The battle of lies that trailed the battle of blood.
No other battle in history has fallen victim to as many myths and outright lies as Gettysburg – not Thermopylae or Waterloo, not even Balaclava, Verdun or the Tet Offensive. Immediately after the battle ended, generals began to lie about what they did, what others did, and what was left undone. After the war, the squabbling between partisans intensified. The Union’s Major General Dan Sickles outlived his more ethical peers and lied all the way to the grave. In the South, the Lost Cause contingent united to absolve General Robert E. Lee of any taint of failure. Topping it all, our Civil War was one of the few in which the losing side came to dominate the writing of history, as well as the creation of novels (Gone With the Wind), films (from Birth of a Nation onward), television series (“The Gray Ghost,” “The Rebel” and more) and now cable shows (“Hell on Wheels”).
As a result, this complex war and its great battles have been reduced to stereotypes of the humorless Yankee and the dashing Rebel. Long before the 150th anniversary of our bloodiest war, the typical media portrayal of a Civil War or Reconstruction-era hero had become a cliché: A gallant, well-born Confederate whose childhood friend was a loyal black raised on an enlightened plantation – or, alternatively, a rough-hewn Rebel whose loved ones had been the victims of Yankee atrocities (in reality, the incidence of rape or the physical abuse of women and children by either side was statistically zero; on the other hand, prostitution flourished).
In part, this distortion of reality developed because the North put the war behind it and moved on, while the “unvanquished” South salved its pride with a sanitized vision that turned its dead into gray-clad saints. From Margaret Mitchell to William Faulkner, Southerners ignored the facts in favor of front-porch legends and nostalgia. The war became no more than a lark gone wrong and a frame for romance: No mutilated veterans need apply.
As a result, we have lost our sense of the war’s grimness. At least 624,000 Americans died in those four years. And the real tally probably was higher, since Southern recordkeeping was poor, on top of which crucial documents were burned by Confederate officials as Richmond fell.
More men died of disease, particularly dysentery, than died in battle. Not every man who wore blue or gray was a hero. And, as always, the press got a great deal wrong. Today, the Civil War of the popular imagination would be unrecognizable to the men who fought it. We’ve reduced it to weekend fun.
No battle in that terrible war has kept so tight a grip on our interest as Gettysburg, whose fields and hills have become a destination for patriotic pilgrimages. Visitors are reverent and earnest. And much of what they “know” is just plain wrong.
THE WRONGED GENERAL
The first web of myths centers on Major General George Gordon Meade, the victorious Union commander. Novels, films and biased histories have played down his importance or even dismissed as a non-entity this first Yankee general to defeat Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. Yet, Meade was indisputably the right man in the right place at the right time – and thanks to his professional ability he would remain in command of the Army of the Potomac through the end of the war. This slandered man’s faults were that he never pandered to the press, did not worry about endearing himself to anybody, always behaved honorably – and died soon after the war, leaving the field open to jealous generals whose careers had ended in failure (Dan Sickles again) and to those who needed to believe that Lee had not really been defeated by a mortal’s generalship, but by the blunders of subordinates, bad luck and any number of other causes that had nothing to do with the Union army’s presence.
The stone-cold fact is that Meade defeated Lee. But the myths persist: Myth #1: Meade’s plan to fight on the Pipe Creek Line fell apart, which means he failed. Assuming command of a routinely defeated army only three days before the greatest battle fought in the Western Hemisphere, Meade seized control and raced to fix the mess left behind by his negligent predecessor, Major General “Fighting Joe” Hooker. He got his staff cracking, began drawing his dispersed corps together, and did what any serious officer would do: He looked around for the most advantageous ground on which to fight Lee. Any competent general keeps his staff busy planning for every possible option, and Meade cracked the whip, determined to be prepared for every eventuality. Lacking a single detailed map of southern Pennsylvania – thanks, again, to the slack command style of the man he replaced – he sent trusted subordinates to scout Pipe Creek and other nearby terrain in northern Maryland and along the Mason-Dixon Line.
