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HIST 119: The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877
- "War So Terrible": Why the Union Won and the Confederacy Lost at Home and Abroad
This lecture probes the reasons for confederate defeat and union victory. Professor Blight begins with an elucidation of the loss-of-will thesis, which suggests that it was a lack of conviction on the home front that assured confederate defeat, before offering another of other popular explanations for northern victory: industrial capacity, political leadership, military leadership, international diplomacy, a pre-existing political culture, and emancipation. Blight warns, however, that we cannot forget the battlefield, and, to this end, concludes his lecture with a discussion of the decisive Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July of 1863.
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The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877
HIST 119 - Lecture 18 - "War So Terrible": Why the Union Won and the Confederacy Lost at Home and Abroad
Chapter 1. Introduction [00:00:00]
Professor David Blight: I want to start with what many Americans therefore do with it. Some of you in this room may have grown up Civil War buffs, like I did, I confess. There are millions of Civil War tourists. It has this enduring — the military history in particular, the battle history — has an enduring, eternal hold on our imagination. But this is a first for me. I just got this email, well, a couple of weeks ago, from a woman named Nicki Blackburn in Charleston, South Carolina; has her photograph on it. She’s a real estate agent, a pretty real estate agent. [Laughter] And she wanted me to know as a Civil War historian that she and her firm have put a twenty-four hour webcam on the Calhoun Mansion near Battery Park — on the cupola of the Calhoun Mansion — near Battery Park in Lower Charleston, which looks out directly onto Fort Sumter, a mile away, so that you can dialup on the Internet and watch Fort Sumter twenty four hours a day. [Laughter] I’ve experienced a wide variety of bizarre phenomena about the Civil War with reenactors, at sites and so on and so on and so on. And if you’re on C-SPAN enough believe me, you get every kind of late-night, crazy American writing to you. But that’s a first. Twenty-four hours, webcam, Fort Sumter. I don’t know what the hell you’re supposed to see. [Laughter] Maybe there are ghosts of Confederates that come out at night, and if they have the right kind of night vision…God I don’t know. But she’s serious! I’m sorry.
All right. In 1863, on the beautiful little hilltop cemetery on the south edge of the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania — a small, sleepy town with a large population of German immigrants, a couple of little shoe factories, a crossroads town, a market town — they had a cemetery in this beautiful setting. And, over the archway, or as part of the archway into that cemetery that would soon become famous, there was a sign that read, quote, “All persons found using firearms on these grounds will be prosecuted within the utmost rigor of the law.” Irony makes the world go ‘round.
Okay, today I want to take up with you at least the beginnings of the question of Confederate defeat and Union victory. We’re going to focus in particular on battlefronts. There are numerous reasons, explanations, causal interpretations for Confederate defeat and Union victory that have flowed forth in Civil War scholarship for years. And we began to have a new kind of heated argument about it, at least in books, about 10 years ago, in part because of a series of two books by historians named Hattaway and Beringer. They wrote two big tomes. One was entitled Why the North Won the Civil War, and the other was entitled Why the South Lost the Civil War; not very subtle titles. And they were the ones who posited, more than anyone ever had before, in a much more sophisticated way — and I want to come back to that, and it’s part of exactly what’s at stake in these two wonderful books you’re reading, or have read, or are about to read, by Drew Faust and Gary Gallagher. Gallagher’s Confederate War and Faust’s Mothers of Invention take up this question of the so-called loss of will. Did the South lose the Civil War because it ultimately lost its will to sustain the fight? There are many sides to that argument, and I’ll take it up in a moment.
