There has been lots of discussion and comments on blogs and Facebook regarding the THC Gettysburg program (see here, here , here, here, here, and here). For the most part the reaction has been negative. Despite having read numerous books on the subject, I am no expert on Gettysburg. I have only visited the battlefield once. With that disclaimer, I will say that I thought the program could have been a lot better. One commenter on Brooks Simpson’s blog pointed out something that struck me as well:
“and the usual the Rebs always ‘almost succeeded” followed by all the dire results this would engender, Isn’t “almost succeeded” just a fancy way of saying failed? but then the Rebs never fail on the History Channel. Then they move on to the Rebs taking Culp’s Hill and again all the dire scenarios of disaster are mentioned that were sure to follow “if”…”
Gettysburg, in the popular narrative, was the “high water mark” of the Confederacy; the time when the Army of Northern Virginia came oh so close to winning the war. But the result of Pickett’s failed assault on the third day sealed the fate of the slaveholder’s dream of an independent nation. This is a narrative that was arrived at in hindsight, a perspective perhaps made most famous by William Faulkner in Intruder in the Dust:
“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 o’clock 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 against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose than all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago.”
The war, of course, went on for two bloody more years, and historians have repeatedly pointed out that no one at the time thought Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg was the end of all hope for the rebels. But, what if Lee had won at Gettysburg? Would that have spelled the end of the United States? Would those boys in gray really have been able to plant the rebel flag in Washington as Faulkner imagined?
In earlier posts I have written about my great-great-great-grandfather, Cyrus G. Luce, who served as Governor of Michigan from 1887-1891. In his first year in office he appointed a monument commission to oversee the construction and placement of monuments on the fields of Gettysburg to honor Michigan units that had fought there. In June of 1889 the commission had completed its work and Governor Luce travelled to Gettysburg to attend the dedication ceremonies and officially place the monuments into the care of the Gettysburg Battlefield Association. There were several speakers that day who gave passionate, eloquent speeches. An accounting of the Monument Commission’s work and a description of the dedication on June 12, including the text of the speeches given, was published and is available online here. The speeches are quite interesting and raise some intriguing questions. I’d like to highlight several passages, but I’ll start with one that directly addressed the question I raised above. This is from a speech given by Rev. James H. Potts:
“Somebody has said that if the Gettysburg victory had turned in the other direction, the rebellion would have proved a success. Gen. Lee would have then marched on to Washington, Philadelphia, New York, enriching himself and his men as he went, until at length England and other foreign powers would have officially recognized the South as conqueror. May be so, but I don’t believe it. By no possibility could Lee have won such a victory as would have annihilated the Army of the Potomac and removed every obstacle from his track. Our national resources were not exhausted. We had enough men of 65 or 70 like the heroic John Burns, of Gettysburg, to have seized their muskets and fought the veterans of Lee back into their own South land.
Napoleon said ‘In war men are nothing, but a man is everything.’ The North had ‘a man’ and the ‘men,’ too. It would have taken more than one victory on Northern soil to have crowned Jeff. Davis the American King. The very boys and babes we left with our wives and mothers at home, under the shock of such a calamity, would have grown six feet in one night and shot the Confederate chief into petticoats long before their fathers did.”
There is obviously some bluster in Rev. Potts’ avowal, but I think he makes a good argument. The war didn’t end because Lee lost at Gettysburg, but it wouldn’t have ended if he had won either. What do you think?