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  • James Houser

July 2, 1863 - The Battle and Myth of Gettysburg

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

July 2, 1863. At their evening council of war, General Robert E. Lee makes a fatal decision. After two days of attacks on the Union Army, he will send his final unbloodied division – that of General George E. Pickett – on a final assault against the Northern center. The outcome of America’s most famous battle is set in stone for all eternity – or is it?

“What if.” History buffs can never let go of that little phrase; it becomes the ultimate question to spend long nights arguing over, the subject of a near-infinity of historical novels, cheap nonfiction, and video games. And almost no battle has been “what if”ed to death more than Gettysburg, to the point that Newt Gingrich of all people wrote an entire trilogy of novels about it. Even Winston Churchill at one point wrote a short story about an alternate history where Lee won at Gettysburg.

Gettysburg gets this treatment because it is America’s favorite battle. It has the most lavishly memorialized and beautifully preserved national park. It has video games, a big-budget movie, based on a best-selling novel, reenactments, and a neverending stream of paintings to decorate the offices of retired dads everywhere. Gettysburg is a national cult site, an obsession for Southerners especially despite being the site of the Confederacy’s most famous defeat.

I am no exception to this. As a kid, one of my favorite computer games was Sid Meier’s Gettysburg, a very early tactical simulation. I was taken on a trip to the battlefield at nine years old and soaked it up like a sponge. At one point or another, my best friend Will Guerrant and I might have talked over every portion of the battle more than anyone who was actually there ever wanted to. I could tell you more details about Gettysburg without looking at a book than I could almost any other event in history. So I’m not just making fun of other people here.

This exciting, glamorous, near-mythical battle has a stranglehold on the popular history industry. But why? Why, exactly?

I don’t just ask this question to be coy. It’s a damn good question. Why Gettysburg? It did not end the war. It didn’t destroy Robert E. Lee’s army – it would be almost two more years before Appomattox. It didn’t change the course of the war in any significant way; Lee would be just as dangerous as he always had come 1864. Gettysburg was straight up not the single most important battle of the Civil War, despite its perception; that honor might go to Antietam, the Seven Days at Richmond or Vicksburg.

Gettysburg does hold the very dubious distinction of being the bloodiest battle of the war. (Not the bloodiest DAY, that was Antietam, Gettysburg was a three-day battle.) If being bloody was the important criteria for importance, though, that would make Chickamauga the second most famous battle – which it definitely isn’t. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was “never the same” after Gettysburg, or so some say; but the Union Army of the Potomac was probably far more damaged by the Overland Campaign of 1864 than Lee’s army was at Gettysburg. Yet that doesn’t get the attention.

So why Gettysburg? First of all, what was Gettysburg?

I will provide an extremely brief narrative (brief, you say, laughing), for those of you who don’t know your Gettysburgs from your Vicksburgs or your Fredericksburgs.

In May 1863, Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was coming off its enormous victory over the Union at Chancellorsville. In the last year, Lee had thumped the Army of the Potomac in four victorious campaigns through his aggressive tactics. Despite these triumphs, the Confederacy was clearly losing the war; Ulysses S. Grant was winning victories in Tennessee and Mississippi, and Rebel forces were retreating everywhere else. Lee proposed to invade the North and try to force a decisive battle on enemy soil, in the hope that this would either destroy the Union Army or break the North’s morale.

Even if invading the North had failed once before at Antietam, Lee’s plan wasn’t a bad one; it might even have worked. It didn’t. The death of Stonewall Jackson had forced Lee to reshuffle his command structure, trying to compensate for the death of one brilliant general by promoting a few mediocre ones. His old reliable subordinates, like Longstreet and Stuart, failed to measure up to their previous standards, and Lee himself suffered from impaired judgment throughout the campaign – the sources of which have been debated ever after.

Lee’s 75,000-man army, though, might have been at its peak man-for-man in summer 1863.

The Union Army of the Potomac, on the other hand, had a new commander in George G. Meade. Though Meade seemed at first like yet another face in the endless parade of substandard Union generals, he was better than most historians have ever given him credit for. Meade had a relationship of trust and respect among his top subordinates, including Hancock, Reynolds and Sedgwick, and operated a superior intelligence network in the days before Gettysburg. When Lee was groping around in the dark to find the Union force, Meade had constant, up-to-date information about the Confederates’ movements.

