s feather-light touch admonishment at that point, “Things will get out of control, Mr. Heth. That is why we have orders.” That’s right… follow orders next time! Though I’d offer the operative word that is in play was “intent” and not “orders.” And, well, the historian who sits on this side of the keyboard would offer some criticism of Martin Sheen’s… I mean General Lee’s … communication here. Commander’s intent is more valuable than a written order. Particularly in fluid situations such as occurred on July 1.

But I think the real lesson to be learned off this scene, and for that matter the entire first day at Gettysburg, is no army is complete without tactical intelligence. I know… duh… Captain Obvious here!

Yes, every single armchair general worth his weight in Cheetos is nodding in agreement. “Intelligence, got to have intelligence!”

But answer this: Where is this “intelligence” and how do we gather it?

The Grognards of Gettysburg are now frantically typing missives about Stuart and all sorts of ghastly tales of cavalry gone off gallivanting around. But all that misses the point. Lee could have had the whole of his cavalry there (sure… if they rode a magic carpet and somehow avoided the line of march and managed to arrive intact from Loudoun County into Adams County, well rested and prepared to go to work… sure… IN A PIG’S EYE!) …

Anyway … could have had the whole of his cavalry there, yet still not possessed the needed intelligence. You see, intelligence is much like grain in the field. One still must venture out there and gather that harvest. And even then, one has to separate the wheat from the chaff… or the corn from the cob. AND still it’s not edible, as milling, grinding, and other processing must be done to produce a flour. AND still it is not bread, as more ingredients are needed and some of that “baking” think must occur. You see, intelligence is a product of a process. Intelligence is not simply derived by placing a bunch of guys with dandy plumed hats, with leather gauntlets, out along the road. It must be worked for.

So where does one go to work for this “intelligence” stuff? Depends on the type of intelligence one needs. Intelligence, in the raw form, is information. Information is nothing more than a pile of facts. Some facts are useful. Some facts are not. Some are obvious. Others require great deal of rooting around. And there are “varieties” of information within those piles of facts. Information about enemy forces. Information about friendly forces (which, yes, should be obvious, but… have you ever argued with a clerk who is late submitting the morning report? Yea… rooting might be the word). There’s information about the weather… terrain… local populace… and don’t forget about the wheat and corn crops in the field (an Army has to eat, you know!). In short, sometimes a cavalryman is the guy to send rooting for it. In other cases, a staff officer might gather valuable information just reading the morning paper.

And gathering just gives us “information.” Someone has to process those facts and sort out the useful from that which is not. Then, before the bread is ready for the commander to partake, a staff should (MUST… because this is why staffs exist) coalesce this information, deriving conclusions from what may be contradictory reports, and produce a consumable package that the commander can wrap his head around. And I think that is the best way to put it – for those facts to process through as information and become intelligence, the commander must have it IN his head as part of the operational picture. No matter what – good picture or bad picture – the commander is going to make decisions based on that operational picture which is in his head.

In this specific scenario case, we are referring to Warren Burton’s… I mean Henry Heth’s … head, and not that of Marse Robert. It is Heth who is opening a fight in a situation where either, by his own admission things are very “confused,” or in which he has made a decision based on a bad operational picture, a.k.a. bad intelligence or a lack of intelligence (all kidding aside). I would argue this is not a case where Heth did not HAVE intelligence, but rather Heth had intelligence based on information of inferior quality and quantity.

So what could Mr. Heth done to improve the quality and quantity of information? No… Stuart is not the answer here. Sorry. Stuart was a Cavalry Corps commander. Cavalry Corps commanders work for the Army commander. True, a “slice” of that cavalry corps was detailed to operate in the area Heth was concerned with. And there is an argument to be made that Heth didn’t utilize that adjacent resource to the extent possible. Still this is not to say Heth had cavalry, nor should have controlled the cavalry.

On the other hand, I would make the argument that Heth had, within his division, the organic capability to gather information and distill that into actionable intelligence. You see, “intelligence gatherer” is not a military job title. It is a function. Such a function is carried out up and down the ranks. Doesn’t matter if the solider is an infantryman or a trooper or an artillerist. Some more so than the others, true. But everyone has part of that function.

Specific to Heth, the useful information his team needed most, which could be turned into actionable intelligence for shove into Heth’s head… I mean operational picture, from which Heth would make decisions, was that lingering question, “What is IN Gettysburg right now?” And we know, with hindsight, that questions was never answered correctly until… well… at the earliest the evening of July 1, though some might contend mid-day on July 2.

So what didn’t Heth do that he could have done, aimed at answering that question? In a word, contact. At the tactical level, the most useful information about the enemy is often gleaned from actual contact with the enemy. It’s a grim task, to be sure. But that’s the nature of warfare on the business end.

Flip this around to the other side. Did Sam Elliot… I mean John Buford… know about Heth and all the other guys in grey who were kicking up dust clouds around Adams County? Perhaps not a 100% accurate picture. But he knew what was coming at him. And he knew about Heth, and to a lesser degree the other columns, because his men maintained contact. And we might well draw similar examples from other campaigns (Sherman’s March for example) where non-cavalry forces were used very effectively to gather information.

Point being, tactical battlefield intelligence is a complicated aspect of the business of war. It’s not something easily done, by a wave of the hand. Intelligence is often won, among other means, by a hundred exchanges of musketry among pickets or patrols in a hundred skirmishes which will go unnamed, unmarked, and unheralded. And yet that often determines success or failure on those greater battlefields which go named, marked, and… heralded.