The Price of Valor
On a sultry summer afternoon, 150 years ago, a young man named Strong Vincent changed the course of American history.
The date was July 2, 1863, around 4 P.M. The place was the left wing of the fish hook-shaped Union defensive position at Gettysburg. The left-hand of the Union line was anchored on a hill known to history as Little Round Top. It should have been one of the most heavily garrisoned Union positions. But in a monumental blunder there were no troops there except a small detachment from the Signal Corps and a very alarmed staff officer, General Gouverneur Warren. From his vantage point on Little Round Top, Warren saw the “glistening of gun barrels and bayonets” of gray-clad Confederates preparing to attack.
Warren sent several of his aides galloping back to inform the headquarters of the Army of the Potomac and other senior Union commanders. One of the couriers bearing the dire tidings was halted by a 27-year old officer, commanding a brigade, four regiments strong. A lawyer in civilian life from Erie, Pennsylvania, he was a colonel doing a general’s job, a civilian soldier facing a crisis that would unnerve a West Point-trained professional.
Hailing the galloping courier, Col. Strong Vincent called-out, “Captain, what are your orders?”
The courier asked to see Vincent’s superior, but when pressed by the insistent Vincent, he told him of the looming disaster on Little Round Top.
“I will take the responsibility of taking my brigade there,” declared Vincent.
With that terse remark, Vincent led his brigade to Little Round Top, arriving just in the “nick of time” to thwart the determined Confederate attack. During the course of the ensuing combat, Vincent was mortally wounded. One of his regimental commanders, Col. Joshua L. Chamberlain, unleashed an expertly-timed counterattack that turned the repulse of the Confederates into a rout.
The stirring defense of Little Round Top is brilliantly narrated in Alan C. Guelzo’s Gettysburg, the Last Invasion. This new book, along with Guelzo’s equally outstanding Fateful Lightning, a New History of the Civil War and Reconstruction, will serve as the centerpiece of an examination of the American Civil War as a military conflict.
“War,” as General William T. Sherman famously declared, “is Hell!”
In fact, you need but read a few pages into Guelzo’s absorbing Gettysburg to realize that Sherman’s choice of words erred on the side of moderation.
In his account of the opening moves of the Gettysburg campaign, Guelzo relates a macabre incident. Union troops hastened northward to catch General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia who had begun to advance northward into Pennsylvania. As the 1st Corps of the Army of the Potomac pursued the Confederates, their route of march took them over the Bull Run battlefields of 1861-62. Guelzo writes:
The 1st Corps passed “directly through the field of the first Battle of Bull Run” and saw “hundreds of skeletons lying about,” washed out of “shallow graves.” Horse and mule carcasses gave off “a foul odor,” and even the trees and fences were still scarred by bullets and shell fragments. “The men were evidently affected and depressed by the sight,” wrote the colonel of the 116th Pennsylvania, and “murmurings of discontent arose from the ranks.”
The Union troops had much to be discontented with as they marched toward Gettysburg. Their Confederate adversaries, despite Lee’s string of impressive victories, were likewise beset by problems and grievances. But there is one central fact that filled the lives of the “Boys of 61” with “more hardships than anyone of ours or Grandma’s negroes” as one Confederate soldier wrote. It was the total lack of military experience among the young men who rushed to join the opposing armies and – even worse – their leaders. As a result, the Civil War confounded all expectations of early victory in 1861, becoming a “total war” now reckoned to have cost 750,000 military fatalities.
The American Civil War was marked by brutal guerilla warfare, especially in the combat area west of the Mississippi River. Naval operations centered upon a relentless blockade of Confederate ports and the first widespread use of ironclad warships. But primarily, the Civil War was a “war of battles.” These deadly, face-to-face encounters reached an unforgettable climax at a small crossroads town in southern Pennsylvania, July 1-3, 1863.
Gettysburg was a ferociously fought engagement like the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. But these two 19th century battles took place on opposite slopes of the peak event of the 1800’s, the Industrial Revolution.
When the armies of Western Europe clashed at Waterloo, the muskets and cannon that formed their weaponry were little changed from a century before. At Gettysburg, the long-ranged rifles and artillery pieces of the blue and gray-clad armies had been mass produced in factories in America and Europe. Despite the emphasis on bayonet drill, firepower was the key feature of the fighting at Gettysburg and other Civil War battles.
Guelzo perceptively notes that European armies of the mid-19th century were composed of long-term professional soldiers, backed up by reservists. By contrast, the soldiers of North and South were volunteers. They were very brave and very patriotic and utterly unprepared for war.
Only a few battles were fought in 1861, notably the smashing Confederate victory, the First Battle of Bull Run at Manassas, Virginia. When the two armies really came to grips in the spring of 1862, the casualties were appalling and most battles ended with the victor too exhausted to pursue.
