The Magazine

A Great Battlefield

Gettysburg: an epic tale of not quite enough and just in time

Jul 8, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 41 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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A century and a half later, the battle of Gettysburg’s place in the national consciousness is so secure that you think of it as inevitable: the great contest of arms toward which all the previous battles of the Civil War had been leading. Thus, all that came before the breaking of Pickett’s Charge was rising action, and all that followed, conclusion and denouement. 

Robert E. Lee, George Meade

Robert E. Lee, George Meade

The outcome at Gettysburg seems also somehow fated, though it was, as Wellington said of another epic battle, a “damned near run thing.” During the three days of fighting, victory and defeat hung, again and again, by a thread. For the Army of Northern Virginia, it was repeatedly a matter of not quite enough; and for the Army of the Potomac, of just in time. Still, history seems to demand the eventual outcome.

Gettysburg has been studied and analyzed like no other battle of the Civil War, and its fascination seems inexhaustible. In Allen C. Guelzo’s recently published and excellent Gettysburg: The Last Invasion, the author notes one bibliography that contains over 6,000 entries​—​books, articles, pamphlets, and so on. The best novel of the Civil War, Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, is an account of Gettysburg. And then there is the battlefield itself, nearly 6,000 acres, and with more than 1,300 monuments, proudly and almost flawlessly preserved, and with more than 5 million people expected to visit this year, the 150th since the essential American battle was fought.

The battle was, of course, not inevitable. It might, in fact, not have been fought at all. Or fought on some other ground. And it might, certainly, have ended differently. 

That Gettysburg was fought at all was due to the force of one man’s will. Robert E. Lee wanted to invade the North and fight an epic and conclusive battle there. His superiors in the Confederate government were skeptical and thought it might be wiser to husband resources in the East and fight in the West, where Vicksburg was hanging by a thread. Lose the West, they believed, and the cause was doomed. Lee convinced them otherwise. His stature was such​—​especially after his splendid, if costly, victory at Chancellorsville​—​that his will could not be resisted, even by the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis.

But if Lee’s will was strong enough to force the battle, he could not impose that will upon his own subordinates. Not, at least, with enough urgency to make them accomplish his aims and win what he, and many historians, believe might have been his final and finest victory. The question has been posed in most accounts of the battle: “Why did the South lose?”

Several explanations have been proposed. Lee himself believed that if he’d had Stonewall Jackson with him, things would have gone the other way. In the end, George Pickett may have come up with the best answer: “I always thought,” he said, “that the Yankees had something to do with it.”

But the opening of the campaign that led to Gettysburg went all Lee’s way. In early June 1863, he gave the Union Army, still under the command of General Joseph Hooker, the slip, fixing it on the Rappahannock, where it had been since Chancellorsville, and moving his own forces west, then north. When Lee’s maneuvers became clear to Hooker, he proposed an attack on Richmond, to which his commander in chief said, “No.”

Lincoln, who was losing faith in Hooker and secretly interviewing possible replacements, was skeptical of a queen-for-queen game. What was to prevent Lee from going after Washington while Hooker was attacking Richmond? “I think Lee’s army, and not Richmond, is your sure objective point,” he wrote to Hooker. 

So Lee moved north up the Shenandoah Valley, with the Army of the Potomac shadowing, keeping itself between the rebels and Washington and Lincoln urging Hooker, “if the head of Lee’s army is at Martinsburg and the tail of it .  .  . between Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, the animal must be very slim somewhere. Could you not break him?”

But Lee advanced unmolested and, in fact, took on the one last Union stronghold in the valley at Winchester and defeated the forces there soundly, capturing 23 pieces of artillery and supplies enough to equip an entire Confederate division. Then, it was across the river and into Maryland and to Pennsylvania, where there were more provisions for the taking; resupply being one of two stated objectives of Lee’s invasion. 

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