Saturday, July 02, 2005

Saturday Edition: Twelve Roads to Gettysburg

It was the shoes that started the whole thing.

142 years ago today, at this very hour, on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Union troops waited in rising heat on a low hill—roughly in the formation of an upside-down “j” immediately south of town—for an attack they knew was coming from an army that had routed the same Union army two months ago to the day in the woods of Chancellorsville.

The Union troops knew the attack was coming because Confederate General Robert E. Lee had nearly destroyed them the day before—the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg—and they knew Lee would not stop with “nearly.”

The way it had all started that first day was simple and seemingly random: the morning of July 1, 1863, two divisions of Confederate infantry had marched east on the Chambersburg Turnpike towards Gettysburg, a quiet town in southern Pennsylvania known not yet for the battle that would mark the high-water mark of the Confederacy, but for its Lutheran Seminary.

Those Confederates troops were looking for shoes—specifically, a large supply of shoes rumored to be at the Gettysburg depot.

Shoes were important because armies, in those days, moved on their feet. (Some Confederate troops at Gettysburg had marched 30 miles before going straight into battle: think about walking thirty miles quickly, on an empty stomach, before doing anything let alone fighting.) And, while the Union troops were generally well supplied with blue uniforms, boots and caps thanks to the huge industrial base of the North; the Confederate troops were not so well dressed.

In fact, as many as a third of the troops Robert E. Lee marched north into Maryland and Pennsylvania that summer of 1863—with the specific intent of bringing the war home to North and inflaming anti-war passions in Congress—were barefoot.

Which is why any pictures or paintings or movies you have seen about the Civil War showing brightly uniformed blue and grey troops clashing in brave and dramatic poses, are fiction. And why the first thing the Rebel soldiers stripped from dead Union soldiers were their boots. And, in fact, why the Confederate soldiers were marching to Gettysburg on July 1, 1863.

That the decisive battle of the Civil War took place in Gettysburg owes itself to one peculiar and significant attribute of the town entirely unrelated to its Lutheran Seminary: a dozen roads from important towns and cities like Chambersburg, Baltimore and York all converged on Gettysburg, like the spokes of a wheel.

So, in late June, when Robert E. Lee halted his second invasion north of the Potomac River and ordered the scattered troops of the Army of Northern Virginia to consolidate against the sudden threat of the Army of the Potomac moving north under its new commander, George Meade, those twelve roads made Gettysburg the almost inevitable meeting ground of the two large armies.

But the initial clash that started three days of fighting was merely about the shoes coveted by the ill-clad Confederate forces—and the determination of a single Union cavalry officer, General John Buford, to make a stand against the Confederate troops from positions on McPherson Ridge and the banks of Willoughby Run just west of town.

What gets me thinking about this, aside from the significance of the dates involved, is that Shelby Foote, the Mississippi born novelist-turned-Civil War chronicler, died this week. If you have not read Foote's “The Civil War, A Narrative,” you ought to give it a try—or at least listen to the excerpt devoted to the Battle of Gettysburg, called “Stars in Their Courses,” which is read by Foote himself.

Foote chronicles a bloody, disjointed mess of a three-day battle in a way that makes it almost poetry, and brings to the surface precisely what created an entire category of individuals—and I am one of them—called “Civil War Buffs”: the human element of the war itself. Specifically, the actions and character of the men (they were all men in those days) who fought in a war where individual acts mattered greatly.

For what is really interesting about all those battles is not the blood and guts and guns of war: what is interesting—as Foote makes plain—is the clash of personalities encompassing the great struggle.

It was a war fought largely on foot. Officers still carried sabers, and the infantry charged with bayonets when the fighting got close. Airplanes, tanks, trucks had not been invented: individuals and their actions mattered as much as raw firepower.

There are too many instances during the Civil War when individual actions changed the direction of an engagement or of a battle to list here, but it is a fact that one man on the Union side saved the entire Army of the Potomac from disaster on the Battle of Gettysburg’s second day—and thus probably saved the Union.

He was Gouverneur K. Warren, and he was not even a line officer: he was Meade’s chief engineer, inspecting the geography south of the Union forces concentrated on Cemetery Hill. Warren saw that the rocky, undefended hill called “Little Round Top” (think of it as the dot on the upside-down "j") held the key to the entire Union line. If the Confederates took it (which they were about to try to do) and muscled a few rifled guns to the top, the battle was lost.

So he ordered passing troops to the top, telling their officer who hesitated at not following his original orders, “I’ll take responsibility.” The Union troops took, and held, Little Round Top by the hardest. The Army of the Potomac held its lines and fended off Pickett’s Charge the following day, and the Battle of Gettysburg went down in history as the high watermark of the Confederacy.

On Monday, July 4th, the New York Times will reprint the Declaration of Independence as it always does each July 4th. It is an extraordinary document—and one we might not be re-reading each July 4th if one individual had not made a split-second decision and taken complete responsibility for his actions 142 years ago today. Pretty cool stuff.

And all because of some shoes, and a lot of barefoot soldiers.

Jeff Matthews
I Am Not Making This Up


k9thunder said...

Hi Jeff,

How about some comments on Overstock? Really enjoyed your reading. Any view on Ski West acqusition?

Have nice 4th!

Hewitt Heiserman said...

