Was the Confederate Victory at Gettysburg Inevitable?

For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time.  Maybe this time with all this much to lose than all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago;

William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust

Hattip to Sir Winston Churchill.

As we prepare to observe the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg, a question arises as to whether the shattering Confederate victory was inevitable.  I believe it was for the following reasons:

1.  Lee and Jackson-The most formidable military partnership in American military history, Jackson and Lee by Gettysburg had perfected the teamwork that made them matchless on the battlefield.  With Lee providing strategic insight and bold plans, Jackson was the perfect man to execute Lee’s will on the battlefield.  As Lee said of him:  Straight as the needle to the pole he advances to the execution of my purpose When fired upon by his own men by accident in the gloom of night at Chancellorsville, it was fortunate indeed for the Confederacy that although several members of his party were killed and wounded, he emerged unscathed.   Lee and Jackson hoped in their Northern invasion to produce a defeat so decisive that it would destroy Northern morale and end the War.

2.  Jackson and Stuart-The grim Cromwellian warrior of God Stonewall Jackson and the spiritual descendant of the cavaliers, Jeb Stuart, were, surprisingly enough, good friends.  After Brandy Station, Lee was concerned that Stuart was stung by the criticism of the Southern newspapers, and that might cause him to attempt one of his patented spectacular raids, precisely not what Lee desired in the forthcoming invasion of the North.  Lee sent Jackson to talk with Stuart.  Stuart describes the interview in his memoir, one of the classic pieces of literature to come out of the Second American Revolution, Riding the Raid (1880):

Initially I was perplexed as “Stonewall” described the plan of the coming campaign and that General Lee wished to use my cavalry as a coordinated attack force with General Jackson’s corps.  Then I realized this was General Lee’s characteristically polite manner of telling me that I was to follow Jackson’s orders in the coming campaign.  I will not pretend that I was not chagrined although I gave no outward sign of the irritation I felt to my friend “Stonewall”.  As it turned out this was yet another example of the brilliance of General Lee, the greatest soldier of our age.  If not for this order, I would not have been on hand to quickly scatter General Buford’s cavalry during the early morning of July 1, and General Jackson would not have been aware of how distant the Union infantry corps were from the all important high ground south of the town.  After that day I never entertained the slightest doubt as to the decisions of General Lee, even if they ran directly counter to my own opinions.

3.  The Hardluck XI- I have always thought that the XI Corps receives a disproportionate amount of blame for the Union loss at Gettysburg.  Any of the Union corps marching on to the battlefield as the XI Corps did probably would have fared as poorly, however that task fell to the same Corps that had recently been routed by Jackson at Chancellorsville, and hardly two months later they met the same fate at Gettysburg.  It was the luck of the draw that the XI Corps was at the head of the marching order that day and the first Union corps to reach the field.  With the loss of McPherson’s Ridge, courtesy of Stuart, Jackson was free to march through Gettysburg and launch a furious assault on the XI Corps at noon as it attempted to deploy on Cemetery Hill.  After a half hour of fighting the XI Corps collapsed and headed southeast on the Baltimore Pike.  Seeing Union reinforcements arriving from the southeast, Jackson made no effort to pursue, but contented himself with seizing, completely uncontested, Cemetery Ridge, Little Round Top and Big Round Top and fortifying these immensely strong by nature positions.

4.  George Gordon Meade-Appointed to command the Army of the Potomac just two days prior to the battle, Meade has gone down in history as the man who lost the decisive battle of the War.  It is hard not to have sympathy for him.  He had indicated prior to his appointment that he did now want the job and he now had it under the worst possible circumstances, with no time to put his own stamp on the Army or come up with a plan of campaign on his own.  My sympathy does not extend to his decision to attack the now heavily fortified Confederate positions on July 2, 1863.  Meade had enough experience of the War to realize that a frontal assault on fortifications held by veteran troops of the Army of Northern Virginia was merely a colorful way to commit suicide.  The men making the attacks certainly did, many of them pinning notes with their names and home addresses on them so their next of kin could be informed of their deaths.  After the debacle at Fredericksburg this decision by Meade, albeit under heavy pressure from Washington to do something, was truly unforgivable.  Meade would have done better to withdraw and keep Lee’s army under observation, harassing Confederate foraging parties.  This would have forced Lee to eventually leave his fortified nest due to lack of supplies.  Instead Meade’s attacks cost him 12,000 casualties in exchange for less than 3,000 Confederate casualties.  Jackson favored a counter-attack, but Lee decided that he would wait and see what Meade would do the next day. (more…)

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Published in: on June 30, 2013 at 5:30 am  Comments (2)  
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Introduction to Gettysburg

Introduction to the movie Gettysburg.  Released on the 130th anniversary of the battle, I will have it playing at my home during the 150th anniversary next week.  Overlong, and historically suspect, especially as to its Longstreet-could-do-no wrong  perspective, it still is a masterpiece.  It captures perfectly the desperate nature of the battle that has become the symbol of that fratricidal conflict.  The late Shelby Foote once said that to understand this country you needed to understand the Civil War.  I concur, and I would also suggest that it is impossible to understand the Civil War without understanding Gettysburg,  a battle which marked the end of Lee’s perceived invincibility and gave Lincoln an opportunity to explain to the nation why so many men had to die so their nation might live.

