Streetwise Professor

July 3, 2010

Two O’Clock on That July Afternoon

Filed under: History,Politics — The Professor @ 11:15 am

About this time of day, 147 years ago, 15,000 Confederate soldiers topped the gentle rise of Seminary Ridge and began trudging towards the Emmitsburg Road, and beyond it, a low stone wall just below the crest of Cemetery Ridge.  When it ended, the Confederate force reeled back, blasted and torn.  A few stalwart men had penetrated a point in the Union line where the 71st Pennsylvania had broken, but the breach was soon sealed by a horde of running, shouting–and shooting–Federals from Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Maine, and Vermont.

If you’ve stood on the ground, you wonder what Robert E. Lee could have possibly been thinking.  Advancing a mile without cover against a line of veteran troops on an elevation, with cover, and with ample artillery.  To me, it was the culmination of a little more than a year of remarkable achievements by the Army of Northern Virginia that had hurled its opponent from the very gates of Richmond onto the soil of Pennsylvania, winning engagement after engagement.  Hubris born of a year of amazing victories had convinced him that his men could accomplish anything.

But not all of his men were convinced.  His chief subordinate, James (“Old Pete”) Longstreet surely was not.  He resisted launching the assault, his opposition verging on insubordination.  And it is not as if Longstreet was a timid man who routinely opposed the offensive.  In fact, he was the architect of three of the greatest, most successful assaults of the Civil War: at Second Manassas, Chickamauga, and the Wilderness.  But he was a realist, and he foresaw what awaited his division, and the two of A. P. Hill’s Corps, that were to make the assault over that ground, against that enemy.

Lee realized it too, but too late: “It is all my fault” he said, as the broken ranks that had stepped off so confidently an hour or so before streamed back torn and bloodied, and so many fewer than before.

Faulkner wrote a famous elegy to the (mis-named*) Pickett’s Charge:

For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago….

Faulkner’s description was not accurate when he wrote it. Not every Southern boy imagined himself in the shade of the trees on Seminary Ridge in the early afternoon of 3 July, 1863: maybe every white Southern boy–a revealing lacuna.  But even with that modification, Faulkner’s characterization of the youthful Southern imagination is now an anachronism.  Well into the 20th century, the Civil War–pardon me, the War of Northern Aggression–was deeply imbued in the consciousness of most white Southerners.  Now, even in the deepest recesses of the erstwhile Confederate states, thoughts of the war hardly enter the minds of 14 year old boys.  Yes, interest in the War is more intense in the South than in the remainder of the country, but that isn’t saying much.  Today, Southern 14 year olds are far less distinct from their Northern peers than was the case when Faulkner wrote.

And yes, there are a large number of people with an abiding intellectual interest in the War, some going so far as to want to relive the lives of Confederate soldiers to the extent possible in the modern world (as described in Confederates in the Attic).  But the very intensity and novelty of these aficionados demonstrates how things have changed: whereas during Faulkner’s day a deep, mystic, and romanticized connection with the Civil War was ubiquitous in the South, today any connection is limited to a very few, often quite eccentric, individuals.

Which is for the good.  I am an ardent historical preservationist who believes that the past can be instructive and should be preserved.  But preserving an idealized, romanticized view of a culture that enslaved millions was destructive.  As much as I am in awe of the bravery and martial skill of the soldiers of the Confederacy, I have no fondness for the Lost Cause, which is really a fondness for a profoundly unjust social system, the remnants of which persisted for far too long after the War.  So I am grateful that, in 2010, the Southern boy for whom it is “still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863” is the exception, rather than the rule.

* Pickett’s Division represented only one of three that made the assault.  Two divisions from A. P. Hill’s Corps, Pettigrew’s and Trimble’s, also participated.  (I saw a plaque honoring Pettigrew at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, during a visit in April; he entered the school as a 15 year old.)  Trimble was horribly wounded and captured.  Pettigrew was mortally wounded on the retreat from Gettysburg.  A. P. Hill was physically incapacitated during most of the battle, most likely from the effects of syphilis, and was shot in the last days of the War, during Grant’s final assault on Petersburg.  Pickett’s survival (in a charge that felled every one of his brigade commanders–Garnett and Kemper and Armistead–and all but one regimental commander) and the Virginia-centric bent of post-war historiography ensured the connection between his name and the charge.

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  1. “Hubris born of a year of amazing victories had convinced him that his men could accomplish anything.”

    Not so amazing really. For instance, at Chancellorsville, Lee lost a far greater percentage of his force as casualties than Hooker did. Brilliant tactics on a map, certainly, but wars aren’t won on maps, and since Hooker withdrew in good order, nothing about that battle justified an invasion of the North. Lee started screwing up long before he ordered Pickett’s division to commit suicide.

    Comment by rkka — July 4, 2010 @ 6:04 am

  2. Agree and disagree, rkka. I’m not a Lee worshiper, by any means. To me, the entire Gettysburg campaign was a fiasco. I’m firmly in the Longstreet camp. Re Chancellorsville, what were his alternatives? (Hooker arguably made a great blunder by withdrawing from what were extremely strong lines. But he was psychologically beaten. Grant was probably beaten worse at The Wilderness, but drove forward. If Hooker had been as bloody minded, the Overland Campaign would have played out in ’63 rather than ’64). The Seven Days were badly managed, and Malvern Hill demonstrated Lee’s tendency to blast straight ahead when frustrated (as happened on 7/3/63). Second Manassas was probably his best campaign, even though the casualties there were high as well. Sharpsburg–another demonstration of hubris, which his army barely escaped. Fredericksburg–a gift from an incompetent opponent.

    Lee’s greatest feats were arguably in May-June, 1864.

    Ever read J.F.C. Fuller’s Grant and Lee, or his the Generalship of U.S. Grant? I think these give a fair judgment of Lee’s generalship, and I concur with Fuller’s judgment that Grant was actually the superior commander. The Vicksburg Campaign, which ironically ended 147 years ago today, was by far the most impressive campaign of the CW.

    But you have to admit that even given these cavils, Lee’s achievements June, 1862-June, 1863 amazed the world, and convinced him of the invincibility of his army. Combined with his religiosity, which led him to believe that his achievements were evidence of divine support, it is not surprising that he attempted such things as the assaults at Gettysburg.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — July 4, 2010 @ 7:00 am

  3. Fully agree re: the generalship of Grant. Prior commanders of the Army of the Potomac had forged a fine tool. Grant set it in motion at the Wilderness, and let the remorseless mathematics that were working perfectly well for Hooker play out.

    Comment by rkka — July 4, 2010 @ 9:30 am

  4. Another impending apocalypse moment: rkka and SWP agree on something. LOL. May write something on Vicksburg later.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — July 4, 2010 @ 9:46 am

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