Gettysburg’s Headlines, Day One (The Fog of War)

At the beginning of July, 1863, Union newspapers were abuzz with reports of Lee’s invasion.  Headlines in the New York Times fell under the bold-print category “REBEL INVASION”: “Important Intelligence Regarding the Movements of Lee”; “Sudden Withdrawal of His Forces Before Harrisburgh”; etc.  The Philadelphia Inquirer worried over the safety of the state capital, posting maps of the town and speculated positions of the enemy army.  Lee was on the move again, everyone seemed to know, but no one knew where.  (The Times, for its part, assured readers that, “The present position of our army cannot be stated, but the public can rest assured that it is rapidly forcing conclusions with the enemy.”)  A great battle, all felt, was imminent.  All they had known so far of Lee’s invasion were skirmishes and rumors.

When the front page deadline for the July 2 paper came and went, all the Inquirer knew of the previous day’s battle was that it had occurred: “General Meade Fighting Lee, Near Gettysburg,” it proclaimed, in the fourth headline, sandwiched between “General Lee’s Head-Quarters at Dover, York County, Pennsylvania” and “HEAVY CANNONADING HEARD AT HARRISBURG.”  Details of the first day’s fighting came only in time to be printed, at 5 am, on page 4.  This news came not from reporters or sources on the front, but via the New York Times.  It contains only the barest of information—fighting outside Gettysburg, two corps involved, Major General Reynolds killed—spread across five sentences.

The Inquirer did know something Robert E. Lee did not: the whereabouts of J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry.  Like Lee, the Inquirer knew that Stuart wasn’t at Gettysburg; like the general, it found out on the evening of July 1 that he had been repulsed near Hanover.  But the paper—and its source, the Army of the Potomac—had a sense of the direction in which Lee’s eyes and ears had fled.  All Lee could do was send the two troopers who informed him of the Hanover incident back out to find their commander and bring him where he was desperately needed.

Something was happening over there, everyone seemed to know (or to sense)—but what it was remained unclear.  Even the claims to the greatness and magnitude of the newly-begun fight come across as speculative, even hopeful.  There were two great armies on the loose, after all, and they were bound to run into each other sometime.

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49 thoughts on “Gettysburg’s Headlines, Day One (The Fog of War)

      • What a hilarious parody of a hit piece. Seriously, she repeats the same story once every 15 years? She connects the war that ended slavery with the civil rights movement? An audience that quietly listens to her speak is described as being in “stunned silence”? Because, you know, if they’d hated her speech, they’d show it by not booing or interrupting.

        But, tell me, when did the Onion acquire the rights to breitbart.com?

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      • Do you really think all those Civil War fanatics went to Gettysburg to hear Doris Kearns Goodwin spend more time talking about Bobby Kennedy and dancing with President Johnson than the background and events that occurred at Gettysburg, especially since the other featured guest was Trace Adkins, a country singer?

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        • They’re not the kind of crowd that would do that to a noted historian. They’d just sit and hope she has a point in there somewhere. In the other news stories about the events the reporters just noted that “Doris Kearns Goodwin gave the commencement speech” without saying a word about what her speech was, except for a few that mentioned it was about Bobby Kennedy and Johnson. Her speech wasn’t long remembered, and it’s quite a stretch to connect a battle between anti-slavery pro-segregationists and slave-owning secessionists to gay marriage, which she somehow did.

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          • They didn’t repeat any of the elements of the speech, either, lest their readers get kind of upset at seeing an important historical anniversary get hijacked by the usual nimrods of political correctness.

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            • DEFEAT
              On a train in Texas German prisoners eat
              With white American soldiers, seat by seat,
              While black American soldiers sit apart,
              The white men eating meat, the black men heart.
              Now, with that other war a century done,
              Not the live North but the dead South has won,
              Not yet a riven nation comes awake.
              Whom are we fighting this time, for God’s sake?
              Mark well the token of the separate seat
              It is again ourselves whom we defeat.

