What was the Civil War about, anyhow? Valor.
Saturday, June 8, 2013
My wife asked me the other day, "what was the Civil War about anyhow?"
This caught me a bit off guard, since historians have written about the causes of the Civil War ever since the Civil War broke out and still battle over interpretations. How does one answer a loaded question, whose answer spans monumental issues like slavery, states rights, constitutions and the invariable role of individuals who don’t always behave predictably?
We are in the midst of commemorating the 150th anniversary of that war, which spanned from 1861-1865. More men were killed — 625,000 — in the American Civil War than in any other conflict the United States has been in since the American Revolution.
The statistics of famous campaigns and battles are staggering — tens of thousands of men killed and wounded in the space of a few months — like the Union campaign to bring Vicksburg, the key to controlling the Mississippi River, to its knees, or in three short days early in July in the rolling countryside of Pennsylvania at a place called Gettysburg.
The "high tide" of the Confederacy was marked at Gettysburg by the most famous charge of the war, led by Gen. George Pickett on the third day of battle, July 3, 1863.
Gen. Robert E. Lee had led his army into the heart of Union country, Pennsylvania, to try and inflict a painful lesson on the Union and perhaps bring the war to an end. Up until the end, most of the war had been fought in the Confederate states. Now, the Federals would get a taste of what the South was enduring.
On July 3, Pickett was ordered to charge the Yankee lines in a final, desperate attempt to turn the tide in Lee’s favor. The Confederates threw 15,000 soldiers against Gen. George Meade’s 6,500 troops, defending a strong position along Cemetery Ridge. Lee ordered the attack, but even one of his leading generals, James Longstreet, thought the effort futile. The Yankee position was too well-defended, and the charge across the open fields proved him right. It was carnage.
Lee’s artillery opened the battle with a two-hour barrage, but it did little damage to the Federal troops hunkered down. The Confederates, although they did puncture the Union line at the height of the battle, were thrown back with terrible losses. The Yankee soldiers taunted the Rebels with "Fredericksburg, Fredericksburg," a reminder that Lee had inflicted a bitter victory on the Union, and it was now payback time.
After the war, both Lee and Pickett rendered varying opinions on that battle, Pickett taking the lead with a laconic sense of humor and balance, even with the memory of the terrible defeat. When asked for probably the hundredth time "who was responsible for the defeat?," Pickett offered, "I’ve always thought the Yankees had something to do with it."
But Pickett’s charge was not the most murderous charge of the war. That came in the fall of 1864, in late October, in Franklin, Tenn.
By then, Gen. William T. Sherman had pushed the Confederates out of Atlanta and started his famous March to the Sea, gutting the Confederacy as he marched through the heart of Georgia to Savannah. Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood, after losing Atlanta, headed to Alabama to regroup and then marched north toward Nashville to see if he could push the Federals out of Tennessee and perhaps lure them away from the heart of the Confederacy.
A Union army under Gen. John Schofield stood in Hood’s way in Franklin. Hood, desperate and angry at his subordinates for allowing Schofield to dig in and get between Hood and Nashville, Tenn., determined to oust the Yankees with a charge across two miles of open field. Late in the day of Nov. 30, Hood launched the last great charge of the war.
By the time it was over, the Confederate Army of Tennessee lost more than 6,000 dead and wounded, while Pickett’s total loss at Gettysburg was about 1,400. At least a dozen Confederate generals were killed or wounded. The Union losses were about 2,200 killed and wounded.
The Rebels charged again and again as the day gave way to dusk, in some instances even breaking through the parapets and defenses, only to be repelled by equally ferocious Union counterattacks.
Hood lost a third of his forces but pushed on to Nashville, Tenn., where the Federals inflicted another stunning blow to the once proud Army of Tennessee. The "High Tide" of the Confederacy was surely at Gettysburg, on July 3, 1863, but the butchery continued for almost two more years before the surrender of Lee at Appomattox Courthouse in April, 1865.
This year we remember the Vicksburg campaign and the Battle of Gettysburg, immortalized by Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Next year study the Battle of Franklin to get an equal sense of what men do in battle. It is an extraordinary moment in our history that is worth remembering.
"What was the Civil War all about anyhow?"
It was about valor.
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