The battle was still an accident. One of Lee’s infantry divisions, on its way to Gettysburg to forage for supplies, stumbled into a Union cavalry screen that was quickly reinforced by Reynolds’ infantry. As both Lee and Meade learned of a developing battle at a place neither one of them had expected to fight, they succumbed to the inevitable and fed troops into the developing battle at the Pennsylvania crossroads town. On July 1, at least, the Confederates assembled their troops faster and managed to drive the Union from the hills north and west of town.

Meade’s trust in his subordinates, though, proved well-founded. First Reynolds (killed on July 1) then Hancock recognized that the defensive ground south of Gettysburg was superior and began to concentrate the army there. When Meade arrived that night, his army was positioned on a strong set of hills, and he decided to let Lee attack him the next morning.

July 2 was a day of frustration for the Confederates. Lee’s usual flurry of aggressive flanking movements miscarried due to his own mysterious condition and his subordinates’ inexperience or ill temper. When the main attack did break out in the middle afternoon, desperate Union fighting all along the line produced some of the most memorable moments of the war, such as Joshua Chamberlain’s great stand at Little Round Top, the suicidal charge of the 1st Minnesota to buy time for reinforcements, the sanguinary fights for soon-to-be-famous places like the Peach Orchard and the Wheat Field, and a twilight fight for the wooded Culp’s Hill, where Farmer Culp’s two sons both fell fighting on opposite sides. Lee’s command structure broke down, while Meade and his generals acted well in the crisis by shifting reinforcements to each threatened area.

With these attacks having failed, Lee was determined on one last throw of the dice: an attack by 15,000 men, spearheaded by George Pickett’s Virginia division, on the Union center. This attack opened on July 3, preceded by an artillery bombardment that failed to accomplish its goal of destroying the Union cannon. The heroic futility and pointless sacrifice of “Pickett’s Charge,” crossing a mile of open ground in the face of musket and cannon fire, serves as one of the defining images of Gettysburg, the Civil War, and American history. Pickett’s Charge is possibly the cultural touchstone of American military history, rivalled only by D-Day or Washington crossing the Delaware. Lee’s final attack was shattered; Meade had predicted exactly where it would come, and the superior Union artillery tore it to shreds. For a few minutes the Confederates managed to achieve a small penetration, but it was a glimmer of a dream, and the entire attack was thrown back with catastrophic loss.

Lee spent July 4 waiting for, almost challenging, a Union attack, but Meade refused to be baited. Lee retreated from Gettysburg the next day, but managed to fend off any attempt Meade made to cut him off or trap his army. Lee escaped back across the Potomac within two weeks, and the Gettysburg Campaign was over – much to the chagrin of Abraham Lincoln, who had wanted the Confederate Army destroyed.

So. Why Gettysburg?

First, the legend and enduring myth of Gettysburg is bound to Southern identity. Robert E. Lee became the South’s great hero during and after the war – despite his own objections – and Gettysburg, the site of his most cinematic and poetic defeat, became inextricably bound up in the legend of General Lee. For decades after the end of the Civil War, Southern generals would fight and refight the Battle, bending over backwards to exonerate their beloved leader of his (very real) mistakes and pin them on someone else – usually James Longstreet, who had committed the unspeakable crimes of becoming a Republican and taking a job in the Grant Administration. The Southern deification of Lee required the slander of Longstreet, and every theory for this revolved around Gettysburg – Longstreet had been too slow, too argumentative, screwed up Pickett’s Charge, etc. (It's also why Gettysburg is somehow Lee's battle and not Meade's, who actually won the damn thing.)

Another way in which Gettysburg became central to Southern identity became Pickett’s Charge itself. In the decades following Gettysburg, almost before the war ended, various units from different states began the argument over just who had gotten farther up Cemetery Ridge, whose banner had reached the apex, who had suffered the most deaths. In an odd, twisted way, taking more casualties in Pickett’s Charge became a badge of honor rather than a tragedy. I remember learning of my own ancestors who had died in Pickett’s Charge in the 57th Virginia and feeling the same thing – a strange sense of honor and belonging, of connection to a great event. Even if it was a dramatic failure, the South did not focus on the *failure* as much as they did on the potential, the glamour, the bravery, the ROMANCE of it all. Gettysburg became not a historical account, or a lesson on command problems, or even a controversial battle. It became a Southern legend.

