The History Book

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Time on the Battlefield

  • Mike Parsons
  • 2018/01/08
  • Military History
  • published

Recently I have been reading a book on the battle of Gettysburg by Craig l. Symonds. In it he made a very interesting point about time which set me thinking about how we see time and how it was seen by the protagonists of the many battlefield accounts we historians and wargamers read. Today we are use to highly accurate time pieces whether its your phone, a cheap digital watch, or an expensive mechanical marvel. We expect them to tell an accurate and a common time. That however was not always the case.

I remember my first mechanical Timex watch as a kid. It and other cheap mechanical watches, and even the first digital ones, did not keep good time often needing correcting on a daily basis. So how accurate then were the fob watches of the early to late nineteenth century? Some would have been of the finest quality while some would have had quite cheaply manufactured movements. The accuracy of time pieces of the 19th century would have at best been variable.

To make matters worse until the late 19th century when railways became widespread developing a need to coordinate time time was a very local affair with each town maintained its own time. Variations in location and accuracy could amount to significant differences between neighbouring towns. Further complicating this issue was where and when did each officer set his time piece? I can find no evidence of Lee, for example, telling his Corps commanders to synchronize their watches!

All this makes the accounts of battles and the sequence of events fraught with difficulty. We probably all know of how the Austrians and Russians failed in 1805 to met in time for the battle of Ulm due to a failure to realize their calendars did not match. We need to realize that at the tactical level of an individual battle that until the concept of universal ‘railway time’ in most if not all battles each officers had their own personal time which did not necessarily match anyone else’s.

Symonds notes these discrepancies when trying to reconcile the various accounts of Longstreet’s delayed attack on the 2nd day of Gettysburg. They are probably more starkly shown in the American Civil war as the original battlefield reports for each unit largely still exist. These reports, indeed most reports of battles, were often written up some time after the battle which again introduce timing issues. After all how well do you honestly remember the actual time an event took place a few days later? So, unless there is deliberate falsification, we can only really rely on the sequence of events an officer personally experiences.

What does this all mean for the average reader? Well don’t take when sometime was supposed to occur as gospel. Ask your self if an event occurred an hour later or an hour earlier would it make a difference to a) the overall sequence of events, and b) the authors argument?

Symonds again notes that at Gettysburg it is often contended that if Longstreet had attacked at dawn on the 2nd day he would have rolled up the union left wing as Sickles’ Corps was not yet in position. However Longstreet was still receiving his orders from Lee at 10 o’clock he then need travel around the battlefield to met his divisional commanders explain the plan, wait until at least the first two of his three divisions were on the battlefield, then move them to the positions Lee had indicated before launching his attack which is variously recorded as between 3 o’clock and 4.15 depending on who’s record you are following. From the points made above you can see that all concerned might have been ‘right’ about the time the actual attack took place. Also due to variations of up to an hour between various watches we could have a time line which has Longstreet being briefed at 9 o’clock and an attack about 5 o’clock or a briefing at 11 and an attack about 2. both of these extremes are very unlikely if not made impossible by other events in the battlefield. They do however illustrate the difficulty of gauging the flow of battle and that we must be very wary of any assumption we make about time on the Battlefield in a pre railway age.