Hyping History

I just watched the History Channel’s Gettysburg special done for the Memorial Weekend and to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Curious how the battle gets reinterpreted over the years. I think some of the changes in emphasis here were primarily for dramatic effect, and not for any particular reason of historical accuracy.

Two big lapses in the coverage. First, the failure to recognize the role of Brig. Gen. John Buford and his cavalry who recognized the value of the hills around Gettysburg and set up a defense that would bottle up keep Lee’s army until the Army of the Potomac (Hancock’s Corp) arrived. Instead the TV show focused on the Iron Brigade and its role in the initial defense. Not a bad choice, as the Iron Brigade has long been recognized for its actions at Gettysburg, but an oversight of some importance. Without Buford’s defense, Lee would have had the high ground and won the battle. Without the high ground, Lee had no chance… a fact pointed out to him by James Longstreet, his second in command, who recommended that Lee retreat and find a better battle ground.

Second is the failure to recognize the battle for Little Round Top by Strong Vincent with the 140th New York and 20th Maine Regiments. This story was told well in the movie Gettysburg, although the movie gave all the credit to the 20thh Maine under Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.

I think the focus of Dan Sickles failure was good, and it is true that Sickles put the entire Union line in Jeopardy. The event was far less dramatic than the reality, however, because Gen. Meade did figure out the danger and sent in reinforcements where needed. While one unit of the Confederate forces broke through and threatened the supply lines, the threat was more theoretical than actual. The fact is the small conferderate force was destroyed quickly.

Vastly over-hyped was Pickett’s charge which, contrary to the claims if the History Channel’s experts, had no chance of achieving victory. A first, notable exaggeration… the Confederate barrage may have had more guns in it than ever before used in history, but the gunners were notoriously short of ammunition and had barely four rounds per weapon. Pickett (with an assortment of other brigades) had to walk across a mile of open field, cross a fence and run up hill for 200 yards and then defeat a well entrenched, well trained Union Army. Even while pointing out that the Confederates had to run through a massive artillery barrage using the most modern and deadly technology available, had to suffer through canister and grape and highly accurate and deadly rifle fire, the narrator continued to claim that the charge could have been a success.

Success was never likely against a well trained, experienced, entrenched Union Army. The TV narrator made a big deal of the small breach in the Union line achieved by the Confererates, but in fact there were not enough of them and there was no one behind them to exploit the gain. General James Longstreet had advised Lee not to make the assault, which he thought to be foolish. After the war he wrote that it was the only order he regretted giving at the time he gave it. (Longstreet was Pickett’s superior and had to execute Lee’s orders.)

Finally, the battle was touted as a pivital point in the War. Again an exaggeration. The battle would only have been pivotal if Lee had won or if Gen. Meade had followed up his victory. A victory for Lee may have brought the South added support from Europe and allowed them to achieve a settlement. (I say may have because Lincoln was stubborn and Grant’s capture of Vicksburg that same day would have taken some of the edge out a Lee victory), It would have been very decisive if Meade had saddled up and attacked Lee again, cutting him off from the Potomac River crossings and putting an end to the Army of Northern Virginia. Grant would have done that, but unfortunately, George Gordon Meade was not U.S. Grant.

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