I get a question from my Civil War students all the time. It goes something like this: what mistake cost the Confederates the battle at Gettysburg? There are plenty of contenders. Richard S. Ewell failing to take Cemetery Hill on July 1, James Longstreet sulking around and not launching his flank attack against Little Round Top until late in the day on July 2, and Robert E. Lee himself – ordering a perilous frontal assault against well-fortified Yankees on Cemetery Ridge on July 3. Cavalry wiz-kid JEB Stuart comes up too. He had been more or less MIA for the whole campaign – denying the Army of Northern Virginia valuable intelligence they most certainly would have used to their advantage.
What I find most interesting about the question is that is presumes a foreordained Confederate victory that only fell short due to a misstep by a single individual. The question fails to address whether or not Union commanders (Meade, Hancock, Warren, etc) made some really good calls and outfought the Rebels. This, I think, is worth considering. After all, after the war, when someone asked former Confederate George Pickett why his army failed to secure a victory at Gettysburg he responded, “I think the Union army had something to do with it.”
So here’s your chance to weigh in. And for my money, though I do not necessarily think this was the determining factor to the outcome of the battle, JEB Stuart blew it wholesale and really let his army down. I mean…come on dude. You had ONE JOB.
On July 3rd – just a few short weeks ago, I took part in the Gettysburg Sacred Trust Talks and Book Signing Event in, as the event title might suggest, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. I offered a few words as part of a panel discussion and question and answer session concerning Civil War veterans and how they told their story of the war.
I really enjoyed the event and being in Gettysburg during the anniversary of the battle was something to behold. Suffice it to say, the Civil War tourist industry is alive and well. Just try and find a parking spot on Steinwehr Avenue and tell me something different.
If you couldn’t make it to the talk – the video is below. It’s a little over a hour, but worth the time spent watching. I would especially pay attention to the engaging questions posed by the audience. It’s just like being there!
Tourists in cars, tourists in buses, tourists on Segways, tourists with selfie sticks, tourists yelling, arguing, dropping garbage. This is the typical scene at the most visited section of the Gettysburg battlefield: The Bloody Angle. Much of Gettysburg takes on a carnival atmosphere. The town itself is tuned almost entirely to the tourist industry – and the associated tourist revelry spills out to the surrounding fields of battle in ways that are – shall we say…less than dignified.
As a historian who studies memory, commemoration, and historical interpretation, I find battlefield tourism fascinating. Especially these days as the commemorative landscape is in a clear state of flux. But I can’t help but wonder if tourists more often than not miss the point.
You know that spot where where you are yelling at your kids? Yes, that one…thousands of people were killed there. And the ground was dedicated to honor the fallen. Perhaps death on that scale is too abstract for most to really fathom. Perhaps we are too far removed from the event.
But I think it would be a good idea for everyone to take a minute away from shouting and selfies to reflect on what actually happened there. Let’s stop and think for a moment about those who fought, killed, and struggled for their lives…and maybe then we can understand why they did it.
This may be something of an early warning shot…but for those of you trying to figure out what to do with your time this summer – allow me to suggest a trip to Gettysburg…say in early July. For starters, you can check out the battlefield on the 152nd anniversary of the fight, which is sure to be a carnival-like affair. And, you can check out the Gettysburg Sacred Trust Talks and Book Signings, of which I am happily part. Yes, on July 3rd promptly at 7:00 PM, I will take the stage with some fine historians to discuss my book, Across the Bloody Chasm, and speak with the audience about the various ways veterans told their war stories. After that, we can shoot the shit while I sign your very own copy of my book. I promise to keep my contribution to this event as non-academic and non-conference like as possible. I find all of that esoteric nitwittery pretty close to useless anyway.
The event schedule has made me happy that I am sticking around for a few days to take in the sights – and get busy with some Civil War history.
Greetings all – I have really been enjoying the Gettysburg National Military Park’s Winter Lecture Series – all available to view free on charge on the GNMP Youtube channel. Yesterday I had a look at park ranger Christopher Gwinn’s discussion concerning what the Gettysburg battlefield meant to the veterans who had fought their. I believe that Gwinn did a wonderful job confronting what I long ago dubbed the “reconciliation premise,” or rather, scholars’ (read David Blight and others) persistent and influential notion that reconciliationists locked arms with white supremacists and crafted a white-washed Civil War memory on southern terms. The premise, as Gwinn notes, can certainly ring true – but only if viewed through a conspicuously narrow lens. For example, the 1913 and 1938 Blue-Gray reunions on the battlefield were unquestionably devoid of any divisive issues – especially those concerning slavery and emancipation. After all, these were national events honoring both sides and they were specifically meant to foster reconciliation. Rekindling prickly issues over the causes and consequences of the war was not on the agenda.
But Gwinn, quite correctly, points out that the articulation of Civil War veterans’ memories at Gettysburg (especially Union veterans) was somewhat more complicated than the “forgive and forget” scenarios in ’13 and ’38. When not in the company of former enemies, which was the more typical variety of commemorative event, Federal veterans were quite clear on why they had fought, the righteousness of their victory, and the bitterness that continued to inform their memories late in life. They used the Gettysburg battlefield to express their views – however impassioned and however belligerent.
As such, Gettysburg battlefield ceremonies denote not only valor on the field of the so-called “turning point of the war” – as we learn from the inscriptions on the many monuments that cover the landscape, but also – if one reads the speeches delivered at monument dedications – a site of memory where veterans could rehash the more divisive issues.
Gwinn focuses almost entirely on Union veterans, which makes sense considering that Confederates are not well represented on the field. Yet he might have noted with more emphasis that former Rebels expressed their own versions of war memory elsewhere and in equally vehement fashion. Their war memories included issues such as tyranny and the perversion of the intentions of the founding generation – they did much the same thing as their Union counterparts on fields at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and in town squares across the South. In fact, typical Gettysburg commemorative events reflected the kind of commemoration that took place on both sides of the Potomac – on battlefields, courthouse lawns, and veteran meeting halls. Recognition of this broader sense of veteran commemoration would have served to strengthen his argument about Gettysburg. But this aside, Gwinn convincingly suggests, and I enthusiastically agree: veterans were willing to reconcile, but only on terms of their own writing. You might guess how all of this worked out.
Please watch the video below and add your two cents in the comments section. I am happy to keep the conversation going. And thanks to Mr. Gwinn for recommending my book, Across the Bloody Chasm. He couples it with Caroline E. Janney’s magnificent Remembering the Civil War, which looks at similar issues but casts a wider net – and arrives at a few different conclusions. More on that later – I have a review of Carrie’s book in the works.