Even a drive-by visit to Gettysburg can inspire a long fascination with the Civil War. But for many people, the love affair is born out of romanticism, not serious historical inquiry; emotion, not rigorous research; and a need to feel history, not a search for complexities. This desire for a mystical connection with the past is understandable—maybe even desirable—but it can be a perilous pursuit into counterfactual history, a speculative journey into how a historic moment could have turned out differently.
The what-ifs of Gettysburg are numerous, and they still resonate with the public as powerfully in the 21st century as they did in the 19th or 20th centuries. No one has better captured the fascination of imagining what could have been for the Confederacy than William Faulkner, who wrote in Intruder in the Dust: “For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out….This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose than all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago.”
What if Pickett and Pettigrew had succeeded in their desperate charge? What if Stonewall Jackson had been alive and present with the Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg? What if Richard Ewell had attacked Cemetery Hill on July 1? What if James Longstreet had delivered a flanking maneuver around Big Round Top on July 2? These counterfactual questions—the most debated about Gettysburg—are part of a Lost Cause obsession that assumes Gettysburg was the preeminent battle of the war and that Robert E. Lee was not responsible for the tactical defeat of his army. Gary W. Gallagher, John L. Nau III Professor in the History of the American Civil War at the University of Virginia, has devoted his scholarly career to the study of Confederate history. In the following discussion Gallagher offers a personal tour of his relationship with the war’s most famous battle, including how he came to terms with many of the myths of Gettysburg, how his own research and writing addresses the battle’s most controversial moments, and whether we need another book on the three days of fighting in Pennsylvania.
Peter S. Carmichael: What piqued your interest in the Battle of Gettysburg while you were growing up in Colorado?
Gary W. Gallagher: Well, all the usual things—that it was the biggest battle, that it was the great turning point in the war and so forth, which I already had a sense of from reading the American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War. The picture map of the second day at Gettysburg was captivating. That was the first thing I read about Gettysburg; the first long account was in that American Heritage book.
How long was it before you made your first trip to Gettysburg?
The first trip to Gettysburg was when I was 14 years old, in the summer of 1965. It was right at the end of the Centennial.
But you had been reading about it since you were 8 or 9?
I had been reading by then for about five years. Yes, I was about 9 years old.
Take us back to that first trip and what it meant to you.
The first trip was unbelievable because, finally, there were all the places that I had read about. I had pictures taken at the famous spot in Devil’s Den where the Alexander Gardner photograph shows the dead sharpshooter—the famous staged sharpshooter scene— and at the Virginia Monument, the Peach Orchard and on Little Round Top. It was quite amazing to see all of these places that I had been reading about. I was struck by how much Gettysburg actually looked like what I thought it would. You could see Little Round Top. You could see Big Round Top. I was a little bit disappointed in Seminary Ridge and Cemetery Ridge. Coming from Colorado, when I read “ridge” and thought “ridge,” I thought of something a little higher [laughter]. I wasn’t impressed with the height.
Your scholarship has focused almost exclusively on the Confederate side of the campaign. When you were at Gettysburg, were you drawn to the Confederate aspects of the battle?
I was, because of what I had read. By that time, I had read Douglas Southall Freeman’s Lee’s Lieutenants and R.E. Lee, Clifford Dowdy’s Death of a Nation and Bruce Catton’s Army of the Potomac trilogy. I loved going to the place on the battlefield where Catton described the Iron Brigade coming onto the field. That passage from Glory Road has always struck me as beautifully done, and it was something to stand there by [John F.] Reynolds’ marker, where he was wounded, and think about how Catton had imagined the Iron Brigade advancing onto the field. But most of the things I had read to that point were about the Confederacy. I had bought a lot of the Confederate memoirs already. I had Longstreet’s memoirs and a number of the cavalry ones, books related to Jeb Stuart, plus Freeman, so most of what I had read—not everything, but most—was from a Confederate perspective. A lot of it was very much Lost Cause-ish in its approach—this was the great lost moment, Longstreet hadn’t been doing his job, that kind of stuff.
