movie "Gettysburg" focuses on the heroic defense of Little Round Top by the 20th
Maine and its commander, Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Little Round Top on
July 2 was the extreme left flank of the Union Army's line -- the eye of the
While Chamberlain's troops carried out their famous bayonet charge against Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood's Alabamians, other Union soldiers were engaged in a similar dogged defense at the other end of the federal line.
"It doesn't take one whit away from the 20th Maine to recall that the 137th New York was doing something very similar on Culp's Hill," Ms. Reardon said.
PG graphic: Three days in July
(Click image for larger version)
Culp's Hill was on the far right of the Northern line -- the barb on the fishhook. The New Yorkers, led by Col. David Ireland, had held out against multiple Confederate attacks on July 2, ending the evening's fighting at Culp's Hill with their own bayonet charge.
The single event most people associate with Gettysburg took place on July 3, the final day of battle. Pickett's Charge, a Confederate infantry attack on the left center of the Union line, was only part of Gen. Lee's battle plan for that day.
"Lee was going to build on the successes of July 2 and again launch early morning attacks on the two flanks," Ms. Reardon said. As those battles drew in more and more troops, Lee concluded Meade had been able to strengthen his right flank by withdrawing troops from the center, she said. The Confederate commander believed that move would have weakened the Northern line around the famous "Copse of Trees."
"Lee has been in command [of the Army of Northern Virginia] for 13 months ... and his boys have done everything he asked them to do," Mr. Vossler said. Despite the skepticism of his corps commander, Gen. James Longstreet, Lee gave the order for the Confederate advance. While a frontal assault, uphill, against strong enemy positions seems almost suicidal, Ms. Reardon said it had several arguments in its favor.
Similar attacks succeeded multiple times for the Confederates, she said. They included victories at Gaines' Mill, Va., in 1862, and at Chancellorsville, Va., and Chattanooga, Tenn., in 1863, before and after Gettysburg.
PG graphic: Gettysburg -- America's bloodiest battle
(Click image for larger version)
Ms. Reardon and Mr. Vossler said their many walks across the mile-wide expanse between Confederate lines at Seminary Ridge and Union defenses on Cemetery Ridge gave them new insight into the battlefield topography. While it looks like the ground between the two ridges is wide open, it is rolling as far as the Emmitsburg Road. Those undulations gave the Confederates significant cover for much of their attack, Ms. Reardon said. "The real killing zone is the last 400 yards," she said.
While some Confederates under Gen. Lewis Armistead broke through the Union line at the "Angle," they couldn't hold the position. "It is all my fault," Gen. Lee is quoted as saying as the remnants of Longstreet's forces fled back to the Confederate lines after the unsuccessful assault.
As was Gen. George McClellan after the Battle of Antietam, Meade has been criticized for failing to pursue Lee's retreating army before it could escape back into Virginia. Mr. Vossler and Ms. Reardon agreed that it was unrealistic to expect the exhausted Union soldiers to mount a pursuit.
"The Union was as disorganized in victory as the Confederates were in defeat," Ms. Reardon said.
Gettysburg was important to the ultimate Northern victory in 1865, but it did not spell the end of the Confederacy, both agreed. Sixty days after the losses at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the South won a major victory at Chickamauga, Ga., Mr. Vossler said.
"The results of Gettysburg and the capture of Vicksburg raised concern in the South, but the attitude was, 'We've seen tough times before and we will come back,' " Ms. Reardon said.
Despite the heavy losses during the battle, many in the North had a feeling of euphoria after Gettysburg. "But, of course, the war continued for another two years," she said.
The two historians pointed to other major turning points in the war. They included the Union win at Antietam, which encouraged Lincoln to issue his Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln's speech at the national cemetery at Gettysburg that dedicated the nation to a "new birth of freedom" and Lincoln's 1864 re-election victory against the Democratic Party's "Peace candidate," Gen. McClellan.
Gettysburg undoubtedly was a significant event in the war, they agreed. "I'll go with 'a' turning point, but not 'the' turning point," Ms. Reardon said.
Len Barcousky: email@example.com or 724-772-0184.
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