Tag Archives: Barlow’s Knoll

Walking the Good and Bad Ground at Gettysburg


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I’m in Gettysburg this weekend getting a chance to do some research and walking areas of the battlefield that I have stopped at but never fully explored on foot. Trust me, there is a difference when you actually walk the ground versus making stops and looking around.


I drove up this morning and thankfully traffic was light and there were no traffic jams at any point along the way which meant I made the trip in just a bit over four hours. When I got here I checked into my hotel, unloaded my stuff and set to work walking the route I had planned out. My hotel is right at the base of East Cemetery Hill where the Union troops rallied on the night of July 1st 1863. I decided that I would walk through the town and up to McPherson’s Ridge where John Buford’s cavalry and John Reynolds’s First Corps fought A.P. Hill’s Third Confederate Corps, before turning north past the unfinished Railroad Cut and Oak Ridge on my way to Oak Hill where Confederate General Robert Rhodes’ division of Dick Ewell’s Second Confederate Corps went into action.


Oak Hill is the site of the Eternal Peace Monument which was dedicated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1938 as a symbol of reconciliation between the North and South. It bears the words “Peace Eternal in a Nation United”. That was a mere seventy-nine years ago and my heart breaks when I see the same forces at work which tore apart the nation in the years before the Civil War, and sadly they are being stirred up by President Trump who more resembles the incompetence of James Buchanan coupled with the malevolence of Jefferson Davis than Abraham Lincoln, or the loyal opposition of Stephen Douglas.



As I looked out from that high ground I saw the beautiful Pennsylvania countryside still covered in Fall foliage with fields of Sorghum ready for harvest, and cornfields waiting to be plowed over for the next season. Directly in front of me was the ground that two of Rodes’s brigades, those of Alfred Iverson and Edward O’Neal, both incompetent pro-secession political generals sent their units into the attack leading to their slaughter. As I walked into the field where those soldiers fell I felt a certain amount of sadness for them. Yes, most of them made the choice to enlist in the Confederate cause, while others joined out of peer pressure, or others because they were drafted: but none signed up to be slaughtered at the hands of their incompetent commanders. One regiment, the 23rd North Carolina lost 89% of the men it took into battle in barely half an hour of combat. As I walked across that swale in front of Oak Ridge where the men of John Robinson’s division awaited them I was struck by the tragedy of men who went into battle for an unjust and unrighteous cause who fell in such large numbers on July 1st 1863. I wrote in the draft of my yet unpublished Gettysburg book:

When the Confederates got to about fifty yards of Baxter’s troops the commander of the 83rd New York, the Swiss born lieutenant Colonel Joseph A. Moesch shouted: “Up men, and fire.” Moesch rode behind his line cheering his men on, but they needed no urging. In the words of one of one, “The men are no longer human, they are demons; a curse from the living here, a moan from the dying there. ‘Give them — shouts one.’ See them run’ roars another.” The well concealed veterans of Baxter regiments slaughtered them as they had O’Neal’s men just minutes before. “One regiment went down in such a neat row that when its survivors waves shirt tails, or any piece of cloth remotely white, Iverson thought that the whole regiment of live men were surrendering.” As the Confederate attack collapsed some “of the regiments in Robinson’s division changed front again, charged, and captured nearly all the men who were left unhurt in three of Iverson’s regiments.” Official Confederate reports list only 308 missing but that number differs from the Union reports, Robinson reporting 1000 prisoners and three flags and Baxter’s brigade nearly 400. As Robinson’s troops smashed the brigades of O’Neal and Iverson, they were joined by the remnants of Cutler’s brigade which changed its face from west to north to deliver more devastating fire into the Confederates.



From there I went over to Oak Ridge and then made my way to Blocher’s Knoll, now know as Barlow’s Knoll. Once you leave Oak Ridge the ground to the east is flat and relatively devoid of any good defensive positions. The Union Eleventh Corps Commander, Major General Oliver O. Howard sent two of his understrength divisions under the command of Carl Schulz to link up with the right flank of Robinson’s division and extend the Federal line to prevent it from being flanked. Unfortunately, one of the division commanders, Francis Barlow decided to advance his division to Blocher’s Knoll which was a mile in front of where Schurz and Howard intended. Noticing what was going on Schurz ordered the other division under the command of Schimmelpfenning to extend its line to maintain contact with Barlow’s division. But there were not enough troops to fill the gap. The line was barely a skirmish line and with no good defensive ground it could do little to stop a determined Confederate attack. Which was exactly what occurred.


George Doles’s brigade of Rodes division, strongly supported by artillery attacked the thin blue line of Schimmelpfenning’s division just as Gordon and Hays Brigades of Jubal Early’s division enveloped Barlow’s terribly exposed division. The men of Barlow and Schimmelpfennig’s divisions made a spirited and fierce defense before they were overwhelmed and retreated to Gettysburg, some making a fighting retreat, others fleeing the Confederate advance, many were killed, wounded or captured. Barlow lay wounded and was given aid by John Gordon who later became a lifelong friend. Schimmelpfennig was rescued from certain capture by a woman in the town who allowed him to hide in a shed behind her home as the Confederates moved into the town.


