Friday, July 01, 2011


July 1, 1863

Our correspondent in the field reports the BMI (Bureau of Military Information) has confirmed Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia has crossed the Potomac River and after its march north into Pennsylvania has wheeled east. Units of the rebel Third Corps ( Lt. General A. P. Hill commanding) are approaching Gettysburg.

Two brigades of the Federal First Cavalry Division (Brig.Gen. John Buford commanding) are drawn up to interdict the advancing rebel army. Buford’s two brigades number just under 3,000 men.

With the approach of July Fourth we naturally focus on the great events of 1776 and the Revolutionary War. That war was our great founding conflict.

But less than one hundred years later the nation was to be in another war, as important to the founding and character of our nation as the events of 1776.

We were “engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”

The key battle in that war, the one that marked its turning point, was a series of savage engagements fought around the small Pennsylvania town Gettysburg on July 1st, 2nd and 3rd.

One of the great ironies of the war was that Lee didn’t really want to fight the federals there, but on some other ground of his own choosing where he could defeat The Army of The Potomac under Maj. Gen. George Mead. Mead, for his part, had found the battle more or less forced on him (as it was on Lee) when A.P. Hill’s engagement with Buford’s cavalry grew out of hand.

It had been Lee’s hope to defeat federal forces and threaten Washington, forcing the North to recognize The Confederate States of America. Lincoln, for his part wanted Mead to crush the Army of Northern Virginia and pursue it to Richmond, ending the war. Although Gettysburg was a great victory for the North, Mead did not pursue the victory and Lee slipped away back to Virginia.

I’ve been reading two excellent books about Gettysburg as I holed up against the 110 degree heat.

The first, and probably most accessible to the average reader is Michael Shaara’s “The Killer Angels” for which he was awarded the 1975 Pulitzer Prize. This is a novelized but extremely accurate account of the battle told from the perspectives of major participants, among them Chamberlain, Buford, Longstreet, Armistead and Freemantle. Freemantle was a British observer with Lee’s army and Chamberlain was the hero of the Little Round Top defense. A Maine man, he survived serious wounds and lived to become the the Governor of Maine.

The second book is Stephen W. Sears’ “Gettysburg.” This is a serious book of historical scholarship, meticulously researched with detailed notes and bibliography. But don’t let me put you off, in it’s way it’s as much of a page turner as “Killer Angels.”

Gettysburg was a series of engagements which are collectively “the battle.” George Skoch’s maps of the stages of the battle are a big help in visualizing the events. My suggestion is to read Shaara first.

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