When in your career as a historian did you start to engage and question these assumptions about the war and the Confederacy that guided your interest from an early age?
As soon as I got serious about it and started to do my own research it became very clear that things relating to Gettysburg weren’t quite as I had thought they were when I was growing up. It was clear to me, for example, that Lee was the one in charge at Gettysburg. It wasn’t subordinates who were letting him down so much. They weren’t doing a very good job, but Lee was the guy who was in control. Jeb Stuart was someone I read a lot about as a little boy, and I tended to always give him the benefit of the doubt. I quit doing that once I looked at things seriously. But it also began to occur to me that the Union side of Gettysburg, in many ways, is at least as interesting, maybe more interesting, than the Confederate side. You have somebody in Meade who is thrown into things almost cold and an army that has never really been given a chance to win. The more I read about it in the sources, as opposed to the secondary materials, it was clear to me that postwar Confederates were trying to get their Gettysburg story straight for other reasons.
What arguments or published works challenge the standard Lost Cause notions about the battle?
Herman Hattaway and Archer Jones’ How the North Won came out in the early 1980s, and I still think it is the best military history of the Civil War. It certainly challenged Gettysburg’s primacy and argued for more attention to the Western theater. There was literature coming out in the late 1970s and 80s that was arguing against the idea that the Eastern theater was overwhelmingly dominant. Richard McMurray contributed to that, Hattaway and Jones contributed to that, and Thomas Connelly’s books contributed to that—Connelly’s attacks on Lee and his work on the Army of Tennessee and so forth. All of them were challenging the ideas that the East was more important and that Gettysburg was the great dividing point. What I was reading in the sources told me the East was more important. So I thought the new literature was wrong about that, but at the same time it convinced me that Gettysburg really wasn’t the great dividing point. I was reacting to the new literature but also using my own work in primary materials. It was the question about Gettysburg as a dividing point that was really most important to me.
You edited a number of volumes on Gettysburg. Can you tell us how that body of work addresses the historical debates about the battle?
Yes, I have edited four volumes of essays on Gettysburg. Three are with Kent State University Press: one on leadership on the first day, one on leadership on the second day, and then a third volume that included the essays in those first two but also contained new essays on the third day. I also edited a volume with the University of North Carolina Press just on the third day. My own essays in the first two volumes dealt with leadership. I looked at Lee at Gettysburg in one and then at [Richard S.] Ewell and [A.P.] Hill in another. I wanted to see if Ewell and Hill were really culpable for as much as they were often made culpable for, and I decided that they weren’t. In the essay on Lee I examined whether he should have remained aggressive and so forth. In essence I said that he probably shouldn’t have remained so aggressive, but I thought he had reasons for doing so—and maybe reasons he understood better than we do in terms of the morale of his army. The third essay I wrote is the one I was actually most interested in. That looked at the contemporary Confederate reaction to Gettysburg. What I found there is radically different from what we think. Many Confederates were disappointed, some were quite disappointed, but the large majority of the sources I looked at did not view Gettysburg as a disaster. They looked at Vicksburg as a disaster, but not Gettysburg. I don’t think Gettysburg had any effect on Lee’s long-term reputation as a Confederate hero.
Let’s go back to the first essay about Lee and leadership on July 1. Tell us how this configures to the traditional, or standard, interpretation of the fighting on the first day.
