I’ve been reading Lt. Col. Robert Bateman’s wonderful series on the Battle of Gettysburg over at Charlie Pierce’s Esquire site and trying to figure out exactly what to say about the 150th anniversary of what some call the pivotal battle of the Civil War.
The Civil War has never been my favorite historical era, and the older I’ve gotten the more I’ve come to dislike it. It’s wonderful that Lincoln decided to fight to keep the Union together, and the exploits of American soldiers and sailors in that fight are remarkable. But that they had to fight and die over something as morally depraved as slavery is, for me at least, extremely depressing.
It is all the more depressing when you consider the continuing veneration of the generation of traitors who led the nation to war and who were morally responsible for the deaths of the estimated 600,000—and that’s probably a low estimate—young men who were so needlessly and recklessly killed.
Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg is said to have been the “Highwater Mark of the Confederacy,” but I’ve never really bought into that view. Gettysburg was certainly an important battle and was truly a must-win for the U.S. Army. But in terms of strategic importance, I think the capture of Vicksburg can arguably be termed the most important strategic win against the forces of division and immorality.
Vicksburg, however, gets short shrift because Robert E. Lee did not lead the anti-American forces. Lee operated in Virginia against a procession of inadequate U.S. generals and in winning so many victories has been adjudged a military genius, a judgment pronounced by both the rebellious South as well as his American opponents.
But I believe a critical reading of the history of the Civil War shows that Lee was just good enough to get those 600,000 young men killed, and tens of thousands of others physically and mentally maimed for life. Lee was brilliant on defense, but was reckless on offense. That worked well when he was facing George McClellan, Joe Hooker, and the rest of the not-ready-for-prime-time bunch Lincoln was saddled with at the start of the war, but not so good when it came time to face Sam Grant, the grimly implacable general from Illinois. In the end, Lee proved far more profligate with his soldiers’ lives than did Grant.
At Gettysburg, Lee was on the offensive, and his lack of skill at that type of warfare showed. His biggest problem was that he never should have been on the offense at all. The South simply did not have adequate personnel or supplies to fight an offensive war against American forces. Lee would have benefited greatly had he taken Longstreet’s advice and waged a defensive campaign against the Army of the Potomac. Had the Army of Northern Virginia gotten between Meade’s Army of the Potomac and Washington, D.C., the U.S. Army would have been forced to attack the rebel army, not the other way around.
By the time he led rebel forces into Pennsylvania, Lee had become a victim of hubris. He’d beaten the U.S. Army so often he could not imagine getting beat himself. But while George Meade was no Grant, neither was he a Hooker or McClellan. He was, for a wonder, a competent, if somewhat stolid, grimly capable general who, from Buford, to Reynolds, to Hancock, and on down to Custer and Chamberlain, was blessed with an excellent corps of subordinates. With competent leadership at the top, they were more than able to hold their own against the best the rebellious South had to throw against them.
And they did just that for three days in early July of 1863 as Lee repeatedly and recklessly attacked. Lee, who couldn’t afford to lose a single soldier, lost 23,231 killed, wounded, and missing and was forced to retreat back to Virginia.
The bravery of the men who fought on both sides during the Civil War cannot be doubted. But what should be condemned as we commemorate the sesquicentennial of the momentous events of those years are the motivations of those who declared war on their own nation in an effort to retain and strengthen something as morally corrupt as slavery. Those who led this wicked effort were not honorable men and they should not be remembered as such today.