MyAmericanFuture

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Wednesday, November 21, 2018

November 21, 2018: GettysburgStudying: Longstreet and Lee


[On November 19, 1863 President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettsysburg Address. Few American speeches have been more significant, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy the address and a few other Gettysburg histories and contexts. Leading up to a special Thanksgiving weekend post!]
On the distinctions between military and cultural history, and their interconnections.
As I understand it—and as a youthful Civil War buff AmericanStudier-in-training I read quite a bit into the war’s battles and strategies, most especially in Bruce Catton’s magisterial American Heritage Picture History—military historians have consistently tended to argue that General James Longstreet, Robert E. Lee’s chief subordinate and dependable “old war horse,” made a number of significant tactical mistakes during the battle of Gettysburg, particularly on the second day (Longstreet naturally disagreed). Moreover, at least some of those mistakes were of the disobedient variety: failing to follow particular orders, attemping his own maneuvers instead of those ordered by Lee, not readying his troops when ordered to do so, etc. Historian Henry Pfanz argues, “Longstreet's angry dissidence had resulted in further wasted time and delay,” and David Callihan adds, “It is appalling that a field commander of Longstreet's experience and caliber would so cavalierly and ineptly march and prepare his men for battle.” Overall, Edwin Coddington sums up this line of thinking, the battle was “a dark moment in Longstreet's career as a general.”
I don’t doubt that these military historians have the right of it in many ways, but I’ll admit that the narrative is a frustrating one for me, for the reasons detailed in this post (and expanded upon for the rest of this paragraph). As I wrote there, young AmericanStudier worshipped Robert E. Lee the military tactician and leader, and was concurrently frustrated at the thought that a lesser commander like Longstreet thwarted some of Lee’s best-laid plans in a crucial battle like Gettysburg. Then I grew up, and realized a) thank goodness the Confederacy didn’t win at Gettysburg (as I argued in yesterday’s Chamberlain post); and b) whatever their respective tactical qualities, Longstreet was a considerably better man than Lee, probably throughout their lives and certainly during the crucial post-war years. And just as I can’t separate those cultural historical issues and frames from how I now respond to the battle and its controversial decisions, neither can the Lost Cause acolytes and neo-Confederate partisans whose post-war hostility toward Longstreet has without question contributed to the ongoing narratives of him as a disgruntled Lee subordinate.
Moreover, if we try to remove those cultural histories from the equation, I believe that Longstreet’s disobedience at Gettysburg looks significantly different. That’s unquestionably true of his opposition to Lee’s final-day plan to charge the Union center directly; as Longstreet would later recall his words to Lee in his memoir, “General, I have been a soldier all my life. … It is my opinion that no fifteen thousand men ever arranged for battle can take that position.” Lee ordered the attack nonetheless, Longstreet was right, and Pickett’s Charge would become one of the war’s most disastrous and destructive failures. And if we start there, perhaps Longstreet’s other disagreements with Lee during the battle might look more understandable and even accurate as well. After all, military history is still a history of humans, of personalities and perspectives, both the ones we bring from our own era and the ones we find in the historical figures and moments. Longstreet was always a bit of an iconoclast—and if that clearly put him on the right side of history after the war, perhaps it also did so at Gettysburg more than our typical narratives of the battle have allowed.
Next Gettysburg post tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

November 20, 2018: GettysburgStudying: Joshua Chamberlain


[On November 19, 1863 President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettsysburg Address. Few American speeches have been more significant, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy the address and a few other Gettysburg histories and contexts. Leading up to a special Thanksgiving weekend post!]
On one of the historical turning points for which I’m most thankful, and the man who made it happen.

If I’m wary about identifying distinct literary transitions and turning points—as I’ve argued in this space, just before identifying one of course—then I’m even more wary about doing so with historical events. Of course it’s easy, and not inaccurate, to highlight singular and significantly influential events like presidential elections (or, on the bleaker side, like the Wilmington coup and massacre with which I began this blog); but to attribute sweeping historical changes or shifts to those, or any other individual events, seems to me to elide the subtleties and nuances and gradualism and multipart nature of historical movement and change. All of this might be especially true when it comes to wars, since they’re so overt and striking and can seem to hinge so much on singular moments and battles and choices. And yet—and you knew this was coming—I think it is possible to boil down the whole trajectory of the Civil War to a single moment and incredibly bold and risky choice, made by perhaps the most unlikely military leader in our nation’s history.

This moment, and everything surrounding it, is a central focus of both Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer-winning historical novel The Killer Angels (1974) and the Hollywood film Gettysburg (1993), so it may be a bit better known than many of my focal points in this space. But then again, every time I’ve told it to someone—and I have done so not infrequently, as it’s one of my favorite American stories—it has been new to them; both of those things (the newness and the favorite-ness) make me feel that it’s okay to include it here. For the contexts, it’s worth noting first, as Shaara does at length, how much the future of the Civil War, and thus America as a whole, hinged on the outcome of Gettysburg—not just militarily but also and more importantly diplomatically, since Confederate General Robert E. Lee was carrying a letter given him by CSA President Jefferson Davis in which, to be brief, the English government basically promised to enter the war on the side of the Confederacy if its army could win a decisive victory on Northern territory. If the war and the American future thus hinged on this battle, the battle itself largely hinged on what happened on the hill called Little Round Top—it was at the extreme Southern end of the Union lines and was the high ground, and if the Confederate army managed to take it, it was likely that the Union army would have to retreat, thus quite possibly giving the battle to Lee. And by the most random but crucial quirk of fate, the Union officer whose regiment was charged with holding Little Round Top was Colonel Joshua Chamberlain of the 20th Maine.

