July 3, 1863: Lee’s Charge


It is the third day.
The morning wears with a stubborn fight at Culp’s Hill
That ends at last in Confederate repulse
And that barb-end of the fish-hook cleared of the grey.

Lee has tried his strokes on the right and left of the line.
The centre remains–that centre yesterday pierced
For a brief, wild moment in Wilcox’s attack,
But since then trenched, reinforced and alive with guns.
It is a chance.  All war is a chance like that.
Lee considers the chance and the force he has left to spend
And states his will.
                    Dutch Longstreet, the independent,
Demurs, as he has demurred since the fight began.
He had disapproved of this battle from the first
And that disapproval has added and is to add
Another weight in the balance against the grey.
It is not our task to try him for sense or folly,
Such men are the men they are–but an hour comes
Sometimes, to fix such men in most fateful parts,
As now with Longstreet who, if he had his orders
As they were given, neither obeyed them quite
Nor quite refused them, but acted as he thought best,
So did the half-thing, failed as he thought he would,
Felt justified and wrote all of his reasons down
Later in controversy.
                     We do not need
Such controversies to see that pugnacious man
Talking to Lee, a stubborn line in his brow
And that unseen fate between them.
                                  Lee hears him out
Unmoved, unchanging.
                    “The enemy is there
And I am going to strike him,” says Lee, inflexibly.

Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body

Lee’s mistake in ordering the assault on Cemetery Ridge of the third day of Gettysburg, erroneously called Pickett’s Charge since Pickett was merely attempting to carry out an impossible mission, was not an uncommon one in that War even by good generals.  Grant ordered two such hopeless attacks at Cold Harbor and Sherman did so at Kennesaw Mountain. The problem was that such charges occasionally succeeded.  The Army of the Cumberland chased the Army of Tennessee out of an immensely strong position on Missionary Ridge just a few months later.  The improvement in weaponry had made such assaults a bad gamble, but occasionally the gamble did pay off.  At Gettysburg it did not.  The attack produced nothing but 6500 Confederate casualties, 1500 Union casualties, an end to Lee’s Northern invasion and an undying legend.





As the survivors of the attack came back to the Confederate lines Lee rode out to meet them.  His first words were All my fault.  After Lee got his Army back to the Confederacy, a feat in itself which speaks well of his generalship and poorly of that of General Meade, he wrote a letter offering his resignation to Jefferson Davis: (more…)

Published in: on July 3, 2022 at 5:30 am  Comments (2)  
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Gettysburg 1938

A video montage of coverage of the 75th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg in 1938.  Seeing Union and Confederate veterans, some 1800 gathered,  jointly observing the anniversary is touching and brings home something very good about this country.  Most countries that go through a domestic bloodletting like the Civil War never really recover from it.  The passions unleashed are passed down like precious heirlooms from generation to generation leaving a legacy of hate that poisons a nation’s life.  America largely escaped that fate as the video above indicates.

FDR dedicated a monument at Gettysburg on this occasion which he accepted “in the spirit of brotherhood and peace”.  In America even a fratricidal Civil War ultimately became something that unfied us in common memories as the years rolled by.  I believe it was the Prussian statesman Otto von Bismark who remarked that God looks after fools, drunks and the United States of America.  He meant it unkindly of course, but in regard to our Civil War and its legacy, I think it is a sober assessment.

Published in: on March 26, 2020 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Gettysburg 1938  
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July 2, 1863: 20th Maine Holds Little Round Top

A stirring tribute to Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, who, with his boys of the 20th Maine, quite possibly saved the Union at Little Round Top on July 2, 1863.  A professor who volunteered to fight, Chamberlain was typical of those who stepped forward, North and South, and risked their lives for love of their country, at a time when the question of what that country consisted of was being decided on the battlefield.

Here is Chamberlain’s report of the 20th Maine’s role in the defense of Little Round Top which he wrote on July 6, 1863:


Somewhere near 4 p.m. a sharp cannonade, at some distance to our left and front, was the signal for a sudden and rapid movement of our whole division in the direction of this firing, which grew warmer as we approached. Passing an open field in the hollow ground in which some of our batteries were going into position, our brigade reached the skirt of a piece of woods, in the farther edge of which there was a heavy musketry fire, and when about to go forward into line we received from Colonel Vincent, commanding the brigade, orders to move to the left at the double-quick, when we took a farm road crossing Plum Run in order to gain a rugged mountain spur called Granite Spur, or Little Round Top.