The July 11th issue of BusinessWeek (pg. 83) puts this blog in their top 10 list, so congratulations.

And now this Civil War factoid: Who was Wilmer McLean?

Well, this Virginia farmer has the distinction of having the Civil War "start in his back yard and end in his parlor," according to the College of St. Schlolastica.

"Canon balls fired at Manassas rolled onto his property and convinced him he should move to avoid any more such unsettling events. So he took his family to a little hamlet known as Appomattox Court House, 93 miles southwest of Richmond. Four years later he welcomed the two opposing generals and their staffs into his living room."

You can read more here:

Always knew my history degree would be useful someday.

Keep up the rambling, sarcastic good work, Jeff.

Hewitt Heiserman said...

...and to Jeff's point about the fiction of many Civil War paintings, it applies to Matthew Brady's photographs, as well. In order to add more drama to his images, Brady often rearranged the battlefield corpses.

Brady and his team snapped 3,500 pictures of the Civil War, but after Lee's surrender people didn't want to be reminded of the carnage. Since the inventory was worthless, Brady was forced to declare bankruptcy. He died penniless, in 1896.

Mad man on the water said...

To k9thunder: Maybe we should follow Jeff's lead and ponder, if only for a few days, events that had for more influence on our lives and the direction of our country. While the pursuit of Overstock may appear more timely, the great historical events of our country, such as the Civil War, are timeless because they can teach us so much more.

Its_strange said...

I was at a Southside Johnny show at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park NJ ...And man----O-------man has cheap money had its effect on housing ...even Asbury Park is on the move ..I was told by a mortgage broker at the show that units are being sold before the first shovel of sand is removed.

This deserves a closer look

hundredyearstorm said...

For those who have not read it, Killer Angels by Michael Shaara is an excellent book about the 3 days that saved the Union.

Whenever I reflect on Gettysburg - and think of the legendary characters involved, the overall significance of the battle, the scope of destruction wrought - I always come back to the end of the 2nd day and the defense of Little Round Top. Were it not for the quick thinking and sheer audacity of a professor turned soldier and the almost incomprehensible bravery of his regiment of volunteers, who knows what may have been. The fact that the name Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the 20th Maine are not more well known in this country is another sign of how we are failing to honor and remember those who ensured our way of life today.

Jeff Matthews said...

Far be it for me to look a gift horse, such as it is, in the mouth, and say anything "rambling" or "sarcastic" about BusinessWeek's Top 10 list.

I do appreciate the recognition, however I wish to point out two errors in the BusinessWeek blurb:

1. I do not "run money for RAM Partners." Rather, I am General Partner of Ram Partners, LP--and if you think this is being picky or prickly, you would be amazed how many "RAM Partners" or "RAM Capital" or "RAM Investments" exist out there, creating confusion with my own business that I would like to head off before it starts up again.

2. I no longer write for

The ramblingness and sarcasm will resume tomorrow morning.

Jeff Matthews
I Am Not Making This Up

Maestro said...

Can you back up the idea that "we might not be re-reading [the DOI] each July 4th"? How would the South winning independence affect our committment to the document and its ideals? Or do you think they would have conquered us eventually? Remember, even if wrongly, Southerners believed they were honoring the spirit of the DOI with their actions.

DaleW said...

We might not be the same country that adopted the DOI had the CSA won the war or had an armistace been signed. Also, doesn't the relevance of the document decline if 31% of the states signing are absent from the USA and don't the words in the DOI become less relevant for everyone in general and some more specifically had the war ended differently? I think they do.

Jeff Matthews said...

Interesting question from "maestro" regarding my reason for saying we might not be reading the Declaration of Independence in the New York Times every July 4th if Gouverneur K. Warren had not saved the Union Army from defeat at the Battle of Gettysburg.

Of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, 17 were from southern states which seceded from the Union: Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia.

Another 4 signers hailed from Maryland, which stayed in the Union although it was a slave state, hostile to Lincoln, and may have seceded had it not bordered Washington D.C.

And three signed for Delaware, also a slave state.

So nearly half the signers of the Declaration of Independence were slave-staters who may have seceded if the Union hadn't held.

Furthermore, the author and one of the signers was Thomas Jefferson, from the slave state of Virginia.

Had the south seceded, I believe the Declaration of Independence would have been declared null and void, by both sides, even though as "maestro" rightly points out the "secesh" movement pointed to the Declaration of Independence itself as providing the blueprint for secession.

More informed opinions than mine on this matter are welcome!

Jeff Matthews said...

For the record, my 11:54 a.m. response to "maestro" was composed before I had seen a similar and well-written response from "dalew" that hit at 11:35 a.m.

The main difference in our two posts was that "dalew" was far more succinct than I, which makes sense, given that I ramble.

Maestro said...

I'm not sure I follow, "jeff". What would it even mean to declare the DOI null and void? It's a statement of philosophy, and it's a statement of independence from England. Surely you don't mean that the North or South would have rejoined England. Or that if the South had won independence they would have renounced the right to declare themselves independent. So, "jeff", what are you getting at?

Jeff Matthews said...

Wrong phrase I used--"null and void."

The Declaration would still stand as a historical fact, but it would likely be considered and ironic document given that its author's and half its signers' states had declared their own independence from that very United States of America.