I want to do — [Technical adjustment]. Well anyway, the Civil War, as we’ve said many times, is the first great photographed event of American history. There are thousands of photographs. We’d have had thousands more if people hadn’t destroyed so many of them. And, of course, Ken Burns’s film series is in part — in great part — reliant on those photographs, and he and his cameramen, of course, they have cameras now that can take right inside almost these old daguerreotypes and tintypes and make them live in ways that they didn’t at the time. But that’s an image of soldiers at the front, smoking a pipe, petting his dog. It’s an officer whose wife has come to the front, of course. It’s winter quarters, near Culpepper Courthouse, Virginia, 1863. They always built these cabins with these chimneys. They built thousands of these, with barrels on top; those are their chimneys. Since I’ve been discussing this question of mobilization, there are many, many images in the war, from the war, that show this kind of industrial might of the North. There’s incredible photographs of the James River landings in Virginia by 1864, and just as far as the horizon can see supplies, the materiel piled up all over the wharves. This is an image in Virginia of the wagon trains of the Potomac, Army of the Potomac, by 1864, thousands of wagons. This is mobilization for total war. And I just for the sake of reality want to show that also photographers, like Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardner and their troops of photographers — it was Gardner in particular who went to Gettysburg after the Battle of Gettysburg and photographed so many of them, so many of the dead. This is a soldier, a Union soldier, killed at Gettysburg. It became a kind of macabre fascination, especially in the North where these photographs were often displayed publicly. Brady first started doing it in ‘62 and early ‘63, and hence that famous comment by, I believe, George Templeton Strong who said it was Brady who brought the war into people’s homes, into their living rooms, if they went to witness these photographs.
Chapter 2. Resources, Leadership, Diplomacy: Why the North Won [00:08:10]
Now, more on that perhaps at the end.
But go back with me now to this question of Union victory, Confederate defeat. We’re not going to end the war today, that’s next week, and we’re going to take the war today through 1863, and major military turning points where you can begin to make an argument, from this point forward. From this point forward, it would be very difficult for the Confederacy to win, although not impossible, as we’ll see in 1864. Now on any list — and I’m going to just give you a list out front and then we’ll kind of take up some of them — but on any list of why the North wins and why the South loses, of course, are these elements: One, resources and numbers. It goes without saying in a world of war that is becoming more industrialized, more modern in its weaponry and, to some extent, its tactics — although that’s one of the reasons, of course, casualties in this war were so ghastly because they were fighting with much more modern weapons, repeating rifles and of course the rifled musket that could actually hit something at 800 yards and it could be deadly at 2 to 300 yards. Think of that, 2 to 300 yards. You could hit something and see it. But they were fighting with old tactics, line upon line, shoulder to shoulder, double ranks. If the front of the rank fell, the second rank was supposed to be there, and they were supposed to have loaded their rifles in time to be up front while the other ones went back and reloaded again, and that a veteran soldier in this war could load his muzzle loader — you had to load the minie ball and the cap, back here, and then with your ramrod — a veteran soldier could do that without pressure about three times a minute. Of course under the pressure of battle and being shot at and the cacophony of sound and the terror and fear a soldier went though, sometimes they couldn’t perform that. And all over battlefields in this war they would find dead soldiers sometimes with a rifle they had loaded three and four times, and never fired. They just kept loading. They’d sort of lose their minds.
But in a war that is now fought with such weaponry — and it’s going to depend on industrial production — there is an argument that this war was won by the North in the shoe factories of Lowell, Massachusetts, or the gun factories of New Haven, or the gun factories of Springfield, Mass, in the sheer productive — or on those railroads of the North, which was so much better, more efficient, than the railroads of the South. There’s certainly an argument for that. Now, that handwriting was on the wall from the beginning of the war. In a lovely old book that David Donald did once called Why the North Won, he quotes on the first page of the book a newspaper in Lynchburg, Virginia, summer 1861; the Battle of Bull Run hasn’t even happened yet, and all this fury for war. The editor of the Lynchburg Virginian wrote, quote: “Dependent upon Europe and the North for almost every yard of cloth and every coat and boot and hat that we wear, for our axes, scythes, tubs and buckets, in short for everything except our bread and meat, it must occur to the South that if our relations with the North are ever severed we should” — they’d already been severed — “we should in all the South not be able to clothe ourselves. We could not fill our firesides, plow our fields, nor mow our meadows. In fact, we should be reduced to a state more abject than we are willing to look at, even prospectively, and yet all these things staring us in the face, we shut our eyes and we go in blindfold.” Man, was that prescient. One of the most remarkable facts about the American Civil War — and James McPherson makes a big deal of this in Battle Cry of Freedom, over and over — is that despite their lack of the industrial productivity in relation to the North, it is amazing how long the South held out and amazing how close they actually came to winning their version or definition of victory. The North had more banking, more labor capacity, everything.