Meade never assumed that a fight at his preferred location was bound to happen. He realized that Lee and chance would have a say. But he wanted to be ready, if the opportunity arose to lure the Army of Northern Virginia to fight at a disadvantage. When Meade selected Pipe Creek as his preferred battleground, he had in mind the Union disaster at Fredericksburg the previous December, when the Rebels had been allowed their pick of defensive positions.
Although Meade’s intelligence about Lee was better than Lee’s intelligence about him, Meade understood from the start that a meeting engagement could well determine the course of events. To that end, he employed his cavalry skillfully to screen his army, while moving his nearest corps into position to support the cavalry, should opportunity knock. Reeling in his army as he moved northward, Meade sought to employ what Napoleon termed the “strategy of the central position” in which a concentrated army thrusts itself between the wings of the opposing force and defeats each in turn. Confederate blunders and lack of coordination for three days at Gettysburg allowed him to do essentially that as he fought his army on interior lines.
When the battle erupted at a location neither side intended, Meade reacted with discipline and restraint, keeping overall control of his army even as two corps suffered severely in the first day’s fight. Far from being tied to the Pipe Creek Line, Meade proved more agile than his opposite number.
It’s also noteworthy that Meade had the confidence to trust the judgment of his subordinate commanders on the field on July 1st, remaining where he belonged: at headquarters a dozen miles from Gettysburg, where he was best positioned to direct his converging corps, keep his options open, and make operational level decisions (a lesser commander would have rushed to the battlefield, losing his perspective, flexibility and control as he became mesmerized – as Lee did – by the tactical situation before him). And Meade’s subordinates didn’t let him down. Even Major General Oliver O. Howard of the ill-fated XI Corps made a vital contribution by occupying the crucial terrain on Cemetery Hill.
Lee, in contrast, felt compelled to rush forward and take personal control of the fighting. Even so, key subordinates, such as Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell – commanding Stonewall Jackson’s old corps – avoided obeying Lee’s orders and squandered the Army of Northern Virginia’s best chance to win a victory. Meade’s subordinates obeyed each order their newly elevated commander issued on that first day of fighting, allowing the Army of the Potomac to hang on. Throughout the battle, the Union’s generals – except Sickles – fought as a team. Their Southern counterparts fought independent actions, as though they were medieval knights leading private retinues, and frustrated efforts to coordinate attacks.
Myth #2: Meade wanted to retreat. This bogus charge is based on a post-battle accusation by the chief of staff Meade inherited from Hooker, Dan Butterfield, who, along with Sickles, was Hooker’s political crony and drinking companion. Meade did, indeed, order the staff to draw up a plan for an orderly withdrawal, in case the tide of battle turned against his army, but that was the act of a professional, not a coward. Planning for contingencies is what staffs do.
Not two months before, Meade had witnessed the chaotic retreat from the Chancellorsville battlefield, when the Army of the Potomac was only rescued from a worse disaster by the gallantry of Meade and his sturdy peers. Now that Meade was in command, he wasn’t going to let that disgrace repeat itself. Should his men be forced from the field, every corps and division commander would know which road he was to take and in which order he should withdraw. And Provost Marshal Marsena Patrick would see to it that the order was enforced.
Good staffs plan for all eventualities, including withdrawals under pressure. Fallback positions have to be identified, routes and priorities assigned, rear guards designated and responsibilities fixed. And Meade knew the risk he was taking when he decided to fight at Gettysburg: The entire Army of the Potomac had only two – diverging – roads at its back, if it had to pull out. Only one of those roads, the Baltimore Pike, was of good quality. The other, the Taneytown Road, was narrow and often ran below grade – creating no end of potential bottlenecks for wheeled vehicles – and a guaranteed sea of mud should rain descend. Again, Meade was thinking as a professional soldier. He did what his predecessors had neglected to do, leaving their soldiers to pay a terrible price time and again.
Meade, to his credit, never willingly wasted the lives of his men.