The memorials to these forgotten and often slandered soldiers line the road from the Mummasburg Road to Barlow’s Knoll. They did fight hard as A private of the 61st Georgia Infantry of Gordon’s brigade noted that the XI Corps troops “stood firm until we got near them. Then they began to retreat in good order. They were harder to drive than we had known them before….Their officers were cheering their men and behaving like heroes and commanders of ‘the first water’”

The 157th New York, was order to help shore up the line. The regiment advanced and engaged in a furious twenty minute fight, continuing the battle “in Indian fashion” until Schurz ordered them to retreat. The gallant 157th sacrificed itself buying time for others to withdraw and left over 75 percent of its men on the battlefield, when the order came, “less than fifty of the 157th were able to rise out of the wheat and follow.” “So the horrible screaming, hurtling messengers of death flew over us from both sides,” recollected a New York soldier. “In such a storm it seemed a miracle that any were left alive.” Krzyzanowski described the scene as “a portrait of hell.”

When one walks that ground it is impossible how that any unit of similar size or composition could have held against the massive pincer attack of Doles’s brigade and Early’s division on Barlow’s exposed position.


As I walked back into town I could imagine the chaos of the retreating Union troops as well as the victorious Confederates as day turned into evening. The Union troops who escaped made their way to link up with Steinwehr’s division and the Eleventh Corps artillery which had been positioned on Cemetery Hill as well as the survivors of the Union First Corps which had fought the Confederate Third Corps to a standstill before being forced back due to weight of numbers. I finished my walk by going up to Cemetery Hill where with the sun beginning to go down I walked among the graves of the fallen Union soldiers and a monument to John Reynolds who fell on McPherson’s Ridge.

As I noted a couple of months ago when I described my walk at Antietam, there is something immensely valuable about walking these battlefields. First, one gets to experience the elements of weather, distance, and terrain which are helpful in understanding what it was like for the soldiers involved. Second, one can see the battle from the perspective of those soldiers, imagining what it would be like to be deal with being under fire on that ground. One understands what men like John Buford and John Reynolds meant when they said that certain terrain was “good ground.” You don’t understand that until you walk it.


I finished tonight with a friend who met me here going to a number of pubs and walking through the town. While walking I saw a number of the churches that served as field hospitals, including Christ Lutheran. The horror of those hospitals is unimaginable to most of us. I have worked in inner city trauma centers and been in field hospitals in Iraq with our wounded and nothing can really prepare you for the horror of blown up, destroyed, and burned bodies of still living men on a such a massive scale.

But what I have experienced pales in comparison to what occurred at Gettysburg and Antietam, and what will certainly happen if war breaks out on the Korean Peninsula. I have been in the military all my adult life and I dread what I see coming, but since I know that chances are that it will happen I prepare myself and the men and women who serve under me for it. Sadly, most people, even those who have experienced combat in our recent wars are capable of imagining the carnage and horror of the next war. As a historian and a chaplain who has seen combat and a lot of other violent death I can well imagine it and no I don’t sleep well with that knowledge, especially when I see our President rattling sabers so often with seemingly little concern for the men and women that he will be committing to combat. In light of how he has dealt with the deaths of U.S. military personnel since he has been in office, taking no responsibility for any of them, passing the responsibility to military leaders, I tremble at the thought of what his next tweet might bring, but I digress.

Anyway, tomorrow begins another day of exploring parts of the battlefield on foot. Today I walked just over thirteen miles. I think that tomorrow I may well exceed that. I will tell you about that walk tomorrow night.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Gettysburg Day One: “A Portrait of Hell” The Collapse of Barlow and Schimmelpfennig’s Divisions at Blocher’s Knoll

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Note to readers: This is another of my articles on the battle of Gettysburg.  

Oliver Howard’s XI Corps had a bad reputation in the Army of the Potomac through no fault of its commander. Composed mainly of German immigrants the corps was on the extreme right of the Union line at Chancellorsville with its flank exposed. It was hit unexpectedly by Jackson’s Corps and routed, its soldiers fleeing as Howard and other commanders tried to rally them. The action earned the corps the derisive nickname “the flying Dutchmen.”