The standard interpretation says it was a battle fought by Lee’s subordinates and that they weren’t doing a very good job. It was clear to me that Lee reached the field by early afternoon and was really the one in charge. If you’re not happy with what happens after that, it’s Lee you should look at. He is right there with A.P. Hill. Why didn’t Hill use Richard Anderson? Why didn’t Hill act more aggressively late in the day? The answer is because Lee didn’t make him do it. Lee was with him, and if he had really wanted him to do it, he could have told him to do it. But instead he just told Ewell to take the high ground south of Gettysburg—or do it if practicable. And so I also hold Lee responsible there, with Ewell. Lee said after the war that he worried about Ewell’s tendency to vacillate. Well, if he really believed that at the time, then he shouldn’t have treated him the way he treated Stonewall Jackson, which is tell him what to do and assume that he’s going to do it. I came away from working on that with the sense that Lee is in charge by early afternoon. Whatever happens after that, we should talk more about Lee and less about A.P. Hill, who clearly didn’t have a good battle, and Richard Ewell, who I think had a mixed battle. But Lee is in charge. He is on the scene, he is making the key decisions, not these other guys.
Does your interpretation of Lee at Gettysburg put you in the Alan Nolan camp?
No, I think Alan misreads Lee. Many of Lee’s critics talk about the casualties he piled up, which he did. He’s the bloodiest general in American history in terms of the percentage of his men who got shot, there’s no question about that. But I think Lee understood very well what it would take for the Confederacy to win: The Northern people had to decide the war wasn’t worth it. I think Lee understood the Confederacy could not win outright. I don’t think he ever believed they could win outright—but he knew they didn’t have to. He paid attention to Northern morale, he read Northern newspapers, he followed Northern politics and he understood the impact of battles like Chancellorsville and the Seven Days. He saw how the Seven Days turned his own reputation around and how it changed the equation in the North. Now, he did still talk about things like achieving a decisive victory and destroying the enemy. But I think he believed an offensive strategy was elemental to Confederate success, and I think Gettysburg was part of that overall plan to be aggressive and win the kinds of victories that would depress Northern morale. Now does that mean that he didn’t make a mistake at Gettysburg? Of course it doesn’t. I think he was too aggressive at Gettysburg. I don’t think he needed to attack. As Porter Alexander said after the war, following the great victory on the first day the Confederacy should have just hunkered down on Seminary Ridge. The Army of the Potomac would have had to attack them, and as Alexander pointed out, the Federals had never carried a position like that against Lee’s army. I think that would have been the best play—but Lee thought he had momentum.
You mentioned the importance of reading primary sources in shaping your thinking or changing some of your ideas about Gettysburg. You also mentioned Edward Porter Alexander, a man who played a pivotal role. You edited Alexander’s personal memoirs. Can we step back a bit and talk about Alexander, his memoirs and the process of editing this manuscript?
We’re talking about Fighting for the Confederacy, which was Alexander’s first memoir. He later revised it into Military Memoirs of a Confederate, which is a classic of Confederate literature published in 1907 and in print ever since. That’s a great book. It’s really a history of the Army of Northern Virginia, a kind of scholarly history almost. But he wrote a true memoir, and I had a hint from my friend Bob Krick, former chief historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, that some other kind of Alexander manuscript existed. I went down to the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and started going through the mass of Alexander papers there. After about a week, I found out there was another manuscript. I won’t go through the whole process, but I found that there had been an earlier manuscript he had written in the late 1890s. That was what I edited. I didn’t change it, but I published it with scholarly annotations and so forth as Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander. It confirmed what most people already thought—that among veterans who fought in the conflict Porter Alexander is the most astute Confederate analyst of military operations. He’s very analytical, very even-handed, and has an engineer’s direct bluntness in talking about Lee and Jackson and everybody else. He’s hard on Lee at Gettysburg, very hard. Alexander explains how in the midst of fighting at Gettysburg, he only knew his one little part on the southern end of the field. When Alexander went back after the war and saw the entire tactical landscape, he was mystified as to why Lee fought the battle the way he did. He thought Lee should have concentrated on the bend in the Union line at Cemetery Hill, where he could have gotten converging fire from Confederate batteries. This is just one part of Fighting for the Confederacy, which I believe is the best critique of Lee’s behavior at Gettysburg.