Two, an argument has always been made that the North in the end had superior political leadership, i.e., Abraham Lincoln. Now a lot can be made of this, and a lot has been made of this, in book after book comparing Lincoln with Davis. And there’s no question that as an executive, as a leader, as a politician, as a manipulator of people, in terms of an acumen, even a genius for politics and organization, Abraham is about as good as we’ve ever had. Jefferson Davis, on the other hand, smart and brilliant man that he was, a long military career, long service in the Senate, the War Department and all else, was nevertheless not a very good executive. He always had one foot sort of tied in the States’ Rights tradition, and that other foot now, really where his soul was by 1862, ‘63, ‘64, was in trying to create a nation, a centralized nation state, doing all the things that the States’ Rights tradition said he should not. He was not in the end a great war President, in part, some have argued, because he would have preferred to be on the battlefield and not in an executive’s role.
He listened to those generals who were his friends and didn’t tend to listen to those who were not. He often made sort of leadership mistakes such as the time he personally went out West — I’ll come to that in a moment — during the, just before the great campaign for Chattanooga, in late summer and then the fall of 1863, for the possession of this terribly important strategic crossroads in southeast Tennessee, to the gateway into the Deep South, the crossroads of two great southern rivers, the crossroads of the two main east/west southern railroads and so on. He goes out there in the wake of the fall of Chattanooga, when Braxton Bragg’s army had to retreat south, and he goes to the whole — there’d been terrible dissention in that Confederate Army. All the generals wanted Bragg fired and Davis goes out personally to the camp and gathers all the generals around him, with Bragg standing there, and asked all the other generals whether they thought they should have a new commander. And to a man they basically all said “yes,” in front of their commander. And then Davis re-appointed him. It was one of the most bizarre decisions of the war. Bragg was a disaster. But this is the sort of thing that — and Davis and Bragg went back years and they were old friends. And Davis made some strange decisions. But Davis also was handicapped tremendously, politically, by this States’ Rights tradition.
And I would argue one other thing; and it’s really a third reason you can put on this long list of why the North’s going to win this war. The North had an existing political culture, it had an existing political party system. Now we can argue that that political party system was greatly divided, and it was. By ‘63 you’ve got what are called Peace Democrats. The Democratic Party in the North is beginning to argue for a negotiated peace, an end to the war; a divided America, a Confederate States of America and a United States of America. And in 1864 they’re going to run McClellan on that platform — and we’ll talk about how pivotal the ‘64 Election was next week. But you had an existing party system that could organize politics, that could organize dissent, that could channel opposition, and it also gave Abraham Lincoln the cudgel or the whip of partisanship. He could build enough of a coalition to sustain not only the war effort but also to pull off some of that remarkable legislation that I started to talk about last time, especially economic legislation, that really in some ways, for awhile at least, transformed the American central government.
Fourth, one of the principle reasons the North’s going to win this war is that it does ultimately, through some remarkable diplomacy — especially by Charles Francis Adams in London, the U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, grandson of John Adams, son of John Quincy — the fact that in the end the Union government succeeds in keeping Great Britain ostensibly out of the war, at least militarily, mostly, out of the war, is absolutely crucial to Union victory. Had Britain — had Lee won at Antietam — and this is what McPherson means, and many other historians were really doing this before Jim was, but he’s made it his own argument — that you can’t understand Union victory and Confederate defeat without dealing with all kinds of contingencies, moments in the war. If this hadn’t happened then, that can’t happen; if that doesn’t happen then, that can’t happen. And so putting your eggs in any one basket to explain this, or for that matter anything in history, is a bad idea. But one of those contingencies is if Lee wins at Antietam, succeeds in moving further into the North, threatens Northern cities, and the British government formally recognized the Confederacy and formally sent British troops to fight with the Confederacy — rather than just in a sense sending them a shadow navy, which was helping the Confederacy, and building them ships — could’ve had a very different outcome to this war. If the United States had had to fight a second front, in Canada, against the British, just imagine the possible outcomes. So, a very important factor.
