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Longstreet considered Chancellorsville the kind of flashy spectacle the South could ill afford. Facing what Lincoln called ‘the arithmetic’, he perceived that four more such battles, in which the Confederates were outnumbered two to one and inflicted casualties at a rate of three for four, would reduce Lee’s army to a handful, while Hooker would be left with the number Lee had had at the outset… The style he preferred had the Confederates taking up a strong defensive position against which the superior blue forces were shattered, like waves against a rock… Longstreet listened with disapproval as Lee announced his intention to launch an offensive in the East. He protested… but Lee’s mind was made up. So Longstreet contented himself with his theory that the proposed invasion be conducted in accordance with his preference for receiving rather than delivering attack when the two armies came to grips, wherever that might be. As he put it later, quite as if he and Lee had been joint commanders of the army, “I then acceptted his proposition to make a campaign into Pennsylvania, provided it should be offensive in strategy but defensive in tactics, forcing the Federals to give us battle when we were in strong postion and ready to receive them.”
Lee heard him out with the courtesy which he was accustomed to extend to all subordinates, but which in this case was mistaken for a commitment. He intended no such thing, of course… trouble was stored up for all involved.
Lee laid his hand on the dead Jackson’s map, touching the regiion just east of the mountains that caught on their western flanks the rays of the setting sun. “Hereabouts we shall probably meet the enemy and fight a great battle,” he saud, “and if God gives us the victory, the war will be over and we shall achieve the recognition of our independence.”
One of the place names under his hand as he spoke was the college town of Gettysburg, just over 20 miles away, from which no less than 10 roads ran to as many disparate points of the compass, as if it were probing for trouble in all directions.
In the past 10 months, the Army of the Potomac had fought four major battles under as many different commanders — Bull Run under Pope, Antietam under McClellan, Fredericksburg under Burnside, and Chancellorsville under Hooker — all against a single adversary, Robert Lee, who could claim unquestionable victory in three out of the four; especially the first and the last, of which about the best that could be said was that the Federal army had sruvived them. Now it was about to fight its fifth great battle… and it would fight it under still a fifth commander.
Not that Hooker had not done well in the seven weeks since Chancellorsville. He had indeed: especially in the past few days, when by dint of hard and skillful marching he managed to interpose his 100,000 soldiers between Lee and Washington without that general’s knowledge that the blue army had even crossed the river from which it took its name. The trouble was that, despite his efforts to shift the blame for the recent Wilderness fiasco — principally onto Stoneman and Sedgwick and Howard’s rattled Dutchmen — he could not blur a line of the picture fixed in the public mind of himself as the exclusive author of that woeful chapter… There was much in the criticism of Hooker that was unfair but it was generally known that his ranking corps commander, Darius Couch, had applied for and been granted transfer to another department in order to avoid further service under a man he judged incompetent.
Nothing in Fighting Joe Hooker’s five-month tenure, in the course of which the army had experienced much of profit as well as pain, became him more than the manner in which he brought it to a close.
What Meade lacked in fact was glamour, not only in his actions and dispatches, but also in his appearance, which one journalist said was more that of a ‘learned pundit than a soldier’. Two birthdays short of 50, he looked considerably older, with a ‘small and compact’ balding head, a grizzled beard, and outsized puches under eyes that were ‘serious, almost sad’ and ‘rather sunken’ on each side of what the reporter had charitably described as ‘the late Duke of Wellington class of nose’.
Lee groped his way across the Pennsylvania landscape, deprived of his eyes and ears (Stuart’s cavalry) and with little information as to the enemy’s whereabouts or intentions… Whatever Lee encountered, good or bad, was bound to come as a surprise, and surprise was seldom a welcome thing in war. And so it was. Coincidents refused to mesh for the general who, six weeks ago in Richmond, had cast his vote for the long chance. Fortuity itself, as the deadly game unfolded move by move, appeared to conform to a pattern of hard luck; so much so, indeed, that in time men would say of Lee, as Jael had said of Sisera after she drove the tent peg into his temple, that the stars in their courses had fought against him.
One more item concerned Lee, though few of his lieutenants agreed that it should be so. They were saying that Meade was about as able a general as Hooker, but considerably less bold, and they were exchanging congratulations on Lincoln’s appointment of another mediocre opponent for them. Lee, who had known the Pennsylvanian as a fellow engineer in the old army, did not agree. “General Meade will commit no blunder on my front,” he said, “and if I make one he will make haste to take advantage of it.”
The night of the third day falls. The battle is done.
Lee entrenches that night upon Seminary Ridge.
All next day the battered armies still face each other
Like enchanted beasts.
Lee thinks he may be attacked,
Hopes for it, perhaps, is not, and prepares his retreat.
Vicksburg has fallen, hollow Vicksburg has fallen,
The cavedwellers creep from their caves and blink at the sun.
The pan of the Southern balance goes down and down.
The cotton is withering.
Army of Northern Virginia, haggard and tattered,
Tramping back on the pikes, through the dust-white summer,
With your wounds still fresh, your burden of prisoners,
Your burden of sick and wounded,
“One long groan of human anguish six miles long.”
You reach the swollen Potomac at long last,
A foe behind, a risen river in front,
And fording that swollen river, in the dim starlight,
In the yellow and early dawn,
Still have heart enough for the tall, long-striding soldiers
To mock the short, half swept away by the stream.
“Better change our name to Lee’s Waders, boys!”
“Come on you shorty — get a ride on my back.”
“Aw, it’s just we ain’t had a bath in seven years
And General Lee, he knows we need a good bath.”
So you splash and slip through the water and come at last
Safe, to the Southern side, while Meade does not strike;
Safe to take other roads, safe to march upon roads you know
For two long years. And yet — each road that you take,
Each dusty road leads to Appomattox now.
Stephen Vincent Benet
There is no other legend quite like the legend of the Confederate fighting man. He reached the end of his haunted road long ago. He fought for a star-crossed cause and in the end he was beaten, but as he carried his slashed red battle flag into the dusky twilight of the Lost Cause he marched straight into a legend that will live as long as the American people care to remember anything about the American past.
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.