Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | July 3, 2013

Gettysburg, Part III

Some additional Gettysburg links:

1. At the League, J.L. Wall has a couple of posts (here and here) looking at how newspapers at the time reported the movement of the armies and the development of the battle. An example: on July 3, the Washington correspondent for the New York Times sent a telegram: “At the present hour, 9 p.m., no reliable advices have been received form the Pennsylvania battle-field. It is generally felt that it is the crisis of the war. Intense anxiety prevails.”

(Thus, even as the battle was going on, there was a general sense that the clash at Gettysburg was a pivotal development in the war.)

2. A number of bloggers have posts about the third day of the battle, including here and here. One blog notes that this is also the anniversary of the Battle of Vicksburg. (Lest we forget.) This blog and this blog have some photos from the reenactments and from the Gettysburg battlefield today.

Anderson has a post drawing a passing connection between Pickett’s Charge and the carnage of the First World War: “The dress rehearsal for the first day of the Somme, Pickett’s (Trimble’s-Pettigrew’s) Charge…. The 11th Mississippi and the rest of the men under Trimble foundered at the Emmittsburg Road and the deadly fence alongside (deadly because the pause to cross them was fatal). Stephen Sears (Gettysburg, at 431) notes that after the battle, someone inspected the fence: ‘One board, he wrote, “was indeed a curiosity. It was sixteen feet long, fourteen inches broad, and was perforated with eight hundred and thirty-six musket balls.” ‘”

3. At Esquire, Col. Bateman has a post discussing Pickett’s Charge (or the Pickett-Pettigrew Assault, or the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble Charge), with a focus on the activities of an understrength Ohio regiment that was in an exposed forward position as the rebel assault began. The 8th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment, under the command of Lt. Col. Franklin Sawyer, faced Brockenbrough’s Virginia regiment of Pettigrew’s division. Sawyer’s regiment had endured the Confederate artillery barrage, and Brockenbrough’s men, on the far left end of the rebel advance, had just advanced to the Emmitsburg Pike, to a point just below a crest that stood in front of Cemetery Hill:

It was at this moment, seeing the condition of the unit directly opposing them that Sawyer issued his incredible command, “CHARGE!” Mostly hidden until that moment from the view of the Virginians under Brockenbrough, the 160 Ohioans must have appeared as berserkers rising up from the earth. Because of a trick of the terrain, the same swale that concealed the Virginians from the Union artillery in those last moments as they straightened up their lines, also concealed the men of the 8th Ohio until the very last moment.

With a full-throated ‘Huzzah!’ which vented some of their frustrations and fears the men of Ohio charged forward along the flat ground on the spur with fixed bayonets into the range of the rifles of six thousand Confederates…and straight at the full brigade of rebels under Brockenbrough’s somewhat dubious command.

From the Confederate position at the bottom of the swale the appearance of these Yankees was too much. Rational men do not do something like what they were seeing. Rational units do not attack against odds like this, so obviously something else must be in play. Rational men, faced with odds like 160 to 6,000, give commands to fire and fall back. Rational men may be defeated.

Subjectively, therefore, these men from northern Ohio could not by any measure have been considered rational at that moment.

It appears that in Brockenbrough’s Brigade not a man stopped to reason. They did not count the devils, or consider how small in fact was the unit rushing towards them. What the Confederates saw to their front was a unit tearing forward with a mad intensity, rushing at them with fixed bayonets, and perhaps most significantly, carrying their national and regimental colors. To veterans this absolutely signified that this was a counterattack, since skirmishing units leave their colors behind in the safety of the main line.

Leading the charge was a capless Union officer with dried blood on his face (Sawyer had a slight head wound from earlier in the day) and carrying a musket. This was no genteel unit with city dandies for officers. In the internal battlefield calculations that all soldiers make individually, it seems likely that many of the southern soldiers believe that this attack right into their teeth must be merely the vanguard of something much bigger. Where there is one regiment there must be others soon to be revealed. (Remember, they could not see what might be behind the 8th Ohio, which was, to them, appearing over a crest.)

Brockenbrough’s brigade, probably some 600 men by that point, broke and ran as fast as their legs would carry them.