Fifth, much has always been made about the so called, in the end, superior military leadership of the North, in the end. And we’ll deal with this much more next week, and a little bit today, when Grant and Sherman and Sheridan and General Thomas and a few others actually finally become the principal leaders of this entire, ultimately coordinated West and East strategic effort against the South, you can argue — although I think too much is often made of this — you can argue that in some ways Grant won the war. There are books that literally argue that, that want to give Grant in so many ways credit for Union victory, and that will argue — and I’ll come back to this next week — that in some ways, as great as Robert E. Lee was as a battlefield commander, as daring as he was, the risks that he took, the ability he had to somehow see a terrain, to see land, to see the possibilities of a landscape and how to move huge numbers of men through it, and the way that he could inspire through a quite amazing level of charisma his officer staff — there’s a lot to the fact that Robert E. Lee himself had a lot to do with sustaining the Confederate war effort as long as it lasted. And Gary Gallagher’s going to make a pretty big deal of that in your book Confederate War. It’s just worth remembering that Gallagher’s source set by and large is the officer corps of Lee’s army. It’s a fine book but you got to remember where his sources are coming from. These are Lee’s lieutenants that he’s quoting over and over and over, and they become about as loyal to a military commander as anyone has ever been in American history.
And then sixth, or whatever number I’m on — and we’ve dealt with this a good deal already, we’ll come back to it later — the policy of emancipation, the transformation of this war into far beyond its original limited aims, into a war that will become a war of conquest. A war, as Lincoln comes to define it in late ‘62, and it’s absolutely clear in ‘63, has to be a war to the ultimate aim of the unconditional surrender of the South, which means a war on their resources, on their society, on their transportation systems, and on slavery — their labor system, their greatest source of wealth — and war on their cities, the people; or as Sherman will say, he wanted to make Georgia howl.
Chapter 3. Frail Nationalism? The Loss-of-Will Theory on Why the South Lost [00:22:16]
All right, now that’s a short list. Now fold into that this theory — it’s a theory — that in the end, you add all this up — resources, political leadership, military leadership, the policy of unconditional surrender, emancipation, keeping Great Britain out of the war, diplomacy and so on and so on, and battlefield victories, as I’ll point out in a second — you get this argument for the loss of morale, loss of will. Now, this was fashioned by historians really who cut their teeth on the Vietnam Era. And they argue that there are plenty of examples throughout history of insurgencies like the Confederacy — that’s what it was, it’s a big one, it’s not just a little guerilla army pecking away at oil lines — but they argue that there are many cases in history. And the most obvious one in the 1970s and ’80s to Americans was North Vietnam, which held out for a generation, really two generations, against the French Empire and then against the United States of America, the biggest military machine in the world. They lost three and half million people, and they won. So suddenly through that experience, through those eyes, some American historians began to look back at the Civil War and say, “You know what? Well wait a minute here, why didn’t the Confederacy hold out even longer?” Yes, there were bread riots, there was some starvation, there was a hell of a lot of desertion, but maybe that’s telling us something. That in the end it wasn’t just Marse Robert and his loyal men, it was the civilians behind the war, it was the home front.
This is what Drew Faust went to all these women’s diaries to try to test, and the argument essentially is that the South didn’t have a sufficient degree of nationalism, of an emotional psychological devotion to a historic nation state that they would do anything to save and preserve, in the ways, let’s say, that the Germans did to the absolute bitter end against the Russians and the Allies on the Western Front in the Second World War. Beringer and Hattaway love the example of Paraguay; nobody knows anything about the story of Paraguay and the way it held out against Brazil, I think it was, as an early twentieth century example. And there’ve been other kinds of guerrilla insurgencies over the years. At the bottom of this argument was why didn’t more Confederate forces, rather than surrender, go off and form guerrilla bands? Why didn’t the American Civil War end the way so many civil wars end — they never quite end? A band of twenty men here and 300 there, going off into the hills, supplying themselves somehow, forming a kind of alternative insurgency that never quite dies. You read a lot of lost cause literature by the late nineteenth century and you would almost think that is what happened. But it didn’t happen. And Beringer and Hattaway have also argued that, in part, the South, once it begins to lose the war in ‘63 and ‘64, that it was Southern Unionists that began to come to the fore, that there were large — and there were — large pockets of unionism, people who didn’t really support the Confederate war effort, in western Virginia and western North Carolina, eastern Tennessee, upland Georgia, in those hills that Sherman’s Army begins to move through and discovers there’s some white folk around who want to support him. In fact, Sherman was much kinder to those Georgia whites than he was to those Georgia blacks who tried to gain freedom by coming to his army. More on Sherman’s racism next week.