Published in: on June 29, 2013 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Introduction to Gettysburg  
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Lincoln Accepts Hooker’s Resignation

It is truly remarkable when one thinks about it.  In the face of a huge enemy offensive, the President of the United States accepts the resignation of the general tasked to oppose an invasion.  Yet that is precisely what President Lincoln did on June 28th, accepting General Hooker’s offer to resign that Hooker had made in a fit of pique resulting from a dispute with General in Chief Halleck as to whether Harper’s Ferry should be defended.  Hooker had not done terribly in his marshalling of his forces as the Army of Northern Virginia pursued the Army of Northern Virginia its march into Maryland and Pennsylvania, but it was clear that he could not get along with Halleck and that he no longer enjoyed the confidence of Lincoln.  The fact that he had gone on a few drunken binges after duty did not help matters.  After he was relieved Hooker pressed journalist Noah Brooks to tell him what Lincoln thought of him.   Brooks responded that he had heard that Lincoln viewed Hooker like a beloved son, but who due to some physical defermity would never grow into a successful man.  Hooker was reduced to tears when he heard this. (more…)

Published in: on June 28, 2013 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Lincoln Accepts Hooker’s Resignation  
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Quotes Suitable For Framing: Frederick Douglass

 

 

In regard to the colored people, there is always more that is benevolent, I perceive, than just, manifested towards us. What I ask for the negro is not benevolence, not pity, not sympathy, but simply justice. The American people have always been anxious to know what they shall do with us… I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us! If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength, if they are worm-eaten at the core, if they are early ripe and disposed to fall, let them fall! … And if the negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone! If you see him on his way to school, let him alone, don’t disturb him! If you see him going to the dinner table at a hotel, let him go! If you see him going to the ballot box, let him alone, don’t disturb him! If you see him going into a work-shop, just let him alone, — your interference is doing him positive injury.

January 26, 1865-Frederick Douglass

Published in: on June 27, 2013 at 5:30 am  Comments (1)  
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June 26, 1863: First Confederate Occupation of Gettysburg

Doubtless none of the men of Major General Jubal Early’s division felt any twinges of foreboding as they marched through Gettysburg on their way to York, Pennsylvania on June 26, 1863.  Why should they have?  They had swatted aside some Pennsylvania militia who quickly decided that discretion was definitely the better part of valor against veteran Confederate infantry and taken to their heels.  The War for the Confederates had turned into a summer time lark where they were living off the produce of Pennsylvania and having a fun time giving the population of the Keystone State a small taste of what Virginia was enduring as a combat theater of operations.  Part of the fun was no doubt the arrest of John Burns, 69 year old veteran of the War of 1812 and the Mexican War, who was briefly jailed by the Confederates for his insistence of upholding the authority of the Union.  Brown was released as the Confederates marched out, and he promptly began arresting Confederate stragglers.  An innocent prelude to the bloodiest battle of a very bloody war.

Published in: on June 26, 2013 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on June 26, 1863: First Confederate Occupation of Gettysburg  
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June 25, 1863: Mine Exploded at Vicksburg

I have always been somewhat bemused by the fact that vast attention is paid to the Battle of the Crater at the seige of Petersburg on July 30, 1864, while the mine explosion at Vicksburg on June 25, 1863 tends to be overlooked in popular memory of the War.  Both efforts were unsuccessful, both mine explosions producing a breach in the Confederate lines that Union troops were ultimately unable to exploit, with Confederate troops rallying and sealing the breach.  It is true that the Battle of the Crater was a much larger operation involving four times the explosives with divisions involved as opposed to regiments at Vicksburg.  The use of black troops in the Battle of the Crater and the slaying of some Union prisoners and their officers by Confederate troops, also helped ensure maximum press coverage.  Still it is surprising to me how little attention is paid to the Vicksburg mine even in fairly extensive histories of the War.  Here is Grant’s memories of the mining operations at Vicksburg in his Personal Memoirs: (more…)

Published in: on June 25, 2013 at 5:30 am  Comments (2)  
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Saving Lincoln

