Friday, September 14, 2018

Major Turning Points in the Battle of Gettysburg

I think it is clear the the Battle of Little Round Top was the defining engagement of the Civil War


The American Civil War (April 12, 1861-May 13, 1865) can be argued to be the bloodiest in American history, as both sides in the war were comprised of Americans. 

   Until the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863), the Army of Northern Virginia, under the commmand of General Robert E. Lee had chalked up many victories against the North's Army of the Potomac. In fact, without a single major Northern victory to that point, many people in the North and South alike believed that Lee's army could and would gain victory in the war. More importantly, with each Southern victory, the rogue administration of Confederate President Jefferson Davis was awarded more and more credibility not only in the eyes of Americans, but also foreign governments in Europe.

   Gettysburg was important because the credibility of the administration of President Abraham Lincoln was probably on the line. Should Lee's army have vanquished the army of newly appointed Army of the Potomac Commander General George G. Meade, then it would have resulted in Lee's first and greatest victory in Northern terrirory. And, it would have severely weakened the confidence of Northerners that the war was winnable. Lincoln would have been beseiged in Washington DC even more than he already was. The South would have been a few chess moves away from having succeeded in sucsession and perhaps the Davis government would have been recognized formally by any number of nations. 

   It was not the good intentions of Lincoln, in his opposition to slavery, that created some divine miracle to save the Union. The beginning of the salvation began with BG John Buford's Union cavalry holding Seminary Ridge against superior odds of Confederate Gen. Henry Heath's infantry division. In holding the high ground, he gave a tactical advantage to the North and deprived Lee's army from occupying the heights of the city. If this had happened, Gen. James Longstreet's defensive theory might well have been employed, giving the Confederates a tactical advantage. 

   In engaging Heath's division early, and making it deploy at a time and place not of Lee's choosing, Buford took the Army of Northern Virginia off its plan. This was the first thing that happened 'right' for the Union. Later, Buford's cavalry was reinforced by Gen. John Reynold's infantry, consolidating strength along the ridge and the high ground. This was the good news from the first day.

   The next piece of luck the North had was when Gen. Strong Vincent placed the 20th Maine Infantry Regiment at the end of the Northern line at Little Round Top. General Lee had assigned General Longstreet's corps the responsibility of gaining possession of Little Round Top. Longstreet gave the assignment to division commander  General John Bell Hood. Hood assigned the 15th Alabama Infantry the primary responsibility to attack the 20th Maine. But, not the 15th Regiment, or all of the reserve that was set aside to assist the 15th culd dislodge the 20th Maine from their defensive position.

   If Hood had managed to gain Little Round Top, the situation would have been much different. With Northern forces deplyed along the rige at Big Round Top, Confederate forces could have rolled up Union forces. Should this have happened, Meade's army would have faced certain destruction, defending against Confederate divisions attacking from the front and back. The Army of the Potomac would have been devastated and probably combat ineffective for the rest of what would have been a short war. This was the second day.

   Finally, on the third day, General Lee wanted Gen. Longstreet to attack the center of the Union position, at Cemetary Hill. Lee believed that the flanks of the Union Army had been reinforced overnight and his enemy's strength was not in the center of the Union line. In truth, there were good lines of communication and resupply avenues throughout the Northern line. Northern artillery had ample rounds to fire at advancing Confederates. And, even though Confederate artillery made a strong attempt to prepare the area the infantry would assault, it ultimately came up short. Here is where the human element came into play.

   General Winfield Scott Hancock was the corps commander who had primacy of that area of the battlefield Lee wanted to target. General Hancock was a professional soldier, West Point graduate and veteran of the Mexican War. He trained his soldiers well and had some success in commanding his troops, despite a chain of command above him that was not always prudent or skillfull. This was made apparent on July 3, when Hancock's troops did not run from the artillery that blanketed the area courtesy of Confederate cannons. His men stood when other nits in the Army of the Potomac might not have.

   Well, Longstreet selected one of his division commanders, Gen. George Pickett to lead an assault comprised of Longstreet's corps (minus Hood's division) and elements of Gen. A.P. Hill's corps. But, because of Northern artillery and courage and skill of Hancock's men, Pickett's charge amounted to 60 percent of the charge's 15,000 men being killed, wounded or missing.

   These were major points of decision in the Battle of Gettysburg. And, each of these points were vital to saving the Union. However, if the 20th Maine had not stood on July 2nd at Little Round Top there would have likely not been a Union Army at Gettysburg to fight on the 3rd at all.

   The poitical cannot help but be entwined in the story of the Civil War. Remember, the United States was not quite 100 years old by the time the Civil War broke out. The American Experiment in democracy was fairly new to the world. And, Great Britain was not entirely adjusted to the notion that its former Colonies would remain its own, independent republic. The Civil War was the opportunity for British rulers to hope. The only thing that England disagreed with the Confederate States about was its use of human slaves. I cannot help but think that, should the Confederate States have won their freedom, the South would have had to rid itself of slavery to enjoy the good graces of English trade and protection. At that point, the South would have had little to no leverage to submitting to English dictates.

   I believe that, in any version of the ending of the Civil War, the South would have had to abolish slavery. However, if such a thing happened at the tip of a British bayonet, as oppposed to a Northern one, then the America we have all come to know would have never happened.

(Jim Purcell is a retired journalist. Mr. Purcell is a U.S. Army veteran who served as a sergeant in the Military Intelligence Corps. He is retired and lives in Western North Carolina with his wife.)



1 comment:

  1. My former battalion visited Gettysburg last fall. It had long been on my bucket list and am so glad I got to scratch it off. The following were my thoughts after returning home. I really want to get back there another time...
    Gettysburg Today

    Seven score and fourteen years ago the streams ran bloody red
    The wheat field covered in grisly carpet of wounded and of dead
    The vast and open meadows where Pickett led his charge
    Paying heavily to final tally, in portion much too large

    And up here on Little Round Top, among the boulders at its crest
    Those old and we new witnesses look out to north and west
    Toward the old Peach Orchard, then down to the Devil’s Den
    Imagining the horrors there, with unspoken prayer and amen

    We passed the many rows of cannon resting on the higher ground
    That spit out death below them, on whatever flesh they found
    Even when they could not claim the whole, they would take the dregs
    Leaving only bloodied stumps where once were arms and legs

    Now we old soldiers of our own war, pay homage at this place
    Where long ago those thousands died and where once saw Lincoln’s face
    Whose words rang over these rolling hills, describing battle’s worth
    In recognition and righteous remembrance of this piece of hallowed earth

    His words included the world would “little note nor long remember” what he said
    But rather what was done here by its survivors and its dead
    I’d like to think that all those voices who wore the blue or gray
    Speak here yet as whispers to us who gather here today

    On every breeze that moves the leaves and dancing shadows they create
    To say, “Thank you for coming and remembering us, our deeds and deaths, this date…”

    © Randy E. Richmond - Oct. 2, 2017


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