As the battle along McPherson’s and Seminary Ridge continued between Hill’s Third Corps and the Union I Corps and Buford’s Cavalry Howard’s Corps deployed to cover I Corps flank. Howard sent two divisions forward under the command of Major General Carl Schurz. The divisions Schurz’s Second division temporarily under the command of Brigadier General Alexander Schimmelpfennig, one of the brigade commanders and the First Division under the command of Brigadier General Francis Barlow were small divisions of just two brigades apiece. Schurz estimated that the two divisions numbered “hardly over 6,000 effective men when going into battle….[1]

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Carl Schurz

Schurz intended to bring these two divisions into line each with one brigade forward and one in reserve. Schimmelpfennig’s brigade was placed at a right angle to the flank of Robinson’s division and it was his intention that Barlow’s division “extend Schimmelpfennig’s front facing north” keeping Ames’ brigade as a reserve in the right rear “in order to use it against a possible flanking movement by the enemy.” [2]

However Barlow did not comply. Barlow was a 29 year old Harvard law graduate and Boston Brahmin was well connected politically with the more radical abolitionists of the Republican Party and had an intense dislike of Democrats. He came from a family well entrenched in Boston society and though he became a competent soldier and was promoted to Brigadier General after Antietam and was convinced to command a division in XI Corps by Howard after Chancellorsville. He soon regretted his decision. Barlow was to use modern terminology somewhat of an elitist and snob. He “disliked the beery and impenetrable Germans in his division as much as he disliked Democrats.” He admitted that he had “always been down on the ‘Dutch’ & I do not abate my contempt now.” [3]

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Francis Barlow

Barlow was the only non-German division commander in XI Corps and he had little regard for Schurz. Instead of following Schurz’s direction he advanced Colonel Leopold Von Gilsa’s small brigade with two sections of artillery to a small knob of high ground known as Blocher’s Knoll. Instead of maintaining Ames’ brigade in reserve and to the right to guard against a flanking attack he deployed it facing slightly northeast on the right of Von Gilsa’s brigade. It was to be a costly error. Schurz noted:

“But I now noticed that Barlow, be it that he had misunderstood my order, or that he was carried away by the ardor of the conflict, had advanced his whole line and lost connection with my third division on the left, and…he had instead of refusing, had pushed forward his right brigade, so that it formed a projecting angle with the rest of the line.” [4]

There are still debates as to why Barlow advanced but one of the most likely explanations is that he saw the unprotected left of Brigadier General George Doles’s brigade of Georgians from Rodes divsion and wanted to strike them in the flank. [5] However this left his own flank exposed to the attack of Brigadier General John Gordon’s brigade of Early’s division.

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John Gordon

Gordon’s troops hit the exposed right flank of Von Gilsa’s brigade and that force rapidly cracked under the fierceness of the Confederate assault. Jones’ artillery battalion “enfiladed its whole line and took it in reverse” [6] supporting Gordon as well as Hays and Avery’s brigades as they advanced. One Confederate recalled “it was a fearful slaughter, the golden wheat fields, a few minutes before in beauty, now gone, and the ground covered with the dead and wounded in blue.” [7]

As Von Gilsa’s brigade collapsed Gordon “focused on the exposed right flank of Ames’s brigade” and Doles fell upon its left and “Ames’s outnumbered troops also collapsed” [8] even as he advanced his brigade to support Von Gilsa’s now fleeing troops. Ames took command of the shattered remnants of the two brigades when Barlow, attempting to rally his troops fell badly wounded. Barlow would be assisted by Gordon who had one of Early’s staff “carried to the shade” of a nearby farmhouse. [9] Barlow recovered and “he and Gordon established a friendship that lasted for the remainder of their lives.” [10]

barlow and gordon

Schurz attempted to recover the situation by extending Schimmelpfennig’s division to the right, and advanced his reserve brigade under Polish born Colonel Wladimir Krzyzanowski to support Barlow counterattacking against Doles’s brigade. However they too were rolled up in the Confederate assault, both of Krzyzanowski’s flanks received enfilading fire and the brigade fell back across the Carlisle Road toward an orchard on the north side of Gettysburg.” [11] During the retreat the 157th New York sacrificed itself leaving over 75 percent of its men on the battlefield. Krzyzanowski described the scene as “a portrait of hell.” [12]

Harry Hays brigade of Louisianans joined the assault on the collapsing Federal right while on the left Schimmelpfennig’s line collapsed and the Prussian joined his troops in retreat. Inside the town he was unhorsed and in order to avoid capture “took refuge in a woodshed, where he remained in hiding the next three days.” [13]

Howard, looking for relief from Major General Slocum’s XII Corps sent the First Brigade of Brigadier General Adolph Von Steinwehr’s division from Cemetery Hill to support the fleeing men of Barlow and Schimmelpfennig’s divsions. The small brigade of about 800 soldiers under the command of Colonel Charles Coster advanced through the town to a brickyard on the outskirts of the town. They were hit hard by Hays and Avery’s brigades of Early’s division; Avery’s which took them in the right flank. Both flanks turned by the advancing Confederates [14] Coster’s brigade too broke under the pressure leaving many prisoners to the Confederates. The commander of the 134th New York exclaimed “I never imagined such a rain of bullets.” [15] Coster survived but resigned from the army a few months later never having filed and official report. [16]

