It happened today - July 3, 2015

Pickett's ChargeOn July 3, 1863, the Union won the Civil War. Or perhaps one should say the Confederacy lost it. Or perhaps neither.

July 3 was the final day of the pivotal battle of Gettysburg, including the lunatic venture known as Pickett’s Charge. Whatever qualities Robert E. Lee possessed as a commander, and they were rightly legendary, they seem to have deserted him on that occasion. I’ve just rewatched the brilliant movie Gettysburg, partly because we were just at the battlefield last month as part of our Magna Carta documentary (if you’re wondering what the connection is, watch the documentary when it appears.) And I fantasize about being among the generals trying to talk Lee out of ordering the attack, including his right-hand man James Longstreet, and saying “Sir, if you held that high ground and the Union commander ordered his men to advance across all that open ground exposed to superior artillery fire, you would consider him unfit to command, would you not?”

Except as with all such scenarios, if I could have given Lee advice that would help the Confederacy win I would not give it. Even though it meant the death of many brave men who deserved a better cause than slavery which was at the core of the Confederacy no matter what excuse anyone makes. If I could have been anywhere at Gettysburg, in my fantasies, I would have wanted to be with Joshua Chamberlain’s 20th Maine at Little Round Top. And if you don’t know that story, watch the movie… although I warn you that if you read a biographical sketch of Chamberlain you are likely to feel that you have wasted your life. But I digress.

The most amazing thing about Gettysburg is that Lee ordered the fatal advance on July 3 despite all the advice he did get and the judgement he unquestionably did possess. The only explanation I can find is that he knew the war was lost and couldn’t face the fact and reached for a miracle because nothing else would do.

Which is why I say Gettysburg may not have been as important as it looked. The Union had, it is true, managed to lose almost every battle that attracted major attention despite having superior forces. They had lost repeatedly on Southern soil and now the war was coming North. And a major loss at Gettysburg would have been harmful for morale and put Washington DC itself in peril. And yet there is another way of looking at the matter.

Despite what was happening in the East, the heroics of the Army of Northern Virginia, and the peculiar paralysis that seemed to afflict many Union commanders, there was another war being fought in the West, down the Mississippi, splitting the Confederacy and exposing Lee’s strategic rear. The day after Gettysburg, July 4, Grant captured Vicksburg, Mississippi, the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi, as part of the aptly named Anaconda Plan that would indeed asphyxiate and crush the South inexorably.

Still, there is something fitting that on July 4th, with Lee in retreat, the Union had driven the South’s greatest commander permanently from its soil along with the Confederacy’s most storied army. It was a remarkable victory and deserves its place in the national mythology. And if you’ve never been to the battlefield and get a chance, you should definitely go.