March 3, 2024

The myths of Gettysburg


Founded by Drew Pearson 1932

The myths of Gettysburg

By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

WASHINGTON – The Battle of Gettysburg fought 150 years ago on July 1-3, 1863, instantly engendered a series of myths and legends, many of which have lived on to the present. Among these are:

1. Gettysburg was the turning point of the Civil War and High Tide of the Confederacy.

Following the battle, the opportunity arose for Gen. Robert E. Lee to detach Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s I Corps and reinforce Gen. Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee. It would be the only occasion in the war when a Confederate army would outnumber a major Federal army.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis wanted Lee to replace Bragg, but Lee demurred, and Davis failed to press the point. Bragg did win a major victory at Chickamauga on September 19-20, 1863, and, except for the men remaining with Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas, the Federal retreat was a rout. But the controversial and irascible Bragg failed to follow up the victory, inciting Maj. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest to storm into his headquarters and accuse him of cowardice. The aggressive Lee would never have missed such an opportunity.

Had that Federal army been destroyed, Federal armies on the Mississippi and Potomac could not have sent sufficient reinforcements to protect Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. And so the turning point of the Civil War was reached with a lost opportunity after Chickamauga rather than a lost battle at Gettysburg.

2. Pickett’s Charge was primarily comprised of Pickett’s Division.

Maj. Gen. George Pickett’s fresh Division was joined in the fateful Confederate charge on the third day by the depleted divisions of Maj. Gen. Harry Heth and Maj. Gen. Dorsey Pender, then commanded, respectively, by Brig. Gen. James Pettigrew and Maj. Gen. Isaac Trimble.

3. Maj. Gen. George G. Meade’s tactical leadership was the primary factor in the Federal victory.

Meade did not arrive until early on the second day of battle, by which time two of his seven corps had nearly been destroyed. On the second day, Meade failed to protect his left flank at Little Round Top, an oversight corrected at the last moment by Brig. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren, his chief of engineers.

Also on that day, Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles, ignoring Meade’s orders, thrust his III Corps forward in a salient where it was mauled in the Wheat Field and Peach Orchard, but in the process thwarted the Confederate flanking attack. Even so, that night Meade held a council of war, asking his corps commanders: “Is it advisable for the army to remain in its present position, or to fall back?”

4. Meade could have destroyed Lee’s army.

By the end of July 3, both armies had lost about a third of their men in killed, wounded, and missing. Federal defensive positions on Culp’s Hill, Cemetery Hill, Cemetery Ridge, and Little Round Top had proven decisive. Accordingly, Lee arrayed his forces along Seminary Ridge to await Meade’s counter attack, but by then, neither army was in a position to assault such high ground, which Meade wisely understood.

During Lee’s retreat, Meade did miss an opportunity to strike at Williamsport, but even there Meade realized that a frontal attack against prepared defenses would be folly. The following year’s fighting would prove him right.

5. Lincoln’s eloquent November 19, 1863, Gettysburg Address was a call for peace and reconciliation.

In fact, this most famous of American speeches was a call to arms, a call to continue the war, and continue it did, with more men dying in battle in the final 17 months of war than had died in the preceding two and a half years. In the bloody summer of 1864 alone, the Federal Army of the Potomac commanded by Maj. Gen. Meade and accompanied by Lt. Gen. U.S. Grant lost more men than Lee had in the entire Army of Northern Virginia.

The war began with Confederate President Jefferson Davis proclaiming, “All we ask is to be let alone,” and President Lincoln later writing, “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union.” The Gettysburg Address added his corollary that supreme sacrifices confirmed that cause:

“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain . . . .”

© 2013 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.


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