Barlow was acrimonious toward his troops who he had so carelessly exposed to the Confederate onslaught. He wrote “We ought to have held the place easily, for I had my entire force at the very point where the attack was made….But the enemies [sic] skirmishers had hardly attacked us before my men began to run. No fight at all was made.” [17] However this statement is not backed by others on the Union of Confederate side. Henry Hunt wrote that it was “an obstinate and bloody contest” [18] while Gordon wrote:

“The enemy made a most obstinate resistance until the colors of the two lines were separated by a space of less than 50 paces, when his line was broken and driven back, leaving the flank which this line had protected exposed to the fire from my brigade. An effort was made by the enemy to change his front and check our advance, but the effort failed and this line too, was driven back in the greatest confusion with immense loss in killed, wounded and prisoners.” [19]

A private of the 61st Georgia Infantry of Gordon’s brigade wrote the XI Corps troops “stood firm until we got near them. Then they began to retreat in good order. They were harder to drive than we had known them before….Their officers were cheering their men and behaving like heroes and commanders of ‘the first water’” [20]

xi corps

Their right now uncovered by the retreat of the XI Corps the battered I Corps survivors fell back through the town onto Cemetery Ridge.  There they and the remnants Barlow and Schimmelpfennig’s divisions were rallied by Howard and the recently arrived Major General Winfield Scott Hancock around Colonel Orland Smith’s fresh and dug in brigade and a substantial amount of artillery.

[1] Coddington, Edwin B. The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster New York, 1968 p.288

[2] Guelzo, Allen C. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York 2013 p.181

[3] Ibid. Guelzo. P.181

[4] Green, A. Wilson. From Chancellorsville to Gettysburg: O. O. Howard and Eleventh Corps Leadership in The First Day at Gettysburg edited by Gallagher, Gary W. Kent State University Press, Kent Ohio 1992 p.77

[5] Ibid. Greene p.78

[6] Hunt, Henry The First Day at Gettysburg in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War edited by Bradford, Neil Meridian Press, New York 1989 p.363

[7] Ibid. Greene p.79

[8] Ibid. Greene p.79

[9] Ibid. Guelzo p.188

[10] Dowdy, Clifford. Lee and His Men at Gettysburg: The Death of a Nation Skyhorse Publishing, New York 1986, originally published as Death of a Nation Knopf, New York 1958 p.141

[11] Ibid. Greene p.80

[12] Ibid. Guelzo p.186

[13] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian Random House, New York 1963 p.477

[14] Tredeau, Noah Andre. Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2002 p.241

[15] Ibid. Trudeau p.241

[16] Ibid. Guelzo p.190

[17] Ibid Greene p.79

[18] Ibid. Hunt The First Day at Gettysburg p.365

[19] Report of Brigadier General J. B. Gordon, CSA, commanding brigade, Early’s Divsision, in Luvaas, Jay and Nelson Harold W editors. The U.S. Army War College Guide to the Battle of Gettysburg South Mountain Press, Carlisle PA 1986 p.45

 

[20] Ibid. Greene p.79

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Remembering Gettysburg and the New Birth of Freedom

reynoldsmemorial

I am always humbled when I travel to Gettysburg as I did this weekend.  It is hard to believe in that now peaceful pastoral setting that over 157,000 Americans, almost 82,000 Union and 75,000 Confederate met in a three day battle. In those three days over 28,000 Confederates and 23,000 Union soldiers were killed, wounded, missing or captured. It was the greatest number of casualties inflicted in one battle on American soil in history.

I left on Friday with students from our Staff College and returned home this evening. It was my first time leading a Staff Ride like this though I have participated in them at other battlefields and led less extensive visits to Gettysburg when I was stationed at Fort Indiantown Gap Pennsylvania in 1997-1998. I have a good group of students, Army, Navy and Air Force Officers of much experience. In addition to simply examining the battlefield and telling the story of the battle, I have been working over the past two months to build a foundation that enables them to learn the enduring and timeless lessons of leadership, command, control, communication, the linkage between national strategy objectives, the operational art, operational objectives and tactical objectives.  Unlike other visits I added a final stop at the Gettysburg Soldiers’ Cemetery where President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address.

irishbrigadememorial

The places that the battle was fought have become legendary, for they are “hallowed ground” as Lincoln so eloquently put it. The places, McPherson’s and Herr’s Ridge, Seminary Ridge, the Railroad Cut, Barlow’s Knoll, Cemetery Hill, Culp’s Hill, The Wheat Field, Devil’s Den, the Peach Orchard, Little Round Top, Cemetery Ridge, the Apse of Trees, the Angle and the High Water Mark are in a sense holy, or hallowed. They were consecrated by those who struggled there, those who lived and those who gave the last full measure of devotion to their country.

I think about those men of both sides and how they came to serve. In 1863 the majority of those who fought were volunteers. Some were motivated by their convictions, fully convinced of the rightness of their cause. Other went to war with mixed feelings. Some fought for family, or their homes, or because they felt that they could do no otherwise, and some even fought against the cause that their families or states believed in.