By June 1863, most Union and Confederate troops were hardened, battle-tested veterans. But there were numerous internal strains and points of weakness in both armies. Guelzo’s analysis is particularly astute in his examination of the spirit of contention among Lee’s troops that reflected the rancor and rivalry among the states of the Confederacy.
Among Lee’s troops, resentment festered regarding the dominant status that Virginia held in the government of the Confederacy and the command structure of the Army of Northern Virginia. Guelzo quotes an officer from Georgia that “there is a strong feeling growing among the Southern troops against Virginia, caused by the jealousy of her own people for those from every other state …. No matter how trifling the deed may be which a Virginian performs it is heralded at once as the most glorious of modern times.”
Guelzo does not absolve Lee of some of the blame for the strained cohesion of his command. The Army of Northern Virginia was top-heavy with Virginian generals, a number of them mediocrities who owed their positions to the friendship or support of Lee himself. Regarding the commander of Lee’s artillery, General William Pendleton, little could be said in his favor except that he was a fine Christian gentleman and a close friend of General Lee.
North Carolina sent more regiments to Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia than any other Confederate state, including Virginia. Yet none of Lee’s senior corps commanders came from North Carolina.
While the Confederate armies were winning battles during the early campaigns of the war, such peevish ill feeling among the commanders and the fighting troops of the rival Southern states could be held in check. But defeat at Gettysburg lead to recriminations, first of the élan and combat readiness of certain units, followed by denunciations of suspect generals.
Were the gallant Virginians of Pickett’s Division let down by “gun-shy” North Carolina infantry who joined in the doomed attack of July 3, 1863? Was it Jeb Stuart’s vainglorious antics or General James Longstreet’s prevarication that did the greatest damage to Lee’s daring plan to save the South by invading the North?
One of the greatest historians of the Confederate war effort, Douglas Southall Freeman wisely wrote in his multi-volume study, Lee’s Lieutenants, “… there is no ‘secret’ of Gettysburg, no single failure, which, if ascertained and appraised justly, ‘explains’ the outcome. A score of circumstances, working together, rather than any one, wrought a major Confederate defeat.”
Freeman’s “score of circumstances” could equally be applied to earlier Union defeats. Perhaps the greatest factor was the changed conditions of war that began to shift advantages to the defender. Attackers rarely won. Most of the great victories of both the Union and Confederate armies were defensive ones.
It was the Union armies that suffered from a “secret” defect that wreaked havoc on the combat effectiveness of the Army of the Potomac. This was the baleful consequence of the American creed of “politics as usual.” Guelzo, in Fateful Lightning, astutely writes:
In the Union army … regiments were often allowed to dwindle down to between 200 and 300 men, as the ranks were thinned by sickness and casualties. The reason for this neglect was nakedly political. Since the volunteer regiments were raised by the states, it was easier for many northern governors to create new regiments, and thus create new openings for cronies whom they wished to reward with officers’ commissions, than to keep refilling the old regiments.
The example of the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry illustrates this hidden, nearly fatal Union weakness. One of the first regiments raised to answer Lincoln’s call for troops after the bombardment of Fort Sumter, the First Minnesota mustered for service with 1,009 men. By the time of Gettysburg, it only had 399 men remaining. Of this remnant, 230 troops took part in a desperate charge against two Confederate brigades that had cracked the Union line on the second day at Gettysburg, July 2, 1863. Of these, a mere 47 were still standing when the First Minnesota regrouped.
The First Minnesota’s counter-attack restored the Union position – and obscured the folly of allowing many of the best Union regiments to bleed to death through lack of reinforcements. The Confederate Army, by contrast, maintained the troop levels of its military units so that they retained combat effectiveness for a much longer period.
Guelzo’s uncanny knack of focusing on the Civil War from unorthodox vantage points gives both of his books a startling freshness. Some of his conclusions, indeed, are very controversial. In his appraisal of the Little Round Top fighting, Guelzo states that its loss would not have been a decisive factor had it been captured by Lee’s troops. Little Round Top would have offered “very little in the way of a gun platform” for the Confederates to fire upon the Union lines.
Whether or not you agree with all of Guelzo’s conclusions, it is impossible to read his account of Gettysburg without being moved by the hideous slaughter produced by Civil War battles.
Lee’s official report of Gettysburg listed combat deaths for his army at 2,592. Later research indicates that the figure may be as high as 4,708 because many of the men Lee listed as missing had been killed. The Union fatalities reported by the commander of the Army of the Potomac, General George Meade, were 3,177.
The magnitude of these grim statistics can only be appreciated by comparison with U.S. battle deaths in other wars. In 2005, an updated Congressional Research Service Report was submitted detailing the numbers of U.S. soldiers killed in wars from the Revolution to the present day. The implications are staggering.
