Today we mark the end of what is variously called The War Between the States, The War of Northern Aggression, The War of Southern Independence, Abe Lincoln’s War, or — most neutrally — The American Civil War. Now, I know enough history to know the war ended in toto on April 12, 1865 at Appomattox Courthouse, but for all intents, the Confederacy lost the war July 3, 1863; it just took two more years to realize it, but in military terms, the South lost the war at the Battle of Gettysburg, which ended 150 years ago today.
Since it is impossible to duck slavery when the Civil War is the topic, I’ll say anyone who says the issue of slavery was the sole cause of the war is ignorant of history; while anyone who says the issue of slavery had nothing to do with the war is an unmitigated fool. The Civil War had many roots and slavery was the largest, but men also fought for other reasons. This war also shares one tragic trait with all wars , it was started by the rich men and fought by the poor ones.
Regardless of origins, the three-day Battle of Gettysburg made clear what anyone then or now knew all along — the Confederacy was doomed. People — especially my fellow Southerners — like to blather on about how losing the war came down to blockades or lack of allies and other such drivel. They seem to think, as did my sainted great-grandmother Mattie Gray, “If we’d had just one more corn crop we’d have whipped the Yankees.” Nothing is farther from the truth. Truthfully, the South had a snowball’s chance in Columbia, SC of winning the war the moment the battery in Charleston opened fire on Fort Sumter.
The northern army outnumbered us in every way that matters in a war: they had more men, more guns, more bullets, more ships, more artillery, more food, and when I say more, I don’t mean a LITTLE more, I mean a crap-load more! We were outnumbered nearly three to one in soldiers alone. Southerners don’t like to hear this, but the only reason we did so well in the first two years of the war was the unbroken string of idiots and morons commanding the Army of the Potomac. Immediately following Gettysburg, President Lincoln called Grant and Sherman east and the gig was up. Those two men realized this wasn’t a garden party and war — by definition — meant a LOT of people die. Though casualties stayed the largely the same in the South while doubling in the North under the new generals’ command, they had way more men to lose than us.
Strangely, the very hopelessness of the War Between the States contributes to its romantic status — at least in the South. The David versus Goliath aspect brings misty tears to wild-eyed Southern boys, and nowhere is this love of the hopeless more apparent than in the concluding action of Gettysburg — one of the bravest, most gallant, most needless, and most useless mass discardings of life in the history of this continent — Pickett’s Charge.
Since books have been written about Pickett’s Charge, I’ll dispense with the details other than this event is known as the “High Watermark of the Confederacy.” For two days, Blue and Grey had pounded one another and it seemed General Lee’s invaders were getting the best of General Meade’s defenders, but they couldn’t break the lines and force an end to the battle. What they needed was a knockout punch and what Lee dreamed up — some believe in the throes of a minor heart attack — was Pickett’s Charge. In a nutshell, 13,000 Southerners under the command of General George Pickett would charge across the ground between the two armies, shatter the Union center, and secure victory for the Army of Northern Virginia.
That didn’t happen.
Instead, the long Confederate artillery barrage mostly sailed long and landed harmlessly behind the Union position. Also, Lee underestimated the damage his army had done in the first two days. Finally, the ground between the positions was smooth, grassy, and devoid of any cover for the attacking Southerners. The result was 13,000 boys in grey marched out against one of the most heavily dug in positions the Union achieved during the war. Cannons firing canister shot (picture huge shotgun blasts) blew hole after hole in the Confederate line and time and again, the Southerners closed ranks around their dead and dying and continued in good order across the killing field. With Southern grit and gallantry, they broke the Union line at the top of the hill . . . only to find Union reinforcements no one knew of.
The fresh bluebellies plugged the gap leaving spent Southerners nowhere to go except back across the open field. Casualties were enormous. Barely an hour after the charge began, over 50% of the attacking force lay dead or dying on the green fields of Gettysburg. General Pickett summed up the scene in his simple, heartbreaking answer to Lee’s order to reform his division in preparation for a counter charge by the Union troops saying, “General, I HAVE no division.” From the High-water Mark of the Confederacy, the Southern troops receded slowly, brokenly, tortuously, but inexorably back into Virginia and on towards Appomattox.
I first heard of the place Pickett’s Charge occupies in Southern legend and myth when my AP US History teacher, Mr. Sublett, quoted quintessential Southern writer, William Faulkner’s words from Intruder in the Dust:
For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out . . . waiting for Longstreet to give the word
I hope everyone has a tremendous Independence Day feast; be careful with the fireworks, remember I love you all and keep your feet clean!