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But no matter what their reason for going to war they  That being said when I go there though my family predominantly fought for the Confederacy my heart is drawn to those men who remained loyal to the Union and those who answered the call of Abraham Lincoln to serve in a cause greater than their own interests, the great and the small alike.

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Lincoln was a masterful orator who managed to rally the Union and bring hundreds of thousands of men volunteer before Gettysburg. They came for an ideal an ideal which Lincoln’s oratory was probably the most effective at articulating in a way that men would volunteer to suffer hardship, fight and die to bring about. It was well put in the movie Gettysburg where Colonel Joshua Chamberlain said:

“This is a different kind of army. If you look at history you’ll see men fight for pay, or women, or some other kind of loot. They fight for land, or because a king makes them, or just because they like killing. But we’re here for something new. This has not happened much, in the history of the world: We are an army out to set other men free. America should be free ground, all of it, from here to the Pacific Ocean. No man has to bow, no man born to royalty. Here we judge you by what you do, not by who your father was. Here you can be something. Here is the place to build a home. But it’s not the land. There’s always more land. It’s the idea that we all have value, you and me. What we’re fighting for, in the end… we’re fighting for each other…”

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On November 19th 1863 Lincoln delivered a “few words” at Gettysburg which were in all practical aspects a benediction at the dedication of the battlefield cemetery. Lincoln was the second speaker at the ceremony following former Pennsylvania Congressman Edward Everett who spoke for more than two hours, a typical speech from the period. The 270 words of Lincoln’s address are perhaps the most important of any speech or document in American history save the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.

The speech was so powerful that Everett wrote Lincoln the next day:

“Permit me also to express my great admiration of the thoughts expressed by you, with such eloquent simplicity & appropriateness, at the consecration of the Cemetery. I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

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The speech is short, but it’s eloquence is unmatched. Lincoln wrapped ideas, concepts and ideals that men have written volumes about into a speech so powerful that many have memorized it.

But few realize the context that it must be placed. Though the Union had defeated Lee’s Army at Gettysburg and Grant had taken Vicksburg to cut the Confederacy in half the North was growing war weary. There were those in the North, the Copperheads who were willing even after Gettysburg and Vicksburg to end the war on terms favorable to the Confederacy, even granting Confederate independence and the continuation of slavery. Likewise Lincoln was sick when he delivered the address having what was mostly likely a mild form of Smallpox when he gave the address. Thus the tenor, simplicity and depth are even more remarkable. It is a speech given in the manner of Winston Churchill’s “Blood sweat toil and tears” address to Parliament upon being appoint Prime Minister in 1940.

In a time where many are wearied by the foibles and follies of our politicians, even wondering about our form of government can survive Lincoln’s words matter. Dr Allen Guelzo, Professor of Civil War Studies at Gettysburg College wrote in the New York Times on the 150th anniversary of the Address:

“The genius of the address thus lay not in its language or in its brevity (virtues though these were), but in the new birth it gave to those who had become discouraged and wearied by democracy’s follies, and in the reminder that democracy’s survival rested ultimately in the hands of citizens who saw something in democracy worth dying for. We could use that reminder again today.”

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Dr Guelzo is quite correct. Many people in this country and around the world are having grave doubts about our democracy. I wonder myself, but I am an optimist. I do believe that we will recover because for the life of me I see no nation anywhere else with our resiliency and ability to overcome the stupidity of politicians, pundits and preachers.
The amazing thing was that in spite of everything the Union survived. Lincoln was a big part of that but it was the men who left lives of comfort and security like Joshua Chamberlain and so many others who brought about that victory.

Gettysburg Address

Throughout the war, even to the end Southern political leaders failed to understand that Union men would fight and die for an ideal, something greater than themselves, the preservation of the Union and the freedom of an enslaved race. For those that volunteered it was not about personal gain, loot or land,it was about something greater. It was about freedom.
Now I for one do not think that we are currently living up to the ideals enunciated by Lincoln that day at Gettysburg. I can understand the cynicism disillusionment of Americans as well as those who have for over 200 years looked to us and our system as a “city set on a hill.” That being said, when I read these words and walk that hallowed  ground I am again a believer that we can realize the ideal.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. 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. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

In the hope that we again realize those ideals and help bring about “a new birth of freedom,” I wish you a good night.
Peace

Padre Steve+

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Lee Blunders into Battle: Day One at Gettysburg

Railroad_CutBetween Heth’s Divsion and I Corps at the Railroad Cut-Dale Gallon

The Army of Northern Virginia commanded by Robert E Lee was now deep in Union territory and nearly blind to the location of the Federal Army of the Potomac. On the 30th advanced units of Dick Ewell’s Second Corps had gone nearly as far as Harrisburg while most of the Army was on the road around Chambersburg. J.E.B. Stuart and his cavalry was far away encumbered by a large captured Federal wagon train around Hanover and not in position to report on Union troop movements.

