750,000 and rising. 2.5 percent of the population. Greater than all other American wars combined. No matter how one describes them, the casualties incurred as a result of the American Civil War are nothing short of astounding. To those who study this devastating conflict, the numbers of the fallen can seem old friends, as the cost of great battles such as Antietam or Gettysburg are burned into memory. Yet is it possible that disproportionate emphasis has been placed on the bloody toll of the Civil War?
As the first war to see the extensive use of photography, the American Civil War was brought home to civilians in hundreds of photographs portraying camp life or the aftermath of battles. Due to the nature of nineteenth century photography as well as safety concerns, however, photographers were not able to capture scenes of actual combat for their viewers. This task fell instead to men known as Special Artists or “Specials,” hired by the illustrated periodicals of the day to travel with the armies and sketch all manner of events associated with the military, including battles as they progressed.
Photography: the ability to capture a moment in time exactly as it appeared, to then preserve it for posterity, even mass produce it for a wide viewership. A relatively new concept by the beginning of the American Civil War, photography quickly came into its own in the hands of such legends as Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardner as they sought to document the furious storm which had swept over the land. Photographs of the Civil War are prolific, and for many the memory of the conflict is intertwined with black-and-white photographs of unsmiling men and corpses bloating in the sun. Yet as I sat in Gettysburg College Special Collections, reverently paging through original issues of some of the era’s most famous illustrated newspapers, I could not help but notice the deficiencies inherent in Civil war photography when compared with other media, most notably the work of sketch artists.
Though my own musings have led me to doubt the traditional interpretation of the Battle of Gettysburg’s military importance, I still hold Gettysburg to be the greatest battle of the American Civil War, without question worthy and deserving of continued study. In order to reconcile these two points of view I pondered further, attempting to unearth other, less-thought-of reasons for the importance of the Battle of Gettysburg to the course of the American Civil War.
Again my thoughts turned to the summer I spent at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. As one of my duty stations that summer had been Spotsylvania Court House, the second battle in Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign, I had gained much experience explaining the concepts of this crucial campaign. The most famous aspect of Grant’s series of south-east movements in the spring and summer of 1864 is, of course, his unswerving determination to keep moving towards Richmond, no matter the cost. Grant’s fearless use of the North’s superior manpower and industrial capacity to defeat the waning strength of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia has become legendary in American history. Yet mention of this war of attrition in the American Civil War only truly begins to rear its head in the context of ending the war with the opening of the Overland Campaign. Though Grant and his generals may have been the first to integrate attrition into their strategies, the attrition of Southern armies began almost as soon as the war started. Though victorious at nearly every battle, Robert E. Lee continually lost a higher percentage of his men than did his opponents, and it is this idea of Confederate losses that brings me back to Gettysburg. It is estimated that, out of a total of approximately 70,000 effective soldiers at the start of the campaign, Lee’s army suffered a total of around 23,000 casualties, fully 33% of its force. Among those casualties lurks a second, even more devastating fact. This same percentage of losses was reflected in the Army of Northern Virginia’s officer corps, with at least a third of them becoming casualties over the course of those three days in July, 1863. In an army which has, rightly or wrongly, time and again been lauded for its superior leadership, the loss of so much of that leadership can only have been devastating to the continued performance of the army. In light of these figures, could it not be better to think of Gettysburg as one of the greatest disasters for Southern arms not because of the defeat itself, but due to the cost of any battle so bloody, be it a victory or a defeat?
Gettysburg, the first three days of July, 1863. An epic clash of titans sways back and forth across the fields and hills of this small Pennsylvania town. The two armies who fought here left in their wake over fifty thousand men broken in three days of combat, and the significance of their actions to the course of the American Civil War has rarely been doubted. The Union’s victory at Gettysburg put a halt to Robert E. Lee’s second invasion of the North, an invasion that could have broken the Northern civilians’ will to continue prosecuting the war. The crushing repulse of the Confederate charge on July 3 shattered the myth of Confederate invincibility, delivering the first major Union victory in the Eastern Theater. This battle has widely been heralded as THE turning point of the American Civil War, the battle that permanently ended Confederate hopes of victory and set the Union on the road to victory. My experiences of the battle’s sesquicentennial commemoration and of a summer spent working at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park inspired me to look deeper, however, and upon closer inspection, cracks began to show in this traditional view of Gettysburg’s paramount importance. Continue reading “Examination: Reflections on the 150th”
There is nothing quite like residing in the town of Gettysburg during the years leading up to the sesquicentennial of the great battle fought here in 1863. As a devoted student of that great internecine conflict known as the American Civil War, I had applied to Gettysburg College in 2011 with the full knowledge of what was to come only two short years in the future, and could not have been more excited for it.
