Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Staying in the moment at Gettysburg

One challenge in writing Our War or any other Civil War history is to suspend knowledge of what came next. If you’re going to stay in the moment and keep your characters there, you can’t tell the story with the outcome in mind. As I read Allen Guelzo’s account of the July 2, 1863, fighting in his new Gettysburg: The Last Invasion, I was thus curious about where, in Guelzo’s view, things would stand when the day ended.

Pvt. Martin Haynes of the 2nd New Hampshire
In Our War, my chapter on the second day at Gettysburg, follows three New Hampshire soldiers to the battlefield and through the day. They are Pvt. Martin Haynes, Sgt. Richard Musgrove and Col. Edward E. Cross, and each served in one of the three New Hampshire infantry regiments that fought on July 2.

I try to show through their experiences how the fates of their regiments intertwined. All three regiments fought on the Union left, Haynes’s 2nd New Hampshire and Musgrove’s 12th in Dan Sickles’s 3rd Corps, Cross’s 5th with the rest of his brigade in Winfield Scott Hancock’s 2nd Corps.

Sgt. Richard Musgrove
The basic story as I saw it was this: The advance of the 2nd New Hampshire to the Peach Orchard and the 12th to the Klingle Farm, both on the Emmitsburg Road, drew the 5th New Hampshire from the south end of Cemetery Ridge to the Wheatfield. The collapse of the Peach Orchard, at great human cost to the 2nd New Hampshire, opened the 12th’s left flank to attack as that regiment was already in peril from a Confederate frontal attack. The Peach Orchard collapse also made the 5th’s position in the woods near the Wheatfield untenable.

Haynes and Musgrove were keen observers of the fighting and its aftermath; Cross, as a beloved commander, was keenly observed. I loved weaving their stories together.

Col. Edward E, Cross
The conclusion I reached after night fell over the left end of the Union line was that chaos reigned. Amid the carnage, groans and gasps, Haynes and Musgrove joined the search for wounded men from their regiments. Cross lay gravely wounded in a field hospital behind the lines. As far as these three soldiers knew, the Union army had suffered another catastrophe. The able veterans of all three regiments had, in the end, run for their lives. Casualties were horrific.

Let us take a look at how Guelzo dealt with this moment in Gettysburg: The Last Invasion.

Historians sometimes use a quotation from Maj. Gen. George Meade, the Union commander at Gettysburg, to indicate that from his perspective all was well that night. The quotation is this: “Yes, but it is all right now, it is all right now.”

Guelzo puts this comment in its proper context. Meade made it not at the end of the day’s fighting but earlier, as an expression of his relief that reinforcements had arrived just in time to plug a breach in the Union line – one of many close calls that day. I should add that while giving Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the 20th Maine their due, Guelzo praises many similar brave and fortuitous moments that day. He points out that after the war Chamberlain had the time, motive and skill to burnish his regiment’s deeds and his reputation.

Later, Guelzo makes a stronger case than most historians have that Meade wanted to pull back after the July 2 fighting rather than remain and fight on July 3. Firm, near-unanimous advice from his subordinate generals convinced him that he had to stay. The point is, at the end of the second day, Meade was not confident he had won a thing.

And how could he have been? In assessing Army of the Potomac casualties, Guelzo looks closely at the record. Thomas L. Livermore, a 5th New Hampshire man who served as head of the 2nd Corps ambulance corps at Gettysburg, did a careful study of Union casualty numbers after the war. He counted 3,903 dead, 18,735 wounded and 5,425 missing at Gettysburg for a total of 28,063. Meade told a congressional committee there were more than 20,000 casualties on the second day alone.

Here is how Guelzo sums up the situation after the last shot was fired on July 2:

“The Army of Northern Virginia had dealt its Union counterpart a series of blows which, purely in terms of casualties and human destruction, had the unhappy Army of the Potomac as thoroughly on the ropes as it had ever been. The 1st Corps and the 11th Corps had been crushed down to the nubs on July 1st; on July 2nd, the 3rd Corps and the 5th Corps, along with an entire division of the 2nd Corps, had been ground into oblivion.  By moonrise on July 2nd, George Meade had only the 12th Corps and the 6th Corps in any sort of fighting shape, along with four brigades of Hancock’s 2nd Corps. . . .

“It must have occurred to George Meade that perhaps the stand at Gettysburg had been a big mistake, after all.”

My three soldiers in Our War would have agreed. They all served in units that Guelzo rightly describes as “ground into oblivion.”

Like practically all our readers, both Guelzo and I know what happened on July 3, but the men we wrote about, from Private Haynes in my case to General Meade in his, did not. Although Pickett’s Charge decided the battle and proved to be a turning point in the war, the outcome was very much in doubt when the Union generals gathered at Meade’s headquarters late the night of July 2.

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