Did E.P. Alexander come to Longstreet’s defense?
He sort of came to Longstreet’s defense, but not really. Alexander offended a lot of former Confederates, even in Military Memoirs, because he was critical of Jackson and Lee. If they had been able to read Fighting for the Confederacy, they would have really been upset with him [laughter]. Alexander served with Longstreet and admired Longstreet, but I wouldn’t say that he really mounts a defense of Longstreet. He mounts more of a critique of Lee than a defense of Longstreet. And he still admires Lee enormously, but that’s what is so wonderful about his account. Here’s a guy who clearly admires Lee, admires Jackson, was right with them through key operations, but he’s not just a blind admirer of theirs. That’s why he’s so unusual.
You mentioned that Alexander’s account offered a very fresh look at Gettysburg. That’s not something we can say about much of the secondary literature that comes out on the battle.
That’s very understated [laughter].
You delivered a paper at the Society of Civil War Historians that asked the question: Do we need another book on Gettysburg? Do we?
Well, I think there are some books on Gettysburg we really don’t need. If you just love Gettysburg and want to know everything about it, then this flood of books that comes out looking at tinier and tinier parts of the battle in greater and greater detail are of interest. But for most people, those who want to understand the Civil War, or even the war in the East or the Gettysburg campaign, do they need 450 pages on two hours in the Railroad Cut? I don’t think so. I just don’t see that this literature takes us any place. Do we need multiple books about what Lee’s real plan at Gettysburg was? Or, more recently, I think there have been two, maybe three, new books on Jeb Stuart during the Gettysburg campaign. I just can’t believe that there is anything new to say about Jeb Stuart in the Gettysburg campaign. I really believe there is not. All the arguments have been laid out, pro and con. All the key documents have been available for a very long time. So you either pick your John Mosby school that says Stuart was pretty much doing his job, acting within his orders, and even Alan Nolan sort of fits into that, or you go to the other side where it’s Jeb Stuart’s fault. I think Jeb Stuart didn’t do a good job. But the notion that there would be a lot that’s new, enough to support new books—and not just one new book but maybe two or three—I just say, stop the madness [laughter].
What books in the last 10 years do you think have made some useful contributions to our understanding of the battle?
I think that we’ve needed a new overview of the campaign. [Edwin B.] Coddington did the last really good one, The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, and that was in 1968. I think enough new scholarship has unfolded since then that it was worth having a new synthesis. Two good books of that type came out within the last few years, two one-volume treatments of the war. I think Stephen Sears’ Gettysburg does a good job on everything, and Noah Andre Trudeau’s Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage is also very well done. But now I don’t think we need any more one-volume treatments of the battle. I just don’t see any point in that. I am encouraged to see new books on Gettysburg that broaden our view of the battlefield to include the civilian experience. More work can be done on this front. Unfortunately, the books are going to keep coming out on Gettysburg, more and more books on smaller and smaller parts of it. I’m not confused about that; I know it’s going to happen. And I don’t think that’s evil. I think it’s fine if people want to read those books. But in terms of the good that such books do for most people in terms of understanding the battle and its importance, I don’t think they’ll get us anywhere.
One new area of scholarship on Gettysburg deals with historical memory and why this battle has such a compelling hold on the imagination of Americans. Could you speak to this scholarly trend and how your own research addresses this line of inquiry?
