Friday, September 30, 2011

Gettysburg: What if?

When students of the Civil War get together, the issue always arises as to when the South lost the war and whether the South could have won the war. Some say yes, and many of those who do say Gettysburg was when it was lost for good. Most say Gettysburg was the "High Tide" of the Confederacy, and that "Pickett's Charge" on the afternoon of the third day, when Armistead reached the Union cannon, was the precise apex. It was all downhill from there, these experts say.

As usual, I read and read and analyze and analyze, and, also as usual, I don't always come to the same conclusions as everyone else. What can I say - that's just who I am. An INTP is never impressed by "experts."

At Gettysburg, there were so many things coming together, then drifting away - so many opportunities taken or lost - that it is really hard to prove one's case, even with 20-20 hindsight.

1. Maybe Lee should have refused to engage at Gettysburg at all; should have just continued with his invasion plan - Ewell was already making for Harrisburg when Lee called him back.

2. Maybe Lee should have been more precise and forceful with Ewell in the late afternoon of day one at Gettysburg and given him a more direct and unambiguous order to take Culp's and Cemetery Hills while the Federals were in retreat.


3. Maybe Lee should have kept his cavalry right there with his army all along.

4. Maybe Lee shouldn't have ordered the suicidal frontal attack on the Union center on the afternoon of day three.

5. Maybe Lee should have listened to Longstreet and disengaged on the afternoon of day three; passed Meade's left flank to the south (he had his cavalry by then to screen him) and bolted for Washington.

6. Maybe Lee should have fought on the fourth day instead of returning to Virginia.

Maybe. So many chances. So easy to see them from the distance and clarity of time when we are sitting in our armchairs rather than standing in the Pennsylvania rain, dazed by artillery shells exploding around us, cowed by the screams of a thousand dying men. Maybe. So easy for us to be Lee today and make the right precise "better" choices.

As General Lee himself said so simply (though not truthfully) after the Battle of Gettysburg: "It is all my fault."

Despite the futility of second-guessing, I personally find it interesting to discuss and debate the above issues and more. I will do so in subsequent posts.

Years after the war, when General Lee was President of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) he was having his "mistakes" at Gettysburg explained to him by a student. Lee listened politely, then replied, "Young man, why did you not tell me that before the battle? Even as stupid a man as I am can see it all now."


  1. Had you not gone here, I would have been surprised.

    Bare-footed Rebel though I am, I have always thought the Union winning a good thing. However, these days I am not so self-assured but that is another topic for anther time.

  2. @Adullamite - Are you actually reading these?? Heh.

    @Leazwell - I haven't really got that far yet. I mean, not yet thinking about what would have happened if the South would have won Gettysburg or won the war. That's something that I hope we will speculate on down the road after I get through the next few posts on the battle itself, and the personalities involved (ok, it might take a while before I get that far!) Right now, though, this is really only meant to be an "academic" analysis of the battle and not meant to be for or against either side. I just want to talk a little bit more, learn a little bit more, only about what each side DID during this battle. So, before we get into speculating about what would happen if the South had won (and I DO want to speculate, later on) I first want to just talk some more about the actual people involved and why I think they did what they did, based on the books I've read and am still reading. Amazingly, after rereading so much, this is starting to actually come into some sort of order in my mind. I'm not ready to say that I understand it all, but I am beginning to "get" a few things. I think. What I am trying to study right now, though, is Ewell's background and command style (as compared to Jackson's) and Lee's habit of giving seemingly open-ended orders. Of course I also want to discuss and debate (in a separate post) "Pickett's" Charge and whether it should have happened. But I warn you I do NOT blame Lee or necessarily think Lee was wrong to order this frontal assault. But I'm getting ahead of myself. I am having a REALLY good time studying this and reading more about this. I wish I could do ALL my posts about this for the next 3 months, but I know I would be alone here talking to myself if I did. I hope for expert and knowledgeable interjections from readers as I postulate. In the end, we can debate "what if." Thank you for your comment.