Whole books, including much of Shaara’s, have been written about Chamberlain, so here I’ll just highlight a couple of things: he was a college professor of rhetoric and modern languages who had volunteered for the Union army out of a sense of duty; and prior to Gettysburg his principal battlefield experience had been a horrific night (chronicled in his diary) spent huddled amongst corpses during the brutal Union defeat at Fredericksburg (an event that, among others, had led Chamberlain in that same diary to admit to some significant uncertainty about whether he was capable of adequately leading men in battle; and it’s worth adding that many of his men had come to share those doubts, and had nearly staged a mutiny against his leadership not long before Gettysburg). Throughout the second day of the fighting at Gettysburg (July 2nd, 1863), Chamberlain and the 20th Maine were assaulted again and again by Confederate troops trying to take Little Round Top; they managed to hold off those attackers by the late afternoon were virtually out of ammunition (many men were entirely out) and likely could not withstand another charge. No historian or strategist could fault Chamberlain if he had retreated under those circumstances, but instead he called for the ultimate bluff: he ordered his men to fix bayonets and charge the Southern regiment that was preparing for another charge at them. Taken by surprise, and of course unaware of how little ammo their attackers possessed, the Confederate troops surrendered to Chamberlain; Little Big Top did not fall, the Union army took the advantage into the third and final day of fighting, Lee in desperation ordered the infamous Pickett’s Charge, and the rest, of the battle and in many ways the war, was history.
It’s impossible, to reiterate where I started this post, to know for sure what would have happened, in any historical moment or situation, had things gone differently. But it is certainly possible, perhaps even likely, that had Chamberlain made a different choice, the battle and war could have gone to the Confederacy, and from then on American history would have looked so different as to be unrecognizable. Chamberlain, who won the Medal of Honor for this moment, would go on to a very diverse and distinguished career, including four one-year terms as governor of Maine, a decade as president of Bowdoin College, and many other posts and accomplishments. But it doesn’t get any more meaningful than that July 2nd bluff—and we should all be thankful for it.
Next Gettysburg post tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

Monday, November 19, 2018

November 19, 2018: GettysburgStudying: The Address


[On November 19, 1863 President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettsysburg Address. Few American speeches have been more significant, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy the address and a few other Gettysburg histories and contexts. Leading up to a special Thanksgiving weekend post!]
On two particularly compelling choices in Lincoln’s concise masterpiece.
I’m far from the first to note the irony of just how many words have been written about Lincoln’s 272-word Gettsyburg Address (even that website devotes many, many more words than that to the speech), delivered to consecrate the battlefield’s cemetery on this date in 1863 (about 4.5 months after the battle). Historian Garry Wills wrote an entire, excellent public scholarly book on the speech: Lincoln at Gettsyburg: The Words that Remade America (1992), for example. I would have to be pretty full of myself to imagine that I have much I can really add to all those existing words—and I guess I am, because I’m writing this post! But I’ll also say that you should read Wills’ book, and this one by historian Martin P. Johnson, and this one by Jared Peatman, and and and…
Before you do that, though, a couple of things about the speech that especially stand out for this AmericanStudier. For one thing, Lincoln opens with a crystal clear vision of the Civil War’s causes: he calls America a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”; and then calls the war “a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” I likely don’t have to convince many of my blog readers that the Civil War was fought over slavery, but for anyone in doubt who doesn’t want to read long documents like the Confederate secession declarations, Lincoln’s brief speech sums it up quite nicely. I know full well the realities of slavery behind (and propping up) America’s founding, of course; but Lincoln is highlighting here the ideals, the conception and dedication and proposition, that motivated the founding and especially its crucial documents. And he couldn’t be plainer that this war over American slavery is also a war over whether that idealized nation can move past that original sin and toward a more perfect union.
And then there’s this sentence in Lincoln’s long (relatively speaking) last paragraph: It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.” In part this moment reframes the occasion’s goal of “dedication” one more time, in a way both delightful to this lifelong punner and significant for its connection of memory to action, commemoration to activism, past to future. And in part it folds the moment itself, the speech, the audience, and really all Americans into Lincoln’s vital “us the living” and his even more crucial recognition that the work of progress is advancing but unfinished. To take a cemetery commemoration and make it a call to action for the living is a bold move in and of itself; to make it a command that we take up the mantle of these fallen brethren and carry on with the national work for which they gave their lives is, well, why your short speech remains a touchpoint 155 years later.
PS. What do you think?