Now, in the end this is an argument that what the South lacked was a deep mystical emotional level of nationalism. Well that’s been countered, that’s been countered by numerous historians. Drew Faust is one of them, in an earlier book called The Creation of Confederate Nationalism. She’s been joined, or she actually joined a whole group of historians studying this idea. It’s been one of the recurring, fascinating questions about the Civil War, and the question is essentially what kind of nationalism did the Confederacy actually develop? After all, it only lasted four years. The question really is, was there a confederate nation or were they just a band of states that came together in military defense of homeland? Well there are arguments on all sides of this. And I’ll just say a couple of things. I think those — and it’s Drew Faust, it’s John McCardell, numerous historians. The weight of the best argument, I think, is that the South did indeed, rather quickly — and there’s a lot of lessons in this historically — develop a serious level of this mystical kind of nationalism. They developed an ideology that they said their nation was based on. They said right up front, at the beginning of the war, Jefferson Davis, speech after speech after speech, he said the Confederacy is the logical vessel of the American Revolution; what the Confederacy really was was the carryover of 1776. 1861 was 1776. That George Washington, they will argue, was the founder of the Confederacy. That true American democracy was in this resistance to centralization. They created seals and songs and images and heroes and paintings, poetry, all over the place. They used religion, the same kind of millennial Christianity. The same kind of theory of a divine providence that Northerners are praying to and arguing for is the same kind of millennialism that Confederates are going to argue for. They’re going to say that they are the chosen nation. All over the place, among Southern clergy, that argument is put forth, especially early in the war.
And then lastly, slavery. It is in some ways almost amazing how much Southerners began to defend slavery and the ways they began to defend slavery, during the war, and the ways that they began to link it to their nation, the Confederacy, of how the Confederacy was put into this world to perfect slavery, to improve it, to show the world that this slave society, this system, this biracial system where one race is the labor and the other race is the educated, to show the world the possibilities of that. They even developed a whole variety of traveling Confederate minstrel groups. Minstrelsy had been primarily a phenomenon of the North. Often the audiences were largely white working class, but during the war suddenly you had these Confederate troops of minstrels, all over the place, and new songs and new poems were written that were tied now to the sort of fate of the Confederacy. I’ll just give you one example. There was one minstrel troop known as — these were whites in blackface, keeping morale up. One of them was called Lincoln’s Intelligent Contrabands, and one little verse ran: “I’d rather work the cotton patch and dine on corn and bacon than live up North on good white bread of abolition makin’.” And it gets worse and it goes on and on. And the story or the argument of all these Confederate minstrel songs and the poetry they’re based on is that black people don’t want to be free. They don’t want anything to do with this free labor nonsense, they want to stay where they are.
Chapter 4. The Bloody Battle of Gettysburg [00:30:42]
Now, I invite you to read Gallagher and Faust on this. And Gallagher’s going to make a pretty aggressive argument against the loss of will thesis, and he’s going to argue that Confederate nationalism ultimately resided in those armies, the armies that stuck it out against almost unbelievable odds. All right, but in 1863 the war had major military turning points. And let me take you through some of that, well the three major ones, with some dispatch. But these are, on that short list of I believe five major turning points in the Civil War, I mentioned Gettysburg and Vicksburg. Well, kind of add to that, if you would, the fall of Port Hudson, only a week after Vicksburg out on the Mississippi, and then the ultimate fall, final fall of Chattanooga to Union hands by the fall of 1863.
