It was the centennial year of the battle. As hard as it is for me to accept this, that trip was half as long ago as the battle itself was at the time.
Sometimes I shock myself by how old I've gotten!
There are certain places where I am filled with awe and reverence so profound that it's hard to express it . Lincoln's tomb is one of them. So are Lincoln's home in Springfield, and Ford's Theatre, and the Peterson home across the street from the theatre where Lincoln actually died. So, in fact, is virtually any site associated with Abraham Lincoln.
The same holds true for the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery, and virtually any Civil War battlefield. But as sensible as I am of the sanctity of the fields of Manassas, for example- or even the battlefield at Chantilly, a town where I worked for a while when I lived in northern Virginia and the site of a minor Union victory- somehow, that sense of awe is always at its most profound at Gettysburg.
Lincoln is one of my greatest personal heroes, and the Civil War- and especially the Battle of Gettysburg- is one of my greatest interests. It should not be allowed to go unremarked in this blog that the period from yesterday through tomorrow marks the sesquicentennial- the 150th anniversary- of Gettysburg.
150 years ago yesterday, elements of the Army of Northern Virginia under Gen. Henry Heth, coming from the northwest, blundered into Gen. John Buford's Federal cavalry north of the town. The battle that followed- the bloodiest and perhaps the most decisive in American history- was a classic "meeting engagement;" neither army had planned to fight there. Gen. George Meade, commander of the Federal Army of the Potomac, had a location in mind for the battle he knew was coming: the Pipe Creek line in Maryland. He'd laid detailed plans had for a battle there, and made sure that his commanders were well aware of them.
Robert E. Lee, on the other hand, was handicapped by the absence of his most effective cavalry commander, Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, who instead of scouting and conducting reconnaissance for Lee was "hot- dogging" by riding completely around the Army of the Potomac, capturing all manner of useless equipment Lee could neither use nor transport. In his absence, Lee was deprived of crucial information about Meade's whereabouts and the nature of the terrain upon which the battle would be fought.
By sheer accident, Buford- who realized that if a battle were fought at Gettysburg, command of the high ground could virtually guarantee victory to whoever achieved it- spotted Heth's vastly superior forces and engaged them. Summoning help from First Corps Commander Gen. John Reynolds- more about whom in a moment- Buford managed somehow to check Heth's advance with his dismounted cavalry until Reynolds arrived with two corps to reinforce him. The two generals then staged a fighting retreat, being forced back through the town and falling back upon the very position Buford had coveted, on roughly a line from Culp's Hill in the north down Cemetery Ridge to the Round Tops in the south.
Reynolds, it should be noted, was perhaps the ablest officer in the Union army. He had been Lincoln's first choice to command the Army of the Potomac after the Chancellorsville debacle, but declined the appointment because he feared that he would not be given enough autonomy from Lincoln's meddling. Like Lee, he was a former superintendent of West Point, and while he never had the opportunity to prove it is widely thought by historians to be the one Union general who might have turned out to be Lee's equal as a tactician. He was clearly a "comer," and had the best tactical day of his career there at Buford's side on July 1, 1863. Tragically, he was killed by a sniper as the Union forces retreated toward town.
But the heights overlooking the Union position were up for grabs on both Meade's right and his left. Culp's Hill was still at this point unoccupied by Union troops. If the Confederates had taken it on the first day it would have commanded Meade's position on the heights to the south, and the outcome of the battle might have been very different. But the ever-gentlemanly Lee made the mistake of phrasing his order to Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell to take the hill in such a way that the order could be interpreted as discretionary. In what Maj. Gen. Isaac Trimble and others took to be a failure of nerve, Ewell let the opportunity pass. As a result, the Army of Northern Virginia spilled a great deal of blood during the next two days in a vain attempt to wrest from Yankee control what it could have had for free if Ewell had simply followed his orders on July 1- or, perhaps, if Lee had been firmer and less polite in wording them.
