On P. 16 of the May issue is a map of the United States depicting events that ostensibly occurred on the day of Stonewall Jackson’s death—May 10, 1863. One of those events is purportedly the conveyance of an order from the War Department to Ambrose Burnside instructing him to arrest Democratic gubernatorial candidate Clement Vallandigham for violating a “general military order.”
As Burnside’s biographer, I wish I could say that he arrested Vallandigham on orders from Washington. It appears instead that he did so on his own initiative, without legal authority but with the expectation that he would be supported by the department and the administration. In any case, that unconstitutional arrest took place before dawn on May 5. By May 10,Vallandigham had been convicted of a nonexistent crime by a military tribunal that lacked jurisdiction over the civilian population of Ohio. Thus ended what I consider Burnside’s most shameful performance of the war, Fredericksburg and the Crater notwithstanding.
South Conway, N.H.
What if Lee had won?
The letter from Beth Mulgrew in the March 2008 issue suggests a counter – factual scenario in which the Army of the Potomac is defeated at Gettysburg, but she stumbles when she mixes the terms “defeat” and “destruction.”
Ms. Mulgrew overreaches by equating the defeat of the Union army at Gettysburg with the destruction of that army. Many have commented on how rare it was for a major army in the open field to be rendered ineffective. At Gettysburg the Army of Northern Virginia, in hostile territory at the end of a tenuous supply line, managed an organized withdrawal after one-third of its forces had become casualties. I suppose one can imagine a scenario where Lee, with a numerically inferior force, surrounded and compelled the surrender of Meade’s army, but I would argue it is infinitely more likely that a battered but still formidable Army of the Potomac would have fallen back on Pipe Creek or perhaps into the Washington defenses.
I suppose that the Army of Northern Virginia, short of ammunition and burdened with the task of transporting thousands of its wounded as well as Yankee prisoners back to Virginia through hostile territory, might have moved toward Baltimore or Philadelphia hoping to temporarily occupy one of those cities. That might have broken Northern morale and compelled the Union to sue for peace.
But unless we can imagine some scenario where Lee’s army mauled the Army of the Potomac while suffering only trifling casualties, it is far more likely that the victorious Lee would have enjoyed the luxury of a few more days on the battlefield reorganizing and caring for his wounded before turning south to resupply and refit his army.
It was only in retrospect that the Lost Cause advocates enshrined Gettysburg as the turning point in the war. During the war, most in the South viewed the battle as an unfortunate but not decisive defeat, or even spun it as a victory because Lee’s army had gathered supplies, mauled the Army of the Potomac on its own ground and returned to Virginia largely intact. Only later, with ample hindsight and the efforts of Lost Cause devotees, was Gettysburg regarded as the Confederate High Water Mark and the war’s turning point.
Mulgrew, a Pennsylvanian, seems to take great pride in the battlefield, as well she should. It is a profoundly moving place, and recent developments—demolition of the observation tower, removal of nonhistoric woods, restoration of historic fence lines—and projects still in progress like the new visitor center and the planned restorations of Cemetery Ridge and the Peach Orchard—are making it better all the time.
Western battles were the key
Beth Mulgrew’s comments (Letters, March 2008) regarding the significance of the Battle of Gettysburg are desperately short on historical perspective. Three phenomena (two political and one military) sealed the fate of the Confederacy in 1862.
One was the surprisingly successful outcome of Lincoln’s Republican Party at the 1862 midterm elections, which practically eliminated any opportunity for a “negotiated” settlement and guaranteed a continuation of Lincoln’s more conservative vision of the war. The second was the Confederate defeat at Antietam, which resulted in the third, Lincoln’s public release of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Both Britain and France sympathized more with the aristocratic Confederacy, and certainly both those countries held out hope of an expanded influence in the South in the event of a Confederate victory. Slavery, however, had been illegal in both Britain and France for some time. As long as the Civil War was viewed in Europe as a simple rebellion, France and Britain could safely hold pro-Southern sympathies.
Neither nation, however, would dare have made a bigger contribution to the Confederate war effort once the war was publicly defined in terms of slavery. Neither country would have dared support an expanded effort to prop up a proslavery movement.
Lee marched North because he had no choice. Time, men and materiel were running short. To insinuate that the Western battles up to July 1863 were meaningless is ridiculous. Any outcome at Gettysburg that would have allowed Lee some option other than retreating to Virginia would have resulted in the same overall impact as World War II’s Battle of the Bulge. It would have simply delayed the inevitable.
The war was won in the West. It is true that the more popularized battles in the much more heavily populated East were almost always fought to a draw with large losses of life, but in the end those engagements resulted in very little redrawing of the original battle lines.
I have been to Gettysburg several times and always enjoy its historical and military significance, but it is best to keep history in the proper perspective.
Don’t single out Longstreet
I would like to respond to those who want to blame Lt. Gen. James Longstreet for the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg. I beg to differ on that point. The blame should be shared.
First, the commanding general was Robert E. Lee, not James Longstreet. Longstreet was Lee’s first officer, and he advised against fighting at Gettysburg to begin with. Second, it was Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell who was ordered by Lee to take Culp’s Hill “if practicable,” but Ewell never did. How many brave soldiers later died trying to secure that hill to no avail? Had the Rebels taken it, they would have been in position to rain artillery fire down on the Baltimore Pike and tie down the Union Maj. Gen. Henry Slocum’s XII Corps.
Also, Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart was late arriving at Gettysburg, and his cavalry was the eyes and ears of the Army of Northern Virginia. He failed to arrive on time thanks in part to the Federal cavalry.
Major General George Pickett’s infamous charge, meanwhile, was a debacle because Lee never should have ordered the charge to begin across a mile of open field in broad daylight. If the charge was made at all it should have been done at night, to give the army more time to rest and recuperate. He could have had more troops in support to make the charge and not fire on the Federals until they were in range. They could have pushed in the pickets, and when the pickets fired, that could have been the signal for the artillery to open fire on the Federals. Longstreet’s delay on the second and third days did have an effect, but not as much as the other generals’ delays. The well-entrenched Federals were fighting the defensive battle this time.
The Rebel generals always fought among themselves and rarely got along. People need to go back and read their history books for the facts and blame more than one general for the defeat at Gettysburg, rather than just one.
Remember the Corydon raid
There is an error in the article “Upper Midwest Civil War Museum Coming in June” in the March 2008 issue, which proclaimed that no battles were fought in Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota during the war. I travel throughout Indiana on a daily basis, and you should know that on July 9, 1863, a small engagement took place in Corydon, Ind., as part of the famed “Morgan’s Raid” of Confederate Brig. Gen. John Hunt Morgan. After fighting in Kentucky, Morgan crossed the Ohio River with his regiment in early July and defeated 400 Indiana Home Guards while heading to Ohio.
I like having a museum that is dedicated to more than just big battles and well-known figures. The personal side of the struggle that this museum will show is what really brings the Civil War to life and allows us to feel a more emotional attachment to the individuals who were involved. I look forward to making the trip to Kenosha, Wis., to check out this new museum.
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Originally published in the July 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.