Before Pickett Charged

GETTYSBURG: The Second Day by Harry W. Pfanz.The University of North Carolina Press, $34.95.
THE THREE-DAY BATTLE at Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863, in which Robert E. Lee’s second invasion of the North was turned back, is usually described in superlatives—the greatest battle of the Civil War, “the turning point” of the conflict that shaped the nation’s history, the apogee of the Confederacy. To some it was the worst of General Lee’s battles, in conception and conduct; to others it was the finest hour of the federal Army of the Potomac. Gettysburg is the one Civil War battle that even the meanest student of American history can name, and if she or he knows any other single fact about that battle, it is likelv to be that the South lost because Pickett’s Charge failed.
With the possible exception of the judgment on Lee’s generalship, every assessment in the paragraph above can be and has been challenged; like all battles, Gettysburg was confusing, controversial, and fought by fierce partisans, whose later accounts of what they thought happened tend to shape myth and color opinion even today. It is, for example, highly debatable that when Pickett’s men failed to break—only a few even reached—the Union line on Cemetery Ridge, the battle was lost and the Confederacy doomed.
By then, the third day of fighting, it’s entirely probable that the battle was already lost to the Confederacy; and if defeat at Gettysburg meant that secession ultimately could not succeed, it was the second day’s fighting that determined the outcome. Of course, Pickett might have redeemed everything had his attack somehow carried the third day and the field, but it is the burden of Harry W. Pfanz’s meticulously researched and immensely detailed account of the fighting on July 2 that its outcome consigned Pickett, hence Lee, to almost certain defeat the next day.
Pfanz is the retired chief historian of the National Park Service, and was for ten years a historian at Gettysburg National Military Park. This background shows itself in his intimate knowledge of Gettysburg’s tricky terrain and his insistence on linking even the slightest features of that hallowed ground to the battle decisions and events he describes. His text and bibliography suggest that he was relentless in tracking down every conceivable unit history, manuscript source, letter home, and other document that might aid his account.
The result is a book so detailed that the sheer accumulation of fact, page after page, and point by point, produces a kind of unassailability. We not only know what generals, corps, and divisions were doing at any point; regiments, companies, and individual soldiers too numerous for a reader to keep track of are followed as well. Pfanz appears to have found out everything that can be known about the fighting on July 2, about the maneuverings that led to it, about the armies that collided so fatefully in the rolling Pennsylvania farm country, and about the men who led them— right down to the sergeants and lieutenants, without whom armies seldom would be led anywhere. Pfanz subscribes to the view that Lee fought the battle rather badly, but not because—as some would have it—he failed to take Longstreet’s advice and maneuver his forces into a defensive position between the Federal army and Washington. There’s not much to be said for that idea after Pfanz’s skeptical analysis of it. Instead Pfanz makes the case that Lee had little choice but to attack General Meade on July 2, despite the strong position the Federals were holding—not least because the inexcusable absence of J.E.B. Stuart and the Confederate cavalry had left Lee without vital intelligence and patrol services.
As for how Lee fought at Gettysburg, Pfanz is less forgiving—particularly with regard to the southern leader’s custom of allowing his corps commanders great leeway in the tactical deployment and command of their troops, and his reluctance to give peremptory orders. His battle plan for July 2 was badly, perhaps fatally, delayed as a consequence. Pfanz also believes that Lee did not properly use General Richard Ewell’s corps, letting it stand relatively inactive before the Federal right, when these excellent troops might have bolstered the Confederate attack on the center and the left.
The Confederates fought well on July 2; Longstreet said his corps’s assault that afternoon was “the best three hours’ fighting ever done by any troops on any battle-field.” The author does not dispute this expansive testimonial but meets it by saying that “the performance of the Union forces mirrored it, but less brightly.”For one thing, they outnumbered Lee’s army, twenty-two brigades to eleven (although southern brigades usually were somewhat larger). For another, the Army of the Potomac held the high ground throughout, a fact of which Longstreet was acutely conscious and that contributed to his reluctance to give battle at that time and place.
At least at Gettysburg, moreover, Meade was a more effective hands-on commander than Lee. He personally directed even small-unit troop deployments and saw to it that his orders were carried out. Above all, he concentrated his army quickly and in the right place; and he was as willing as Lee to fight— which not all of the several previous commanders of the Army of the Potomac had been. (Since this account does not go beyond July 2, Meade’s slowness in pursuit of the defeated Confederates, who had the Potomac River to cross, is not discussed.)
After the second day’s fighting ended in darkness, leaving the field to the wounded and dead—about 6,000 casualties on the Confederate side and 9,000 on the Federal—the decisive nature of the day’s events was well summed up in an exchange between Meade and one of his subordinates. General John Newton. Newton said that Meade should feel gratified, and Meade asked why he thought so. Newton put it in a nutshell: “Why, they have hammered us into a solid position they cannot whip us out of.” The next day Lee and Pickett were to learn the truth of Newton’s words.
CONCENTRATING ON the second day at Gettysburg, Pfanz has no alternative but to leave us hanging at the end, because of his amply proven thesis that Lee’s
opportunity to win a decisive victory .. . had all but passed when complete success had eluded his attacking divisions on the afternoon and evening of 2 July. General Lee still hoped for ultimate success on 3 July. That hope would rest in Pickett’s Charge.
Of course the author has every right to focus on what he considers the fighting that really mattered, and the Pickett’s Charge of myth and romance does need to be historically reduced to its proper proportion. Yet that charge was the climax if not the crucial action of the battle, it did represent as symbolically as any action could the cresting of the Confederate cause, and it posed for romantic hearts one of those great what-ifs by which a disappointing world might have become a far different place.
“For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once, but whenever he wants it,” Faulkner wrote in Intruder in the Dust,
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. . . and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet . . . and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time. . . . □