The fact is that it was a pretty measly charge, as such things are measured. The 8th Ohio’s charge only carried them between 50 to 75 yards forward, depending upon the soldier. A piddling distance for a charge, and at the end of it they were still probably 200 yards away from making physical contact with Brockenbrough’s disintegrating line. There was no crash of arms, no thrust of the bayonet. What finally broke the Virginians was the appearance, not the impact, of the Union troops charging towards them. It is a classic example of that hazily defined military concept called “shock.” Yet despite the short distance, the “impact” of the attack was enough to shake the morale of every southern soldier who saw what had happened. The 8th Ohio, a bruised and undersized regiment barely larger than a single company, broke an entire brigade of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Bateman’s post also visits a much-discussed question: why did Lee go through with the charge? Bateman offers his hypothesis:

One may ask, why? Why, if Lee was such a great general, had he allowed this attack to go forward?

Well, for starters, he may still have been pinning his hopes on the idea that although Stuart had been checked (and Lee would have known this by the time the infantry stepped off in the assault), Meade might still have weakened his center as a precaution. But I think there is something else in play here — a memory of events that took place almost sixteen years before. A memory made in mid-September 1847. Yes, friends, we are moving into the realm of hypothesis. I cede this freely, and only offer it for consideration. I do not claim that this next bit is, or ever can be, definitive. Such is history.

I believe that mental link was formed by events that took place just outside Mexico city at the base of the Mexican fortress named Chapultapec. On that day Captain Lee (who opposed the idea of a frontal assault like the one that was unfolding before him) watched American troops move forward after an initial artillery barrage softened up the defenders. The Americans were attacking at nearly even odds, which is usually not a good idea. Yet they moved forward, and forward, taking the initial Mexican positions and continuing on. Lee looked on from his position with the commander’s staff as then-Lieutenant James Longstreet fell wounded with a Mexican bullet in the thigh while carrying the regimental colors of his infantry unit at the front of the attack. But the colors did not stay down for long.

Longstreet called out to his friend and fellow infantryman, another young infantry officer, and passed the colors to him. That lieutenant then led the charge — the impossible charge — the rest of the way up the 200-foot high hill and up on to the walls of the castle, where he planted the colors. He was the very first American on the walls. The men stormed forward, following the audacious young officer. Inspired by his courage as the first man on the enemy’s walls and the presence of their flag there on the ramparts they surged ahead and took the whole castle. The entrance to Mexico city was breached and the attack continued until the entire city fell — effectively ending the war.

That young Lieutenant was now a general as well, and his name was George Pickett.

Lee had seen the impossible before from troops he had much less faith in than those he had command of that July afternoon in 1863. He had witnessed Pickett, taking the colors from Longstreet, assault, and surmount the insurmountable. He knew his men had surmounted impossible odds just weeks before, at Chancellorsville, he believed.

“Belief” is sometimes not a good idea, when calculating military odds.

Do read the whole thing.

4. Also, Col. Bateman, in a post dealing mainly with Custer’s defense against Stuart’s cavalry incursion, also discusses Meade’s leadership style and the practicalities of dealing with generals. Late on the night of July 2, Meade held a meeting (or a “council of war” in the classical terminology) with his generals (emphasis added):

My day job as a strategist means that I spend an awful lot of time with generals. Measurable time changes some conventions. But it changes institutions only slowly, and human nature not at all. That night, Meade was brilliant.

In the Army of the Potomac there were factions. Nowhere was this more clear than in the affiliations of the generals. Indeed, there had been such divisions almost from the beginning. Then, as now, these were based upon individual personalities or longstanding relationships. But during the Civil War, since so many generals were also politicians only temporarily wearing a uniform, political considerations also entered the complex mix.

Meade had been in command, what, five or six days?

Look, if you want to understand generals, you need look no further than CEOs. Now imagine this scenario: I am appointed the CEO of 11 other CEOs. They all feel themselves to be my equal. No more than three of them ever hold the same opinion. Somehow I must unify their thoughts, inclinations, and ultimately behaviors. And I need to do so in such a way that when there is a crisis, and there will be a crisis, and they are out of communications, they act in a way that makes sense according to my larger plan.