As reports from the spy Harrison came to Longstreet he reported them to Lee. Lee was surprised but quickly began to concentrate the Army around Cashtown. As the rest of the army gathered General A.P. Hill sent Johnston Pettigrew’s Brigade of Harry Heth’s Division to Gettysburg on the 30th. Pettigrew observed the Federal cavalry of Buford’s 1st Cavalry Division as they took up positions on Seminary Ridge. Since it was late he declined to engage and reported the Federal concentration to Hill, believing it to be nothing more than militia and cavalry.

427_2Buford Defending McPherson’s Ridge Mort Kunstler

On the morning of July 1st Hill ordered Harry Heth’s to advance his division to Gettysburg without the benefit of cavalry support or reconnaissance. Hill believed that the troops reported by Pettigrew could be nothing more than local militia. As they advanced the leading brigades under Brigadier General James Archer and Joseph Davis met Federal forces. Heth first became embroiled in a fight with Buford’s cavalry, which forced him to deploy and held up his advance along McPherson’s and Herr’s Ridge. Lee’s “laxness with respect to reconnaissance and his lack of control of Hill’s movements caused him to stumble into battle.” For the master of so many battlefields it was an inauspicious beginning.

Heth had been surprised and then suffered heavy casualties when lead elements of the Federal 1st Corps under the command of Major General John Reynolds arrived. In the ensuing fight both Archer’s and Davis’ brigades were mauled with Archer being captured and Davis wounded. As the fight continued the Federal XI Corps under Oliver Howard arrived, extended the Right of the Federal line and emplaced troops on the hills to the east of the town. Unfortunately Howard’s dispositions were faulty and the choice of his First Division commander Barlow to advance to an exposed area of high ground proved to be nearly disastrous to the Federal position.

gettysburg_battle_map_of day1Gettysburg Day One (Map by Hal Jespersen, http://www.posix.com/Com)

Lee was surprised by the engagement and though he chastised Heth for getting involved but committed his army to the attack the Federals. Reynolds was killed early in the engagement but the fight was bitter, the Iron Brigade exacted a fearful toll on Archer and Davis’s brigades.

The attack by Heth was helped immensely when the lead elements of Ewell’s 2nd Corps in the form of Robert Rodes’ division arrived. Rodes’ division hit the right flank of the I Corps where it joined XI Corps and was joined by part of Jubal Early’s Division to his right. They overwhelmed the division of Francis Barlow who was wounded and captured, as well as other elements of XI Corps which was deployed on bad ground for defense.

The attack was well conceived but poorly executed, in part due to the failures of some of the subordinate brigade commanders. However, the attack threw the Federal line into confusion and the Federals shifted to meet the attack. Heth sought and got permission from Lee to renew his attack and the combination forced the Federal troops to withdraw through Gettysburg and up to Cemetery Ridge, where two brigade’s of Steinwehr’s division and the tough survivors of the Iron Brigade were already in place.

800px-First_day_at_gettysburgPender’s Division Goes into Action

In making the attack Lee acted against his own directions to his commanders. Though he only had a fraction of his army on the field and was unaware of the strength and location of the bulk of the Federal Army, Lee committed himself to a general engagement. In the process he placed his army at a disadvantage. Unless he could break the Federal line and take Cemetery Hill he would leave the Army of the Potomac with the high ground and with the ability to fight on interior lines, while his forces would be spread out over a long arcing line.

leeindexLee with A.P. Hill and Heth Bradley Schmehl

Ewell’s arrival was fortuitous because it temporarily tilted the balance to Lee, but the advantage was short lived, once again due to a vague order from Lee. This time it was an order to Ewell and like many things about Lee’s conduct of the battle this too is shrouded in controversy.

Lee’s report describes the order:

“General Ewell was, therefore, instructed to carry the hill occupied by the enemy, if he found it practicable, but to avoid a general engagement until the arrival of the other divisions of the army…”

But Lee had already committed himself to a general engagement in pursuing the attack during the afternoon. Although it appeared that Federal forces in turmoil as Reynold’s was dead and elements of XI Corps in retreat the situation was serious but the Confederates were not in a perfect or even completely advantageous position. Howard was able to rally his troops on Cemetery Hill taking advantage of his earlier deployment of Steinwehr’s division. Abner Doubleday who had succeeded Reynold’s brought his tropes back to reinforce the line as well as occupy Culp’s Hill to the right.

bogbayardwilkesonwebAbner Doubleday directs his troops on Day One

When Meade learned of Reynold’s death he dispatched Winfield Scott Hancock of II Corps to take command of all Federal Forces. Though he was junior to Howard, Hancock was able to work out a command arrangement with Howard and take command. Howard had to his credit Federal command position was strengthened.

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Hancock was authorized by Meade to select where the Army would make its stand. Hancock told Howard “But I think this is the strongest position by nature upon which to fight a battle that I have ever saw…and if it meets your approbation I will select this as the battlefield.” Howard agreed and both men set off to rectify their lines.