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            • Well it clearly was a war of naked Northern Aggression. The South was minding its own business and the North sought to topple an established way of life and reorder Southern society and institutions. After the South broke free of Northern dominance through illegitimate elections, the North claimed they were trying to re-unify the nation, and free the South from oppression and antiquated cultural norms. The South sought foreign allies and support, something much on the mind of President Johnson, especially with the French having withdrawn their forces after the disastrous battle of Dien Bin Phu, and…

              Oh wait, Dorris Kearns Goodwin’s keynote address was talking about the wrong war in the wrong century. I did have a Chinese language teacher who swapped “eighteen” and “nineteen” when she learned the English words for numbers. That made her account of Chinese and world history pretty interesting, to say the least. Perhaps Dorris is getting the early touches of senility and suffers from the same confusion.

              You can bet that Shelby Foote didn’t think the Battle of Vicksburg or Memphis was about food stamps, Vietnam, and gay marriage.

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  1. This article does touch on a few critical points – Lee’s stupidity in his march into the North where his forces would be exposed to the full and easily supported Union army; also, Lee’s refusal to create a command staff that could see to it that his orders were followed and more to the point, the orders fit within his total strategy/aims. This, of course, leads directly to Stuart’s folly – his following Lee’s unbelievably vague orders and with this freedom to decide what to do within those orders, caused him to ‘blind’ Lee to his extreme danger; thus helping to cause the second, and less serious, defeat for the Confederacy to occur that July 4th (Vicksburg being the worse as far as what happened soon after.)

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    • I think that Lee had a basic strategic problem – the USA, at this point, was mobilizing, gearing up and in a position to project serious power. Vicksburg being a prime example, of course; the Confederacy was being sliced apart on its biggest artery, and the USA was able to bring the Midwest’s resources to bear much more easily.

      Running a defensive war in Virginia allowed him to economize on Confederate casualties (at the cost of devastating Virginia), but the USA was taking those casualties and continuing to fight. If Lee realized what Grant was doing, Lee might have felt additional urgency; with the opening of the Mississsippi, the western front of the Confederacy was now open to the US Navy and Army, all the way to the Appalachians.

      Because of this, taking the offensive, hoping to bring the war to a conclusion by maneuver, was not that crazy of an idea. It was done incompetently – Lee should have relieved Stuart and d*mn what the press said, and should have had enough supplies to actually fight battles (IIRC, they ran out of cannonballs at critical times).

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      • Lee’s basic strategic problem was the Southern Psyche
        (which, after all, is why he headed up to Gettysburg.)
        There was no way that Lee could win an offensive war against the North.

        The man best equipped to win the war for the South… was Meade, of all people.
        He could have fought a defensive, “drag it out and make it too expensive” war.
        But the Southerners would never have stood for it.

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          • Not really. If he had been playing a defensive war, he could have drug it out long enough for Lincoln (and the Republicans) to get tired of it.

            Lee was entirely too flashy to drag anything out properly.

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          • The only viable strategy for the South was to avoid major battles and keep the southern armies as a “fleet in being”, the same way the French challenged British naval supremacy through the simple act of avoiding total destruction of their fleet. This would require avoiding large engagements whose losses couldn’t be made up regardless of the outcome.

            Ironically, had the Southerners been badly beaten in the early battles, especially in ones where they had a numerical superiority, they probably would’ve given more thought to such a strategy. As it happened, their early victories just encouraged them to pursue a course that could only end in their defeat.

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            • And there’s the rub, making the Southern fight a classic tragedy. They couldn’t change who they were or how they thought, and thus they were doomed from the start. They were too obstinate and hidebound to comprehend that fact and change both leadership, strategies, and redefine honor and military prowess to fit what was required for victory, so they suffered ignominious, stark defeat at the hands of a more numerous and far more mentally adaptable foe.

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            • Well, they did at least realize that their best hope was to deny the North total victory on the battlefield and wait until the North tired of war and became willing to reach some sort of accommodation. They also vainly sought foreign allies to try and balance the scales.

              Unfortunately for them, their pride wouldn’t allow walking away from a fight or permit tacit acceptance of Yankees anywhere on their soil if they had enough soldiers to oppose it, and they wouldn’t replace failed generals because doing so would be an insult to gentlemanly honor.