    PS- the "Clarity" in the name of this blog refers to my personal learning about things, not me teaching to anyone. The way I learn is to read and read and read and then try to give a "report" on the blog. Then people hopefully add to it or correct me. Then I become "clear". Of course, doing that all the time is boring to many readers, so I try to do other types of posts from time to time.

  3. To all:

    The title of this post is "What If" and now I can see where readers might assume I am trying to talk about "what if" the South had won this battle or the war. I'm sorry. No, my intended "what if" was only meant to talk about "what if" Ewell had pursued, or "what if" Lee had done what Longstreet suggested, or "what if" Lee had chosen to continue the battle on day 4, etc., etc.

    I'm sorry I made the title of this post so ambiguous. It made sense to me at the time. :)

  4. Well I knew nothing about any of this until your posts. So I get to learn along with you.

  5. @Caroline - I couldn't ask for a better classmate. Thank you so much for faking an interest. :) :) :)

  6. @ Max - Not faking at all. Its a legitimate interest. I've learnt all sorts from your various blogs. Some of it useful, some of it not so much. Some of it based on fact, some of it not so much. But its nearly always interesting and/or entertaining.

  7. In my opinion, Gettysburg reinvigorated the North (though never to the South's own level). Up until this, everything was fought in the South, so they had a vested interest, they were personally threatened. They were the ones threatening.

    If the South had been able to go North and forced a surrender (which means Washington), it might have been successful. Short of that, however, I can't see either a victory or a loss making any difference because, to a lesser degree, this inflamed the North much like Pearl Harbor had. Before, many Northerners were ambiguious ("Let 'em leave") but became rabid about punishing the South after Gettysburg. The North had more people, more money, more resources, better logistical ability. They didn't have the military genius, but, with a concerted effort, the South could not stand against them.

    As they proved once they became determined. One reason why the end of the war was needlessly brutal.

  8. @Caroline - I meant "taking" an interest. :)

  9. @Stephanie Barr - The South felt threatened? :)

    Well maybe they shouldn't have fired the first shot then.

    The South occupying Washington or capturing Lincoln would have had no bearing on the outcome of the war, militarily (reputable historians write.) Their only hope was swaying public opinion in the North. Like how the Vietnam war ended. Surely that is all Lee was trying to do.

    I do think you are probably right about the South "winning" the war not making a difference so much. What would they have done if they had won Gettysburg and the entire war? To the South, "winning" meant retaining their way of life and being left alone. It didn't mean taking over the North.

  10. My dear Maxssssss, of course, I was the one that was ambiguous. I meant the war not the battle. Your post was clear, crystal, in fact. Do forgive me for having caused you to exhaust yourself, wasting time and energy responding to my all too common off-handed and jumping-ahead-of-things remark. You needn't have bothered. The trouble is whenever I come here my trigger finger starts dancing madly and I always end up shooting myself in the foot. I'll have to remedy that. In the meantime why don't you go to Devil's Den...

  11. RelaxMax, really enjoying this blog series about Gettysburg. I am more of a WWI and WWII history buff and wargamer. Anyway, I found a fact on a lefty from the Civil war: Do you know the name of the only soldier in either army to enlist as a private and end the war as a general officer was left-handed? Can you name him?

    Thanks again, please keep it up.

  12. @Rocketscientist - Well, I like history. I don't know if I can live long enough to do all of WWII. I've already tried to do Hitler. That didn't go over so well. The Great War may be my next war. Except Adullamite is an expert on it and will eat me alive if I make a mistake. Dunno. I've been thinking about your lefty guy. (I'm guessing you are a lefty??? Heh.) I'll admit I don't know and you will have to come back and tell me. I'm guessing it was a Northern General and he wasn't Ned Flanders. Please tell. :)

    @Leazwell - I'm trying to put a positive spin on your Devil's Den request. Trying to make myself believe you are talking about big rocks and not some other destination. I want to jump ahead too, but I'm hopelessly bogged. May just start over.



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