Saturday, August 6, 2011

Lee's Biggest Mistake

Years later, when asked why his charge at Gettysburg failed, General Pickett replied: "I've always thought the Yankees had something to do with it."

History's heroes are often created by historians who focus on the great achievements of great men. Sometimes they turn a blind eye to the warts, wrinkles and bad judgment exhibited by these self-same men.

The first 100 years after the Civil War one such general whose name is associated with honor, bravery, and inspirational leadership was Robert E. Lee of Virginia. Is it possible that Lee's own decisions as a general are what led the Southern armies to their downfall? Is it possible the entire war could have had a different outcome had he chosen not to engage the enemy, the Union armies, at Gettysburg?

A couple weeks ago I watched the second movie of the series Gods and Generals. It's a bit tedious as a film, but makes for a good overview of one of the decisive battles in U.S. history, for after the failure at Gettysburg and fall of Vicksburg, the tide of hope that infused the confederates receded, and continued to recede, till the end of the war two years later.

Was "Pickett's Charge" the South's last hurrah? If you've never been to Gettysburg, just seeing the terrain is itself a memorable experience. To simply read the words and look at maps in a book doesn't capture it. The film makes a good attempt to present the challenges facing the South when they chose this place to encounter the enemy. But it really comes home to you when you actually stand on the ridge above and see the expanse of land the Confederate army had to cross simply to reach the Union soldiers lining the high ground, protected by a wall no less.

After watching the film I looked for some online discussion on this matter that might add new insights. I soon found myself at a blog called Crossroads, "where history, scholarship, the academic life and other stuff meet." The Crossroads blog is a feast of good discussions. Check out the 18 comments on Lee at Gettysburg which begins with this statement and a pair of questions:

In June 1863 Robert E. Lee decided to invade the North. Was this the best choice he could have made? Why or why not? What else could he have done?

What would have happened had Lee chosen not to engage the Union armies and simply turned left and continued wreaking havoc wherever they went. Think about the buzz, and terror this might have caused. Or think about how his armies would have fared had they located and became entrenched in a position more suitable for fighting, high ground that they themselves could defend.

Stonewall Jackson's Shenandoah Valley campaign was effective at creating terror in the North because he had a much smaller army to move about. The supply lines issue became a moot point for Jackson's mounted horsemen.

Some of the other discussions at
the Crossroads site are interesting as well. Visit, bookmark, and return the next time you need a stimulating read on some important moments in history.

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