              Perhaps their whole strategy was summed up best by a noted historian at Faber College, who chronicled the following exchange:

              Bluto: What the fuck happened to the Delta I used to know? Where’s the spirit? Where’s the guts, huh?! This could be the greatest night of our lives, but you’re gonna let it be the worst! “Ooh, we’re afraid to go with you Bluto, we might get in trouble.” Well, just kiss my ass from now on! Not me! I’m not gonna take this! Wormer, he’s a dead man! Marmalard, dead! Niedermeyer—

              Otter: Dead! Bluto’s right. Psychotic, but absolutely right. [Otter stands up.] We gotta take these bastards. Now, we could fight ’em with conventional weapons. That could take years and cost millions of lives. Oh no. No, in this case, I think we have to go all out. I think that this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody’s part.

              Bluto: And we’re just the guys to do it.

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            • Wouldn’t work because of “contraband” aka slaves. They were a major component of southern wealth and also allowed rebels to fight while the slaves tended the farm and factories. So if the Union army moves through an area and then has to withdraw, they would withdraw with the southern slaves needed to keep the whole cruel machine running.
              There could be no Fabian strategy.

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  2. Barry, I agree that the West was where the Civil War was lost by the Confederacy; Lee utterly failed to see this critical theater for what is was/would become; but protecting Virginia was, and remained Lee’s sole objective – that is why he was a very poor supreme commander (while not for most the war with that name, he was really that person) – Lee was just an ok general as things went (really, he lost more men than Grant and a lot of battles that people ignore) but the real issue was Lee utterly lacked the vision of a Grant or even Lincoln, for that matter.

    This blindness by Lee about the Western theater was fatal to all his plans and by default, the South’s war aims. Even if Lee had won at Gettysburg (and remember, his army would have still suffered terrible loses), the North would never have just then ‘given up’ with the Southern army still in Union territory. Further, such a victory by Lee would never have defeated the Army of the Potomac in detail (beyond both Lee’s abilities and the rebel soldiers.) So, his move North was a terrible mistake in all senses of the word since all outcomes would not have achieve what he really needed – a really decisive victory (also, at that time, the Mississippi river, New Orleans and a good deal of the South was under Union military control.)

    So, again, Gettysburg was an important Union victory but the real war was lost in the West and Lee just couldn’t/wouldn’t ever understand that critical strategy – unlike Lincoln who first saw the mid-west as THE battle to win first (hold Kentucky and retake control of Tennessee.)

    Yes, Kimmi, a defensive strategy in Virginia with ‘powerful forces’ in the West (where ever those forces would come from is the real issue for this part of any Southern strategy – lack of manpower was and remained the Achilles heal for the Southern rebels.) Lee never really came to grips with that issue but it took TWO(!) failed invasions of the North to get that point home – not a very smart military leader.

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    • The South was never going to win that war on the battlefield (and we have Lee to thank for the Confederate lasting as long as it did militarily, which isn’t much of a thing to thank someone for). The war was lost for the South on November 8, 1864, because that was the only chance it had at winning.

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    • Don’t think of the Confederacy as being capable of a unified strategy. When Jefferson Davis tried to use his position as president to move troops from one state to another where they were more needed, he was called a dictator and threatened with impeachment.

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      • They didn’t have the manpower to fight a three front war, which is what they would have had to fight to keep Virginia, Mississippi, and the central states. They knew this, and gave up Tennessee basically at the start of the war, despite the fact that everyone knew that Tennessee was the key because it bridged Mississippi and Virginia.

        And how was Lee supposed to keep Mississippi? He barely had the manpower to keep Virginia, which he knew, which is why he invaded the North to try to force a quick resolution. It was basically a Hail Mary. I imagine he could have conceded Virginia and sent troops west while retreating to the Carolinas, but that would have been even worse than losing the west.

        Long story short: The South could not win on the battlefield. They had to hope to change the politics of the North, and when McClellan lost to Lincoln, it was over.

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