Saturday, July 13, 2013

Surprise, surprise, surprise

At the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College last month, I had the pleasure of speaking for a few moments with Allen C. Guelzo after his talk about the town of Gettysburg itself as a key factor in the battle. A later post will summarize this talk, but I also followed up on our meeting with an email question to Guelzo, which he kindly answered. (You can see his answer to an earlier question – Did Abraham Lincoln really free the slaves? – here.)

The River Queen, site of the 1865 Hampton Roads Peace Conference.
Here is the latest question followed by Guelzo's response and some elaboration by me:

In researching and writing Gettysburg: The Last Invasion, what were your three biggest surprises?
Certainly my biggest surprises were as follows:

1. George Meade’s political leanings, as revealed through his correspondence at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and especially the Jan. 20, 1865, letter describing his conversations with the Confederate commissioners – Stephens, Hunter and Campbell – bound for Hampton Roads.

2. The realization that Lee had already ordered the concentration of his army before receiving the report of the spy Harrison.

3. The lack of evidence that Lee and Stuart ever had the “woodshed” meeting described in The Killer Angels and many other Gettysburg books.

Guelzo's first surprise involves the three commissioners who arranged to meet President Lincoln and Secretary of State William H. Seward aboard the River Queen at Hampton Roads, Va. They were Alexander H. Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, John A. Campbell, the assistant secretary of war, and Senator Robert M.T. Hunter of Virginia. Nothing came of the peace conference.

Meade was a Democrat but denied he was a Copperhead, or antiwar Democrat. In his book, Guelzo quotes from the Jan. 20, 1865, letter recounting what Meade told the peace commissioners as they passed through his lines for the meeting with the president. “I told them very plainly what I thought was the basis on which the people of the North would be glad to have peace,” Meade wrote. He advised them that all that was needed was “the emphatic restoration of the Union.”

Guelzo closes his account of what Meade told the commissioners this way: “As for slavery, dealing with this issue was ‘not insurmountable,’ and as though he had never heard of the Emancipation Proclamation, Meade ‘thought some system could be found accommodating both interests, which would not be as obnoxious as slavery.’ ”

Guelzo’s second and third surprises are related. On June 28, 1863, Henry Thomas Harrison, a spy,
J.E.B. Stuart, Confederate cavalry chieftain.
gave first Gen. James Longstreet and then Lee a full report on recent movements of the several Union corps marching toward Pennsylvania. Harrison also informed Lee that Meade had replaced Gen. Joseph Hooker as commander of the Army of the Potomac.

Lee was already concentrating his army before he received this intelligence, although Harrison’s report prompted him to switch destinations. Instead of moving on Harrisburg to draw the Army of the Potomac there, it headed for Gettysburg.

Stuart is J.E.B. Stuart, the Confederate cavalry commander who led his men on a long, useless ride from June 25 to June 28 – a folly, Guelzo calls it in his book. After the war, Lee worshipers seeking scapegoats for Lee's failure at Gettysburg settled on Stuart (and Longstreet). In his research Guelzo found no contemporary evidence of the oft-asserted claim that Lee dressed Stuart down for his absence when he finally reported to him.

From Guelzo’s text, a further conclusion is clear: It is a mistake to think Lee was “blind” at Gettysburg because he was deprived of the intelligence he expected from Stuart. Henry Thomas Harrison’s report gave Lee all the up-to-date information he needed about the Union army’s command, makeup, position and movements.

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