Now, some maps are in order. The Confederacy won a major victory at the Battle of Chancellorsville near — [technical adjustment] — just west of Fredericksburg the first week of May 1863. This was yet again — you’ll remember the whole, the previous year, a year before this, McClellan had invaded the peninsula up toward Richmond, the Seven Days Campaign and all the rest, defeated, retreated. Lee then invaded the North. He’s going to do exactly the same thing in the summer of 1863, in the wake of what was truly, without a question, a decisive victory at Chancellorsville. Lee held a Council of War in Richmond with Davis and other generals. This time, of course, Stonewall Jackson was not there; he was shot and killed by his own men, after the battle, at night, of Chancellorsville. He lived about a week. That little house where he died and they amputated his arm is a shrine today. If you want to see some Civil War weirdness go to the Stonewall Jackson shrine. And if you ever saw the movie, if you ever endured the movie Gods and Generals, all 4½ hours of it, which I did because I had to write a review of it, you know that they took almost a half hour to have Stonewall Jackson die. [Laughter] I’m sorry, for those of you who are Stonewall Jackson fans. It’s just quite remarkable. But at any rate, Lee lost a terribly important commander then, there’s no question about it, and it will always live in Southern lore — what if Jackson had lived? Or what if he’d had Jackson at Gettysburg? What if he’d had Jackson at Cold Harbor, wherever?
At any rate, Lee went to Davis and said, “Let me invade the North again.” Davis was a little cautious because the first time it didn’t work and he almost lost the war a year ago. James Longstreet, now second-in-command to Lee in the Army of Northern Virginia, had another idea, and Longstreet almost always did. And there’s a whole debate in Civil War military history about just whether Longstreet should have been listened to throughout ‘63. Longstreet’s idea was to take at least two divisions, if not an entire corps of infantry, as many as possible — 20,000 men — and move them out West, because Longstreet worried that the war was being lost in the West. And you know what? He was right on that. But Lee said no. And always in Civil War scholarship there’s been this question, did Lee ultimately lose the war because of his obsession with Virginia, his home state, his homeland, in not allowing Confederate troops to be moved West? Well they weren’t moved West, not at this point in time. All over the war now, even though Lee had won this major victory at Chancellorsville, the Confederacy was potentially hemmed in, potentially. So Lee’s response to this was daring, and had he won at Gettysburg decisively we wouldn’t be — well I don’t what we’d be debating; I’m not sure I want to know what we’d be debating. But Lee did decide to go West, up over into the Upper Shenandoah Valley and invade this time all the way into Pennsylvania, which he did in June, 1863.
Lincoln’s Commander of the Army of the Potomac, now seriously defeated, was a general named Hooker. Hooker resigned on the 28th of June 1863 and was replaced by a general named George Gordon Meade, only three days before what would become the greatest battle of the war. What Gettysburg became was in some ways an attempt by the Union armies — [technical adjustment] — it’s an effort by the Union armies, blue here, of course, to catch up with Lee’s army as they invaded up into Pennsylvania, and to stay between Lee’s army and Washington DC. It’s in some ways a replay of what had happened just the year before. Now, they actually ended up meeting at this little town of Gettysburg almost by mistake; they hadn’t planned that. Lee wanted to move all of his troops into Central Pennsylvania. The whole idea here was to live off the land and the rich farmland of Pennsylvania, to take the war out of ravaged Central Virginia, relieve Richmond, and Lee believed, tap into the war weariness of the North and possibly even reinvigorate British intervention. There wasn’t a lot of likelihood at that point, but he hoped at any rate that there might be some possibility. It was a great calculated risk. Had it worked, who knows? It did not.
They collided near Gettysburg because a group of Confederate infantry were marching toward the town from the West on July 1, 1863, because they’d heard there were shoes in Gettysburg. And they were confiscating, by the way, everything — cattle, hogs, food, everything they could take from Pennsylvania farms. And rather than tapping into war weariness in the North, what Lee accomplished was to stimulate resistance in the North. Nothing like an army invading your land and stealing your animals to cause you some consternation. Lee’s army also took scores of free blacks, living in southern and central Pennsylvania, and shuttled them quickly back into the South as slaves. And when this got into the press it also had an effect on Northern morale. The first day at Gettysburg — and I can’t go into the kind of detail I’d love to here, and I know some of you would like me to, although I’m going to invite those of you who are military history enthusiasts to an evening session, perhaps next week, perhaps the week after, on a Wednesday, if anybody wants, where we can go into more detail on this and you can open your veins and get a really good shot of military history, if you’d like. [Laughter] And if you OD, that’s your fault.
