Saturday, May 28, 2005

Remembering the Union 3rd Corps

On Day 2 of the Battle of Gettysburg, Union Major General Daniel Edgar Sickles was not happy. His friend, Major General Joseph "Fighting Joe" Hooker had been relieved of command just 5 days earlier. During the Federals' movement into Pennsylvania, the new commanding general, George Gordon Meade, had rebuked Sickles for his slowness in marching his men to where General Meade wished them to be. Now, on July 2nd 1863, Meade ordered Sickles to position his Corps on the ground to the left of Major General Winfield Scott Hancock's Second Corps, extending the Union line down to Little Round Top.

Gazing over the fields, the dissatisfied Sickles wanted his men elsewhere. His orders would place his Corps along the section of Cemetery Ridge lowest in elevation of any in their line, forty or so feet lower than a ridge he could see out to his front. The position he preferred would follow the Emmitsburg Road south, bend back through a peach orchard, and end at a cluster of boulders known as the Devil's Den, just southwest of Little Round Top. Without the authorization to do so, he would move his men forward.

During what Confederate General James Longstreet would later call "the best three hours' fighting ever done by any troops on any battle-field", Sickles' Corps would be savaged by the Southern assault to come later that day. As the Confederates surged forward, Major General Sickles would have his right leg blown apart by a Confederate artillery round as he strove to save his crumbling line. Game to the end, Sickles' men carried him from the field smoking a cigar in part to maintain the morale of his retreating men.

For his actions that day, Sickles has received much criticism. Perhaps this is justified. His men however, often seem relegated to the status of also-rans during each re-telling of this epic battle. With talk of the Wheatfield, the Irish Brigade often takes center stage. Colonel Strong Vincent, Lieutenant Hazlett, Brigadier General Weed, Colonel Patrick O'Rourke, and Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain, occupy much time when discussing the Union left. Consideration of the ground further up Cemetery Ridge elicits glorious discussions of Colonel Willard's charge against Confederate Brigadier General William Barksdale or of the 1st Minnesota's grand display of valor, courage, and supreme sacrifice. All rightfully so.

But what of the men of the 3rd Corps? What of their contribution to the Union cause on this most destructive of these three days of battle? The 3rd Corps' 141st Pennsylvania would suffer horrendous losses during the struggle to hold their ground. In his official report, the regiment's commander, Colonel Henry Madill, would claim the loss of 72% of his men. His comment that, "Among the severely wounded, and who have since died, were the color-bearers and all of the color guard" underscored the savagery. In all, they would suffer 149 casualties of their original 209 men.

Although the 141st PA would endure perhaps the highest percentage of casualties, other regiments would tally greater numbers. Suffering the greatest loss, the 26th Pennsylvania, fighting near the Codori Farm would go into battle with 365 men. When the mantle of night decended, they would count 30 men killed, 176 wounded and 7 missing, or a total of 213 casualties (58% of their men).

Other regiments sacrificed likewise. The 20th Indiana counted 156 casualties. The 68th Pennsylvania suffered 152. The 40th New York lost 150 and the 11th New Jersey, 153. This grim ledger would go on as no 3rd Corps regiment was spared. The 115th Pennsylvania claimed the lowest total loss at 24 men.

The 3rd Corps Artillery similarly bore the weight of battle. Battery B, 1st New Jersey Light notes on their monument near the Peach Orchard that they "Fought here from 2 until 7 o'clock, on July 2, 1863, firing 1,300 rounds of ammunition." This was no quick rout. The men of the 3rd Corps fought and fought hard.

According to the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, during the three days that became the Battle of Gettysburg, the Union 3rd Corps would suffer 593 men killed, 3,029 injured, and 589 missing or captured. As Colonel Madill correctly noted, some initially counted as injured would later die from their wounds. Some of the missing also certainly rested with the dead. The 3rd Corps did not fight on Day 1 and few of their men were in harms way on July 3rd. Therefore, most of the loss represented in these figures, some 4,000+ casualties, resulted from hard, determined fighting on that one day, July 2, 1863. The men of the 3rd Corps did their duty, striving to hold their ground. Over 600 would die; thousands would never again be whole. The men of the 3rd Corps earned their place at the Table of Honor.



