Gettysburg: The Last Invasion
On the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln scholar Allen C. Guelzo offers a detailed account of the battle, with a focus on the human side of the history.
(Page 3 of 3)
How many of us, no matter how many times we’ve watched “Glory” or Ken Burns’s 1990 PBS documentary, knew that the United States frowned on the notion of cavalry? The reluctance stemmed from the expense of horses and the three-year duration required to train riders. [This review originally misstated the amount of food required to feed a horse during the Crimean War.]Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Practical problems extended to communications, too. For starters, the sheer noise of battle was deafening. Cannon and gunfire was “absolutely impenetrable by the voice to any distance,” Guelzo writes. Changing tactics and moving troops took a long time for obvious reasons: Couriers needed as much as an hour to carry orders across the battlefield.
Other interesting notes Guelzo relates from Gettysburg: The battle caused just one civilian death and no black troops fought there. Most of the free blacks left town to avoid being caught by the Confederates and sent South as slaves.
What the armies suffered still astonishes 150 years later. Guelzo details severed limbs, mauled faces, and all other manner of maiming, injury and death. On July 1, the first day of battle, the 26th North Carolina “lost 549 out of the 843 men it had lined up that afternoon; its regimental flag went through thirteen sets of hands.”
“Gettysburg” bores in on small episodes like the one above without neglecting the major issues, from the actions of Dan Sickles, the Union’s loose-cannon general who may or may not have forced Meade to fight on July 2, to the impact of J.E.B. Stuart’s disappearing act leaving Lee without a cavalry screen for his maneuvers. Guelzo even pricks the sacred balloon of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain defending the Union position on Little Round Top, arguing Chamberlain received an exaggerated amount of credit, bolstered by self-promotion.
And, of course, there is Pickett’s infantry charge on the aptly named Cemetery Ridge, the disastrous attack on July 3 by the Confederates. Here, Guelzo lets no one off easy. He defends Lee’s right-hand man, James Longstreet, for carrying out the orders from Lee — an issue of contention afterwards as Lee’s defenders shifted blame to Longstreet for the attack’s failure. Guelzo also asserts there is no guarantee that Longstreet’s preference for an extended flanking movement would have worked, either.
He dismisses Pickett as “indolent” and notes he finished last in his class at West Point. Still, Pickett’s bitterness becomes easier to understand when the carnage is examined. Pickett had about 13,000 men, including borrowed reinforcements. This for an attack Longstreet said would require 30,000 men. The Union held back its artillery fire, then hammered Pickett when the charge neared.
A Virginia soldier recalled severed heads, arms and legs flying “like feathers before the wind.” A Florida lieutenant saw “men falling all around me with brains blown out, arms off, and wounded in every direction.” Pickett lost somewhere between 2,600 and 3,400 men, according to various accounts.
Lee initially accepted full blame and told Pickett after his retreat that “you and your men have covered yourselves with glory.”
Pickett responded, “Not all the glory in the world, General Lee, can atone for the widows and orphans this day has made.”