Thoughts on Gettysburg

A tender moment in the book and movie: Armistead
reminisces about Hancock, with whom he served.
Killer Angels by Michael Shaara: I read this book recently after my brother Dan praised it. It is a remarkable book due in most part to Shaara's generosity.

Michael Shaara has his own opinions about why the Confederates lost the battle. (In the afterword, Shaara states quite clearly that Longstreet's defensive strategies were ahead of their time.) What he avoids doing in Killer Angels (thankfully) is parceling out praise and blame. Characters praise and blame each other and themselves. Yet the author's tone is remarkably free of the kind of finger-pointing found in other books on the Civil War.

I don't know if the battle of Gettysburg is unique here but evidently soldiers, politicians, and authors both after the war and now have spent a great deal of time dismantling every moment of every hour and minute of Gettysburg for the purpose of arguing that if only X had done Y, Z would have happened.

In his book on Civil War battlefields, Jeff Shaara, Michael Shaara's son, acknowledges these arguments before he gently points out, in a similar spirit of generosity to his father's, that they are largely besides the point.

The point being (I am less generous): even if the Confederates had broken the Union line (which some people argue happened), where on earth would the Confederate army--what remained of it--have gone next? Does anyone really believe that they could have made it to Washington at that point and accomplished anything of purpose? The historians who make these arguments treat the battle rather like a Red Sox game--"If only so-and-so had just caught that ball in the third inning!"--ignoring everything except remote outside possibilities that could only have occurred if certain disparate events had managed to collide. (They also tend to ignore things like, "Um, the soldiers have been fighting all day. They literally can't walk another step," and, as my brother Joe has pointed out, supply lines. These aren't chess pieces; these are people.)

Michael Shaara, on the other hand, is concerned more with what happened and what the people involved possibly thought than in discussing "if onlys."

Joshua Chamberlain: Apparently, the Gettysburg National Military Park attendants are tired of people asking only about Chamberlain (because of the book and its movie, Gettysburg). Other things did happen that day! In comparison, I feel a surge of adopted state pride: Go, Maine! (Maybe history is all a ballgame, after all.)

What impresses me about Chamberlain isn't so much the swinging fence bayonet charge (another part of the war that disgruntled historians like to debate), which is admittedly impressive, but what he did before it (the movie helped here with visualization). Hours into the day, to stretch the line, he sent one set of men from the front to the back followed by another set of men rather than sending men at the furthest end out further, so the line would stretch but never be broken.

Regarding the bayonet charge, the argument is that Chamberlain didn't suggest it first, nobody could hear Chamberlain's instructions over the noise, and many other people helped it happen. True! But Chamberlain is like Paul Revere to me--first he is mythologized, then he is demonized, then everybody realizes that the mythology was closer to the truth all along.  


  1. From the Confederate's perspective, the Battle of Gettysburg was an unmitigated disaster, starting from engaging it in the first place. Lee never understood the key overall strategy--delaying. The confederacy didn't have to win, just not lose before the Union got tired of fighting. Grant and Johnston seem to be the only top generals who understood this.

    Lee all but made that impossible by crossing into Pennsylvania--it was a move so spectacularly stupid (followed up by a long series of stupid), a tiny part of me wonders if Lee was trying to get whooped. More realistically, Lee believed his own myth. (Which persists to this day--Lee is overrated and Grant underrated. Johnston, to a lesser extent than Grant, is also underrated, in part due to Lee's penchant for taking credit for all successes and denying culpability for all failures. Ironically, Grant tended to suffer from the latter problem as well.)

  2. BTW, another similarity between Lee and Grant is that both assumed their subordinates understood the larger picture more than they did. I wonder if this is partly because both were junior officers who did understand the big picture. Unfortunately, the Union had fare more incompetent generals than the Confederacy (this came into play in a bad way during the Wilderness campaign, where Grant was too hands off.)

    What made Grant one of the greatest generals in all of history is that he understood logistics in a way that few generals have. (Failed logistics is ultimately why many wars are lost. In short, if you don't get your supply lines right, you lose.)

  3. From the summaries of Gettysburg I've read so far, I gather that Lee was suffering from ONE BIG THING syndrome--the idea that ONE BIG WIN would end the war. Lincoln suffered from this too to an extent although it is more understandable with Lincoln since he was a politician (and ultimately a great one). The *story* becomes more real than the reality: a glorious win will be followed by a glorious surrender. This is understandable with Confederate and Union politicians who desperately wanted the war to end--less understandable with seasoned war leaders, who really should have known better. (The astonishing thing to me about WWII is that the ONE BIG THING, the bomb, was not the only factor that led to the surrender of Japan; it was one of many!)

  4. Had Davis stuck with Johnston, the fall of Atlanta might have been delayed long enough to win McClellan the presidency. But Davis didn't understand Johnston's strategy of staggered withdrawal (such as from Kennesaw Mountain after handing Sherman a rare defeat), and gave his army to John Bell Hood. Hood proceeded to do exactly what Sherman wanted him to do: attack relentlessly. In the course of capturing Atlanta, Sherman systematically destroyed Hood's army.

    The ONE BIG THING syndrome also doomed the Japanese navy from the very start of WWII. It was an explicit strategy known as Kantai Kessen, born out of Japan's decisive victory in the Russo-Japanese War. "It called on the use of a strong battleship force, which would at a single stroke destroy an invading fleet as it approached Japan." And as with Hood at Atlanta, the result instead was almost the complete destruction of Japan's surface fleet at the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

    The irony is how well history has preserved the reputations of the two men perhaps most responsible for losing their respective wars: Lee and Yamamoto.

  5. a calvinist preacher8/10/2015

    War is politics, as Baron von Clauswitz aptly pointed out. In that, it is a contest of political will far more than it is a contest of armies and bullets. The Confederacy as a whole, including Gen. Johnston, grossly underestimated the North's political will (as did McClellan - I don't think delaying the fall of Atlanta would have ushered him into the White House, though it likely would have made the margin closer) even as they mistook southern chivalric notions of martial ardor for the political will to resist.

    Where Yamamoto and Lee went wrong - and Kennedy/Johnson in Vietnam, and Bush in Iraq/Afghanistan - is in thinking they can win by destroying the enemy's ability to fight. But if one retains the will to fight, there will always be means at hand to do so. While Grant understood logistics, he also understood the political imperative, so he set to work destroying Lee's army while he also set Sherman to work destroying the South's will to continue resistance.

  6. Charles Lindbergh grossly underestimated the British will to fight when he praised German military might before WWII and argued that the British should consider surrender before resistance. The British rolled their eyes at Lindbergh and resisted although even the British leaders overestimated the psychological impact of London being bombed. Malcolm Gladwell writes about the Londoners' reaction in David & Goliath--namely, that most Londoners reacted by saying, "Well, yes, but it didn't happen to me. It happened to the people a block over." Human beings have an amazing ability to adapt to apocalyptic conditions!