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Saturday, May 21, 2005

The Suffering of Pickett's Charge

Months ago, I received an e-mail asking about the experiences of the men who were stationed along Seminary Ridge on July 3, 1863 waiting to embark upon their immortal assault. The writer expressed specific interest in what the Southern men endured to make the charge. With some changes, here is how I responded.

On July 3, 1863, the suffering on these fields would be horrendous. Confederate Soldiers from Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, Florida, and Virginia would first endure a 1 to 2 hour cannonade. With no real cover, chance alone would determine if the Federal shells found them or passed harmlessly by in search of another. When the artillery's roar ended, the men in butternut and gray would then of course advance in what would be called Pickett's Charge. About 12,500 Southern men would do their duty, venturing out from the woods and marching about a mile across open, undulating fields towards some 7,000 waiting veteran Union muskets and numerous cannon. Southern casualty estimates usually settle around or slightly above 50%, which include those men who were killed, wounded, and captured.

The suffering here was indescribable. Owing to the Southern Army's inability to recover all of their fallen brothers, nearly 7,000 wounded would be left on the field. Many in severe pain and in desperate need of water, some would lay in the sun and rain for days until Union surgeons could tend to their wounds. Those men that the Army of Northern Virginia could recover traveled in an ambulance train that would stretch on for some 17 miles as they moved towards the relative safety of Virginia soil. The ride was agonizing as the maimed bounced over rough roads in comfortless wagons.

Not all of the suffering here was physical however. Confederate Lieutenant General James Longstreet, who was not wounded at Gettysburg, wept as he reluctantly obeyed General Lee's orders and initiated the charge he believed would prove catastrophic. Major General George Pickett later remarked that General Longstreet said to him, "Pickett, I am being crucified at the thought of the sacrifice of life which this attack will make." General Pickett also described how General Longstreet gave the orders he did not wish to give. "I saw tears glistening on his cheeks and beard. The stern old war-horse, God bless him, was weeping for his men and, I know, praying too that this cup might pass from them. I obeyed the silent assent of his bowed head, an assent given against his own convictions, - given in anguish and with reluctance."

General Pickett, who was also not physically harmed during the assault, was devastated as he watched thousands of his men being cut down. He wrote to his fiancée of how his men trusted him to lead them and how in horror he watched them die. He held General Lee accountable for what occurred and apparently never completely forgave him. Years later, as the pain remained, he would lament bitterly, "That old man had my division slaughtered at Gettysburg."



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Sunday, May 15, 2005

Visiting the Gettysburg Battlefield

Several people have e-mailed about visiting the Battlefield at Gettysburg. Here is part of an e-mail that I sent in response. I removed any personal information and made a correction or two.

"What I found particularly helpful while touring the fields at Gettysburg were the self guided battlefield tours. The best of the bunch, in my opinion, is the tour produced by TravelBrains. You can find it and several others in the Visitor's Center Book Store. Most of the other tours are pretty good. One or two aren't worth buying (again just in my opinion). The TravelBrains tour lasts about 2 1/2 hours, if I recall correctly, and covers the entire battle along with some human interest stories along the way.

Another option, if your budget allows, would be to hire a Licensed Battlefield Guide. I believe that they charge $40 for 2 hours. They accompany you in your car as you drive through the park and will discuss whatever you like. They can provide a general overview or focus exclusively on aspects of the battle of your choosing. I have to admit that, at least for me, it was a bit awkward initially having a complete stranger suddenly driving around in my car. But, in the end, I found myself very much enjoying the experience. I have hired guides twice and both proved to be knowledgeable professionals. The Battlefield Guides have a reception desk inside the Visitor's Center. If you are interested, all you need to do would be to ask them if they have a guide available.

A few other options, if they have them scheduled, are the tours, walks, and talks that the park rangers conduct. They always have an events schedule inside the front doors of the Visitor's Center by the entrance to the bookstore that notes the tours on any given day. Many times there are several from which to choose."

