Two Generals at Gettysburg
It is a shame that General Robert E. Lee never wrote his memoirs (P. 54). Because of that yawning gap in Civil War historiography, we’ll never have a comprehensive account of his reflections on choosing state over country or get a full recounting of how he felt when he learned Stonewall had been mortally wounded. We’ll never know exactly what his intentions were as he crossed the Mason-Dixon Line in 1863 and sent the Army of Northern Virginia down Pennsylvania’s dusty roads (P. 34).
Many historians actually consider Antietam, not Gettysburg, the turning point of the war in the Eastern Theater—perhaps of the entire war. Would Lee have agreed? What would he have considered the greatest motivating factor for his rugged Confederate soldiers (P. 60)?
Many years after Lee’s war ended, another famous general traveled to Gettysburg for military purposes. In 1918 Captain Dwight D. Eisenhower took command of Camp Colt, the first U.S. Army tank training camp, overseeing operations and watching diminutive Renault tanks churning over the grounds remembered for Pickett’s Charge. That experience cemented Ike’s love for Gettysburg and its Civil War history, and in 1950 he bought a farm on the west side of the battlefield, on the backside of Seminary Ridge. The National Park Service has administered the 189-acre farm since 1980.
Unlike with Lee, we do have Eisenhower’s memoirs, or at least a hefty biography of him, Eisenhower: Soldier and President, by Stephen Ambrose. Though Ambrose is best known for his work on World War II books like Band of Brothers, he cut his historian’s teeth on a biography of Union commander Henry Halleck. Ambrose claimed that his close association with Ike was the reason he shifted from Civil War history, and that he had made numerous sojourns to Gettysburg to interview Ike at his farm. But as an April 26, 2010, article in The New Yorker by Richard Rayner made clear, Ambrose greatly exaggerated the extent of his interactions with the former president.
What’s worse, no memoirs at all or a biography based on dubious research? It’s safe to say the latter is a far greater disappointment.
Originally published in the August 2010 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.