Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Wandering Mystic Meditation From Gettysburg

“If you go to Gettysburg and take the time, read some of the monuments, read some of the plaques, you will come away changed.” ~ Jeff Shaara

This week is the 150th anniversary of that epic struggle. In June 1863, the Army of Northern Virginia marched toward Maryland and Pennsylvania to launch an invasion of the North. General Robert E. Lee, fresh from his masterpiece victory at the Battle of Chancellorsville, sought to use his army as a threat to northern cities and force a peace upon the Union, after so much of the Civil War had been fought on southern soil. Chancellorsville had been his greatest victory, but also his costliest, with the death of Stonewall Jackson, one of his two corps commanders, gunned down by friendly fire in the midst of the battle. Lee moved North with his army reorganized into three corps, his strong right hand General James Longstreet still in command, plus two other generals, Richard Ewell and A. P. Hill, elevated to fill the gap left by Jackson.

They were missing their cavalry escort and moving alone across unfamiliar ground. The daring Confederate cavalry commander Jeb Stuart had gone off on one of his grand rides up North, after fighting to a draw with Union cavalry at a place called Brandy Station. For a man so used to victory, an unsettled battle was unnerving, but his decision to head off on one of his glorious rides, leaving Lee without full knowledge of the ground ahead or a cavalry screen to monitor the movements of Union forces was a critical mistake. By the time he saw Lee again, the rebels were engaged in battle and it was too late for cavalry to make a difference.

The Union Army of the Potomac pursued with infantry hustling and cavalry feeling out ahead, until finding Lee and his men. Fate gave the army its new commander, George Meade, who was dispatched to stop Lee after a long line of posted and replaced leaders. As June came to an end, this army searched for an enemy they had been fighting in one bloody battle after another since 1861. They found them at a small town in Pennsylvania.

Gettysburg was noted at the time for its Lutheran seminary. From a military point of view, it was the convergence point of many roads: a valuable asset for an army on the move. Plus, the hills and ridges South of the town were the best high ground for many miles. Lee turned his army towards Washington late in June, seeking to threaten the capital directly. Gettysburg was in his path.

On June 30th, General John Buford, a Union cavalryman assigned to seek out Lee’s army, arrived with a division of mounted troops. Buford was a tough, steady and tenacious man, who understood the critical value of the high ground, knew the rebels were coming, and rushed messages to infantry commanders while committing himself to battle. He chose the ground the battle would be fought on, dispatching his men to bottleneck roads against the Confederate troops coming and steeling himself to hold the decisive ground.

The future-defining battle began on the morning of July 1st, initially as a skirmish of rebel troops stumbling on dismounted cavalry. Buford kept his men fighting in position as infantry gradually arrived, buying time for the rest to occupy the high ground. One of the first on the scene was general John Reynolds, considered one of the best soldiers in the army. Reynolds was directing his soldiers into position when he was shot off his horse and killed instantly. As the day went on, Confederate infantry kept pushing Union forces back through the town. Yet, the Union corps took and held position on all the best heights: Cemetery Ridge, Cemetery Hill, and Culp’s Hill. By day’s end, the Confederate Army expected certain victory, but Union forces still occupied the best ground.

The second day brought attacks all along the Union lines. The fighting was fiercest on the left flank in Devil’s Den, the Peach Orchard, the Wheat Field, and on a wooded hill called Little Round Top at the extreme end of the line. Here Confederate troops attacked at dusk, surging uphill time and time again against an outnumbered regiment. The commander of this 20th Maine regiment was a university professor named Joshua Chamberlain, who soon found his troops down to their last ammunition and facing another imminent assault. Unable to defend or retreat, he ordered a risky downhill bayonet charge against the Confederates that surprised and swept them off the hill. This may well have saved the battle and the whole Union army from being cut off from behind. Unable to do anything reasonable and refusing to do anything dishonorable, a bookish teacher and his comrades chose to do something extraordinary.

Longstreet’s corps had taken a beating that second day at Gettysburg, with two of his divisions seriously mauled during the attacks on the Union left. Longstreet was a military genius, the kind of soldier who could understand where warfare was going. His systems of defensive warfare were decades ahead of their time. So, he immediately grasped the futility of repeatedly attacking that high ground. He urged Lee to move the army away, drawing the Union troops to follow and fight on ground of their choosing. Instead, Lee decided to attack the Union line in the middle, up the long slope of Cemetery Ridge. Perhaps, because of traditional notions against withdrawing from established battle lines.

The third day, Lee selected Longstreet to head up the main attack, assigning two divisions from Hill’s corps to accompany a Longstreet force headed up by George Pickett. The joint attack would be preceded by artillery fire into the Union line, then the three divisions would advance in an all-or-nothing gamble to take the central ridge. Longstreet was adamant that no such attack would ever take that ridge. Lee insisted they could, either because he believed it or felt compelled to assure doomed comrades that he did.

