This article is the second installment of a three-part series on the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.
A Confederate victory at Gettysburg would have certainly changed the course of the Civil War. Many in the North were growing tired of the fight by the summer of 1863, and Robert E. Lee firmly believed that there were those in the North with political sway who would happily capitulate and bring the bloody affair to a close. Of course, the Union victory firmly denied any opportunity to prove or to disprove that notion.
At Fredericksburg and at Chancellorsville, Lee outgeneraled his Union counterparts. At Gettysburg, the opposite was true. Though the Confederate army was outnumbered at Gettysburg, Lee had fought against long odds before. He should have known the lesson of Gettysburg instinctively, having fought hard to protect Virginia: a man fights hardest protecting his own home, and no small number of Pennsylvania’s men showed up in force to illustrate that dictum to the invading army. Also, Union General George Meade wisely chose the hilly surroundings of Gettysburg to mask his army’s positions, and many of Meade’s officers made brave and excellent decisions during those three days of fighting.
In his Pulitzer Prize–winning work, The Civil War, historian Bruce Catton notes simply that “On July 1, 2, and 3, there was fought the greatest single battle of the war—Gettysburg, a terrible and spectacular drama which, properly or not, is usually looked upon as the great moment of decision.”
Indeed, Gettysburg changed everything. The North began to see Robert E. Lee as a mortal, a flawed individual capable of being defeated. Also, coupled with General Ulysses Grant’s vanquishing of the last southern stronghold on the Mississippi—Vicksburg fell on July 4, the day after the conclusion of Gettysburg—the North believed that the Union cause had finally acquired military leaders capable of prosecuting the war.
The battlefield stories of the men involved in the fight at Gettysburg fill volumes; the personal histories of these men are no less interesting. Perhaps no conflict since the Trojan War is so full of tales of valor, inspiration, and, at times, lunacy. Though some stories are mythologized—and became so the moment the battle began to be recorded in notes, journals, and the press—the veracity of many of the episodes is established by testimonies in multiple accounts, many from the perspectives of eyewitnesses. Soon after the battle, the scriveners jotted down the tales. Both heroes and scapegoats emerged from those writings.
Union General Abner Doubleday is one of those figures cloaked in myth, though not necessarily myth concerning his performance at Gettysburg. It is generally agreed that Doubleday, an officer who had experienced the war from the first fire at Fort Sumter, was a competent officer who served well in the early skirmishes at Gettysburg. A monument to Doubleday on the field at Gettysburg honors his contributions in establishing the early Union position, a task that fell to him upon the death of General John F. Reynolds. However, General George Meade refused to allow Doubleday to remain in command of Reynolds’s corps for the duration of the war.
Doubleday left for Washington after Gettysburg; he would spend the remainder of the war mostly attached to desk duty. Though many believe Abner Doubleday to be the inventor of baseball, that is not the case. Doubleday did, however, patent the San Francisco cable car, so the general was not without some spirit of enterprise.
Another Union general, Daniel E. Sickles, was almost larger than life. He was a man who fell from grace before the war and achieved great deeds after the war. Sickles was a passionate man, an individual who aptly fits Gertrude’s description of Hamlet—mad as the sea and the wind when both contend which is the mightier.
Sickles was truly mad, and a court decision affirms as much. In a jealous rage only two years before the war’s commencement, Sickles shot and killed the son of Francis Scott Key, Philip Barton Key, in a crime of passion. The murder took place in a place of prominence—Sickles shot Key in Lafayette Square, almost directly in front of the White House doors. In our nation’s first insanity defense, Sickles was declared innocent, and he later determined to ameliorate his suffering social position by raising troops for the Union cause. At Gettysburg, per historian Webb Garrison:
Union Major General Daniel E. Sickles took a direct hit from a Confederate shell. Within thirty minutes a surgeon had finished amputating his mangled leg. Sickles loudly demanded that it be preserved in alcohol, but he soon became tired of it and donated it to the U. S. Army Medical Museum. Tradition says he visited his leg several times during the postwar years but never remained with it more than a few minutes.