The Union grasp on Little Round Top was also anything but secure. There were a few Federal units on the Round Tops, but they did little to dig in. As the sun went down on the First Day, the situation remained very fluid.
The events 150 years ago today centered on Lee's attempt to take Culp's Hill on the north, and flank the Union position on the two hills on its south, Big Round Top and Little Round Top. Big Round Top was heavily wooded, and of little use except as an observation point. But Confederate cannon on Little Round Top would have dominated Cemetery Ridge, and endangered Meade's whole position. Actually, that might have been beside the point; the capture of Little Round Top would have meant that Meade's left flank had been turned, and his whole line endangered from the rear.
Gen. Dan Sickles very nearly cost the Union the Round Tops, the battle and perhaps the war when he defied Meade's orders and adopted a vulnerable position which left the Army of the Potomac's left flank exposed. Only the observant eyes of a Union engineer on Little Round Top, Gen. Gouverneur Warren, who spotted the looming Confederate attack on the Union left gave Meade and Second Corps Commander Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock warning of the attack. Hancock desperately rode up and down the line finding troops to patch the vulnerability caused by Sickles' blunder. Heroic Union resistance by Sickles' men in the Wheatfield, the Peach Orchard, and Devil's Den (a rocky area roughly in front of the Round Tops) and the storied defense of Little Round Top by the 20th Maine and three other Union regiments prevented the Union flank from being turned, and the Confederates from winning the battle on the Second Day.
Two epic bayonet charges- one on the literal Union flank on Little Round Top by the 20th Maine, commanded by Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (who actually- contrary to legend and the movie- never actually gave an order to charge; the 20th did so spontaneously) and one along Plum Run by the First Minnesota, commanded by Col. William Colvill, have found their way into legend. While the defense of Little Round Top by Chamberlain's regiment and others played a far greater role in the battle's outcome, the First Minnesota's charge was one of the most heroic moments in the history of the United States Army. Outnumbered eight-to-one and suffering 82% casualties, the Minnesotans not only plugged a gap in the Union line until Hancock could summon reinforcements, but made the reinforcements unnecessary, halting and actually repelling the Confederate charge themselves.
One of the nicest gifts my dad ever gave me was a series of children's books on historical figures and events. One was MacKinlay Kantor's Gettysburg, in which the author pictures Hancock charging desperately over the ridge with his reinforcements, expecting any moment to be up to his neck in Confederate battle flags- only to find that instead that the shot-up regiment he had thought to sacrifice in order to buy himself time to bring up those reinforcements had made his trip unnecessary! I still get chills up and down my spine when I remember those paragraphs.
Confederate attacks on Cemetery Hill and Culp's Hill got started late, and despite fierce fighting never accomplished much. Meanwhile, Sickles' insubordination and incompetence had an ironic result: the politically well-connected General, who lost a leg on the Second Day and left the battlefield on a stretcher, jauntily puffing on a cigar, was able later to parlay his failings into a Congressional Medal of Honor!
July 3 featured the largest sustained artillery bombardment of the war in preparation for the attack on the Union center known in history as Pickett's Charge. It might better be called "Longstreet's assault;" the charge was actually under the command of Lee's second-in-command, Gen. James Longstreet. Longstreet vehemently opposed the charge, strongly believing that the Union position was impregnable and the attack Lee had ordered him to organize would be futile. He argued that Pickett's men would be massacred, and begged Lee to rescind his order and instead slip around the Union flank, leaving the field to Meade but interposing himself in a defensive position between Gettysburg and Washington and forcing Meade to attack him.
I am currently reading an alternate history novel by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a professional historian, and novelist William Forstchen, which- though I haven't gotten that far yet- seems to be heading in the direction of having Lee take Longstreet's advice and winning a decisive victory at Union Mills, Maryland, at a strong defensive position along Meade's Pipe Creek Line. It might well have worked. But Lee had insisted that Longstreet attack the Union center at Gettysburg instead. Since Longstreet did not believe in the attack, his supervision of it was dilatory and grudging. Besides, in addition to problems with ranging, the Confederate artillery seems to have virtually exhausted itself before he ever got around to giving the order for the attack to begin.
