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11. Historiography

I have learned a new word: historiography[1]. I realized that that is what I have been doing on this topic for these past few years. I have been (and will continue) to analyze how history has been written about. IOW, I have no direct knowledge or experience of any of these events since they all occurred before my birth. I have been accessing numerous sources of information. Comparing and contrasting those sources. Examining and re-examining them. Extracting and amalgamating facts. Finding errors. Writing the story of these brave (and unfortunate) men.

I have had no access to unique or unread sources of information. I have built my story like a jig-saw puzzle by gathering a fact or figure here or there and trying to place it in with other similar facts and figures until a clearer picture appears. I have learned a lot along the way. I don’t mean just the facts and figures that define the various parts of this vast saga. I mean the historiography – the way history has been written about; how it has come to be told by people with very different perspectives and motives.

No event as pivotal in American History could survive without the overlay of both politics and personal motives. It took barely 25 years for the ‘history’ of this battle to be significantly altered. Personal reputations came into play over the years following the battle that distorted the events of the battle. None were as influential as those of Longstreet, Sickles and Chamberlain. Joshua Chamberlain is the odd man out here. He wrote extensively about his war experiences and his accounts of the events of July 2nd greatly influenced how others analyzed and wrote about those events. For Longstreet and Sickles, the driving force was to salvage their personal reputations. Both of them became embroiled in exchanges with their critics (not with each other). Both were seen by many as traitors or insubordinate officers who bolloxed the plans of their superiors.

Mixed in with the many letters and editorials by and about these men were some physical changes to the actual battlefield that influenced future analysts. Perhaps the most significant of these was the removal (by logging) of Zeigler’s Grove that in 1863 figured so prominently in the landscape. As depicted clearly in many contemporary drawing, it jutted out to the west from the edge of the city cemetery. But by the late-1880s it was gone.

To paraphrase Ronald Reagan: “it’s just that they know so much that isn’t so.” Let’s start with a Gettysburg myth that was (is?) quite pervasive but is utterly incorrect: Heth was not in pursuit of shoes! The origins of this myth are obscure but it was widely repeated over decades by many analysts and prominent historians as fact – until it was finally debunked. There was no factory nor cache of shoes to be had at Gettysburg. Generic supplies = likely, just not shoes!

But an even more pervasive myth has persisted longer and is perhaps even more widely proclaimed; that of the “copse of trees”. LTG Hancock’s HQ was in a tiny grove of trees in the middle of Cemetery Ridge. It also just happened to be very near the point at which BG Armistead’s Brigade breeched the Union line. So it eventually became fully integrated into the retelling of the Day 3 battle. It did not seem to gain any attention until the 25th reunion when it was ‘enshrined’ with a fence and plaque. Since then it has been pointed to in countless accounts as the focal point of Lee’s attack plan. As Troy Harman points out in his excellent relook at Day 3 [see Section 30K ], the copse of trees in July 1863 would better be referred to as a ‘clump of bushes’. It is highly unlikely that it could even have been seen with the naked eye from Seminary Ridge nearly a mile away, much less have been used as a guide or focal point of the attack.

Part of its rise to prominence was due to the fact that Zeigler’s Grove was all but gone by the 25th reunion event. Harman points out that Lee unquestionably had an overall and consistent strategy for Day 2 and 3 that even harkened back to the evening of Day 1. Lee wanted to dislodge the Union forces from the cemetery; not Cemetery Ridge but the cemetery itself! Zeigler’s Grove was a prominent feature of the landscape in the immediate area of the cemetery. It would have been clearly identifiable by all three of his Corps commanders even from their vastly different viewpoints. As such, Harman points out that it and not the ‘copse’ was the focal point of the Day 3 attack. The fact that — like Day 2 – the attack did not play out the way Lee envisioned it does not detract from the fact that he had a ‘unified’ plan that simply failed in its execution. That Armistead penetrated the Union line near the copse and the ‘angle’ does not make them the planned destination.

The simple fact that the low stone boundary wall that ran along the crest of Cemetery Ridge changed directions to create this ’angle’ is completely irrelevant in the planning for Day 3. Harman also points out that this angle was also unobservable from Seminary Ridge. It was indeed a point of some intense fighting, but none of that was part of the initial plan. Lee envisioned a clash between the forces near Zeigler’s Grove not at the copse!

We shift back now to Day 2. In some ways it was even a bigger disaster for Lee than Day 3. The two rocky ragged mounds known as the Round Tops in no way figured into Lee’s orders for the day. Longstreet’s two divisions were supposed to bloodlessly occupy the high ground which held a peach orchard and use it as an artillery platform to support the infantry attack on the Union left flank. The main objective was the cemetery!

The simple fact that McLaws turned the corner and ran into Sickles who had occupied that hilltop just minutes earlier was a complete disruption of Lee’s plan. It simply proved the adage that “no plan survives the first contact with the enemy.” Because McLaws was stalled, Hood had to maneuver his division around to the south and then events and the presence of Birney’s division pushed him to the east where he ended up assaulting Little Round Top (and LTC Chamberlain’s 20th Maine Regiment). None of this was in Lee’s plan. In simple fact, Pickett’s complex movement to contact on Day 3 was actually what Lee had intended McLaws and Hood to do on Day 2.

