Cold Fury

Harshing your mellow since 9/01

The mystic chords of memory

What could be more appropriate today than a reflection on Gettysburg by the Civil War’s greatest historian, Shelby Foote?

Lee laid his hand on the dead Jackson’s map, touching the regiion just east of the mountains that caught on their western flanks the rays of the setting sun. “Hereabouts we shall probably meet the enemy and fight a great battle,” he saud, “and if God gives us the victory, the war will be over and we shall achieve the recognition of our independence.”

One of the place names under his hand as he spoke was the college town of Gettysburg, just over 20 miles away, from which no less than 10 roads ran to as many disparate points of the compass, as if it were probing for trouble in all directions.

Lee groped his way across the Pennsylvania landscape, deprived of his eyes and ears (Stuart’s cavalry) and with little information as to the enemy’s whereabouts or intentions… Whatever Lee encountered, good or bad, was bound to come as a surprise, and surprise was seldom a welcome thing in war. And so it was. Coincidents refused to mesh for the general who, six weeks ago in Richmond, had cast his vote for the long chance. Fortuity itself, as the deadly game unfolded move by move, appeared to conform to a pattern of hard luck; so much so, indeed, that in time men would say of Lee, as Jael had said of Sisera after she drove the tent peg into his temple, that the stars in their courses had fought against him.

One more item concerned Lee, though few of his lieutenants agreed that it should be so. They were saying that Meade was about as able a general as Hooker, but considerably less bold, and they were exchanging congratulations on Lincoln’s appointment of another mediocre opponent for them. Lee, who had known the Pennsylvanian as a fellow engineer in the old army, did not agree. “General Meade will commit no blunder on my front,” he said, “and if I make one he will make haste to take advantage of it.”

The Confederates had the advantage of converging on a central point whereas the Federals would be marching toward a point that was beyond their perimeter, but Meade had the advantage of numbers and a less congested road net: plus another advantage which up to now, except for the brief September interlude that ended bloodily at Sharpsburg, had been with Lee. The northern commander and his soldiers would be fighting on their own ground, in defense of their own homes.

Meade had already lost control of events before he made the offer to abide by the decision of the first of his chief subordinates who took a notion that the time had come to backtrack. Even as the circular was being prepared and the engineers were laying out the proposed defensive line behind Pipe Creek, John Reynolds was committing the army to battle a dozen miles north of the headquarters Meade was getting ready to abandon. And Reynolds in turn had taken his cue from Buford, who had spread his troopers along the banks of another creek, just west of Gettysburg; Willoughby Ryan, it was called.

Lee was aware of Napoleon’s remark that at certain edgy times a dogfight could bring on a battle, and it seemed to him that with his infantry groping its way across unfamiliar, hostile terrain, in an attempt to perform the proper function of cavalry, this might well be ones of those times. He was worried and said so.

The Federals were retreating pell-mell into the streets of Gettysburg, already jammed with other blue troops pouring down from the north, under pressure from Ewell, as into a funnel whose spout extended south. Those who managed to struggle free of the crush, and thus emerge from the spout, were running hard down two roads that led steeply up a dominant height where guns were emplaced and the foremost of the fugitives were being brought to a halt, apparently for still another stand; Cemetery Ridge, it was called because of the graveyard on its lofty plateau, half a mile from the town square. Another half mile to the east, about two miles where Lee stood, there was a second eminence, Culp’s Hill, slightly higher than the first, to which it was connected by a saddle of rocky groun, similarly precipitous and foreboding. These two hills, their summits a hundred feet above the town, which in turn was about half that far below the crest of Seminary Ridge, afforded the enemy a strong position — indeed, a natural fortess — on which to rally his whipped and panicky troops, especially if time was allowed for the steadily increasing number of defenders to improve with their spades the already formidable advantages of terrain… It was clear that if the tactical advantage was not pressed, it might soon be lost altogether, first by giving the rattled bluecoats a chance to recompose themselves, and second by allowing time for the arrival of heavy reinforcements already on the way. Moreover, both of these reasons for continuing the offensive were merely adjunctive to Lee’s natural inclination, here as elsewhere, now as always, to keep a beaten opponent under pressure, adn thus off balance, just as long as his own troops had wind and strength enough to put one foot in front of the other.

The story of Gettysburg is one of the richest, most engrossing, and sometimes just damned strange in all the annals of warfare. Its scale and sweep are nothing short of epic, its central irony staggering: seriously, what irony could be more biting than that such grandeur should be borne up on the shoulders of the common rank-and-file footsloggers doing battle nose-to-nose with their enemies every bit as much as those of the larger-than-life men in command?

Gettysburg is a narrative filled with examples of brilliance and blunder; of extraordinary, almost superhuman valor; of the best-laid plans of brilliant commanders being laid all to waste by sheerest happenstance and blind, dumb luck. It is a tale of glory and heroism brought forth from the sordid, tawdry horror of one of the most murderous acts of organized human violence in history. It is profound nobility shining forth from the bloody muck and agony of the battlefield.

All those truths taken together lends the weight of prophecy to Lee’s famous quote from the earlier battle at Fredericksburg: “It is well that war is so terrible, else we would grow too fond of it.”

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