As the American Civil War entered its fourth summer in 1864, both Union and Confederacy delved ever deeper into their remaining reserves of manpower. Legions of men continued to enter the armed forces of their nations, reinforcing drastically undermanned units as well as forming regiments of their own. One such regiment was the 133rd Illinois Volunteer Infantry. Organized at Camp Butler, Illinois in May of 1864 and mustered in for only one hundred days, the 133rd Illinois was stationed at the Rock Island Arsenal, where its men guarded Confederate prisoners of war. Here the 133rd would remain until its men’s enlistment expired and they were mustered out of service in September. Continue reading “A Life Cast Asunder: The Fate of Sanford Pettibone”
The men of the 33rd Illinois Volunteer Infantry were out of their minds with boredom in the closing months of 1864. Those veterans who remained from the campaigns of the year before could recall the proud service of their regiment. Mustered into service at Camp Butler, Illinois in September of 1861, the 33rd has spent the first year of its war fighting minor skirmishes in the trans-Mississippi theater. Then, in the late fall of 1862, the 33rd Illinois was transferred to the First Briagde, First Division, XIII Corps of the Army of the Tennessee.
Commanded by Major General John A. McClernand until June of 1863, when he was replaced by Major General Edward O.C. Ord, the XIII Corps would take part in one of the greatest military campaigns ever waged on the North American continent: Ulysses S. Grant’s Vicksburg campaign. The 33rd Illinois fought with distinction at nearly every major battle of Grant’s final push towards Vicksburg in the spring and summer of 1863. They drove through a Confederate delaying action at Port Gibson on May 1 before bloodlessly capturing the Mississippi state capital of Jackson two weeks later. Wheeling to the west, Grant’s army and the 33rd along with it then proceeded to drive through Confederate General John C. Pemberton’s feeble efforts to halt the Union juggernaut and avoid a siege, first giving battle at Champion Hill on May 16 and at the Big Black River Bridge on May 17. Having finally reached the city itself, the men of the 33rd Illinois would take part in both the failed early assaults on Vicksburg and the month-long siege that followed. Continue reading ““Wrecked cars and suffering humanity”: The Fortunes of the 33rd Illinois”
The order to hold to the last, to continue fighting, to refuse to break no matter the cost, is often held to be a noble and heroic concept, especially in the Victorian context of the nineteenth century and the American Civil War. The most famous action of this kind at the Battle of Gettysburg is of course the stand of the 20th Maine on Little Round Top on July 2, 1863, which has been popularized through the writings of Michael Shaara and the 1993 film Gettysburg. The 20th Maine’s commanding officer, Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, reflects upon this unique brand of orders in the film, philosophically wondering what “to the last” can mean, even as his men prepare to receive the enemy. Paradoxically, such a stand only becomes glorious when it is not forced to fulfill the true measure of its orders. Gallant reinforcements arrive to stem the tide; the enemy is broken before the can succeed; the defenders lose hope and retreat rather than being annihilated. Indeed, seldom is the occasion on which men have truly stood “to the last.” One is the case of the 16th Maine at Gettysburg.
Three weeks of training. Just the thought of what awaited me in my first days as an intern at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park made me want to groan. Yes, yes, I realized that we all needed to be introduced to the National Park Service and walked through the policies of the park, working the information desk, assisting visitors, and other administrative trivialities. But could that not be accomplished in a few days? When would we get to what I was really interested in, what I couldn’t wait to do and what (I thought) I didn’t need any preparation for? When would I start giving walking tours?
Continue reading “Interpretation and Revelation: A Training Odyssey”