In my travels, I have experienced few other places as historically sublime as Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. One that comes to mind was an hour or so spent on the uninhabited island of Delos where Greek myth has the god, Apollo, and usually his twin sister, Artemis, being born. The island has been left undeveloped with many of the ancient ruins intact, and, if you move off by yourself away from the tourist throng, which isn’t hard, your imagination and sense of connection to history soars. In a more modern setting, Gettysburg is much the same. You can easily find yourself transferred back nearly a century and a half, when a great war nearly destroyed the country, but ultimately, changed it for the better.
I have actually been twice to Gettysburg. The first trip was in some senses a disaster. Around 1996/7, I took my daughter, and my girlfriend’s family to Washington, D.C. It was so hot that I couldn’t blame them for not being hopped up to tour. On the way back I thought it might be interesting to stop at Gettysburg. After all, who would not want to spend some time at the site of America’s most important preserved battlefield? One grown woman and three small girls, that’s who.
At some point, with a good half hour left with our personal guide, I glanced into the back. You have never seen four more bored people in your entire life. I’m pretty sure if not for the pouring rain you would be able to hear their eyes rolling into the back of their little heads like marbles. Our guide, who obviously relished his job, was literally taken aback when I told him he had to cut it short. He even politely argued with me. I explained that I was afraid that some of them might just die from boredom back there, and besides, it was not a trip just for me, but for all of us. He gave in and we finished up quick.
About ten years later I returned with three couples (including frequent commenter, Bear) who were as delighted to be there as I was. We stayed right in the beautifully preserved town (only blighted by the hideous Holiday Inn, which was built before they put in appropriate zoning laws in the 70s --it should be torn down by a group of angry re-enactors). All of the men in our group were Civil War buffs, and, to my satisfaction (after my last experience), all of the women were interested too, if not as obsessive as the boys. We took a guided tour on our first day, and did our own tour the next. Frankly, I can't wait to go back.
There are dozens of descriptions of the battle online for you to read, and, if you haven't delved into it yet, many books that explain what happened in detail. Even easier, Gettysburg is one of the best made-for-television movies and acted in for free by a number of stars (e.g., Martin Sheen and Jeff Daniels). But, in short, and I mean short, the battle of Gettysburg occurred in the middle of the war (June/July 1863), when the South was still doing well. Lee was headed North with his armies through the Appalachian Mountains into Pennsylvania, determined to take the war to the enemy, when Union and Confederate troops began mixing it up at Gettysburg where six roads crossed. Lee could have moved on, or enticed the Union to attack him, but instead, he chose to agressively fight it out there. The battle lasted three days and had several deservedly famous moments. Finally, the South, severely depleted and outnumbered, retreated.
Unlike, most descriptions of Gettysburg you will read, this post concentrates on one General, James Longstreet, and his role in the great battle. As a mini-biography, Longstreet was born and raised in the deep South, a graduate of West Point (not too high either), was wounded in the Mexican-American war, and a soldier for the U.S. of A before seccession, after which he became a confederate general. He has been ranked everywhere from the best corp commander on either side in the war to the man responsible for the South losing at Gettysburg, to a great subordinate general but a weaker commanding general, to the slowest moving general in the South. It still strikes me strange that his second wife, Helen Dortch, born during the war (much younger than Longstreet) lived until 1962 when I was not only alive, but three years old. It puts into perspective that this really wasn't all that long ago.
Robert E. Lee was, of course, in command of the South’s Army of Northern Virginia. He had been Confederate President Davis’ military adviser and took over the Army of Northern Virginia when Gen. Joseph Johnston was injured in late Spring, 1862. After a number of successes (and one very notable loss at Antietam) his Waterloo occurred at Gettysburg 13 months after he took over. Many consider it a, if not the, turning point of the war.
During the run up to the battle Lee argued politely enough with some of his best generals, including Longstreet, whom he called his War-Horse, about the wisdom of fighting there. Longstreet thought it an extremely bad idea and candidly told Lee so. In fact, most of the generals, like Longstreet, were against the entire idea of invading the North with a large army. Lee's authority and the soldiers' confidenence in him was so great at the time, that it did not matter much what the rest of leading generals thought.
Years after the battle, after Lee was dead, some vanquished Southern officers tried to lay blame for the loss on Longstreet, who had made himself unpopular with them during Reconstruction by becoming a Republican and even working in the Grant administration. Yet, Grant and Longstreet were great friends before the war; Longstreet introduced Grant to his cousin, Julia, and was best man at the wedding. It was hardly fair, anyway, given Longstreet’s reluctance to fight at Gettysburg at all, although he was charged by some with showing up late for the fight. In his own memoirs, he goes step by step through the arguments made by one seemingly knowledgeable person in particular, Robert E. Lee’s nephew, Fitzhugh Lee.
Fitzhugh, a Southern general himself, claimed that his revered uncle told him before he died that he would have won at Gettysburg if he had had Stonewall Jackson with him there (Jackson had died earlier in the war). This was a slap in the face to Longstreet, who, if no Jackson (was anyone?), had certainly proved himself time and time again during the war. But, Longstreet didn’t deny that Lee might have said precisely that. Instead, he pointed out that Lee had had Jackson at Antietam, a “more awkward” situation than Gettysburg, and it hadn’t helped him there either.