It was largely because of this clash in and around the Peach Orchard that both Sickles and Longstreet spent decades arguing the ‘facts’ of their decisions and movements on that day.

Harman goes on to provide an explanation for the cavalry clash that took place on the afternoon of Day 3 that most historians treat as an afterthought. I, too, feel that Lee could have utilized Stuart’s division more effectively, but it did seem to fit right into his overall plan.

Beginning on the afternoon of Day 2, the Union cavalry rightfully took its place on the extreme right flank of the Union position. It was there as a screening force. It was never meant to participate in the infantry clashes. When Stuart finally appeared late on Day 2, Lee sent him eastward as well. His duty was to occupy the attention of the Union cavalry. Both Early and Johnson had had to commit forces to face east to protect their rear from the threat of a Union cavalry attack. Stuart’s presence allowed them to reclaim and reposition those forces to aid in the planned Day 3 attack on Culp’s Hill and the cemetery. It all fit perfectly into Lee’s overall plan. Early on Day 3, once again the “first contact” rule prevailed and the Union forced Johnson into launching his attack on Culp’s Hill long before any of the troops to the west were ready to move. Lee seemingly envisioned a simultaneous attack by 5 ANV divisions on Culp’s Hill and the cemetery via Zeigler’s Grove. It simply happened piecemeal not simultaneously!

Seemingly, Lee had been made aware (or perhaps observed the movement himself) that late on Day 2 Union First Corps troops had withdrawn from Zeigler’s Grove. This may have led to his assumption that Meade was weakening his middle to reinforce his flanks. Lee expected that first contact would take place in and around that grove on Day 3. The copse of trees in the center of the line was never the focal point of the attack.

Another drawback to a clear understanding of Lee’s overall plan is that so many of the senior officers who likely would have been aware of that plan did not survive the war. Longstreet was one of those survivors but was forced to defend his actions not explain Lee’s. Having suffered the worst defeat of the war, Lee was disinclined to discuss Gettysburg in detail in his future writings.

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We also have to look at this from the Union perspective. The adage that “the winners write the history” is proven here as well. Chamberlain and Sickles were both awarded a Medal of Honor for their efforts. Of course, it must be noted that the MoH was the only such accolade available at the time.

The simple fact that Lee had no intention of assaulting the extreme left flank of the Union line on the southern end of LRT is lost in the many descriptions of the stand of the 20th Maine. Sickles, too, took great effect to explain and exonerate himself of accusation that defied Meade’s orders.

The accusation of Pickett making an ill-fated charge into the copse of trees and the angle of the stone wall also served the purpose of defining the heroic nature of the Union infantry’s actions when, in fact, Pickett’s Division was advancing on the cemetery. The fact that he failed to get there is not for lack of trying. The 8th Ohio and the Vermont regiments that boxed him in played a major role in thwarting his advance towards Zeigler’s Grove. The flawed fuses of the Rebel artillery also contributed to the collapse of Lee’s expected outcome.

In other Sections of this discourse I have written of the failure of Lee to have any reserve troops to exploit any gains that Pickett may have made. I now understand that that is simply not the case. Rodes’ Division was ‘waiting in the wings’ as it were to move on notice that the defense of the cemetery was collapsing. Orders never reached him to advance because the Union forces were able to blunt the attack and stall it well short of its target. The presence of vast numbers of Union cannons unaffected by the Rebel cannonade proved fatal to the attack.

Even Armistead’s breech of the wall – the high water mark of the attack – was blunted by the timely arrival of Union reserves. Day 3 was as much a Union victory as a Rebel defeat. Given that no Rebel infantry even posed a direct threat to the cemetery, is it a wonder that the sites where so many died became the focus of attention? Pickett’s march petered out under a hail of cannon and musket fire, but it does not detract from their determination to advance farther north. In the same fashion, Pettigrew and Trimble’s attempts to advance into Zeigler’s Grove on Pickett’s left flank were thwarted by the cannons concentrated in and around the cemetery. Col Alexander’s fuselage was simply unable to reduce or dislodge them. In contrast, The Rebel artillery on Benner’s Hill to the NE were effectively driven away by much more accurate Union fire and were not there to support the infantry attack from the west.   

Except for Chamberlain and Sickles, we do not have a lot of correspondence relating to the experiences of other Union participants. Even official after-actions reports are seldom cited by historians. Apparently, they shed little light on the planning and motivation of their writers. They seem to do little more that define the placement and alignment of the various units involved – valuable information, but hardly scintillating reading.

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Historiography looks at how the description of an event gets altered over the ensuing years. In some ways, the three days of carnage at Gettysburg is one of the most mis-understood battles of the war. It often takes and independent thinker like Harman to reverse those mis-conceptions.


[1] the writing of history, especially the writing of history based on the critical examination of sources, the selection of particular details from the authentic materials in those sources, and the synthesis of those details into a narrative that stands the test of critical examination

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