I have just finished a book on the Civil War in recent films and art, and Gettysburg totally dominates recent art—the kind that people interested in the Civil War buy, the kind that is advertised in Civil War Times, Blue & Gray and North & South. The key Civil War artists like Don Troiani, Mort Künstler and Dale Gallon paint Gettysburg, in part, because that’s what consumers buy. They don’t dictate what people buy. I think they paint the things that people want, and I think the combination of Michael Shaara’s novel The Killer Angels, Ken Burns’ television documentary The Civil War and then Ron Maxwell’s translation of The Killer Angels to film in Gettysburg made Gettysburg jump up even higher in the public’s imagination than it had been. It’s always been the most famous battle of the Civil War in American memory, but those things and the bringing to the forefront of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, for example, changed the perception even more. Joshua Chamberlain is the most painted Union general in recent Civil War art. That makes no sense whatsoever on the historical merits. He was a nonexistent figure in late 19th-century art. He was literally never painted. And now he’s the most painted. That shows what cultural influences like film and television can do in terms of raising people up or pushing them down. I mean, does it make sense that Chamberlain is painted more often than U.S. Grant on the Northern side? Of course it doesn’t. But that is the case, and it shows the power of Gettysburg and the conjunction of television, film and a successful novel with a battle that’s already famous. All of those things coming together have shaped perceptions to a huge degree. This also shows how irrelevant most academic scholarship is. You have all this scholarship that’s been coming out since the 1970s, ’80s and into the early ’90s saying that Gettysburg isn’t that important, but of course that has no impact on the real world. The real world thinks Gettysburg is even more important because Ken Burns said so. Burns devotes several times as much airtime to Gettysburg as he does to Vicksburg, for example, in his documentary, and there’s no equivalent to the film Gettysburg. There’s no movie called “Vicksburg.” That’s how people really get their impressions of what’s important. They don’t get it from historians. They get it from television or films or novels, and that certainly has been the case with Gettysburg. It looms even larger, I think. It’s always loomed largest among the battles, at least for many decades, but recently it’s even larger because of these kinds of things.
We always say that people need to know their past in order to understand the world in which they live, but this obsession with Gettysburg that you describe is driven by romanticism. Are people going to Gettysburg to get a deeper understanding of their past, or are they going to Gettysburg for escapism?
I’ve never interviewed tourists who go to Gettysburg. My impression has always been—and I’ve been to Gettysburg I don’t even know how many times, scores of times over the years, with all kinds of groups of students, adults, by myself, with a handful of friends, in the winter, in the summer, in the fall, in the spring. I’ve been there many, many times. It has been my impression watching people walk around that there’s usually one person in the group who is interested and three people who are bored to tears, but that may not be accurate. I may be exaggerating there. I think people go to see the places they have read about, to feel the historic vibrations of events they’ve read about. Standing on historic ground had an enormous impact on me. I don’t think I learned anything new about Gettysburg the first time I went except that I saw what it actually looked like. Now when I go—when I know more and have done more preparation—I always see something fresh. I think I always understand the tactical side of the battle better after a trip now. I think it is wonderful that they’ve recently been cutting trees and trying to restore the landscape. The battle makes much better sense in some ways now that you can actually see what the participants saw. So I certainly learn when I go back to the battlefield. Many other people probably go to do that as well, but I suspect that most people go to Gettysburg because it’s famous, because they’ve read something about it. They’ll go to the High Water Mark, they’ll go to Little Round Top, maybe to the Virginia Monument, but I don’t think they go to systematically learn. I think they go, they touch a few bases, and they just feel a sense of history there. I may be wrong, but that’s what my guess would be. And what a place to go to feel that! If you can go to Gettysburg and not feel anything like that, then maybe you should move to New Zealand [laughter].
For so many of us Gettysburg is an entry point into the study of Civil War history, but it appears from your discussion of popular culture and historic tourism that Americans would rather celebrate the heroism and romanticism of the past, and that rarely leads to the study of the deeper issues behind the war.
I would agree that most visitors or students of Gettysburg rarely look beyond the compelling, dramatic images of the battle.
It would seem that there is still a jarring gap between popular history and academic history. What can professional historians and enthusiasts do to come together and use Gettysburg and other historic sites as a way to create a more challenging intellectual environment?
