Wednesday, July 03, 2013

150 Years Ago Today

Today is July 3rd, 2013. It was 150 years today that the famous Pickett's Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg during the American War between the States. Pickett's charge was a military maneuver that has been highly romanticized but was itself a tactical disaster. The failed charge has been poetically labelled "the high tide of the Confederacy," and that is exactly what it was.

To understand what it was all about, one has to understand the background to the Battle of Gettysburg. General Lee had decided to make a foray into Union territory and took his army into Pennsylvania instead of dropping back and waging a defensive war. This proved to be Lee's undoing.

Despite what you see in the movie, Gettysburg, and other depictions of Southern soldiers, the Southern army under Lee was poorly equipped. Textiles and other supplies usually bought from the British in Southern ports for trade in cotton. Due to the Yankee blockade, the Southern troops largely didn't have shoes or other textiles than what they could either forage or bring from home. This led directly to the Battle of Gettysburg.

After playing a game of cat and mouth, Lee was beginning to feel that he had overstretched his supply lines. He was also uncomfortable with his knowledge of the terrain of Pennslyvania and was hunting for a better place to have a major engagement with the Union forces.Both the Union army and the Southern army were actually trying to avoid each other at the time. Most of the Southern forces who had marched from Virginia were by this point barefoot or had shoes with soles that were shot. Lee's intelligence had determined that there was a shoe factory in the sleepy little town of Gettysburg. While marching toward the town to get some shoes for the troops, the Southern forces blundered into the whole of the Northern army.

Initially, the battle was a route of Northern forces, which were not expecting a full Southern assault at that point. The Southern forces took the initiative and drove the Northern forces back through the town.  The Northern troops almost panicked and fled. By topographical happenstance, there is a line of hills outside of town. The Southern forces actually pushed the Northern forces onto the high ground as night was falling. Had Gettysburg been flat, the South would likely have won the battle as it would have turned into a complete collapse of the Union forces as they fled. Because they got pushed into the high ground, they were able to fortify overnight. Basically the Southern army was having to fight uphill the rest of the battle. Any tactical line officer will tell you that occupying the high ground is better because gravity is on your side. Bullets can reign down easily that reigning up. And in the case of Pickett's charge, having to run uphill for over a football field length against troops hidden in rocks higher up "Little Round Top," there was little to no chance of a direct assault dislodging an entrenched and supplied army that occupied the high ground. As Lee initially feared, his lack of intelligence on the topography cost him the battle and ultimately the war as Gettysburg was the turning point of the war.

Pickett's Charge came on the third day of the battle. Lee was trying to break through the entrenched Yankee positions on the high grounds. From his vantage point, Lee miscalculated how many troops were hidden in the rocks and send Pickett on a daring charge to break the Yankee center. Pickett did not think the order was wise, but his men made a go of it, getting as far as the stone wall on the ridge, but running uphill against Yankee cannons and rifle fire raining down on them was simply too much for his 12000 men. Pickett's charge finally retreated back to Confederate lines with a 50% casualty rate.

The Battle of Gettysburg largely ended the next day. The Yankee line held on by a thread, but was almost as spent as Lee's army and did not counter attack. Lee withdrew back into Virginia and never attacked a Union state again. On the same day, July 4th, General Grant took the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg on the Mississipi. While technically a draw, Gettysburg disheartened the Confederate troops and Lee admitted publicly both at the time and later in his life that Gettysburg was "all my fault." Pickett's after action report to Lee was so bitter that Lee ordered him to burn it. No copies were ever found, nor did Lee's motivations at the time of battle, as his after action reports were very vague and he published no memoirs on the event directly later in life other than to take full responsibility for his tactical failure at Gettysburg for not taking the high ground early.

In my own historical research in seminary, it was largely the dual losses of Vicksburg and Gettysburg that derailed England from giving full diplomatic recognition to the South. In fact, the formal papers were on Queen Victoria's desk, but news of the losses caused England to backtrack, fearing they might be backing a loser. Had England recognized the Confederacy, there were several war ships that were ready to be sold to the Confederate navy that could have ended the Yankee blockade. England's economy went into deep recession because of the blockade (there were actually pro-Southern riots in Northern England for a time) because they were heavily dependent on Southern cotton to fuel their textile mills.  England was reticent, however, because of the Slavery issue which had been outlawed in England. Ultimately, England began getting cotton from plantations elsewhere in the Empire like India and the Caribbean.What I found in cables from English diplomats to Southern diplomats was that they ended their letters and cables by quoting collects from the Book of Common Prayer. The English and Southerners actually had more in common culturally. British diplomats did not play with game with Union diplomats, instead quoting only generic deistic prayers.
Had the South routed the North at Gettysburg, the world might be a different place today.

One last historical note: on the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, the survivors (then quite elderly) of Pickett's charge gathered for a reenactment. The Smithsonian has a well documented article on that. It's a great picture:

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