Myth #3: Meade’s council of war on the night of July 2d proved he was indecisive and weak. This is more nonsense spread by those who don’t understand the characteristics of generals throughout history. From start to finish in his wartime career, Meade was blunt and decisive: He detested councils of war. But, only five days before that gathering of generals, he had been elevated above his peers, some of whom had seniority on the Army rolls. Convening that council of war was a brilliant psychological ploy, demonstrating respect for the views of men recently his equals. But the timing of Meade’s dispatches to Washington made it clear that this was a token, calculated gesture. He already had decided to stay and fight.
That council of war also accomplished three practical things. First, Meade played to the pride of the other generals and got them to buy in to his decision by making it appear to be their own. Second, he got each of them on the record in front of their peers. Meade knew all too well the Army of the Potomac’s tradition of backstabbing after battles and campaigns. By making each corps commander vote publicly on whether to stay and fight or withdraw, Meade made it impossible for them to proclaim that “I warned him, but he wouldn’t listen” after the fight. Last, but not least, the meeting made it clear to each commander – again, in front of peers – where he was to be the next day and what he was to do. And everyone present understood how the greater plan fit together. Meade was not going to have another near-disaster of the sort Sickles had precipitated earlier that day by flagrantly disobeying his orders, thrusting his corps forward and breaking the integrity of the Union defense.
Myth #4: Meade wasn’t a fighter – Major General Winfield S. Hancock won the battle for him. This silly claim was popularized by Michael Shaara’s entrancing, but not always accurate, novel The Killer Angels. Shaara was a magnificent writer, but neither a historian nor a soldier, and he simply accepted the opinion he encountered in the books he happened to read that Meade was a non-entity. In fact, Meade fought a near-flawless battle – and gave the Army of the Potomac its first great victory over Lee (and its most clear-cut major victory until the war’s final days).
The claim that Hancock, not Meade, won the battle is also symptomatic of a general misunderstanding of how armies work. There’s a common tendency to want to assign all credit or blame for a victory or defeat to one man. But armies are teams, and the best team beats the lesser team. The commander is the coach, but he can’t win without the players out on the field. And while a commander is responsible for everything his men do or fail to do, the performance of countless subordinates is crucial to the battle’s outcome. Hancock performed brilliantly at Gettysburg and his services were critical to the Union victory, but he had ducked the responsibilities of higher command himself. Hancock fought following Meade’s orders. In turn, Meade made sure that Hancock and his other corps commanders had the support they needed at critical moments, from ammunition to reinforcements. In essence, Meade took over a troubled football team three days before it played the Super Bowl. He had a star backfield and an underrated line … but he had to pull them together fast. And he did.
As far as personal bravery goes, Meade was heroic. At Fredericksburg, only his division broke the Confederate line (and went unsupported). He was instinctively combative – as he proved again at a critical moment on July 2d when he was ready to charge a Confederate brigade with only four of his aides and escorts at hand. Meade was always a fighter – but a smart one. If he wasn’t as colorful as Hancock (or the flamboyant Confederate officers he faced), he was rigorously self-disciplined. It paid off. At Gettysburg, Meade kept better control of himself, of his staff and of his army than Lee did. When Meade gave an order, things happened; when Lee issued a command – often couched politely as a suggestion – it was anybody’s guess if and when his self-absorbed generals would carry it out.
Myth #5: Meade failed because he didn’t pursue and destroy Lee. Again, this is the sort of charge generated by men – including President Abraham Lincoln – who were far from the field and divorced from the reality of men and armies after a savage battle (the only successful army-level pursuit before the war’s final weeks was carried out by Major General George Thomas after the Battle of Nashville – with an army barely nicked by his opponent).
The first point to grasp is that the officers and men of the Army of the Potomac must have been stunned by their triumph. They had reached a point where many had begun to suspect that Lee was invincible – theirs was an army accustomed to defeat. Yet, by mid-afternoon on July 3d they had won a clear and mighty victory. Still, the shock of whipping “Bobby Lee” and the Army of Northern Virginia might have worn away, had the soldiers in blue not faced a host of practical problems. Besides, the Army of Northern Virginia had been badly beaten, but not vanquished. Lee hoped that Meade would attack him so he could even the score.