The enemy’s artillery got range of our column as we were climbing the spur, and the crashing of the shells among the rocks and the tree tops made us move lively along the crest. One or two shells burst in our ranks. Passing to the southern slope of Little Round Top, Colonel Vincent indicated to me the ground my regiment was to occupy, informing me that this was the extreme left of our general line, and that a desperate attack was expected in order to turn that position, concluding by telling me I was to” hold that ground at all hazards.” This was the last word I heard from him. (more…)

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…)

Published in: on June 30, 2013 at 5:30 am  Comments (2)  
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John L. Burns of Gettysburg

John L. Burns was an American original.  Born on September 5, 1793, he enlisted in the War of 1812 in the United States Army and fought in numerous battles in that war.  He volunteered for service in the Mexican War and at the beginning of the Civil War volunteered for service in the Union Army.  At age 67, it is small wonder that he was rejected by the Army.  Nothing daunted, he served as a teamster for the Union Army, until he was sent home to Gettysburg where the tough old man was named town constable.

The War that he had attempted to fight in followed him home to Gettysburg.  When the Confederates briefly occupied Gettysburg on June 26, 1863, Burns was jailed by the Confederates for his insistence on upholding the authority of the Union as town constable.  When the Confederates departed, Burns was released, and promptly began arresting Confederate stragglers.

When the battle of Gettysburg started on July 1, Burns grabbed his flintlock musket and powderhorn and went off to join the fight.  Running into a wounded soldier, he picked up from the soldier a new-fangled percussion rifled musket.  Attaching himself to the 150th Pennsylvania, Burns fought in McPherson’s Woods.  In the woods Burns joined the stand of the Iron Brigade.  The soldiers at first laughed at this grandfather who was so eager to fight, but their laughter turned to admiration as the old soldier turned out to be a sharpshooter, at one point shooting a charging Confederate officer off of his horse.  Burns fought throughout the day, receiving wounds in an arm, legs and breast.  Being left behind during the Union retreat, Burns was able to convince the Confederates that he was a noncombatant and had his wounds treated by one of their surgeons.

Burns found himself a national hero after the battle,  Lincoln met with him when he came to Gettysburg to deliver the Gettysburg Address for example, although Burns’ wife was unimpressed, calling him an old fool for risking his neck on a battlefield at his age.  In 1864 humorist Bret Harte wrote a poem about Burns which is half mockery and half homage: (more…)

Published in: on June 24, 2011 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on John L. Burns of Gettysburg  
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1st Minnesota at Gettysburg

At Gettysburg there is a monument to the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry and the charge that it made on the second day of  Gettysburg.  On the monument there is the following inscription:

On the afternoon of July 2, 1863 Sickles’ Third Corps, having advanced from this line to the Emmitsburg Road, eight companies of the First Minnesota Regiment, numbering 262 men were sent to this place to support a battery upon Sickles repulse.

As his men were passing here in confused retreat, two Confederate brigades in pursuit were crossing the swale. To gain time to bring up the reserves & save this position, Gen Hancock in person ordered the eight companies to charge the rapidly advancing enemy.

The order was instantly repeated by Col Wm Colvill. And the charge as instantly made down the slope at full speed through the concentrated fire of the two brigades breaking with the bayonet the enemy’s front line as it was crossing the small brook in the low ground there the remnant of the eight companies, nearly surrounded by the enemy held its entire force at bay for a considerable time & till it retired on the approach of the reserve the charge successfully accomplished its object. It saved this position & probably the battlefield. The loss of the eight companies in the charge was 215 killed & wounded. More than 83% percent. 47 men were still in line & no man missing. In self sacrificing desperate valor this charge has no parallel in any war. Among the severely wounded were Col Wm Colvill, Lt Col Chas P Adams & Maj Mark W. Downie. Among the killed Capt Joseph Periam, Capt Louis Muller & Lt Waldo Farrar. The next day the regiment participated in repelling Pickett’s charge losing 17 more men killed & wounded. (more…)

Published in: on March 27, 2011 at 5:30 am  Comments (2)  
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Tribute to Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

Something for the weekend.  A stirring tribute to Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, who, with his boys of the 20th Maine, quite possibly saved the Union at Little Round Top on July 2, 1863.  A professor who volunteered to fight, Chamberlain was typical of those who stepped forward, North and South, and risked their lives for love of their country, at a time when the question of what that country consisted of was being decided on the battlefield. (more…)

Published in: on February 5, 2011 at 5:30 am  Comments (3)  
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Gettysburg-Main Title

Something for the weekend.  The “Main Title” from the magnificent film Gettysburg with a montage from the film.

Published in: on March 6, 2010 at 6:09 am  Comments (3)  
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