The first day at Gettysburg was a Confederate victory, almost a complete rout. It’s actually nighttime that stopped it. The second day at Gettysburg, if you look at this map over here, you’ll note that the Union battle line — the Union Army barely got there in time, by the second day, to actually oppose Lee’s Army. They had marched all day. Some of these Union troops had marched 30 miles in a day just to get there. But the second day at Gettysburg were attacks, massive attacks, on the two ends of the line, the left flank and the right flank of the Union armies, which were both very high ground. How many of you have been to Gettysburg? You know Little Round Top and Culp’s Hill then — large hills. Huge battles were fought on those hills on July 2, 1862, with huge numbers of casualties, especially for the Confederates. By the third day, Longstreet urged vehemently that Lee retreat, a strategic retreat, and move south, southward, and then toward Washington and threaten the U.S. capital, but to choose other ground to fight on because of the way these hills and ridges were set up in front of them. Longstreet counseled a kind of strategic defensive move. They are on enemy’s land, enemy territory. Every day is a total risk here, and they’ve got a real problem with their supply line. But Lee said no, his blood was up, and there’s evidence all over the dispatches, Lee wanted to win there, he wanted to fight. And I’ll come back to this question next week about Lee’s own psyche for war and what they said happened to his eyes when it was time for battle.
So, on the third day at Gettysburg he ordered a concentration at the center and it became the largest military assault of the war, the largest infantry assault of the Civil War. It’s known as Pickett’s Charge because it’s named for one of the three Division Commanders who led it, George Pickett — who hid behind a barn through the whole damn thing, by the way — while two of his brigade commanders were killed, and all of the thirteen colonels in his brigade were killed or wounded. So Pickett’s Charge, the charge of 13,000 men, for one hour, across a wide open field, slightly rising toward a ridge, lasted about one hour, and almost exactly one-half of those 13,000 men were killed or wounded and never got back to the ridge they started from. It was Lee’s greatest mistake in the Civil War. He knew it. He rode out in the middle of this field when the thing was over, as the men were straggling back, those who survived, and he kept going up to them and saying, “It’s all my fault, it’s all my fault, it’s all my fault. Please help me.” He even offered his resignation to Jefferson Davis a couple of weeks later, but of course Davis wasn’t going to take it.
The great significance of Gettysburg is many things, it’s several things. It’s the greatest battle of the war in terms of its sheer scale. Casualties were ghastly; 28,000 casualties in three days — that’s dead, wounded and missing — on the Confederate side. One-third of all the men engaged were dead or wounded at the end of it. On the Union side there were 23,000 casualties; that’s one of every four. My guy, Charlie Brewster, whose letters I edited, was actually held in reserve. They didn’t even get there in time. The 10th Mass was brought out to be burial crews, and his letters about the fields at Gettysburg are just quite — almost unbelievable. There’s a particularly poignant letter where he — they always rifled the pockets of the dead — he rifles the pockets of a dead Confederate soldier and in his pockets is a letter, a love letter home. And he reads that letter and he quotes from it, to his own mother, and then he buries the guy and saved the letter. And this was his job for about three days in a rainstorm, burying Union and Confederate dead. It is the carnage at Gettysburg, the vast number of dead, 56-odd-thousand casualties overall, that forced the United States Government to create to the first national cemetery which would be created at Gettysburg, and that’s, of course, why Lincoln went there the next fall to give the Gettysburg Address.
Now, but strategically it’s hugely important. Lee had to retreat as fast as he could. The great problem now for the next week was whether Meade, the Union Commander, would follow this up and push like hell, in spite of how badly hurt his army was. And Lincoln was sending dispatch after dispatch to Meade, “Please move, you’ve got them in your” — Lincoln was saying things like, “You’ve got them in your grip. Destroy them. The war will be over, the war will be over.” And Meade didn’t move for three days, and Lee’s Army escaped on the 13th and 14th of July, on a pontoon bridge they hastily managed to build; what was left of Lee’s Army managed to get across the Potomac River and back into Virginia to fight again. Gettysburg’s a major Union victory, but it could’ve been even bigger.
