Monday, July 1, 2013

Was Gettysburg As Decisive As Historians Say?

"If I had had Stonewall Jackson at Gettysburg, I would have won that fight."

Robert E. Lee

I think I was in ninth grade when I was required, along with everyone else, to memorize the Gettysburg Address and recite it in my civics class.

I remember little about the day when I finally had to deliver that speech; what I do remember is that my mother endured hour upon hour of listening to me practice giving that speech at home. By the time we finished, Mom probably could have delivered the speech herself — and she probably would have done a lot better than I did.

(Of course, she probably had to memorize that speech when she was a teenager, too.)

Today is not the anniversary of that speech — nor is it the anniversary of the day I delivered it in class. Today is the sesquicentennial (the 150th) anniversary of the start of the three–day Battle of Gettysburg. The Union's victory at Gettysburg (with affiliated battles in the Pennsylvania campaign of 1863) is widely believed to have been the turning point in the Civil War.

That was the premise of an excellent mockumentary that I saw several years ago called "C.S.A." It was about the alternate history of America if the South had won the Civil War — presuming the South had prevailed at Gettysburg.

This was accomplished in the movie, as I recall, when the South persuaded Britain and France to support the Confederacy, seizing the moral high ground (before the Union could do so by making the conflict about a "rebirth of freedom," to quote Lincoln in the address he delivered at Gettysburg in November of 1863).

That didn't happen, of course. Britain and France did not intercede on the South's behalf.

In two days, it will be the 150th anniversary of George Pickett's ill–advised "Pickett's Charge" in a final attempt to reverse the outcome of the battle. Apparently, that anniversary is going to be a huge deal in Gettysburg.

The charge failed, as Gen. James Longstreet had predicted, and the South never really recovered from the setback.

Robert E. Lee believed that he would have won the battle if Stonewall Jackson — Lee's right arm — had been alive. But Jackson was killed about two months earlier in the Confederates' victory in the Battle of Chancellorsville.

Confederate losses at Chancellorsville had been heavy — not as heavy as the Union's but heavy nonetheless. And, as far as Lee was concerned, the loss of Jackson made it a costly win indeed. He still had Longstreet, of course, but Jackson had been his finest commander, capable of quickly and accurately assessing battlefield situations and identifying weaknesses that could be exploited.

In Lee's eyes, he was irreplaceable.

No one will ever know if the South could have won the Battle of Gettysburg if Jackson had still been alive — or if Jackson could have kept casualties down. But we do know that, without him, it was the bloodiest battle of the war with roughly 50,000 casualties combined.

And no one can say with any certainty that Gettysburg alone was as decisive as it is said to have been. It was, to be sure, the largest of the war, but, as a student of history, I have always felt that it was Gettysburg and the series of battles in and around Vicksburg, Miss., at the same time that combined to deal the South a setback from which it never recovered.

While Lee, Longstreet and Pickett were trying to turn things around in Pennsylvania, Lt. Gen. John Pemberton's Confederate troops were engaged in a nearly seven–week battle for Vicksburg with Ulysses S. Grant's Union troops. When the Confederates, who had been cut off from reinforcements and supplies for most of that time, finally surrendered on July 4, 1863, the Union controlled the Mississippi River and the supply route it provided.

In most ways, the value of the Gettysburg campaign was symbolic. It effectively ended the notion that Lee was invincible — an important psychological hurdle for the Union troops.

That doesn't mean the defeat at Gettysburg wasn't costly for the Confederates in a very real sense. The number of casualties alone was staggering for the Southern cause.

But the loss of vital supply lines at Vicksburg had a very real impact on the daily lives of all Confederates. Strategically, I have to think Vicksburg was the more meaningful victory.

Those two Union triumphs demonstrated that the Union had deeper pockets when it came to both personnel and firepower and that it was far better equipped for a long–term engagement.

The war went on for nearly two more years, but the South never mounted an offensive attack again. All its subsequent military moves were defensive in nature.

When I was a child, my family frequently planned summer vacation road trips that took us to Civil War battlefields, and I remember walking around the grounds, observing the statues that had been erected in memory of the fallen and touring the museums that were often on the sites.

There probably wasn't anything special about the Gettysburg battlefield when we were there. It was like most of the others we had seen. What was different was what it represented in the story of the Civil War, the reputation it has for being a game changer.

Its place in American history may also account for all the tales of ghost sightings in the area.

One of the more persistent of such stories concerns Devil's Den, a boulder–strewn ridge south of Gettysburg that was the scene of some of the most intense fighting of the battle.

For me, Devil's Den has always been one of the most fascinating parts of the three–day battle of Gettysburg. That dates back to the first time I heard about it — when I was a kid.

I was probably 8 or 9 when my family visited the Gettysburg battlefield, and Devil's Den was like an outdoor playground. There were boulders to climb — the same ones from which Union snipers picked off Confederate soldiers down below. There were caves. Some of the boulders and caves were restricted, probably for safety reasons, but there were many others that were not.

I'm sure it was a lot more fun for my brother (who is three years younger than I) and me than it was for the Confederates who tried to take it 150 years ago.

Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood (for whom Fort Hood in Texas is named) was assigned by Lee to assault Devil's Den. Hood didn't like the assignment and requested a different one that he believed had a greater chance of success, but he was turned down repeatedly.

Hood's assault began in the late afternoon of July 2, but battlefield factors (probably the 19th–century equivalent of the "fog of war") diverted his remaining troops from their intended course, and they wound up joining other Confederate forces in their assault on Little Round Top.

Even 150 years later, people try to rationalize the Battle for Little Round Top. Michael Rubinkam of the Associated Press writes of topographic evidence that suggests Lee didn't realize how many Union troops there were on that ridge.

Little Round Top is still regarded as the crucial defensive effort for the Union that day. Col. Joshua Chamberlain of Maine directed his troops, who were low on ammunition, to mount a downhill bayonet charge that completely caught the Confederates off guard.

A day of glory for Chamberlain was a day of loss for Hood, who not only lost the conflict but the use of his left arm as well.

Hood was a career soldier with a reputation for courage and a fighting spirit, but some said those qualities bordered on a careless disregard for consequences. Attacking Devil's Den had not been his choice, but he was determined to give it the best he and his men had.

A college professor by training, Chamberlain was praised and promoted for his daring at Little Round Top. After the war, he returned to Maine where, in part because of his exploits, he was elected governor four times and served as teacher and president at his alma mater, Bowdoin College.

What a difference a day made in the lives of those two men — and, perhaps, in the life of a nation.

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