Saturday, June 29, 2013

"The Waterloo of the Rebellion"

The Battle of Gettysburg took place almost exactly 150 years ago [July 1-3, 1863]. Allen Guelzo writes:
Looking back 20 years after it was fought, Alexander Stewart Webb declared that the Battle of Gettysburg "was, and is now throughout the world, known to be the Waterloo of the Rebellion.”

Certainly Webb had earned the right to judge. He was in command of the Union brigade that absorbed the spearpoint of the battle’s climax on July 3, 1863, the great charge of the Confederate divisions commanded by George E. Pickett. ....

.... Gettysburg may have been the last solid chance the breakaway southern states had of winning the Civil War and their independence. In battle after battle, Robert E. Lee had led his ragtag Confederate forces, the Army of Northern Virginia, to victory over the Union Army of the Potomac. But the victories were all won on Virginia’s soil, and they enfeebled the Virginia economy even as they defended it. Lee knew that only by carrying the war into the Union states and leveraging the war-weariness of the Union into peace negotiations could the Confederacy hope to win. ....
Guelzo is the author of Gettysburg: The Last Invasion, one of many books published during the last few years recalling the events and sacrifices of the American Civil War. Guelzo's is one of many non-fiction accounts of the battle and is being praised both as an historical account and as a very interesting and well-written account. I've ordered it and look forward to reading it over the next few days. Until now my best sense of the battle came from a novel, The Killer Angels by Michael Schaara. The New York Times provides an interesting story about Schaara and "Making 'Killer Angels'":
One-hundred-and-one summers after the Battle of Gettysburg, a family of four stopped their Nash Rambler at the site during a 1,000-mile drive from the New York World’s Fair to Tallahassee, Fla. The father was a New Jersey-born former boxer, paratrooper and policeman who became a creative writing instructor at Florida State after enrolling to study opera. Before arriving at the park he had published dozens of science-fiction short stories, but nothing about history. But he had researched several Gettysburg participants for the trip, and he fascinated his daughter Lila and son Jeff with stories of his favorites while the family walked the grounds. They ended up staying for several days, because Michael Shaara was in the early stages of creating his masterpiece novel, The Killer Angels.

Partly owing to meticulous research, it took Shaara seven years to finish the manuscript. Relying chiefly on first-person accounts like memoirs, diaries and letters, he pioneered a new type of historical novel. Normally such stories revolve around fictitious characters in real events.... In contrast, The Killer Angels uses a combination of recorded and fictional dialogue, as well as imagined thoughts and incidents, to tell the Gettysburg story from the viewpoint of actual participants.

Shaara’s extra burden was to portray such speculation in a manner authentic to the characters, which compelled him to research men like Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Winfield Scott Hancock and John Buford in such depth that he once told an interviewer he was “visited” by them. Thus, when the author has the Confederate general Longstreet advise a poker-playing neophyte that his odds of drawing an inside straight are “none,” he foreshadows the general’s future anguish when ordered to direct Pickett’s Charge while simultaneously hinting at the temptation the assault presented to Lee, desperate for a winning hand.

When attempted by a less conscientious researcher, Shaara’s technique brims with danger. As a science-fiction writer he understood Oscar Wilde’s implication, “Audiences will believe the impossible but never the implausible.” ....

Shaara succeeded so brilliantly that he shifted the accepted historical interpretations and even changed the park’s landscape. .... Before the novel, park grounds contained no monument to Longstreet, while its most popular site today, where Chamberlain and the 20th Maine regiment fought on Little Round Top, was hard to find. Shaara resurrected Chamberlain as a hero, and he has remained one of the most popular figures associated with the battle ever since. ....

Initially the novel sold modestly, but its critical reception was astounding: the following year, The Killer Angels won the Pulitzer Prize. .... [more]
Why did Lee lose the battle? Geoffrey Norman quotes George Pickett:
Several explanations have been proposed. Lee himself believed that if he’d had Stonewall Jackson with him, things would have gone the other way. In the end, George Pickett may have come up with the best answer: “I always thought,” he said, “that the Yankees had something to do with it.”
Norman's article is a good summary account of the entire battle.

Twilight of the Confederacy | National Review Online, Making 'Killer Angels' - NYTimes.com, A Great Battlefield - The Weekly Standard