Gettysburg--the long retreat to Virginia

July 4, 1863 is a really remarkable day in American and Civil War history.  Independence Day took on a special meaning that year.  The Union Army of the Potomac had stood firm at Gettysburg and turned back Robert E Lee's last throw of the dice, and more importantly, General Sam Grant and his Army of the Tennessee accepted the Confederate surrender at Vicksburg.

This headline from a Civil War newspaper says it all.

Historians still debate the real affect of Gettysburg on the war...especially since it went on for another bloody 21 months.  But there can be no doubt that although the Union did not win the war that day...they did not lose it either.  And, most historians, including yours truly, believe that in the strategic scheme of things, the Union victory at Vicksburg was much more significant.  With Grant's victory, the Confederacy was truly cut in two and the mighty Mississippi was now completely in Union hands, a sure sign of ultimate victory.

As my man Ralph Peters noted in his column I discussed yesterday, Gen George Meade gets a generally bum rap from Civil War historians, and a great deal of criticism is levied at him for not vigorously riding down Lee's army and destroying it before they can retreat back into Virginia.  I think this is a really absurd criticism.  As I also noted yesterday, Civil War battles tended to leave both winners and losers bloodied, nearly out of ammunition and food, and usually burdened with thousands of wounded men to tend to.  All of these were certainly true at Gettysburg, in addition to a heavy rainstorm that started on July 4.

One of the recent areas of Civil War scholarship is the story of that long and bitter retreat from Gettysburg for Lee's Army..pursued by Union cavalry and followed by Meade's army at a respectful distance.  It is safe to say that Lee certainly did not feel defeated, and was looking for an opportunity to turn and snap at Meade if the chance presented itself.  Meade did not take the bait, and Lee was able to finally slip across the Potomac on July 14.

I think the criticism of Meade is unfair...having just seen what well dug-in infantry can do, he would have been just as criticized if he had launched a headlong charge at Lee's army in the final entrenchments at Williamsport.  It is amazing to me that the full blown frontal assault was even still contemplated in the Civil War after the carnage and futility of Fredericksburg and Gettysburg, but those tactics would continue to be used at Cold Harbor, Franklin and Nashville, always with the same result...high casualties for the attackers, minimal loss for the defenders.

So, one of the better books to come out recently is by a trio of authors and does a great job of detailing the cavalry skirmishes, pursuits and fights during the long retreat.  This is a book that's long overdue and final tells the incredible tale of how close the Union army actually came to trapping Lee's army.  Although Jeb Stuart clearly bungled his assignment leading up to the battle, his cavalry also clearly saved the day for Lee's battered army, particularly the lumbering wagon train carrying thousands of wounded Confederates back to Virginia.

The book by Brown is, well highly detailed to the point of almost tedious, in my opinion.  He has clearly done his research, but large parts of the book read almost like an after-action S-1 report..for you army guys.  It is not nearly as action packed as the other volume and is a good pedestrian, but uninspiring, work on the aftermath of the battle.

Now, here's a wildcard recommendation.  If you like alternate history...and I LOVE good alternate history, then I'd like to recommend Newt Gingrich's trilogy on the battle.  I know liberals will cringe, but Gingrich is a pretty decent historian and a darn fine writer.  I was skeptical myself, but they are plausible and enjoyable books that take a completely different ending than I expected.


Anonymous said…
I think that the effect of Gettysburg on the North was to solidify the corporate will to continue the fight. To win, all Lee had to do was not lose, outlasting the North's will to continue to the uncompromising end. Washington was in the same position, all he had to to was not lose, a fact I am sure, not lost on Gen. Lee. Even with the loss of Vicksburg, Lee still had the capability to simply outlast the Northern corporate will to continue to the bitter end. Three events (IMHO) brought this possibility to a fruitless end. The loss at Gettysburg with its attendant loss of initiative, The ascendency of Grant to command in the East and Lincoln's reelection. With the last, Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia's fate was sealed. A fact also not lost on Gen. Lee, a most prescient leader.