And nothing tantalized the South more than…what if? What if Pickett had gotten over the ridge? What if the Union artillery had been silenced? What if this regiment had not retreated, or the attack had started earlier, what if, what if? As William Faulkner said, “For every Southern boy fourteen years old…This time. Maybe this time…” (Full quote in comments).

Of course, Pickett would not have broken through. The harsh truth is that the Union had a large reserve unit – the big VI Corps under John Sedgwick – still not committed to the battle, waiting in reserve, and the tiny handful of men that could have survived the charge would have run into this veteran formation like a puppy running into a truck. But the possibility and the romance remained.

For the South, Gettysburg was the ultimate symbol of the “Lost Cause,” and the harsh reality was something to be avoided at all costs. Gettysburg became important to identity, myth and memory in a way no other battle was.

But there was another meaning to Gettysburg – the Union meaning.

Abraham Lincoln, of course, gave his Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the National Cemetery in November 1863 – one of the finest short pieces ever produced in the English language. It became famous far beyond its intended audience, and helped define Gettysburg the Myth in Union eyes as well: “these dead shall not have died in vain.” Of course, for many people in the United States, Lincoln spoke for the dead of both sides, and for a cause that often seems forgotten in the grand narrative of the war – the Union ultimately entered the war with the goal not of ending slavery, but of bringing the nation back together. The war began because of slavery, but the destruction of slavery was not the Union’s goal at first.

In that light, Gettysburg – far away from the bitterness of Sherman’s March and the border war in Missouri, with no Black figures or slaves to clutter up the narrative, with no troubling war crimes or terrible incidents to distract anyone – became a symbol of national reconciliation. There is surprisingly little bitterness in accounts of the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, compared with the Wilderness, Atlanta or Stones’ River. The preservation of the Gettysburg Battlefield became a political cause that unified both Northern and Southern politicians after the war, with Daniel Sickles – a general who had lost his leg at Gettysburg, and now a New York Congressman – essentially making the Gettysburg battlefield his life’s work. (Never mind that Sickles may have been the single worst general on either side at Gettysburg.)

Gettysburg even today is somehow above the thorny issues of slavery, civilian casualties, the incompetence of generals and national division. It stands as a symbol of reunion, reconciliation and burying the hatchet. At the famous reunion in 1913 on the 50th Anniversary of Gettysburg, over 50,000 veterans of the battle returned to remember the great battle. The Confederate veterans reenacted Pickett’s Charge, a move that brought out great emotions on both sides, with some of the Union veterans rushing down to embrace their former foes, and a touching film was released, “United at Gettysburg,” to symbolize the final burying of the hatchet at last. President Woodrow Wilson, who gave an address on July 4, was immensely pleased by the spectacle, and the Governor of Virginia, William H. Mann, reviewed Virginia veterans on Seminary Ridge.

Gettysburg held this meaning for many, many Americans – glory, romance, reconciliation, a unified national experience. Very nice, very cute. One thing is missing.

The black people.

Gettysburg is so important as an untainted symbol that the whole issue of the war – the little slavery thing, the little race problem – somehow is not allowed to intrude. Few histories make much of the fact that as Lee advanced into Pennsylvania, his soldiers rounded up every black person they saw – slave or free – to be resold in Virginia for a profit. Few histories mention the 10,000 slaves that served as support personnel for Lee’s Army, as cooks, cleaners, wagon drivers and tailors, which – if you think about it for a second – changes the numerical odds of every Civil War battle quite a bit. Few histories, charmed by the 50th Anniversary celebrations and the “reconciliation,” will dwell that Jim Crow was in its worst years, that Wilson and Mann were inveterate segregationists; Gettysburg was a reconciliation of the two halves of a white nation – not the whole nation.

The myth-makers of Gettysburg did not allow it to be "tainted" by slavery or, in many ways, even the presence of black people, whether in the film, the video games, or the novels. It remains an affair of white America, of its most noble days of sacrifice and of its reconciliation. For North and South, harsh reality is not allowed to touch the legend. It is important as much for what it doesn’t represent as what it does.

Now that I’ve rained on everyone’s parade, if you message me I will literally give you a five hour blow-by-blow of the battle. I recommend you don’t, because that is not an idle threat.

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