What I didn't mention in the e-mail is one of the best ways to see the fields, at least in my opinion. If you're new to the park, after you've familiarized yourself with the battlefield, get a good map from the Visitor's Center, park your car in an area of interest, and walk the grounds. I've visited Gettysburg over 30 times and still have not found all of the markers, monuments, and curiosities within the boundaries of the park. There are rocks with carvings made by the soldiers during return visits to Gettysburg. Some placed plaques in obscure locations where an event significant to the soldiers occurred. The monuments themselves have a wealth of information if you take the time to read their inscriptions. The bookstore has a map which specifically notes every monument, marker, and placard on the field. It's a great reference and it's waterproof.

Of course, the experience changes depending on the time of the year. Many people love visiting in July during the Battle's anniversary. But I can say from experience that, except for early morning, spots like the Copse of Trees, Devil's Den, and Little Round Top, among others, are usually quite crowded during the mid-summer months.

Also, please beware of ticks and poison ivy if you choose to go off the beaten path.

I should say that relic hunting is strictly forbidden and, if you decide to ignore this taboo, you could find yourself in an awkward situation. Remember that these are Federal grounds. But more important than the potential penalties is to remember what occurred at Gettysburg and to do your part to preserve those sacred grounds for future generations. I would respectfully request that visitors keep children from climbing on monuments and cannons and especially the larger rocks on Little Round Top and Culp's Hill. Many have carvings that are disappearing due to wear and erosion, many of which are no longer obvious.

Anyway, for those thinking of Visiting Gettysburg, I hope that helps. For more information, please see the site listed under "Links".



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Saturday, May 14, 2005

A Perspective on Robert E. Lee

Reading over my post from last Sunday, I couldn't stop thinking about a spot from a History Channel documentary on the final month of the war and the impact Robert E. Lee had on the healing of the war's many wounds. Of course, no brief posting can adequately capture the essence of Lee or hope to summarize his person and character. Those who seek to rightfully challenge his post-war deification often underscore his turning a blind eye to the capturing and selling of free blacks during the Gettysburg Campaign. However, the History Channel's account of the former General's actions after the war certainly offers a different perspective. I have transcribed a portion of that documentary below. After reviewing it several times, I'm confident I have made no errors or omissions of the narration accompanying the description of Lee's actions one day after his surrender at Appomattox. However, any errors discovered would be strictly my own. Now from "April 1865: The Month That Saved America". (The History Channel, Copyright 2003)

"It's a warm spring Sunday at Saint Paul's Episcopal Church in Richmond. As the minister is about to present Holy Communion, a tall well-dressed black man sitting in the section reserved for African Americans unexpectedly advances to the communion rail; unexpectedly because this has never happened here before.

The congregation freezes. Those who have been ready to go forward and kneel at the communion rail remain fixed in their pews. The minister stands in his place stunned and motionless. The black man slowly lowers his body, kneeling at the communion rail.

After what seems an interminable amount of time, an older white man rises. His hair snowy white, head up, and eyes proud, he walks quietly up the isle to the chancel rail.

So with silent dignity and self-possession, the white man kneels down to take communion along the same rail with the black man.

Lee has said that he has rejoiced that slavery is dead. But this action indicates that those were not idle words meant to placate a Northern audience. Here among his people, he leads wordlessly through example. The other communicants slowly move forward to the altar with a mixture of reluctance and fear, hope and awkward expectation. In the end, America would defy the cruel chain of history besetting nations torn apart by Civil War."

I don't think there is anything I can add that speaks louder than his actions that day.



PS: If you are interested, the History Channel has this DVD for sale at their web site.

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Sunday, May 08, 2005

The question of Robert E. Lee's Greatness

Here is part of another e-mail that I received back in January of 2004 from a woman in the United Kingdom. A very kind reader, she wrote, "Does Robert E Lee deserve to be remembered as a great General? The more I look into his character the more I think he does deserve the title. I would love to know what you think."

This is how I responded.

Robert E Lee, Courtesy of the National Archives"I've often wondered about the validity of the many America Civil War spawned reputations. I should say that I have not extensively studied General Lee. I consider myself still new to the subject of the American Civil War and seriously doubt that I am qualified to adequately answer your question. However, I'll try anyway and you can be the judge.

