Monday, June 4, 2012

Reactions to the Battle of Gettysburg

[caption id="attachment_2806" align="aligncenter" width="673" caption="From Harper's Weekly, July 25, 1863"][/caption]

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

We all know that Gettysburg was the turning point of the Civil War, right? At least...a lot of people who reminisced after the war would have us believe exactly that. But at the time, things were a little different. Certainly, northerners were very happy with the victory. But many were frustrated with Meade's failure to follow up and crush the Rebels. Whether this was possible or not seemed to escape northerners who were looking for a way to hasten the end of the war. Even Lincoln himself wrote a letter to Meade expressing his dissatisfaction (and never sent it).

In the South, people saw it as a setback for sure. Lee lost his momentum, and the enormous casualties suffered both in men and officers was troubling as well - few replacements were available. Further, if European nations had any remaining interest in somehow coming on board with the Confederate, it was more or less gone. But...Lee was not driven from the field - he left on the day after the battle and crossed the Potomac back in to Virginia virtually unmolested. So was it a crushing defeat?

Here is what the citizens of the United States and the Confederacy did not know in the summer of 1863: Gettysburg was the biggest battle of the war, it was the last time Lee invaded the North, and Lincoln would use the battlefield to redefine the conflict - thus adding to its importance.

Only after the war did Gettysburg serve as the war's decisive turning point. Lost Cause warriors (and some northerners too) saw to it that July 1863 (in Pennsylvania) marked the beginning of the end of the Confederate cause - the high water mark....slighting everything that happened over the next two years. This idea found its way in to popular culture and cemented itself in the national vernacular for quite some time. When you have a few hours to kill, have a look at Gone With the Wind, one of the highest grossing films of all time. In one of the many heated conversations between Rhett and Scarlett, Rhett notes that "a battle was going on that should decide things one way or a little town in Pennsylvania called Gettysburg (cue dramatic music now)." Scarlett was really only worried if her beloved Ashley Wilkes was in the fight (he was - with Cobb's Legion) but despite her disregard, the rest of the film was a downhill slide to inevitable defeat...just like the Lost Cause authors in the 1870s and 80s and so on recorded.

But the Rebs had plenty of fight left in them in July 1863 - and Lee's reputation did not suffer. You will not have to look hard for soldiers' letters late in the war claiming that Lee had never been defeated.



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