Thursday, July 11, 2013

13 Things I Learned about the Battle of Gettysburg

Rangers and volunteers from the James A. Garfield National Historic Site have been hosting a monthly series of talks about the battles of the Civil War at the Mentor Public Library.

On Wednesday, Park Ranger Todd Arrington talked about the Battle of Gettysburg. The talk corresponded with the battle's sesquicentennial earlier this month.

Here are 13 things I learned from Mr. Arrington:

1. The Battle of Gettysburg is one of the single most studied battles in the world -- not just in America, the whole world.

It's still studied at West Point and it's even studied at the Naval Academy even though it was a landlocked battle that predates the Navy.

2. Gettysburg came on the heels of the Battle of Chancellorsville, one of Confederate General Robert E. Lee's finest hours.

After the loss at Chancellorsville, Abraham Lincoln wanted to replace Major Gen. Joseph Hooker as the head of the Army of the Potomac. But his first choice wasn't General George Meade.

Instead, Lincoln offered the position Major Gen. John Reynolds who declined. (According to Arrington, Reynolds would only accept the job if Lincoln could assure him that he wouldn't have to deal with politicians in Washington second-guessing him.)

With Reynolds uninterested, Lincoln commanded -- not offered, commanded -- Meade to take the lead.

3. Lee had originally intended to invade Harrisburg, Penn. However, he abandoned that strategy when he heard Meade had replaced Hooker.

Lee had more respect for Meade as a general than he did for Hooker -- the two had served together in the U.S.-Mexican War -- and Lee opted for a more cautious strategy.

4. It's a popular myth that the Battle of Gettysburg began because the Confederate Army was looking to commandeer new shoes. Arrington said the story is unfounded.

5. The battle began on July 1, 1863 when Union Brig. General John Buford's cavalry division ran into two large Confederate corps.

The Union held the high ground at McPherson Ridge, but they were badly outnumbered. Making the disparity even worse, the cavalry had to fight unmounted and (because of that) about one-fourth of Buford's 2,100 soldiers were stuck holding the horses instead of engaging in combat.

However, Buford was able to hold the high ground until reinforcements arrived.

6. The aforementioned Reynolds arrived and assumed command of the Union Army. However, he was soon shot and killed.

Then Maj. General Abner Doubleday -- who is often erroneously credited as the inventor of baseball -- took command. Maj. Generals Oliver Howard and Winfield Scott Hancock would also briefly have control of the Army of the Potomac until Meade arrived.

7. Toward the end of the day, Lee ordered his Lt. General Richard Stoddert Ewell to take Cemetery Hill (which was desirable high ground) "if practicable."

Those two words have resonated through history. Ewell ultimately decided that it was not practicable. Some historians have argued that Ewell's predecessor -- Gen. Stonewall Jackson who died from friendly fire during the Battle of Chancellorsville -- would have taken the hill. Moreover, they suggest that possession of that hill could have swayed the outcome of the battle and, perhaps, the war.

But, for whatever reason, the hill was not taken.

8. Let's take a second to talk about Union Maj. General Daniel Sickles III. Sickles was an interesting man. Not only did he kill his wife's lover, he was the first man to be found not guilty for reasons of temporary insanity.

The man who he killed, by the way, was Francis Scott Key's son.

9. On Day 2, Lee attempted a flanking maneuver -- similar to what had done successfully at Chancellorsville. He ordered Lt. General James Longstreet to attack the Union's left flank.

In the meantime, Sickles was stationed at Cemetery Hill but he fancied higher ground along Emmitsburg Road. Against Meade's orders, Sickles advanced -- leaving a hole in the Union line.

However, the plan -- insubordinate or otherwise -- worked. Sickles' soldiers delayed Longstreet and exhausted his ranks so they were not at full strength when they reached Little Round top.

Years after the war, Longstreet himself wrote that Sickles had saved the Union Army.

10. Anyone who's seen Gettysburg or read Killer Angels knows about Col. Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine. They were the extreme left flank of the Union Army. If the Confederates got around them, they could flank the whole army.

The 15th Alabama repeatedly charged up Little Round Top but could not get around Chamberlain's men. Toward the end of the day, the 20th Maine ran out of ammunition and they ended up repulsing the Confederates with a bayonet charge.

Later in his life, Chamberlain said he ordered his troops to fix bayonets but he didn't explicitly order a charge. Instead, the charge happened organically as a matter of necessity (but it did make for a nice scene in the movie.)

Ultimately, Longstreet's men were rebuffed.

11. Lee figured if the Union's flanks were strong, its middle must be weak.

Consequently, he ordered a full-on assault of the Union Army's center on Day 3. It's commonly known as Pickett's Charge.

It required nine brigades -- 13,000 soldiers -- to advance over a mile of uncovered ground while being fired at by Union muskets and cannons.

Lee tried to soften the Union line with artillery attacks and additional flanking maneuvers beforehand, but it did not work. Ultimately, the charge was a massacre. More than 50 percent of the Confederate soldiers in the charge did not survive.

It did not help that several farmers' fences blocked the Confederates' advance and had to be torn down or climbed over.

12. Gettysburg was the largest battle fought on the American continent. About 45,000 soldiers died. (That's a conservative estimate. Some guess as high as 51,000.) Both the Union and Confederacy lost about 22,000 men each. The difference: the Union lost about a fourth of their army; the smaller Confederacy lost about a third.

13. We can't talk about Gettysburg without mentioning the Gettysburg Address.

Lincoln wasn't even the featured speaker at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery on Nov. 19, 1863. That was Edward Everett. He spoke for more than two hours.

Then, Lincoln stood and spoke 271 words that have not been forgotten since.

The Garfield National Historic Site will return to the Mentor Public Library on Aug. 14. The topic will be the Battle of Chattanooga. You can register for the talk here.

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