As the smoke drifted away from Cemetery Ridge on that fateful afternoon, the sun shone on Union forces that had been almost as disorganized by victory as their opponents had been by defeat. Some regiments and brigades had not been supplied with food for days, while much of the inadequate water supply was tainted with blood, waste and corpses (Meade had concentrated on bringing up troops, artillery and ammunition, not creature comforts). In addition to almost 7,000 dead on the field, nearly 30,000 men had been wounded, with many Confederates left behind to be cared for by their captors. Then there were the thousands of Rebel prisoners. Within the battered blue ranks themselves, slain or wounded officers had to be replaced, regiments reorganized and companies consolidated. Only civilians staring at a pristine map in a comfortable parlor could have imagined that the Army of the Potomac was ready and able to pounce on the retreating Rebels and annihilate them.
And many, even the president, forgot the mission that Meade had been assigned: to turn back Lee’s invasion, protect the great cities of the North, and save the Union. He did all those things. But the excitement of victory made the men in Washington lose touch with war’s grim reality – something Major General George Gordon Meade never did.
ALL THE OTHER MYTHS AND EXAGGERATIONS
Myth #6: The Battle of Gettysburg wasn’t really decisive. This revisionist claim is downright foolish. No, the Confederacy didn’t surrender that summer. But the decisive nature of the three-day struggle lies in what didn’t happen: Lee was stopped and could not take a single northern city. Suppose Meade had failed and the Army of the Potomac had suffered a crushing defeat. Lee could have been in Philadelphia in less than a week. Or Baltimore. Or Washington, D.C. That certainly would have been decisive.
After Gettysburg (and the surrender of Vicksburg on July 4th), it was not a forgone conclusion that the North could force the South to surrender, but it closed down the last possibility that the South could defeat the North through force of arms. After Gettysburg, the best the government of President Jefferson Davis could hope for was to bleed the North so painfully it would come to a peace agreement. For a Confederacy with only a fraction of the Union’s manpower (and industrial strength), that was a losing proposition.
Americans at the time sensed the battle’s importance, but, as the decades and centuries pass, historians need things to write about, new angles and “discoveries,” so we’ll doubtless hear many more revisionist claims. But the prospect of Lee’s brave ragamuffins marching down Broad Street in Philadelphia was a very real possibility in those desperate days in early July 1863. Pause to think about it for a moment: Had Meade failed, not only would American history have been profoundly altered, but the history of the entire world might have been changed.
Gettysburg was a classic decisive battle.
Myth #7: Immigrant soldiers, especially Germans, couldn’t and wouldn’t fight. This lie has deep and ugly roots. The flood of immigrants that swept onto our shores in the wake of the failed European revolutions of 1848/49 and the simultaneous Irish potato famine excited far uglier prejudices than those we encounter today. Many of the native-born felt besieged by new arrivals whose languages, customs and public behavior differed markedly from the tone set by the elite of New England or the aristocrats of the South. Since the largest number of immigrants served in the Union armies, the bigotry was especially salient in the blue ranks, and the newcomers who had volunteered to fight for their new country became the “usual suspects” when anything went wrong. Union officers, such as Major General Oliver O. Howard, showed far more compassion for black slaves they did not know than for the Germans or Irishmen under their command.
While a wide range of nationalities served in both armies – there was even one Chinese at Gettysburg – the Germans and Irish formed the largest non-native contingents, and each faced a different set of prejudices. The Irish were regarded as good brawlers on the battlefield, but as racially debased and inferior. The Germans, many of whom spoke English comically to the American ear, were dismissed as incapable of soldiering at the level of the native-born (an interesting assumption, given the performance of Prussian and German armies between 1866 and 1945). When things went wrong, the Germans in particular got the blame.