Despite their success Ewell and his Corps were disorganized and not in a good position to take advantage of their earlier success. Likewise he was limited in the forces that he had available to continue the attack. Both his and A.P. Hill’s Corps only had two of their divisions in the field. Hill reported that his divisions “were exhausted by some six hours of hard fighting (and that) prudence led me to be content with what had been gained, and not push forward troops exhausted and necessarily disordered, probably to encounter fresh troops of the enemy.” Ewell reported that “all the troops with me were jaded by twelve hours’ marching and fighting.” Lee’s report of the battle indicated that the four divisions involved were “already weakened and exhausted by a long and bloody struggle.”

As such a night assault would have been exceptionally risky. Ewell would have only had the tired and disorganized survivors of four brigades at his disposal with no support from A.P. Hill on his right.

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Ewell has often been criticized by the defenders of Lee and the legend of the Lost Cause for his failure to press the attack on Cemetery Ridge or Culp’s Hill. Critics cite that Federal forces were still disorganized and he could have easily attacked and driven the Federal Forces form the hills. Much is made of the protests of Major General Isaac Trimble as well as General John Gordon who were with Ewell. However as Edwin Coddington noted that these men concentrated their efforts on Ewell’s action to determine what went wrong at Gettysburg. In large part this was due to their inability to criticize Lee. Trimble’s account made its way into Michael Shaara’s classic novel of Gettysburg, the Killer Angels and were acted with conviction by Morgan Shepperd in the film adaptation of the book Gettysburg. Coddington correctly observed that “they forgot, however, the exact circumstances that kept the move from being “practicable” at the time.”

Rodes after battle report supported Ewell’s decision. He wrote before “the completion of his defeat before the town the enemy had begun to establish a line of battle on the heights back of the town, and by the time my line was in condition to renew the attack, he displayed quite a formidable line of infantry and artillery immediately in my front, extending smartly to my right, and as far as I could see to my left in front of Early.” Unfortunately for historians Rodes was killed in action at the Third Battle of Winchester in September 1864.

The Army of Northern Virginia came very close to sweeping Federal forces from the field on July 1st in spite of Lee’s lack of planning and clear commanders intent. But close was not enough. His forces which were committed in a piecemeal manner were unable to follow up their initial success. His orders to Ewell, to take the high ground “if practicable” were correctly interpreted by Ewell. Thus Federal corps under the command of Howard and Hancock were able to regroup, dig in and be reinforced by the rest of the Army on good ground of their choosing with interior lines.

Whether Lee intended to engage the Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg so early in the campaign is debated. His multiple and contradictory strategic aims left his commanders acting much on their own. His lack of clear commander’s intent to his subordinate commanders created confusion on the battlefield and paved the way to many controversies in the years following the war as Southerners sought to explain the failure of the Lost Cause, for which Lee could not be blamed.

Much of the controversy comes from Lee’s own correspondence which indicates that he might have not fully understood his own intentions. Some correspondence indicates that Lee desired to avoid a general engagement as long as possible while other accounts indicate that he wanted an early and decisive engagement. The controversy was stoked after the war by Lee’s supporters, particular his aides Taylor and Marshal and generals Gordon and Trimble, men like Longstreet and were castigated by Lee’s defenders for suggesting that Lee made mistakes on the battlefield.

Lee’s actual misunderstanding of his situation can be seen in the account of Isaac Trimble, traveling with Lee at the beginning of the invasion of Pennsylvania. He wrote:

“We have again outmaneuvered the enemy, who even now does not know where we are or what our designs are. Our whole army will be in Pennsylvania day after tomorrow, leaving the enemy far behind and obliged to follow by forced marches. I hope with these advantages to accomplish some single result and to end the war, if Providence favors us.”

The vagueness of Lee’s instructions to his commanders led to many mistakes and much confusion during the battle. Many of these men were occupying command positions under him for the first time and were unfamiliar with his command style. Where Stonewall Jackson might have understood Lee’s intent, even where Lee issued vague or contradictory orders, many others including Hill and Ewell did not. Lee did not change his command style to accommodate his new commanders.

That lack of flexibility and inability to clearly communicate Lee’s intent to his commanders and failure to exercise control over them proved fatal to his aims in the campaign. Stephen Sears scathing analysis of Lee’s command at Gettysburg perhaps says it the best. “In the final analysis, it was Robert E. Lee’s inability to manage his generals that went to the heart of the failed campaign.”

The vagueness of Lee’s intent was demonstrated throughout the campaign and was made worse by the fog of war. Day one ended with a significant tactical victory for Lee’s army but without a decisive result which would be compounded into a strategic defeat by Lee’s subsequent decisions on the 2nd and 3rd of July.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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A New Birth of Freedom: The Gettysburg Address at 150

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I am always humbled when I travel to Gettysburg as I did just two weeks ago. It is hard to believe in that now peaceful pastoral setting that over 157,000 Americans, almost 82,000 Union and 75,000 Confederate met in a three day battle. In those three days over 28,000 Confederates and 23,000 Union soldiers were killed, wounded, missing or captured. It was the greatest number of casualties inflicted in one battle on American soil in history.