Fitzhugh also said that Uncle Bobby told his father (Lee’s brother) that he had relied too much on his confidence in the fighting qualities of his men and “the assurances of his highest officers” at Gettysburg. That would, of course, include Longstreet, who replied in his memoirs that, in fact, none of the highest officers gave Lee these assurances, save one (General Jubal Early).
For Longstreet, the problem was manpower: “The army when it set out on the campaign was all that could be desired, (except that the arms were not all of the most approved pattern), but it was despoiled of two of its finest brigades . . . . The greatest number engaged at any one time was on the first day, when twenty-six thousand engaged twenty thousand of the First and part of the Eleventh Corps. . . . . On the third day about twelve thousand were engaged at daylight and until near noon, and in the afternoon fifteen thousand, -all of the work of the second and third days against an army of seventy thousand and more of veteran troops in strong position defended by field-works.”
In other words, if they had had a shot at the beginning, by the end they were completely outmanned and outgunned. “Forty thousand men, unsupported as we were, could not have carried the position at Gettysburg. The enemy was there. Officers and men knew their advantage, and were resolved to stay until the hills came down over them. It is simply out of the question for a lesser force to march over broad, open fields and carry a fortified front occupied by a greater force of seasoned troops.” He was talking about Pickett’s charge, perhaps second in fame tragic in fame to the famous charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava in the Crimean War a few years earlier, which Tennyson had immortalized in poetry (“Theirs not to wonder why/Theirs but to do and die”).
One interesting and sometimes forgotten Civil War story involves the timidity in which Longstreet and his artillery chief, Col. Edward Porter Alexander (who, in some scholars’ opinions, wrote the best memoir of the war), subtly argued over who had to give the order for Pickett to begin the mile or so long infantry charge across field and fence against what would likely be relentless rifle and artillery fire. If not for results, it would have been a comical game of hot potato.
According to Colonel (later General) Alexander, Longstreet told him around that he would give a signal to him when Pickett was ready to go, and that Alexander, placed in a good spot, should then give the signal for Pickett to advance. This made it seemed like it was Longstreet’s call. But, while awaiting the signal, Alexander received a note from Longstreet. The note said that Longstreet would rely on his Alexander's judgment as to whether Pickett should proceed, based on whether or not the enemy was driven off or greatly demoralized by Alexander's artillery bombardment. Alexander had this note in his hand when he wrote about it nearly 40 years later.
This, he noted, gave him a responsibility which he was determined to avoid. He might have been emboldened had he known that Longstreet gave him the duty because he considered him an officer with “unusual promptness, sagacity and intelligence” despite his having graduated from West Point only a few years before the war. He wrote back to Longstreet that he would only be able to determine the enemy’s response by their return fire, and, if there was any other way to best the enemy besides the charge, it should be considered before they expended all of their scarce shells. On top of that, he added, even if they won, it would be “at a very bloody cost”. Alexander could clearly see the foolishness of this charge against a mountain of men with heavy fireposwer and did not want to be saddled with the fault.
Neither did Longstreet. He passed the ball back and wrote to Alexander that the plan was to drive off the enemy or “other effect such as to warrant us in making the attack”. When the moment arrived he, Alexander, should let Pickett know and give him what artillery cover he could. Alexander felt the weight upon his shoulders. While all of this was going on, another Southern general told him that he himself had temporarily taken Cemetery Hill the day before, but that as the Union was surrounding it in a horseshoe shape it could easily reinforce it from several directions.
Alexander went off to speak with Pickett himself, whom he found “sanguine of success” and “only congratulating himself on the opportunity”. That sounds like every popular description of Pickett, a modern day cavalier imbued with an outsized sense of honor. He was certainly flashy, particularly known for his hair and beard, and had graduated last in his class at West Point (not that Longstreet was any great shakes there, although contrary to what you may read, he did not graduate last). However, from the time of the Mexican-American War, where Pickett had the good fortune to climb a parapet and take the flag from the injured Longstreet (of all people), he had a steady rise in his career, and some impressive moments.
After talking with Pickett, Alexander determined that a half hearted effort by them would lead to disaster. They needed everyone involved or they would surely fail. If he was told to fire his remaining artillery barrage, there had better be a good reason, and Pickett should charge. Thus, he shouldered the responsibility with courage. He advised Longstreet that he would let Pickett know when the optimum moment arrived, which he figured would be 15 minutes or so after he began firing. And so the great artillery barrage began, both sides firing hot and smoke filling the field between them, obscuring all. The usual story is that it went on for two hours, but Alexander, who should know, says that it is not so -- people were lumping those guns in with others firing before then.
His 15 minutes passed, and then another. As Alexander had earlier predicted, he had no idea what was going on with the other side. All he knew was that they were firing back without slack. Low on ammunition, he sent Pickett a note:
“If you are coming at all you must come immediately or I cannot give you the proper support; but the enemy’s fire has not slackened materially, and at least 18 guns are still firing from the cemetery itself”.