Well this is interesting.  A film about Lincoln told from the perspective of Ward Lamon, Lincoln’s friend and self-appointed bodyguard for Lincoln who appointed him as United States Marshal for the District of Columbia.  The film uses computer graphics to place the film within period pictures.  An independent film, it received funding via Kickstarter.  Go here to view the film’s website.  I find the concept interesting, albeit gimmicky.  I will have a full review after I view the film. (more…)

Published in: on June 24, 2013 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Saving Lincoln  
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June 23, 1863: Battle of Pawnee Agency

Pawnee Scouts

A small reminder that while our history of 1863 is filled with the campaigns of the Civil War, there was quite a bit of a military nature going on else where in the nation.  War between the Sioux and the Pawnee had been endemic for generations.  The Second Nebraska Cavalry got involved in a minute portion of that struggle 150 years ago:

Report of Capt. Henry L. Edwards, Second Nebraska Cavalry. PAWNEE RESERVATION, June 23, [24,] 1863.

SIR: I have the honor to report that the Sioux (supposed to be Brules) attacked the agency yesterday, killing several Pawnees and wounding myself. I ordered First Lieut. Henry Gray to follow them with 36 men, and, if practicable, to attack them. After pursuing about 50 of them for about 15 miles, he came upon about, 400 or 500 drawn up in line ready to receive him, and upon being assured that the Pawnees, who were with him, 300 or 400 strong, would fight with him, he threw out some skirmishers, when the Sioux opened upon them with rifles, killing Sergt. Joseph Dyson, and mortally wounding Private George Osborn; also killing their horses. At the first fire the Pawnees ran, leaving our men alone. Lieutenant Gray fought them about an hour, when they retreated. Four or five Sioux were killed and several horses. I had started to his assistance with 20 men and one howitzer, which I was compelled to send back, owing to the roughness of the country. When I reached Lieutenant Gray, the Sioux were still in force about 6 miles distant; but it being nearly night, I determined not to attack them, and fell back to my camp.

To better protect the whites living at the agency, I have crossed the Beaver and established camp near the agency, where I shall remain until I receive further orders.

Very respectfully,

HENRY L. EDWARDS, Captain Company D, Second Nebraska Cavalry. Brigadier-General McKean, Omaha, Nebr.

The Civil War was obviously the most important event going on in the nation a century and a half ago, but we get a false impression of the time if we forget all the other matters that were also underway, including conflicts that time has made quite obscure.

Published in: on June 23, 2013 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on June 23, 1863: Battle of Pawnee Agency  

Yankee Doodle

 

Something for the weekend.  Yankee Doodle.  Originally sung by British officers to disparage American troops who fought beside them in the French and Indian War, it was seized upon by Patriots, given endless lyrics, and cheered the patriot troops and civilians during the eight long years of the Revolution.  After Lexington and Concord it was reported by Massachusetts newspapers that the British were suddenly not as fond of the song:

“Upon their return to Boston [pursued by the Minutemen], one [Briton] asked his brother officer how he liked the tune now, — ‘Dang them,’ returned he, ‘they made us dance it till we were tired’ — since which Yankee Doodle sounds less sweet to their ears.”

James Cagney did an immortal riff on Yankee Doodle in the musical biopic of composer and actor George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942):

Yankee Doodle plays in the background as Cagney at the end of the film, entirely impromptu, dances down the White House staircase:

(more…)

Published in: on June 22, 2013 at 3:14 am  Comments Off on Yankee Doodle  
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Quotes Suitable For Framing: Abraham Lincoln

 

 

 

Lincoln and Liberty

 

 

Now, when by all these means you have succeeded in dehumanizing the negro; when you have put him down, and made it forever impossible for him to be but as the beasts of the field; when you have extinguished his soul, and placed him where the ray of hope is blown out in darkness like that which broods over the spirits of the damned; are you quite sure the demon which you have roused will not turn and rend you? What constitutes the bulwark of our own liberty and independence? It is not our frowning battlements, our bristling sea coasts, the guns of our war steamers, or the strength of our gallant and disciplined army. These are not our reliance against a resumption of tyranny in our fair land. All of them may be turned against our liberties, without making us stronger or weaker for the struggle. Our reliance is in the love of liberty which God has planted in our bosoms. Our defense is in the preservation of the spirit which prizes liberty as the heritage of all men, in all lands, every where. Destroy this spirit, and you have planted the seeds of despotism around your own doors. Familiarize yourselves with the chains of bondage, and you are preparing your own limbs to wear them. Accustomed to trample on the rights of those around you, you have lost the genius of your own independence, and become the fit subjects of the first cunning tyrant who rises.

Abraham Lincoln, September 11, 1858, Edwardsville, Illinois (more…)

Published in: on June 21, 2013 at 5:30 am  Comments (2)  
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