The three-day Gettysburg death toll surpassed the numbers killed-in-action for entire wars early in the nation’s history. Lee’s first figure of 2,592 Confederate fatalities is higher than 2,260 U.S. soldiers and sailors killed in the War of 1812. In the Mexican War, 1846-1848, the U.S. lost 1,733 men killed in battle. If a higher number of Confederate deaths is accepted, then both armies at Gettysburg lost nearly twice the number of battlefield deaths in three days than the U.S. sustained during the entire Mexican War.
Even the bravest troops will crack under the strain of combat – or they will take cover. Both situations occurred at Gettysburg. In a matter-of-fact comment, Guelzo notes that one of the best Union commanders, Winfield Scott Hancock, provided his 2nd Corps men with “shovels, picks and axes … to begin creating crude trenches and ‘rifle pits.'”
From this small beginning, the digging of “rifle pits” led eventually to the full-scale trench warfare campaign against Petersburg, Virginia, 1864-65. Civil War-style “field works” featured many of the key aspects of the more famous World War I trenches, as can be seen in A.R. Waud’s drawing, Sharpshooters 18th Corps, July 1864. Only the machine guns, flame throwers and gas masks of the Western Front, 1915-1918, are missing in this sketch.
The effect of the “rifle pit” fighting of the post-Gettysburg campaigns was curiously muted. European military analysts, when they bothered to consider America’s Civil War at all, studied the celebrated 1862 Shenandoah Valley operation, orchestrated by Robert E. Lee and executed by Stonewall Jackson. This brilliant campaign appeared to confirm the widespread belief that expertly-lead armies could outmaneuver and then defeat larger enemy forces by launching intense, devastating infantry assaults.
Massive battle losses in the first month’s fighting during World War I were the result. A few weeks after the Battle of the Marne in September 1914, decimated units of the German, French and British armies reached for shovels and started digging “rifle pits” as Hancock’s men had done at Gettysburg. Their commanders were totally at a loss at what to do to break the trench stalemate. They could think of nothing except bigger versions of Pickett’s Charge. More guns, more ammunition, more infantry – and more corpses.
The American Civil War did make a profound and almost immediate impact on military policy around the world. This was in the realm of the ethical laws governing the conduct of war. Many of the rules of war were the result of “gentlemen’s agreements” among the officers of Europe’s armies during the 18th century. The Civil War in its early phases was conducted in a similar fashion, with regular prisoner exchanges and even the return of escaped slaves by Union commanders like General George B. McClellan. Two political decisions changed the equation completely.
The first was the Partisan Ranger Act passed by the Confederate Congress in the spring of 1862 which authorized guerilla warfare against Union forces. The second, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, struck at the root of Southern power by freeing African-American slaves living under Confederate jurisdiction. The Emancipation Proclamation took effect on January 1, 1863, as the Union began raising regiments of free African-Americans. With these acts, the Civil War became a revolutionary conflict. Revolutions have no use for “gentlemen’s agreements.”
President Lincoln grappled with the changed conditions of ethical behavior during wartime just as he did with military strategy. He appointed a remarkable German immigrant, Francis Lieber, to create a modern code of war that would enable him to prosecute a war to save the Union – ruthlessly where necessary – without undermining the moral legitimacy of the Union.
Lieber’s life and the achievement is the subject of Lincoln’s Code: the Laws of War in American History by John Fabian Witt. Lieber’s Germanic thoroughness combined with a passion for democracy to give Lincoln the legal ammunition to strike down the Confederacy. Witt writes of Lieber that when “he was done the code’s 157 articles covered a dazzling array of questions.” Correct procedures for flags of truce and safe-conducts, humane treatment of wounded and prisoners, execution of spies and partisans not in military uniforms, the proper seizure of enemy resources, Lieber accounted for every imaginable detail.
But the 157 articles of Lieber’s code really amounted to one “master principle.” This was the rule of military necessity: “the necessity of those measures which are indispensable for securing the ends of the war.” Armed with this powerful legal weapon, Lincoln could proceed with controversial military initiatives like arming African-American troops and unleashing campaigns of destruction such as Sherman’s March to the Sea. Right justified might.
The cost of this “total war” strategy, however, can never be properly reckoned in terms of wrecked railroads, torched supply dumps or demolished forts. Rather, the real cost of the war is measurable in the incalculable social, emotional and spiritual torments endured by soldier and civilian, Union and Confederate alike. These we will attempt to comprehend in the final part of this essay.
But first, look at the faces of these Union soldiers at a base camp near Petersburg, Virginia, in 1864. Look at these faces and you will glimpse the true “cost” of the Civil War. Look at these faces, the face of America’s Lost Generation.