The places that the battle was fought have become legendary, for they are “hallowed ground” as President Abraham Lincoln so eloquently put it. The places, McPherson’s and Herr’s Ridge, Seminary Ridge, the Railroad Cut, Barlow’s Knoll, Cemetery Hill, Culp’s Hill, The Wheat Field, Devil’s Den, the Peach Orchard, Little Round Top, Cemetery Ridge, the Apse of Trees, the Angle and the High Water Mark are in a sense holy, or hallowed, consecrated by those who struggled there, those who lived and those who gave the last full measure of devotion to their country.

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I think about those men of both sides, fully convinced of the rightness of their cause who fought valiantly in the struggle. That being said when I go there though my family predominantly fought for the Confederacy my heart is drawn to those men who remained loyal to the Union and those who answered the call of Abraham Lincoln to serve in a cause greater than their own interests, the great and the small alike.

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Lincoln was a masterful orator who managed to rally the Union and bring hundreds of thousands of men volunteer before Gettysburg. They came for an ideal an ideal which Lincoln’s oratory was probably the most effective at articulating in a way that men would volunteer to suffer hardship, fight and die to bring about. It was well put in the movie Gettysburg where Colonel Joshua Chamberlain said:

“This is a different kind of army. If you look at history you’ll see men fight for pay, or women, or some other kind of loot. They fight for land, or because a king makes them, or just because they like killing. But we’re here for something new. This has not happened much, in the history of the world: We are an army out to set other men free. America should be free ground, all of it, from here to the Pacific Ocean. No man has to bow, no man born to royalty. Here we judge you by what you do, not by who your father was. Here you can be something. Here is the place to build a home. But it’s not the land. There’s always more land. It’s the idea that we all have value, you and me. What we’re fighting for, in the end… we’re fighting for each other…”

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On November 19th 1863 Lincoln delivered a “few words” at Gettysburg which were in all practical aspects a benediction at the dedication of the battlefield cemetery. Lincoln was the second speaker at the ceremony following former Pennsylvania Congressman Edward Everett who spoke for more than two hours, a typical speech from the period. The 270 words of Lincoln’s address are perhaps the most important of any speech or document in American history save the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.

The speech was so powerful that Everett wrote Lincoln the next day:

“Permit me also to express my great admiration of the thoughts expressed by you, with such eloquent simplicity & appropriateness, at the consecration of the Cemetery. I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

The speech is short, but it’s eloquence is unmatched. Lincoln wrapped ideas, concepts and ideals that men have written volumes about into a speech so powerful that many have memorized it.

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But few realize the context that it must be placed. Though the Union had defeated Lee’s Army at Gettysburg and Grant had taken Vicksburg to cut the Confederacy in half the North was groining war weary. There were those in the North, the Copperheads who were willing even after Gettysburg and Vicksburg to end the war on terms favorable to the Confederacy, even granting Confederate independence and the continuation of slavery. Likewise Lincoln was sick when he delivered the address having what was mostly likely a mild form of Smallpox when he gave the address. Thus the tenor, simplicity and depth are even more remarkable. It is a speech given in the manner of Winston Churchill’s “Blood sweat toil and tears” address to Parliament upon being appoint Prime Minister in 1940.

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In a time where many are wearied by the foibles and follies of our politicians, even wondering about our form of government can survive Lincoln’s words matter. Dr Allen Guelzo, Professor of Civil War Studies at Gettysburg College wrote in the New York Times today:

“The genius of the address thus lay not in its language or in its brevity (virtues though these were), but in the new birth it gave to those who had become discouraged and wearied by democracy’s follies, and in the reminder that democracy’s survival rested ultimately in the hands of citizens who saw something in democracy worth dying for. We could use that reminder again today.”

Dr Guelzo is quite correct. Many people in this country and around the world are having grave doubts about our democracy. I wonder myself, but I am an optimist. I do believe that we will recover because for the life of me I see no nation anywhere else with our resiliency and ability to overcome the stupidity of politicians, pundits and preachers.

The amazing thing was that in spite of everything the Union survived. Lincoln was a big part of that but it was the men who left lives of comfort and security like Joshua Chamberlain and so many others who brought about that victory. Throughout the war, even to the end Southern political leaders failed to understand that Union men would fight and die for an ideal, something greater than themselves, the preservation of the Union and the freedom of an enslaved race. For those that volunteered it was not about personal gain, loot or land,it was about something greater. It was about freedom.

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Now I for one do not think that we are currently living up to the ideals enunciated by Lincoln that day at Gettysburg. I can understand the cynicism disillusionment of Americans as well as those who have for over 200 years looked to us and our system as a “city set on a hill.” That being said, when I read these words and walk that hallowed  ground I am again a believer that we can realize the ideal.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. 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. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

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In the hope that we again realize those ideals and help bring about “a new birth of freedom,” I wish you a good night.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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