Monday, July 01, 2013

Gettysburg Beginning

150 years ago today, the battle of Gettysburg began. It started almost by accident - Lee had brought his army north, looking to case trouble, feed his troops, maybe threaten Washington, get the union nervous enough to pull troops away from somewhere else, Vicksburg maybe (fat chance of that happening, though), and eventually get in a fight and try to win, in the north, creating all the more confusion and panic - he had to hope. Marching north strung out his army, strung out the Union army, so both sides were looking for one another, trying to force the other to attack it, really. And Gettysburg was a road hub, and thus a convenient point for Lee's army to assemble. S they started to converge, but the Federals were there - a division of infantry found a division of cavalry blocking the roads to town, and got into a shooting match with them. Lee did not want a full on fight - but the division commander at the front started one anyway. With the cavalry - then infantry started to arrive, and Henry Heth (the division commander) continued to attack. The Union soldiers drove him back; most of the I Corps of the Army of the Potomac came up, opposed by half of A.P. Hill's corps - there was a hard fight in the morning, then it died down - but then Richard Ewell's confederate corps arrived, and attacked on the right of the union lines. By the time the day ended, the South had won a major victory - 2/3 of Lee's army made it up (Hill and Ewell), against about a third of the Union army (the I and XI corps), and the sheer weight of numbers won the day. Casualties were appalling - Hill's corps particularly was shot to pieces, losing far more men killed and wounded than the Yankees, though prisoners evened the total losses out. The Union retreated south of Gettysburg and dug in on a line of hills and waited for the rest of the army. The two sides would go at it for two more days before they were done....

It is the most famous battle of the war, far and away - the biggest battle, the most decisive Union victory, and on northern soil, which gave it additional importance and fame. And of course, it would be the site of Lincoln's greatest speech, in the fall of 1863. It was a crucial battle - and it provided three days of high drama - Warren and Chamberlain on Little Round Top, Pickett's Charge, etc. - stories and images to hang legends on. Now, it might not have been the most important battle of July 1863 - Vicksburg had a good deal more strategic importance - but happening so close to Washington, on northern soil, and, you can say, given the level of risk had Lee won...

So let us remember it today, remember the carnage of the battle, remember the heroism of the men who fought. We can note too that this was probably the last time the Confederates could have won the war - if they had smashed the Army of the Potomac, if they could have taken or seriously threatened Washington, they would have forced a peace. After this, all they could hope for is to run out the clock - still possible, but a hard way to win. I imagine Lee had that in mind, along with everything else - the hope that one big victory in the north could throw everything off, enough to give the south a chance. That didn't happen - it was a very long shot, probably longer than he thought - but it could have been, and wasn't because the union army won.

I will be back to this subject in the next couple days. I know there is a lot more to the Civil War than battles, but I can't help finding the military history endlessly fascinating. Have since I was a boy. So - in the next day or so, I shall belabor you, my readers, with more military details and more opinions on the generals and such... But for now - hold the whole thing in your mind.

And I'll note again Bob Bateman's series at Charles Pierce's blog - a fine place for a variety of stories, from a soldier's perspective.

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