Lee’s Charge

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It is the third day.
The morning wears with a stubborn fight at Culp’s Hill
That ends at last in Confederate repulse
And that barb-end of the fish-hook cleared of the grey.

Lee has tried his strokes on the right and left of the line.
The centre remains–that centre yesterday pierced
For a brief, wild moment in Wilcox’s attack,
But since then trenched, reinforced and alive with guns.
It is a chance.  All war is a chance like that.
Lee considers the chance and the force he has left to spend
And states his will.
                    Dutch Longstreet, the independent,
Demurs, as he has demurred since the fight began.
He had disapproved of this battle from the first
And that disapproval has added and is to add
Another weight in the balance against the grey.
It is not our task to try him for sense or folly,
Such men are the men they are–but an hour comes
Sometimes, to fix such men in most fateful parts,
As now with Longstreet who, if he had his orders
As they were given, neither obeyed them quite
Nor quite refused them, but acted as he thought best,
So did the half-thing, failed as he thought he would,
Felt justified and wrote all of his reasons down
Later in controversy.
                     We do not need
Such controversies to see that pugnacious man
Talking to Lee, a stubborn line in his brow
And that unseen fate between them.
                                  Lee hears him out
Unmoved, unchanging.
                    “The enemy is there
And I am going to strike him,” says Lee, inflexibly.

Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body

Lee’s mistake in ordering the assault on Cemetery Ridge of the third day of Gettysburg, erroneously called Pickett’s Charge since Pickett was merely attempting to carry out an impossible mission, was not an uncommon one in that War even by good generals.  Grant ordered two such hopeless attacks at Cold Harbor and Sherman did so at Kennesaw Mountain. The problem was that such charges occasionally succeeded.  The Army of the Cumberland chased the Army of Tennessee out of an immensely strong position on Missionary Ridge just a few months later.  The improvement in weaponry had made such assaults a bad gamble, but occasionally the gamble did pay off.  At Gettysburg it did not.  The attack produced nothing but 6500 Confederate casualties, 1500 Union casualties, an end to Lee’s Northern invasion and an undying legend.

 

 

Pickett's-Charge

 

As the survivors of the attack came back to the Confederate lines Lee rode out to meet them.  His first words were All my fault.  After Lee got his Army back to the Confederacy, a feat in itself which speaks well of his generalship and poorly of that of General Meade, he wrote a letter offering his resignation to Jefferson Davis:

 

 

Camp Orange, August 8, 1863

His Excellency Jefferson Davis,
President
of the Confederate States

Mr. President,

Your letters of July 28
and August 2 have been received, and I have waited for a leisure hour to reply,
but I fear that will never come. I am extremely obliged to you for the attention
given to the wants of this army, and the efforts made to supply them. Our
absentees are returning, and I hope the earnest and beautiful appeal may stir up
the virtue of the whole people; and that they may see their duty and perform it.
Nothing is wanted but their fortitude should equal their bravery to insure the
success of our cause. We must expect reverses, even defeats. They are sent to
teach us wisdom and prudence, to call forth greater energies and to prevent our
falling into greater disasters. Our people have only to be true and united, to
bear manfully the misfortunes incident to war, and all will come right in the
end.

 

I know how prone we are to censure and how ready to blame others for
the non-fulfillment of our expectations. This is unbecoming in a generous
people, and I grieve to see its expression. The general remedy for the want of
success in a military commander is his removal. This is natural, and in many
instances, proper. For, no matter what may be the ability of the officer, if he
loses the confidence of his troops disaster must sooner or later ensue.

I
have been prompted by these reflections more than once since my return from
Pennsylvania to propose to Your Excellency the propriety of selecting another
commander for this army. I have seen and heard of expression of discontent in
the public journals at the result of the expedition. I do not know how far this
feeling exends in the army. My brother officers have been too kind to report it,
and so far the troops have been too generous to exhibit it. It is fair, however,
to suppose that it it does exist, and success is so necessary to us that nothing
should be risked to secure it. I therefore, in all sincerity, request Your
Excellency to take measures to supply my place. I do this with the more
earnestness because no one is more aware than myself of my inability for the
duties of my position. I cannot even accomplish what I myself desire. How can I
fulfill the expectations of others? In addition I sensibly feel the growing
failure of my bodily strength. I have not yet recovered from the attack I
experienced the past spring. I am becoming more and more incapable of exertion,
and am thus prevented from making the personal examinations and giving the
personal supervision to the operations of the field which I feel to be
necessary. I am so dull that in making use of the eyes of others I am frequently
misled. Everything, therefore, points to the advantages to be derived from a new
commander, and I the more anxiously urge the matter upon Your Excellency from my
belief that a younger and abler man than myself can readily be attained. I know
that he will have as gallant and brave an army as ever existed to second his
efforts, and it would be the happiest day of my life to see at its head a worthy
leader — one that would accomplish more than I could perform and all that I
have wished. I hope Your Excellency will attribute my request to the true
reason, the desire to serve my country, and to do all in my power to insure the
success of her righteous cause.

I have no complaints to make of any one
but myself. I have received nothing but kindness from those above me, and the
most considerate attention from my comrades and companions in arms. To Your
Excellency I am specially indebted for uniform kindness and consideration. You
have done everything in your power to aid me in the work committed to my charge,
without omitting anything to promote the general welfare. I pray that your
efforts may at length be crowned with success, and that you may long live to
enjoy the thanks of grateful people.

With sentiments of great esteem, I
am, very respectfully and truly, yours,

R.E. Lee,
General

 

Davis of course declined the offer, and Lee would prove again and again in the War that he was one of the Great Captains of History.  After Gettysburg, however, I am sure that Lee realized that whatever his skill and the courage of his men, that their opportunity of winning the War had never been so bright as at Gettysburg, and that opportunity had eluded him.

 

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.

– William Faulkner

 

 

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5 Comments

  1. Was it the historian Shelby Foote who said that the North fought the War with one hand tied behind it’s back?
    Suppose Lee won at Gettysburg. How much farther can he go, given his tenuous supply lines and the surplus of men in the North? One has to think that the Army of Northern Virginia could have been attached from the rear had they stayed in Pennsylvania and ultimately wiped out. It would have been a Phyrric victory and without foreign help the Confederacy was doomed.

  2. What a great American, and example of a Christian man! Thank you, Donald. It is a pity more Americans don’t understand Lee’s contribution to this country. At its worst times, this country produced great men.

  3. “He was a foe without hate; a friend without treachery; a soldier without cruelty; a victor without oppression; and a victim without murmuring. He was a public officer without vices; a private citizen without wrong; a neighbor without reproach; a Christian without hypocrisy and a man without guile. He was a Caesar without his ambition; Frederick without his tyranny; Napoleon without his selfishness; and Washington without his reward.”

    Benjamin H. Hill on Robert E. Lee

    That being said, nobody is perfect.

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