Sickles’s amputated leg can still be viewed in the collection of the United States Army Medical Museum in Washington, DC. More than anyone or any agency, Sickles was responsible in the postwar years for establishing Gettysburg as a National Military Park. Today the site of the battle is the world’s largest sculpture garden. Gettysburg has memorials to troops and individuals from both sides commemorated in more than thirteen hundred works of stone, steel, iron, and bronze on the preserved grounds.
Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was an unlikely hero. Chamberlain graduated from Bowdoin College in 1852 and was well into his career as a professor of modern languages at Bowdoin when the Civil War began. He felt compelled to join the Union cause and entered the war as an officer. His wisdom might have been evident in the classroom, but Chamberlain’s courage was battle-tested many times, the most brilliant performance of which was at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863. Civil War historian Shelby Foote describes the situation at Little Round Top:
The fighting was particularly desperate on the far left, where the 20th Maine, made up of lumberjacks and fishermen under Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, a former minister and Bowdoin professor, opposed the 15th Alabama . . . composed for the most part of farmers. Equally far from home—Presque Isle and Talladega were each 650 crowflight miles from Little Round Top, which lay practically on the line connecting them—the men of these two outfits fought as if the outcome of the battle, and with it the war, depended on their valor: as indeed perhaps it did, since whoever had possession of this craggy height on the Union left would dominate the whole fishhook position.
Little Round Top held a view of the entire line of northern defense. So when Chamberlain ordered his men—tired and mostly depleted of ammunition—to fix bayonets late in the day, it is not too much to say that his order saved the Union a terrible loss. A southern victory at Gettysburg would have quite possibly resulted in a speedy march by Robert E. Lee’s army to Washington. Tactically, Colonel Chamberlain was not left many choices in the military playbook; choosing a bayonet assault against an equally tired foe, however, won the field and the day for him.
Chamberlain would later serve as governor of Maine, and later still as president of Bowdoin College, which numbers among its alumni many famous Americans, including Franklin Pierce, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Another name that would carry great resonance into history was that of General George Pickett. When Robert E. Lee decided that outcome of Gettysburg was going to determine much of the war to come, he chose Pickett to lead a defining charge, this occurring on the third day of the battle, July 3, 1863. Pickett’s charge was put down severely by Meade’s superior force, and suddenly the war became winnable for the Union. Although the political reasons for the Civil War are complex, the two words “Pickett’s charge” go a long way toward explaining the southern defeat.
Decades later, William Faulkner, in his novel Intruder in the Dust, describes the fall of the southern dream encapsulated in that moment just before Pickett’s charge into the ready and resilient Union lines:
For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not yet two oclock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet, it hasn't even begun yet, it not only hasn't begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin. . . Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, and the world—the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago; or to anyone who ever sailed even a skiff under a quilt sail, the moment in 1492 when somebody thought This is it: the absolute edge of no return, to turn back now and make home or sail irrevocably on and either find land or plunge over the world's roaring rim.
That “cast made two years ago” was, of course, the moment when the South made its poor gamble and decided to go to war against the North. Faulkner’s South is one which has failed in the glorious fight. After that July afternoon in 1863, the midnight of the war began to approach more rapidly.
—Warren Perry, Catalog of American Portraits, National Portrait Gallery
Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain / Unidentified Artist / Albumen silver print on paper, c. 1866 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Daniel Edgar Sickles / Mathew Brady Studio / Modern albumen print from wet collodion negative, c. 1861 (printed 2011) / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; Frederick Hill Meserve Collection
George Edward Pickett / Albumen silver print, c. 1863 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Bruce Catton, The Civil War (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1960).
Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Fredericksburg to Meridian, vol. 2 (New York: Random House, 1963)
Webb Garrison, Curiosities of the Civil War (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1994).