The Battle of Gettysburg wasn’t a turning point in the Civil War.
“It wasn’t even a turning point in the East,” Kent Masterson Brown will argue April 13 at the third annual Springfield Civil War Symposium.
Brown contends that’s so because Gen. Robert E. Lee’s masterful retreat from the battle saved his army as a fighting force.
He also argues that President Abraham Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg and martyrdom not only cast a shadow of misunderstanding over the battle but over the reputation of Union Gen. George Meade for an alleged failure to destroy Lee’s army during its retreat.
The attorney and historian whose assessments run contrary to the majority of historians will makes his case when he’ll share the symposium stage with military historian Parker Hills, who will focus on the other major battle of 1863: Vicksburg.
Deadline to register for the symposium is April 5. It will be held at the Heritage Center of Clark County. For details call 937-324-0657.
Brown, author of “Retreat from Gettysburg” and “The Civil War in Kentucky,” said Lee took responsibility for his Army’s defeat at Gettysburg.
But given the intelligence and information Lee had, said Brown, “I would have not have come to a different conclusion.”
Seeing the wreckage on the hill extending in front of him, Brown, too, would have ordered George Pickett to attack what looked like the enemy’s weakened center.
To understand the brilliance of Lee’s generalship after the battle, Brown said, it’s necessary to look at what led up to the battle.
Lee drove north not solely for a military objective but for the practical purpose of sustaining his army, which was “on the brink of destruction before Gettysburg,” Brown said.
“There was just no food in Virginia,” he said. So like a migrating herd of animals, the army and its animals headed for new foraging territory, but in a very organized way.
“Lee going up to Pennsylvania relied on a line of supply and communication that extended from the Cumberland Valley Turnpike down to the Potomac (River), up the Shenandoah Turnpike to Virginia.”
At 300 miles, “it was as long a supply line as we had in the war in Iraq,” Brown said. And because it provided a flow of munitions, mail and replacement soldiers, he said the relationship between the general and his supply lines “is like a deep sea diver and his hose: You’ve got to keep that line up and protected.”
After the defeat at Gettysburg, Lee falls back on that line, said Brown. “That becomes his line of retreat.”
It was a retreat that, by necessity, was led by miles and miles of wagons and supply trains.
“Lee starts those trains at 3 in the morning of July 4,” Brown said.
His army takes two routes south between the mountains. A 17-mile length of supply train heads south at Cashtown, eight miles south and west of Gettysburg, a 40-mile supply train turns at Monterey, 14 miles west-southwest of Gettysburg.
“Then behind the trains going over Monterey comes the army itself,” said Brown, led by A.P Hill, James Longstreet and Richard Ewell.
Using the narrow mountain geography to his advantage, Lee “posts a very strong rear guard.”
When Confederate positions are first threatened at Monterey, he said, he has all his men build campfires, cut down trees and start to build breastworks or defensive positions.
“He makes it appear that he’s going to fortify the mountains,” Brown said, a move that gave the Union’s Meade, himself leading a tired army, cause to pause.
Before the battle at Gettysburg, Meade’s lines has been stretched out along a length line to protect Washington, forcing troops to rush to the village when the battle began.
This separated the army 30 miles from its supply lines for food and ammunition, a reconnection made more difficult after the battle because Confederate troops had ripped up rails and otherwise delivered body blows to the trains in the days before the battle.
When the battle at Gettysburg ended “his army hadn’t been fed in four days and his horses hadn’t been fed in four days.”
“He’s not going to attack Lee in the mountains,” Brown said, “so the whole attempt to poke through Lee’s rear (positions) is called off.”
Although the torrential rains helped Lee’s army early in its retreat, they also caused the Potomac River, over which Lee had to get his troops, to swell, blocking the way.
At Hagerstown, Md., “he engineers a nine mile defense line” of artillery and infantry 50 to 75 feet above the valley floor, Brown said.
Now at work on a book of Meade’s pursuit of Lee, Brown credits the Union general with moving “with incredible speed” to reach Lee’s defensive positions on July 10.
But because Meade’s army would have had to first cross the river, then climb the hill to attack the enemy, the Union general’s officers tell him “don’t dare,” fearing the losses would be substantial.
Meanwhile, Brown said, with his troops in strong defensive position, Lee’s engineers manage to replace a pontoon bridge that had been destroyed by flooding with an 800-foot bridge of 26 pontoons constructed in an amazing 62 hours.
“It’s just unbelievable,” Brown says. “They’re dismantling wharves and barns, remelting pitch from roofs. They were doing everything to patchwork a bridge. And that bridge is going to take the remnants of his wagon trains, all 96 artillery batteries and two corps across the Potomac and back to the safety of Virginia.”
Escaping across the Potomac with 57 miles of trains, 36,000 head of cattle, 36,000 sheep and some hogs “is the most amazing operation you can imagine,” Brown said.
And in leading his army on a successful retreat, Lee “re-establishes equilibrium, which is the object of a retreat after a lost battle,” Brown said. “I really argue that Gettysburg, because of the retreat, ceased to become a turning point in the war.”
Although Lincoln urged Meade to stronger action during Lee’s retreat and “has in the popular sentiment won the argument,” said Brown, “in reality, he really shouldn’t have.”