Wednesday, August 2, 2000

The Gettysburg Nobody Knows, edited by Gabor S. Boritt

This is a collection of essays about Gettysburg, some of which are good, and others are not.
We started with “The Common Soldier’s Gettysburg Campaign” by Joseph T. Glatthaar, which I didn’t think quite lived up to its name. Its point was interesting, building on Lee’s famous comment that generals have, in reality, very little to do with who wins and who loses battles. All generals can do is get their men to the right place at the right time—it’s up to the men to slug it out. After building that premise, however, the author seems to focus more on the decisions of generals than the actions of the men they command.

Next was “Joshua Chamberlain and the American Dream” by Glenn LaFantasie, which also kind of missed its mark for me. He argues that we remember Chamberlain as the hero of Little Round Top in exactly the way Chamberlain wanted to be remembered, even though there is some evidence to support the idea that Chamberlain didn’t play the exact role history ascribes to him. The author also admits, however, that there is also no evidence to show that Chamberlain lied or exaggerated his role, or reported it as anything separate from what he believed it to be. I’m left with the conclusion that we remember Chamberlain as he wanted to be remembered, and that way is also likely the truth about him. Not too shocking is you ask me.

“Old Jack Is Not Here” by Harry Pfanz got better in his analysis of Ewell’s actions at Gettysburg and whether or not he deserves the scorn usually heaped upon his name for not taking Cemetery Hill. Pfanz argues no, that although he may have made mistakes at Gettysburg, not attacking Cemetery Hill was not one of them. In fact, by not attacking, Ewell may have been following Lee’s orders not to bring on a general engagement until the entire army was up. His command was divided and tired, and the Federals were heavily fortified on that hill, despite what General Trimble might have said in the movie. I have a biography of Ewell on my shelf by Pfanz. It’ll be interesting to get a more complete analysis there.

“The Chances of War: Lee, Longstreet, Sickles and the First Minnesota Volunteers” by Kent Gramm, is the best one in the book, and I’m not even finished with all of them yet. After reading it, I added another book by Gramm, a biography of Sickles, a biography of Hancock, and the regimental history of the First Minnesota to my reading list. The argument that the First Minnesota did more to save the army and the Union than either the 20th Maine or the regiments who repulsed Pickett’s Charge is a persuasive one. Or even Sickles and his Third Corps for that matter. If he hadn’t advanced to the peach orchard and clashed with Longstreet, would the Confederates have had the momentum to carry the Union position that day? Interesting question. The fact that Sickles was such a character makes it even more interesting. Here’s a passage that’s worth transcribing. It has nothing to do with Sickles.

We students of war rightly do not like violence, so we try to eliminate it from battles. It is a matter of maps and movements, in our books; it is a matter of ballistics and tactics, failures and brilliance—but from Marathon to Gettysburg we are shown men and women who fought, who endured and perpetuated chaotic violence, men and women who sweated and stabbed and bled and were shot, who slashed and screamed and shouted, who lived and died like us, contingent and dependent not on plans or anything we can think through, but dependent on the dark, the beyond, we being not gods but mortals subject to accident or intention or chance or absurdity that we cannot see through. This is how we live, for as Martin Luther said on his deathbed, “We are all beggars.”

- - - - - - - - - -

“Eggs, Aldie, Shepherdstown, and J.E.B. Stuart” by Emory Thomas comes to Stuart’s defense in his actions during Gettysburg. Much maligned for abandoning Lee, Thomas argues that Stuart may have been too tired to do anything else. His ride from Virginia to Pennsylvania was one continuous battle, evidently, and lasted longer than any similar excursion he’d ever been on. Confused orders, rude behavior at dinner, and a fixation on protecting the captured wagons at all costs when he should’ve left the damn things behind and gotten back in touch with Lee—they all lead Thomas to believe that Stuart might have been sleepwalking through the entire campaign. And that scene from the movie when Lee confronts Stuart—“I told you there is no time for that”—evidently that never really happened.

The rest of the essays weren’t as interesting. One about Pickett’s Charge that says everything we think we knew about Pickett’s Charge is wrong. Another about what the town of Gettysburg was like before and after the battle, and how the battle changed it. Another about the overall Confederate military strategy that led to the circumstances that allowed Gettysburg to happen. This one had some interesting insights. Davis was evidently his own Secretary of War, actively ordering generals and armies around, but had no real control over anything except Virginia because of slow communications, slower travel times, vague orders, and arrogant generals. Without Lee, according to the author, the war might have been a ninety-day fight after all.
Finally an essay about the legacy of Gettysburg which, even after having just read it, leaves no lasting impression on me other than we remember Gettysburg as a turning point it really wasn’t, and our memories are framed more by Roosevelt’s words in 1938 rather than Lincoln’s words in 1863. For Roosevelt it was all about peace and coming together. For Lincoln, war and coming apart.

+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +
The Gettysburg Nobody Knows, edited by Gabor S. Boritt
on Amazon
Gabor S. Boritt on Wikipedia
+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +

No comments:

Post a Comment