Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Lee Lost Gettysburg

150 years ago was the second day at the Battle of Gettysburg, one of the great turning points of the Civil War. It has been remembered, especially in Southern circles, as a moment of tragic inevitability, a payment to the gods of war that the Confederacy owed for the privilege of having Robert E. Lee in command. In the years hence—starting almost immediately after the war ended—countless books and accounts of the battle have been written all attempting to unburden the ghost of Lee of the dishonor of having lost such a crucial battle.

There has been a bewildering array of culprits in the Army of Northern Virginia blamed for the defeat by Lee enthusiasts and Lost Causers. These scapegoats seem to come in and out of style like pleated pants; and like pleated pants, they should never be in style. Lee's second-in-command James Longstreet was for decades accused of taking too long to get his men in position for the assault on Little Round Top on Day 2. Michael Shaara's book The Killer Angels repaired his reputation significantly, but not by condemning Lee so much as shifting the blame to cavalry commander Jeb Stuart and Stonewall Jackson's replacement, Dick Ewell. Stuart has been blamed for joy riding without communicating the Union position to Lee, as if that made a difference to Lee's lack of conviction on Day 2 or his prideful stupidity on Day 3. By that time, Lee knew where the Union army was: directly in front of him on the high ground. Ewell was supposed to take Culp's Hill on far left side of the Confederate position, but as Terry Jones writes in today's Disunion column at The New York Times, Ewell was given mixed signals by Lee and his underlings all day.

In later years, the unorthodox Confederate Ranger John Mosby complained of the many histories of the war being written, "The whole trouble I have is butting up against the popular belief in the infallibility of General Lee." (Mosby, it should be noted, had his own skin in the game, since he had scouted and recommended Jeb Stuart's circuitous path into Pennsylvania.) Mosby wasn't alone. The canonizing of Lee rankled all those officers who wondered why they were being blamed after Lee ordered General George Pickett and his three fresh divisions to charge the fully entrenched federal position over a mile away across open ground.

Statue of the Recumbent Lee by Edward Valentine

Here is Lee, the man who lost the South the most important battle of the war, laid to rest in Arthurian glory in the Lee Chapel, a national historic landmark at Washington and Lee University.

No comments:

Post a Comment