When people ask about Lee's greatness, I first have to wonder how they define "great". Certainly he did not attain the goals he set for himself. After Gettysburg, he said to Jefferson Davis, " one is more aware than myself of my inability for the duties of my position. I cannot even accomplish what I myself desire. How can I fulfill the expectations of others?" Ultimately, even his victories cost him the men and resources he could not spare.

But, it's my understanding that his goals were political as well as military. He knew the South needed foreign recognition in order to gain independence and gambled that his aggressive Maryland and then Gettysburg campaigns might bring this about. He knew that the South would lose a protracted conflict. They needed to score a string of convincing victories to gain European intervention. They did not and his first reversal in the North allowed what may have proven to be the death nail to Southern recognition...Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. To me, the South's last hope for foreign intervention after Gettysburg would have been Lincoln's loss of the 1864 election. But it was Sherman's success and Grant's resolve that led to Lincoln's second term and made the Confederacy's end only a matter of time. Had Lee not initially been so aggressive, he may have later had the men to challenge Grant to the degree necessary to contribute to Northern dissatisfaction and the election of McClellan in '64. He did not however and the war ended soon afterwards.

But Lee's greatness can't be limited to the battlefield scorecard. The intangibles made him what he was and what he has become. He inspired the loyalty of his men. His shouldering of the loss at Gettysburg saying that it was "All my fault" lead some to view him as sublime. Militarily, he lead one of the greatest reversals of fortune in history ejecting the Army of the Potomac from the Gates of Richmond, soundly defeating General Pope at 2nd Manassas, and then taking the war to the North, all in just a few months time. He arguably achieved more with his ragged, shoeless, outnumbered band that was the Army of Northern Virginia than any other commander would have.

I wonder though if this question can be answered without considering that he fought for and inspired a nation formed to protect the institution of human slavery. He was certainly aware of the various Declarations of Causes issued by the seceding states and their focus on slavery. As Mississippi stated, "Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world." Can a man truly be considered great whose efforts directly or indirectly contributed to such an abomination?

Certainly, the post-war deification of Lee by his fellow Virginian's and the scapegoating of Longstreet contributed to his soon-to-be untouchable stature. But Lee the man was apparently not corrupted by political ambition. He was deeply religious. He was a gentleman. And he gave the South a reason to hope, even if that hope proved to be short lived. After the war, he led an even greater number as he helped those in the South who were ready to mend fences with their recent Northern foes.

So to answer your question, in my opinion, yes, General Lee deserves to be remembered as a great General. I suppose that the fact that a woman from Scotland e-mailed a stranger from the United States to ask his opinion 130 plus years after Robert E. Lee passed away speaks volumes on the impact of a man neither ever met."

Reading this more than a year later, I certainly left out much. But hopefully, some of it still stands.

Enjoy the Day.


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Saturday, May 07, 2005

The Brothers War

One of the reasons I remain fascinated with the American Civil War concerns the idea of brother fighting against brother. An e-mail I received in March of 2004 asked this question:

"This war is described as 'brother against brother'. I would love to know of any specific cases where this is true, such as best friends forced to fight against each other."

I responded:

"There are so many just during the Battle of Gettysburg. Rudolph Schwarz who fought for the Union on day 1 found his brother among Confederate prisoners. Wesley Culp for whose family Gettysburg's Culp's Hill was named, fought for the South and died during the battle. Henry Wentz, who also fought for the Confederates, stormed Union lines near his boyhood home just south of Gettysburg. Close friends Winfield Scott Hancock and Lewis Armistead fought on opposite sides with General Armistead receiving his mortal wound during Pickett's Charge in front of General Hancock's troops at Gettysburg. When the war started, Armistead and Hancock were serving together in California. As they parted ways, Armistead said something along the lines of "may God strike me dead if I ever lift a hand against you."

Other examples include Union General John Gibbon who had brothers who fought for the south. Confederate Cavalry Commander JEB Stuart's father-in-law fought for the Union. President Lincoln had relatives (on his wife's side I believe) who fought for the South."

Many of the stories noted above are discussed in the TravelBrain's Battlefield guides available on-line and at the Battlefields' Visitor's Centers. If you are new to the individual battles, these self guided audio tours are a great place to start. (No, TravelBrains is not connected with this site. I just like their products).

OK, that's just one e-mail of many more to come.



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