While the prejudice was there from the beginning, it exploded after Chancellorsville, with the spread of the nickname “the Flying Dutchmen” for the XI Corps’ German-speaking units that broke and ran when surprised in their bivouacs. What few people understood then or realize today is that there was a cover-up after the battle. The bigoted abolitionist, Howard, had been warned by his German subordinates – several of whom had served as officers in their homelands – that he needed to reposition units to cover the army’s flank. Howard dismissed their concerns and refused to take action. Only the decision of a small group of German-speakers to move two of (Polish-born) Colonel Wlodzimierz Krzyzanowski’s regiments into a blocking position on their own initiative saved the XI Corps and its artillery from an even grimmer fate. Those two regiments of Germans and Poles stood fast for an hour, suffered 50 percent casualties, and only withdrew grudgingly when so ordered. They had delayed two of Stonewall Jackson’s brigades. Yet, those self-sacrificing regiments, too, were lumped in with the “Flying Dutchmen,” and criticism of Howard was swiftly hushed up outside of the army. The XI Corps’ English-speaking units who fled the field were exempted from criticism.
Again at Gettysburg, it was a native-born officer – Brigadier General Francis Channing Barlow – who disobeyed orders, exposed the army’s flank and opened fatal gaps in the XI Corps defense on July 1st. Barlow’s division (not all of whom were German-speakers) broke, but Krzyzanowski’s brigade and other immigrant units resisted ferociously, despite being outflanked again and again (thanks to Barlow’s blunder). Remembering that afternoon, Confederate veterans noted that the Germans fought harder than other Yankees had in past encounters; yet, when it came time to apportion blame for the losses on the first day of the battle, the well-connected Barlow escaped censure, while the Germans were mocked again. And yet those same “cowardly” Germans would fight on through the Chattanooga campaign, march across Georgia and battle their way north through the Carolinas.
How many of us have seen even a cowardly – let alone a heroic – German-speaking Union soldier portrayed in a film or television episode? Tens of thousands of men who fought – and often died – to save their adopted country have disappeared from history except as a one-liner cliché.
As for the Irish, the 69th Pennsylvania, recruited among Erin’s sons in Philadelphia, fought as bravely as any unit in either army at Gettysburg, holding the line against the spearhead of Pickett’s attack in hand-to-hand fighting. Hardened survivors of the Great Famine, the position they held defined the “High Watermark” of the Confederacy. Yet, when the Irish show up in popular portrayals of the Civil War, they’re either there for comic relief or to interject a gift-of-gab bit of “Old Sod wisdom.” But the men who held that wall on July 3d were heroes, not leprechauns in blue suits.
Myth #8: The 20th Maine saved the Army of the Potomac. Colonel Joshua Chamberlain and his men performed with breathtaking bravery on the afternoon and evening of July 2, 1863. The soldiers fought like lions and Chamberlain led them brilliantly. But even had their line been broken, it would not have changed the outcome of the battle. They faced only the exhausted, depleted 15th Alabama and some strays from another regiment, men who had marched over 20 miles in the heat and attacked with empty canteens – and who had nothing behind them. Had Lieutenant Colonel William C. Oates managed to punch through those tough Maine men, he might have created some brief local havoc and burned some supply wagons, but the 15th Alabama’s handful of survivors would have run into the newly arrived VI Corps. Lieutenant General James Longstreet had no reserves in place behind his far right flank to exploit any success. By the time the 15th Alabama struck Little Round Top’s southern spur, the attack on that flank was already nearing its culminating point.
The 20th Maine bought precious time and made a stand well worthy of our admiration, but those men and their commander were only one small part of a team that held the line against a Confederate corps (minus one division, but reinforced on its left by units from Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s corps).
Myth #9: Longstreet, not Lee, lost the battle. In fact, Longstreet grasped the changed dynamics of war in an age of rifled weapons better than any general in either army in 1863. Lee thought in Napoleonic terms, Longstreet in modern ones. This is not to say that Longstreet performed flawlessly, but his notorious delay and countermarch on July 2d had much to do with Lee’s misuse of his cavalry and the unreliability of Lee’s staff officers and engineers. Longstreet’s guides (sent to him from Lee) literally did not know where they were going: Confederate staff work was consistently weak during the battle. Furthermore, Longstreet’s line of attack had been dictated by Lee – based on faulty intelligence – and without Pickett’s division on hand, the attack lacked the depth to exploit any success.
