Wednesday, July 3, 2013

"General Lee, I have no division"

For most Americans the first few days of July are all about drinking beer, and barbecuing hamburgers and hot dogs, and fireworks. A few of the more traditionally minded folks might take a few moments to remember Independence Day (the Declaration was actually finished and signed on July 2, but not published until July 4.) For me though, these hot summer days are all about the War Between the States. Everything the United States is today - even the fact that "United States" is a singular and not a plural - is a result of that war, both for good and ill. Almost everyone would say that it's a good thing the North won. Personally, I think it's too soon to tell. Personally, I think the Fourteenth Amendment and the way it's interpreted by the courts these days contains within it the seeds of the US's future breakup. I expect the United States to begin breaking apart by the 2030s at the earliest.

Today was the third and final day of Gettysburg. The South would have lost the war even if she had been victorious at that tiny little Pennsylvania hamlet. It was the fall of Vicksburg on the Fourth of July 1863 that sealed the Confederacy's fate. The Vicksburg campaign was a brilliant operation: Grant and Sherman ran their boats past the city's guns, disembarked further down the river thus cutting themselves off from their own supply line, marched inland far enough to take Jackson, Mississippi, and then doubled back to lay an ultimately successful siege of Vicksburg. It was a calculated risk that paid off.

Gettysburg is what continues to hold the public imagination though. What was Lee thinking when he ordered Pickett's Charge? Was he too high on the imagined invincibility of Southern arms? Was his dander up, blinding him to the impregnable position the Union held? Was his judgment clouded by illness? If you believe historian Tom Carhart, Lee's real plan was for Stuart's cavalry to smash into the Union lines from behind while Pickett's division simultaneously came in from the front. If that's so, then the real hero of Gettysburg and the savior of the Union army was George Armstrong Custer whose cavalry drove off Stuart's forces before they could make good on their plan.

In any case, Gettysburg is considered the high tide of the Confederacy. Like Shelby Foote and William Faulkner said, for every Southern boy it's still that hot July afternoon. When the order is given, they forward march to their doom. But every time we read it, we still retain that wild impossible hope that maybe, just maybe, this time it will be different.


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