Admirers of Lee have blamed Longstreet for the failure of Pickett's Charge ever since. But the question of whether any other outcome to the charge was in the cards, given the strength of the Union position, is controversial, to say the least. A fence across the line of the assault slowed the charge down and broke its momentum; some historians blame the fence. But most think that Longstreet had been right all along: the assault was simply ill-conceived and doomed to failure from the outset. While elements of Lee's army under Gen. Lewis Armistead did manage to briefly break through the Union lines at the so-called "high watermark of the Confederacy," the attackers were essentially massacred.
In an exchange which has found its way into legend, and is commemorated in the movie Gettysburg, Lee supposedly admonished Gen. George Pickett after the charge had failed to "look to your division" in preparation for Meade's anticipated counter-attack, "General Lee," the stunned and emotionally devastated Pickett is said to have replied, " I have no division!"
The Army of Northern Virginia had been bloodied so badly that there could be no question of Lee's invasion of the North continuing. The Confederates broke camp on the night of the Third, and slipped away across the Potomac and back into Virginia- much to Lincoln's consternation. He wrote an angry letter to Meade pointing out that he had missed a golden opportunity to end the war. Then, characteristically, Lincoln put it in a drawer of his desk and never sent it.
Could Meade have actually staged the counter-attack Lee feared, destroyed the Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg or shortly thereafter, and ended the war in the East two years early? Historians disagree. But it's difficult not to speculate what might have happened had Reynolds accepted Lincoln's offer of command, and had been in command during the aftermath of Pickett's Charge. Two bloody years of tragedy, the burning of Atlanta, Sherman's March to the Sea, and so very, very much needless suffering on both sides might have been avoided.
There is, of course, another "what if" where Gettysburg is concerned: what if, somehow, Lee had won? Most down through the decades have assumed that he would thereupon marched on Washington, and that Lincoln would have been forced to capitulate. Interestingly, Gingrich and Forschen disagree with that assessment ( I have already read the sequel to their book on Gettysburg!). Having sustained the losses Lee did outside that little town in rural Pennsylvania, would the Army of Northern Virginia even have constituted a serious threat to the defenses of Washington? Gingrich- who is, of course, a native Georgian- thinks not.
Some argue that the Emancipation Proclamation made Antietam- tactical draw though it was- the real turning point of the Civil War, rather than Gettysburg. Several years ago I read a novel called Freedom, by William Safire, which made an interesting case that of all possible battles Shiloh was the real turning point of the Civil War (he reasoned that if Albert Sidney Johnston had not been killed there, he would have fought all night if necessary to destroy Grant's Union forces, which he had trapped against the Tennessee River, before the reinforcements which in fact saved the day for Grant could arrive). But whatever else might be said, the battle of Gettysburg sums up in three bloody and horrific days the bloodier and even more horrific years of the Civil War. There is no doubt that, in combination with the almost simultaneous fall of Vicksburg to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, Gettysburg was the beginning of the more populous, industrialized, and wealthier North's inexorable march to victory. If Lee could, in fact, have won the war at Gettysburg, it was the last chance he would have had to do so. After Gettysburg, regardless of the outcome, the Army of Northern Virginia was doomed to slowly bleed to death, unable to replace its losses while its opponents had almost limitless resources in reserve.
All these questions are interesting ones. Martin Luther once observed that dogs were made to bark,. and theologians to argue; the same might be said about historians. But whatever anyone might say about the battle of Gettysburg, it cannot be doubted that in those three hot, bloody days outside a Pennsylvania crossroads town, something happened which well justifies that feeling of awe that I get whenever I visit there, something summed up with almost preternatural power and economy in Abraham Lincoln's second- greatest speech (I'd argue that his Second Inaugural Address was his greatest), delivered as almost an afterthought on the program for the dedication of the National Military Cemetery there:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.
It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Painting: The Charge of the First Minnesota, by Don Troiani. Courtesy of The National Guard