Sixty miles to the west of where I sit now and exactly 150 years in the past 80,000 men of the Union Army of the Potomac marched north through Frederick towards Pennsylvania under the command of General George Meade. The army was rushing through central Maryland on reports that the Confederates under Robert E. Lee were making a bold move to bring the war north to Union land. Lee’s goal was to force an all out engagement with the Army of the Potomac and win a conclusive victory. He also wanted to draw Union pressure off of key Confederate targets like Vicksburg and hoped that a victory in Pennsylvania would bring much coveted foreign recognition. Having Lee and his army strolling through Pennsylvania with sights on the state capital in Harrisburg would be a public relations disaster for Lincoln and the North. If Lee could take Pennsylvania, what couldn’t he do? Meade’s goal was simpler: eject Lee from the north. Both men and their armies would meet in Gettysburg in the opening days of July 1863.
In this post I want to highlight two vignettes from Gettysburg, one from the South and one from the North, and merely retell the remarkable story of ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances. I debated briefly whether to make this a “N lessons from Gettysburg” article but quickly decided it would not be appropriate. Gettysburg is bigger than a template for management lessons although it offers these in abundance. By simply recounting this story for another generation, we honor the men who fought there, those tens of thousands unknown to us by name who unpretentiously chose to pick up rifles and move with all likelihood into the maw of death.
Longstreet was the most talented of Lee’s generals. By accounts, he was a large and brooding man who spoke slowly but deliberately and thoughtfully. Lee depended on him more than any other particularly with the recent loss of Stonewall Jackson. Longstreet found himself in a dilemma at Gettysburg. In contrast to Lee’s aggressive “hit the enemy when and where you can” tactics, Longstsreet favored a more defensive posture. The North had more men and more resources so that in a war of attrition the South was bound to lose. Defensive fighting incurred two to three times fewer casualties than offensive maneuvers, so logically this was the better strategic approach.
At Gettysburg on the morning of July 2nd, 1863 the Confederate army stretched in a wide arc from slightly northeast to slightly southwest. The Union army held high ground on the inside of that arc facing out towards the invaders in what some described as a fishhook pattern. The barb of this fishhook pointed south and arced north and over towards the west into the shank which ran south. On the Union left flank at the end of the shank was a pair of hills destined for history named Little and Big Round Top. From these hills on the edge of the battlefield the whole theater could be viewed. Longstreet wanted those hills. He wanted to put his army in them between the Army of the Potomac and Washington DC. With the threat of being cut off from DC, or worse, a Confederate assault on DC from the north with the Union Army bottled up in Gettysburg, Meade would be forced to attack, from the worst strategic position. The army of the Potomac would be cut down, maybe destroyed in the effort.
Lee, however, did not like the defensive play. He saw no honor in it and thought it would give the blue army time to get to full force. Lee liked to strike the enemy when he was least ready and off balance. Meade was newly appointed and would likely be cautious and morale was also very high on the Confederate side. They were finally taking the war to the North and they had won a key battles at Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg. Most of all, the men loved and respected Lee. With him they felt themselves invincible. Forced to execute on battle plans he opposed, Longstreet ordered his men into what he believed would be a brutal and savage fight ending in certain defeat. Casualties over the next two days would be among the most extreme in all the war. Longstreet protested but obeyed his orders, maybe hoping for the best or a miracle or that the brilliant Lee saw something that he did not. Lee had done it before maybe it would happen here in the southern hills of Pennsylvania.
The assault that day failed. The Confederates lost over 7,000 men in the attempt to break the Union line. Despite heavily weighted odds against, they almost managed to pierce Union defenses, if not for the heroic efforts of Union soldiers from the 1st Minnesota and the 20th Maine.
A year prior to Gettysburg, Joshua Chamberlain was a professor of rhetoric at Bowdoin College in Maine. He applied for a sabbatical and with the time granted, he traded the study of warring words for the practice of warring men. He joined the Union army and led the 20th Maine as its Colonel. In the waning days of June before Gettysburg, no doubt using his skill in rhetoric, Chamberlain had convinced over 100 deserters from another Maine regiment to join his unit and fight with him in the looming battle. By what seemed to be no calculated decision, Chamberlain and the 20th Maine were placed on the Union left on Little Round Top….this on the same day that Longstreet was preparing the rebel assault. Their orders were to hold at all costs. If the Confederates broke through here, they would have control of commanding high ground overlooking the Union front line from which they could bombard with artillery and sweep through. Thus it was that 370 men from Maine, lumberjacks and fishermen led by an English professor, balanced history on their sweat, determination and courage.
The Confederates came in waves up the rocky ground of Little Round Top. Exhausted from a full day of marching, those southern farmers from Mississippi and Alabama scraped, crawled and scurried up the hill to gain their objective. There were many more of them, but the Union had superior positioning on high ground. By 7 pm, the 20th Maine had held off the assault for 3 hours but were dangerously low on ammunition. A final wave of rebels was massing at the foot of the hill setting the stage for one of the most inspiring and heroic episodes in American military conflict. With no ammunition, an exhausted regiment and heavy casualties already, Chamberlain was in an impossible position. Ordered to hold but physically and materially depleted, most men would have concluded they had given their all, done their best and that it was time to retreat. Instead, the Maine academic gave the order to fix bayonets. Fixing bayonets meant to attach a protruding blade to the tip of your rifle. The purpose of this action would be for the brutal hand-to-hand rending of human flesh, a style of fighting that reduced the abstract conflict between two states to the most elementary of struggles between two individual men.
What must a man think after interminable hours of repelling the opposing army, dodging bullets and seeing comrades mauled when an order is given to essentially raise swords and charge? The 20th Maine by accounts may have been surprised by the order but followed it with fervor and charged down the hill into an even more surprised and shaken enemy below. The Southerners sobered by the ferocity of Union resistance all day and stunned by this late-in-the-day charge fled the hill. The Union left was saved at least for the day. It’s rare in history that the barrier between alternate paths is thinned to that of a mere membrane. On 2 July 1863 it was just that, a sliver of delicate threads held together by courage and sheer will of a few good men on Little Round top.
We study history for many reasons: to better understand how we arrived at where we are, to identify the grand forces that shape human society and to appreciate the people who through providence or fortune have stood at the nexus. The most compelling to me is the opportunity to study the decisions and actions of men under trying and difficult circumstances, whether moral or immoral, bold or cowardly. It may motivate and inform us on the lesser issues most of us face each day and it provides a rich inherited tapestry of real life stories and legends to which we may commonly refer. The battle of Gettysburg offers much in this regard. Men in difficult to impossible situations trying to honor their commitments to country and family and emerge alive from the worst that war can offer.