A Historic Reversal of Fortune

Big day in American history today. No, not THAT. It was on this date in 1863 that Robert E. Lee mustered the battered remnants of his Army of Northern Virginia and began the long march homeward following a decisive defeat at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
The fault for this defeat rests entirely with General Lee. Seeking to avenge the stinging, unexpected loss of the previous day in the Battle of Little Round Top, Lee decided upon a daring counterattack. His plan was to strike  the Federal Army at what he perceived was a weak point, about midway along the Federal lines, a hundred thousand strong and arrayed along miles of high ridgeline, which formed a rough semicircle a short distance south of town. If Lee could rout the Federals on their own turf it would give the Rebels momentum at a critical time, potentially changing the course of the War.

The second and final time the Rebel Army would cross the Northern border, the Gettysburg campaign had been a gamble from the beginning. Southerners had recently won a series of battlefield victories, and Lee reckoned that a decisive win on Northern territory would convince Lincoln to sue for peace. The war had already dragged on far longer than anyone thought it would, at enormous cost, and sentiment was building to bring it to a merciful and honorable conclusion.

Pickett’s Charge, it came to be called, after George Pickett, the general chosen to lead the fateful attack. A boyish 42 year old who had been dead last in his class at West Point, Pickett cut a dashing figure, the very picture of old-school martial gallantry, now passe in the new era of industrial-scale warfare.
The Federals, well entrenched, well supplied, and defending the high ground, held the overwhelming advantage. Inexplicably, over the vehement objections of his commanders, Lee elected to march a force of 12,500 across an open field for nearly a mile, uphill, right up the middle of the lethal semicircle, with grimly predictable results. Firing at will from protected positions, the Federals poured volley after volley of rifle and cannon fire into the ranks of the hapless Rebels until there was almost no one left to kill. A few hundred Rebels managed to breach the low stone wall that marked their objective, where they were promptly cut to pieces. It was over in less than an hour.

The high-water mark of the War, Gettysburg signaled a historic turning point, and for the South a stunning reversal of fortune. With this decisive defeat, the possibility of Southern victory simply vanished. From that moment forward, the South’s eventual capitulation became inevitable, an open secret, a “when” not an “if.”

Gettysburg also triggered a shift in the overall Federal strategy. Prior to Gettysburg, the policy had been to strike selectively, with restraint, to preserve the South more or less intact so that it would be in good shape to rejoin the Union. After Gettysburg, the Union consciously adopted a strategy of total war, and brought the entire weight of its massive industrial apparatus to bear upon the South, tottering but stubbornly defiant, in order to batter it into submission.

Historians have long wondered how Lee, widely acknowledged as America’s most capable general, could have made such an egregious and costly blunder. Some blame his faltering judgement on a heart weakened by two-plus years of unrelenting stress and staggering responsibility. Regardless, many of Lee’s surviving commanders, including George Pickett, never forgave him, and remained bitter to the end of their lives.

The most well-known Battle of the Civil War, Gettysburg came to be a potent symbol of the ghastly futility of that conflict.  Four months after the Battle, a crowd of several thousand gathered to witness the dedication of the Gettysburg Memorial Cemetery. President Abraham Lincoln delivered the brief invocation. It was a masterpiece. Austere yet magisterial, sorrowful yet uplifting, magnanimous yet resolute, the Gettysburg Address became perhaps the most famous wartime speech in history.

To citizens of the early twenty-first century, the American Civil war seems as remote as the signing of the Magna Carta, more sepia-toned myth than fact. But it was real, as were the the millions who experienced it, who were once just as alive and aware as you and I. Their very real suffering and struggle seem almost incomprehensible to us, living as we do in an age of extraordinary comfort, plenty, and safety. But in a way, their sacrifice paved the way for us. We would not be who we are today were it not for them who endured the unendurable.

So on this historic day, let each of us reflect for a moment on those who have gone before, who made possible through their suffering the peaceable, prosperous, inconceivably plentiful way of life we today enjoy.

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