Chapter 5. Union Victory at Vicksburg and Conclusion [00:44:41]
Out West — and terribly important, you could argue even more important — were the sieges and the capture of two major places, I guess you’d call them fortresses or ports, along the Mississippi River, Vicksburg and Port Hudson. Vicksburg was laid under siege — Vicksburg had been brought under siege for months by a Union Army Commander, by Ulysses Grant. They had even at one point tried to alter the course of the Mississippi River, with the biggest military engineering scheme the world had ever hatched. And it didn’t really work. That’s a big river — don’t mess with it. But finally Grant was able to put Vicksburg, in the spring of 1863, under siege, mostly from the east, and it was especially under complete lockdown siege from May 22 to the first week of July, in which time the civilian population of Vicksburg that was left, and a roughly 30,000 garrison of the Confederate Army, began to starve. The civilians were living in caves because much of their housing was destroyed by artillery bombardment. On June 28 the Confederate Commander John Pemberton received a petition from his own troops, signed by lots of them, which said in part, quote, “If you cannot feed us you had better surrender.” And so Pemberton sued for — he didn’t sue — he asked for surrender terms. He met with Grant on the 3rd of July, the same afternoon as Pickett’s Charge is happening in the East — they don’t know it — and Pemberton surrendered 30,000 Confederate troops in the blink of an eye, on July 4th, 1863.
Central Mississippi would within weeks be abandoned by Confederate forces and the whole of central and northern Mississippi would come under Union control. And that is, by the way folks, the most densely populated slave region anywhere in the South, and it is the escape of slaves now, by the hundreds and then thousands, into Grant’s lines, that forced his hand in the creation of numerous contraband camps all over northern Mississippi and Tennessee and even down the Mississippi. A few days later, on July 8, at Port Hudson, down the Mississippi, just north of Baton Rouge, a second fort surrendered. It too had been under siege since May. And when Port Hudson surrendered, the Mississippi River now was completely in Union hands and Union control. On the 16th of July a merchant steamboat tied up in New Orleans, having successfully traveled from St. Louis all the way down the river, unharassed at all, by Confederate guns, and Lincoln famously wrote his memo or telegraph to Grant saying, “Now the father of waters again goes unvexed to the sea.” It’s terribly important because if you just look at a map you realize now, that by controlling the entire Mississippi River and the region around it, you not only are sowing havoc into Southern society, freeing slaves, confiscating land and property, controlling the South’s greatest seaports, but you’ve cut the Confederacy in half. And one of the Confederacy’s largest supply lines was through Texas. They were actually being supported, to this point in time, by the French through Mexico; well, that was a supply line that never worked terribly well.
Now, the clock is running out on me. That’s okay because what happens at Chattanooga doesn’t happen — that’s the end of 1863, which is a nice place to pick it up next time. But let me leave you with this. Across the South this was horrible news, and especially when Chattanooga’s going to fall in the fall, it’s even worse news. And these kinds of expressions now came from Southern leaders and privates in the Army and women at home. And here comes your loss of morale thesis. On July 28th, after the fall of Port Hudson and Vicksburg and the debacle, the disaster at Gettysburg, the Confederate Chief-of-Ordinance, Josiah Gorgas, wrote into his diary. Quote: “Events have succeeded one another with disastrous rapidity. One brief month ago we were apparently at the point of success. Lee was in Pennsylvania threatening Harrisburg and even Philadelphia. Vicksburg seemed to laugh at all of Grant’s efforts to scorn. Now the picture is just as somber as it was bright then. It seems incredible that human power could effect such a change in so brief a space. Yesterday we rode on the pinnacle of success. Today absolute ruin seems to be our portion. The Confederacy totters to its destruction.” The war isn’t over. And I’ll argue next week the Confederacy still could have won its version of victory in 1864. But those battlefield successes of ‘63 were handwriting on the wall.
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