Gettysburg was Lee’s low point: In today’s parlance, Lee had “drunk his own Kool-Aid,” confident that his army could not be beaten once battle was joined. His greatest performance – rarely recognized by military romantics – would come in May and June 1864, when he outmaneuvered and often outfought a Union force twice the size of his own, but at Gettysburg he did not even have his staff in hand, let alone his army. He relied on his men’s valor, and, once the battle began, refused to break it off and attempt to outmaneuver Meade – as Longstreet wanted to do. Lee failed to enforce his own orders, failed to concentrate mass at the decisive point, and consistently misread his enemy’s intentions.
As noted above, armies are teams. At Gettysburg, the Army of the Potomac fought as a team, but the Army of Northern Virginia didn’t even coordinate from one division to another and fought piecemeal. Even Pickett’s charge – more accurately called the “Pickett-Pettigrew Charge” – began to go awry before the first Confederate soldier stepped out of the tree line on Seminary Ridge.
Myth #10: Pickett should have led from the front. While Major General George Pickett may not have been a first-rate officer, only someone with no military experience would fault him for remaining in mid-field behind his attacking force. A division commander’s job isn’t to lead charges and get himself killed – it’s to control his troops, deploy and redeploy them as needed, and to maintain contact with his immediate superior and the commands on his flanks. Given that on-the-battlefield communications had hardly changed since the fall of the Roman Empire, while the scale of combat had grown and gunpowder played hell with visibility, Pickett probably did the best he could. By the time his attack had reached its culminating point, he had exhausted his options as a division commander to influence the battle. Dashing forward and getting himself killed or maimed in a gallant gesture (as his brigadiers had done) would have achieved nothing. And the remnants of his division still needed a commander.
Conditioned by films from The Birth of a Nation to The Horse Soldiers to believe that gallant charges are under Confederate copyright, we ignore the cost of chivalric notions of combat. At Gettysburg, Lee lost 15 general officers killed or badly wounded, and he could not replace them. Worse, the Southern way of war would continue to drain off leadership talent right down to April 1865, with Longstreet wounded again at the Wilderness, Stuart killed at Yellow Tavern, and A.P. Hill falling when the war was already lost. Confederate bravery was stunning, but the form it often took helped lose the war.
Of course, the Union suffered high-ranking casualties, too, from Major General John Reynolds killed early on July 1st to the serious wounding of Hancock on July 3d. But the heaviest Union officer losses were at the appropriate levels for such an intense fight – among company and regimental officers, whose job it is to lead from the front, and among brigade commanders who must take front-line command at moments of crisis (as Colonel Strong Vincent did at Little Round Top). In the end, many an officer in either army had experienced such rapid promotion that he still thought as a regimental commander when leading a division, but an obsession with gallantry led to excessive officer losses among the Confederates. It has been observed that the chivalric romances of Walter Scott, so popular at the time, killed many a man in our Civil War. At Gettysburg, notions of chivalry slaughtered officers in gray as surely as it did the French knights at Agincourt. The amazing thing about the flamboyant Pickett on July 3d is that, for once, he seems to have done the right thing.
For a century and a half, Gettysburg has been haunted by the question “What if?” followed by sighs of “If only …” In one famed passage, Faulkner claimed that, long after the war, for every boy in the South there came a moment of reverie when it was again early afternoon on July 3, 1863, with Pickett’s division waiting to go forward and the battle’s outcome as yet undecided. But the battle’s outcome was decided, and it was decided by hard fighting, with exemplary heroism on both sides. It doesn’t honor the men who fought to mythologize them and pretend they were more than human, different from us, and somehow immune to our failings. From private to general, these were human beings, with very human frailties, petty jealousies, moments of doubt, dreams, longings … there were no two-legged gods strutting on those fields, but weary, thirsty, sweating, worried men, many of whom would have liked to be someplace else, but who did their best not to let their comrades down.
Making myths out of what happened doesn’t pay tribute to the men who fought. It insults their memory.
Ralph Peters is the author of the epic novels “Cain at Gettysburg” and the recently published “Hell or Richmond.” A retired Army officer and former enlisted man, he is a longtime member of the “Armchair General” team.
Originally published in the July 2013 issue of Armchair General.