So what do you do? How do you get CEO personalities to come together?

You let them argue with each other. For as long as it takes.

You throw a tough question at them, something in which they all have a stake, and you throw out a couple of straw-men options. Then you ask the open-ended question, “Gentlemen, what shall we do?”

Often the commanding general who asks this may not actually mean it. In many cases he has already decided what the best course might be. But as the CEO of numerous CEO-personalities, he knows that he needs them to fight with each other about the right thing to do, so that they do not fight with him, on the morrow. In the end, if he has done it right, all the sub-CEOs go away thinking that they carried the day, or that they had been heard and their opinions considered and incorporated. This may or may not be the case. But it is their feelings about the consultation, believe it or not, which really matter.

5. Finally, I do not want to let this day pass without mentioning the movie Gettysburg (1993), based closely on the also-excellent novel The Killer Angels (1974), by Michael Shaara. Time has a review of Civil War movies that discusses Gettysburg, among other films:

Ronald F. Maxwell’s four-and-a-half-hour war epic…was made for TV but, at the enthusiastic insistence of its sponsor, Ted Turner, released briefly in theaters. Turner backed the project after many executives at the major studios had rejected it — some more than once. The film’s savior asked only that he appear fleetingly on camera. He plays a Confederate officer who shouts, “Let’s go, men!” and is promptly killed. Noting that his scene needed to be shot only twice, Turner told the director, “Just call me Two-Take Ted.”

Though the source book, Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Maxwell infused the story with suitable authenticity. Receiving permission to shoot on part of the battlefield, now a National Military Park, he recruited some 4,000 Civil War reenactors to serve as extras and amateur historians. Perhaps inevitably, this docudrama is stronger on docu than on drama. Some members of the professional cast, led by Tom Berenger as Lt. Gen. James Longstreet and Martin Sheen as Gen. Lee, seem more uncomfortable than the reenactors. The film’s outstanding performance is by Jeff Daniels, as the college professor turned Union officer Joshua Chamberlain, who underlines the band-of-brothers theme by telling his men, “We’re fighting for each other.”

The battle scenes necessarily telescope the huge numbers of the warring troops — 170,000, equal to the population of Boston at the time — but adequately approximate the military strategies and, in the climactic and tragic Pickett’s Charge, fitfully display a sad grandeur. A flop in movie theaters, Gettysburg found its true home on DVD and in schoolrooms, where it functions as a useful audio-visual aide to the observation by Civil War Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman that “War is Hell.”

I have heard that Tom Berenger has said that his role as Gen. Longstreet was one of his favorite roles in his career. For what it’s worth, I have always enjoyed Berenger’s portrayal of Longstreet. I have also heard that Martin Sheen, portraying Gen. Lee, was overwhelmed by the the enthusiasm of the reenactors who participated in Pickett’s Charge in the film.

The final sequence of Gettysburg, dealing with the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble Charge, is simply an awesome specimen of cinema. In addition to the pure spectacle of the cinematography – with sweeping visuals of thousands of reenactors charging the field – the sequence includes what I believe to be very effective use of dramatic irony. The viewer knows that the Confederate attack is going to fail, but that knowledge makes the determination and confidence of the charge participants exquisitely poignant. Also, the music, and the flow of the attack as shown on screen, seem to make the viewer think (like Faulkner’s 14-year-old Southern boy) that maybe, just maybe, Gen. Armistead can pull it off.

For me, Gettysburg has a special place in my heart for an idiosyncratic reason. A few summers ago, I was preparing to take the Tennessee Bar Exam. All the bar exam advice will tell you to stop studying at least a few hours before going to sleep on the night before the exam. When I at last closed the books, I needed something to clear my mind and occupy myself for the next few hours. So I watched the second half of Gettysburg. (I did pass the Bar that summer, in case you were wondering.)

The Time piece also contains what has to be the correction of the day:

*CORRECTIONS: The original text stated that 50,000 soldiers were killed in the battle; we also mistakenly identified James Longstreet as a Union general.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

On a surely unrelated note, I am working on a post discussing last week’s Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder, and I hope perhaps to have that posted Friday.



  1. “On a surely unrelated note …”


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