I don’t want to inflict too much academic history on human beings because I’m not that cruel [laughter]. But I think it is important to use these places where lots of people go as teaching sites. I’ve done a lot of work in the joint program with the Organization of American Historians and the National Park Service, where they’re trying to broaden the interpretation at sites. I’ve done this at Antietam, at the Seven Days sites and at Kennesaw Mountain. It’s been successful to varying degrees in different places. I think it’s very important for people who go to popular historical places to understand what happened there—and I’m not confused about what these sites mainly are: They are battlefields. Most people who go to them are interested in the battles, and that’s fine. I’m completely in favor of their learning as much as they can about what actually happened on the ground. But I think if they leave knowing only what happened on the ground—knowing only where the 6th Wisconsin was on July 1 or where the 15th Alabama was on July 2—they leave Gettysburg without knowing how the battle fits into the broader war, what kind of impact it had behind the lines, how it influenced political issues in the North and South, its impact on morale and so forth. If people don’t understand that, then I don’t think it has really been a successful visit. But that’s hard to do, and I don’t think you can mix those messages on the battlefield. I don’t think it makes sense to be walking along McPherson’s Ridge and then stop and talk about politics in Virginia. That’s not the best way to do it. I think the museums at these sites need to do it. The newly designed museum at Gettysburg is going to make a very good effort in that regard, and I think if people go through that museum in the course of their visit to Gettysburg they will come out with a better understanding of the war. You can’t make people read things, and you can’t make people learn what they don’t want to learn. But at least it will be there in a way that it isn’t there now. It literally isn’t there now for people who visit Gettysburg.
Let’s return to the battlefield. You’ve already mentioned that the historic landscape has changed significantly since your first visit. Can you be more descriptive about those changes and how they have shaped your perceptions of the battlefield?
The first time I went there it was just woods everywhere. I mean, not everywhere, but there were so many more trees than there are now. Devil’s Den was completely wooded. You had no sense whatsoever of what that terrain looked like. The triangular field, as Harry Pfanz dubs it— that key ground that the Texans and later the Georgians came across in attacking up into Devil’s Den—was just solid woods, for example. You couldn’t get any sense of the ebb and flow of the battle there, no sense. And it was hard to make sense of the accounts. The accounts would talk about going across this field, and you would stand there looking at solid woods. I think it has made an enormous difference, taking the trees off Oak Hill and thinning the trees out along the Trostle farm, so you can get the views that Dan Sickles got as he looked toward the Peach Orchard. You couldn’t see that before, so it didn’t make sense that Sickles would go out to the Peach Orchard. But if you stand on Cemetery Ridge now and see that the Peach Orchard is higher than the ground that you’re on, and you’re aware of what happened to Sickles at Chancellorsville when he gave up Hazel Grove, well then it makes sense. He still should have told Meade what he was doing, or asked permission, but it does make sense. I think it’s an enormously valuable thing that Gettysburg Superintendent John Latschar has done in restoring the historic wartime landscapes. I think he should get a Hero of the Republic medal [laughter] for what he has done there in the face of a good deal of opposition. People don’t like the Park Service to cut trees down on the battlefield. They don’t understand the difference between Gettysburg and Yosemite. I think he’s done great work, and it’s been a revelation in some places for me.
What would you suggest first-time visitors to Gettysburg do in preparation for the experience?
There are a couple of things that I would recommend. I think, although it’s now almost 20 years old this year, I would still have them read Jim McPherson’s section on Gettysburg from Battle Cry of Freedom, to put it in a broader context, but I would also have them read Bruce Catton before going to the battlefield. The writing is so compelling, and he deals with certain parts of the battlefield brilliantly. I still don’t think there’s a satisfying short book on Gettysburg. There’s a pretty good, in fact, a quite good short treatment by Steve Woodworth called Beneath a Northern Sky. It’s about 200 pages long. I think a book that would be good to write would be a short treatment of Gettysburg that does what George Rable’s book Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! does. That is, discuss the battle but treat it in a very broad way, use broad strokes, not a lot of tactical detail, but rather, here is generally what happened and why it’s important.
Originally published in the July 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.