Confederate artillery opened up the attack early in the afternoon. Union artillery fired back, more easily replaced than rebel guns. Infantry on both sides kept their heads down. On Cemetery Ridge, corps commander Winfield Hancock rode among his men to keep them calm waiting for what would come. Finally, the guns began to slow as rebel artillery ran low. Three Confederate divisions started uphill, over a mile of unprotected terrain toward the top of the ridge.

It’s been said more than once that Union men, looking at the advancing wave of rebel formations, thought it was the most beautiful thing they had ever seen. Thousands of men marching uphill with muskets ready to kill - yet it was a thing of beauty. Union artillery opened up on them as they came. Troops stationed at the top, sheltered by sturdy rock walls, readied their own muskets for when the rebels came into range. Confederate officers kept their forces tight, plugging holes as cannon fire blasted through the lines. All the while moving ever forward, towards that wall and the blazing muskets and waiting bayonets of Union troops.

By the time the decimated rebels made it within range of the Union muskets, The Union lines were being reinforced by newly arriving replacements. Soldiers who made it to the stone wall found themselves in a bloody fistfight, overwhelmed by Union troops. The attack that would become famous as Pickett’s Charge fell apart, many of the officers cut down with their men. Over twelve thousand started up that hill, but over seven thousand never came back, either dead, wounded, or taken prisoner.

It was a typical statistic for that battle. Over 150,000 men fought at Gettysburg. Over fifty thousand were killed or wounded. Both sides were badly mauled. Still, it was a shattering, crushing defeat for Lee, the end of his invasion and a clear, decisive Union victory. For the Union troops who had suffered one defeat after another, this was a completely different experience, a testament to their fortitude and their officers. Meade himself wasn’t a factor in the victory. It was commanders beneath him, like Buford, Hancock, Reynolds, and Chamberlain, all men in the right place at the right time, that made the difference.

Gettysburg was the price the South paid for the military genius of Lee. He had believed in the invincibility of the army, because their record had given him reason to. The general rode out to meet the men coming back from the failed charge, saying that it was his fault and taking the burden of defeat on his shoulders. George Pickett certainly thought so. His boyish charm faded away with that crushing loss. Years later, he would still bear a grudge against the man who destroyed his division. Longstreet would write that Lee bore the responsibility for the defeat at Gettysburg, an accurate opinion that would nonetheless earn him the rage of the South.

It has been a hundred and fifty years since those three bloody days in a quiet corner of Pennsylvania. Back during the centennial of the war, writer Shelby Foote, engaged in composing his definitive narrative, felt the anniversary should be a commemoration, not a celebration. Americans had killed each other in massive numbers in a brother’s war. Gettysburg was a key moment of that war, the high tide of the Confederacy. It was a turning point, along with the surrender of Vicksburg on the Mississippi River on the Fourth of July. It stays with us even now. We know the battle beyond the history books, in novels, films and art. We know the words immortalized months later, during the opening of a national military cemetery at the site: Lincoln’s evoking of the last full measure of devotion and a new birth for freedom.

William Kendall is a writer, photographer and rock climber from the Ottawa Valley. When he's not working on his world domination scheme (no golfers allowed), he can be found writing the forthcoming Heaven & Hell, plus his personal blog Speak Of The Devil.


  1. I've read many words concerning these three days and yet, I feel these are some of the most precise, and as such, clarifying. Both my husband and I had a greatgreat grandfather present at this battle- and surviving, though mine went a bit mad and died within seven years at the Veteran's Home in Dayton, Ohio. I really need to visit again. Beautifully written.

  2. Excellent writing. I've always believed had Stonewall Jackson lived, he would have sided with Longstreet. Lee was brilliant because of Jackson. I've made a few Southerners angry with that opinion.

  3. Once again, William, you make me see how little I know of my own country's history! (Or at least how much I remember....)

  4. It's true to say "brother's war". I had 2 ancestors who were in this war. Family album showed them in their uniforms.

    Fantastic post, William.

  5. The Battle of Gettysburg succinctly told William.

  6. Great post, William! Learned quite a bit about the Battle of Gettysburg.

  7. What a great lesson and remembrance - I've seen much of Gettysburg recently and this is a great reminder of its importance.

  8. I've long felt that Lee, Longstreet, and Jackson was one of the best commands in military history. Not only do you have the skills, tenacity, and genius of Lee, but you have his two lieutenants, both of whom had strengths that complimented each other perfectly. When Lee lost Jackson, it was a loss that simply couldn't have been replaced.

    Still, even if Jackson had lived, the result would have been the same. The North would have won the war. The sheer numbers and resources were always on their side. Grant would have still come east, and he understood how to beat Lee, and did it.