This might fairly be called a conflicting order, and, not surprisingly, Pickett was befuddled. Alexander believed that Pickett hightailed it over to Longstreet to ask him what to do. Longstreet just stared at him, being unable to give the order. With what to some observers seemed like no direct order from above, Pickett told Longstreet that he would advance and went back to his troops to ready them. Longstreet rode over to Alexander, whose version, so far, we have relied on.
Soon after he had given his last note to Pickett, Alexander saw the 18 Union guns stop firing and disappear. He was aware that the Union had more ammunition than he did, generally speaking, and since they did not normally need to keep a reserve, this made him quite happy. Perhaps they had lost heart or were giving up. He sent another note to Pickett that he should go immediately.
When Longstreet himself came over to Alexander, the colonel told him how low he was on shells. Longstreet said, “I don’t want to make this charge; I don’t believe it can succeed. I would stop Pickett now, but that General Lee has ordered it and expects it”.
At that time, Pickett started his march and Alexander gave him what cover he could. The result, is well known and has been told many times over. In a word, it was a slaughter, the attacking force being largely massacred. The most amazing part is that some soldiers actually made it across that long field amidst the bullets and cannon balls, even having had to stop and climb a wood fence, before retreating.
Given everything we know about Gettysburg these days, it is hard to see how Longstreet can be blamed, whether he was indecisive or not, as he merely fulfilled Lee’s order. A few minutes one way or another would not have mattered. In fact, immediately after the charging force was decimated, Lee took the blame upon himself. His affection for Longstreet was unabated. Here’s a letter from him to Longstreet written the year following the war, which arguably answers any questions about Lee's general post-war opinion of his war-horse:
“You must remember me very kindly to Mrs. Longstreet and all your children. I have not had an opportunity yet to return the compliment she paid me. I had, while in Richmond, a great many inquiries after you, and learned that you intended commencing business in New Orleans. If you become as good a merchant as you were a soldier, I shall be content. No one will then excel you, and no one can wish you more success and more happiness than I. My interest and affection for you will never cease, and my prayers are always offered for your prosperity."
Nor did Alexander blame Longstreet. He said “Never, never, never did Gen. Lee himself bollox a fight as he did this."
There is no battle report from Pickett and some believe it was destroyed by Lee. That doesn’t feel right, but it is hard to explain its absence. Pickett reputedly had at least one painful meeting with Lee after the war, reported by the Confederate guerilla, John Mosby, aka (the Civil War’s best moniker) The Grey Ghost, who was with him. Though it is said Pickett never forgave Lee, publicly he said that he always thought that the reason the attack failed was because of the Union troops. This was the honorable thing to say, of course, and may not reveal his true opinion.
Longstreet’s own memoirs, From Manassas to Appomattox, written three decades after the war, and decades after Lee's death, gives a brutal list of the superior officer's faults on that day:
- Lee was disingenuous in suggesting that he had given orders for the charge the night before instead of the morning of the charge;
- twice as many men would have been needed for the success of the charge;
- Lee was not even near them when the position assignments were being made, which Longstreet thought “singular indifference”;
- when the left side of the confederate line failed, the right side, where the fatal charge was readying, was not even informed – a telling failure;
- bitterly, he complained that he, a non-believer in the attack, was made to supervise it, when Gen. Early, the only senior officer to encourage the charge, was available.
- just as bitterly, he complained that Lee did not order them help when he could have.
All rough stuff about his long dead leader for whom he seemed to otherwise have had great affection.
Not surprisingly, Longstreets memory differs to some degree from that of Alexander’s, but really not significantly. However, one line in his recitation of events is just funny to read today: “Then I rode to a woodland hard by, to lie down and study for some new thought that might aid the assaulting column”. Lie down? In the middle of the fight? That just doesn't sound right.
Unbeknownst to Alexander, Pickett was actually already with Longstreet, who was still lying down, when he received Alexander’s note to come at once, if he was coming at all. Longstreet himself acknowledged later that he could not speak, but claims that he made an “affirmative bow”. It is not hard how to see how some there could have missed it, but I have found a statement to that effect by at least one other soldier who confirmed the bow in a speech made a couple of years before Longstreet’s memoirs (James F. Crocker, 1894).
Longstreet also claims that he was already with Alexander when the Union ceased firing for a while. This was after he says that he ordered Alexander to stop the charge so that Alexander could get reserve ammunition, and then learned there was none to be had. It was about then that the firing from the union slacked off and Pickett took the field.
Longstreet was happy to report that Lee not only took all the blame (generally agreed upon) but also that a number of times he said that he should have listened to Longstreet, who had recommended a flanking move. In one case, Lee reportedly said that, had he listened to Longstreet, the South would still be free. Of course, this is from Longstreet’s memoirs, so you decide.
143 years after Alexander and Longstreet watched the charge in horror, my friends and I sat in the middle of the mile or so long open field that was the scene of Pickett’s Charge and marveled at what made men run across such a long stretch of land with bullets and shells tearing them to pieces just because someone told them to do it.
For a while we soaked it all in and, then, unlike most of Pickett’s men, moved on.
- I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .