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”A New Look at “Tradition”.

Cemetery Hill ‘The general plan was unchanged’
by
Troy D. Harmon,

Butternut and Blue, 2001, 204 pp.
 

The American Civil War is perhaps the most literate of conflicts. Not only is it a subject of countless historic and modern publications but a large number of the participants in the war were partially or fully literate – a regrettable trait in a soldier, according to Napoleon. Only recently has the language of the war, especially the official reports, been subjected to close analysis and Troy Harmon’s book, Cemetery Hill, presents a new interpretation of Gettysburg, based on such analysis. In short, Harmon’s thesis is that Cemetery Hill was the sole and constant target of Lee’s assault after the July 1st rout of the First and Eleventh Corps of the Army of the Potomac. Such an assertion flies in the face of the traditional interpretations of July 2nd and 3rd and requires the reader/student of the battle to abandon established beliefs and see the battle anew, without blinkers.

 

    In order to establish his argument Harmon uses an earlier historian, Carl Becker, to differentiate “between two types of historical events.” Becker argued that the real, the actual historical event cannot be dealt with since it is ephemeral and “has disappeared” but what can be dealt with is “a statement about the event.”  For “all practical purposes, it is this affirmation [statement] about the event that constitutes for us the historical event.”

 

In other words, the actual event is temporal and can never be recovered but what is said about that temporal event replaces the original event. The “affirmed event” takes over” and “becomes the event which everyone agrees upon.” The problem, quite often, with the ‘affirmed event’’ is that it relies too much on ‘How’ questions and not ‘Why’ questions.  Harmon applies this thinking to the traditional interpretations of the 2nd and 3rd days at Gettysburg.

 

    The traditional version of the 2nd day at Gettysburg affirms that Sickles blundered in his movement to the Emmitsburg Road, that Lee desired to turn the Union flanks with a simultaneous attack by Longstreet and Ewell and that Little Round Top was the key to the battle. On July 3rd, the affirmed version states that Lee altered his plan from a flank assault to an attack on the Union center. In each scenario, Harmon claims, the ‘Why’ question is ignored and instead we are left with a description of ‘how’ it happened. For example, if Lee desired Little Round Top as a platform for artillery to enfilade Cemetery Ridge then why did he insist that the attack should be up the Emmitsburg Road which veers to the northwest and away from Little Round Top? Longstreet’s and Hood’s proposed plan would have included Little Round Top but Lee refused to budge. Why?

 

    For July 3rd, how does the affirmed version deal with Lee’s after action report statement that states his “general plan was unchanged’ for that day?  In other words, the plan from July 2nd was not adapted to a frontal assault on July 3rd. Overall, Harmon illustrates that the ‘affirmed version’ of the battle does not jive with what was actually said and done. The only factor that links all the evidence into a coherent whole is that Lee, during the second and third days, wanted to take Cemetery Hill and that was his primary target.

 

    A closer look at the third day provides an excellent illustration of Harmon’s thesis. As Lee later claimed, the ‘general plan’ was still to be to be followed, so he proposed a renewal of the July 2nd assault, with McLaws, Hood and the newly arrived division of George Pickett, reinforced with a division and two brigades from A.P. Hill. Hood and McLaws were to advance with Pickett and pin down enemy units while Pickett’s entire division would hit the Union line on Cemetery Ridge, approximately in the area where Wright penetrated a day earlier with a single brigade, break Hancock’s line and push on to Cemetery Hill. Pettigrew and Trimble were to hit the south-western portion of Cemetery Hill in coordination with Pickett. Meanwhile to the east, Ewell was to hit Culp’s Hill while J.E.B.Stuart was to break through the Union cavalry and add to the mayhem to be created. This is what Lee would call “proper concert of action”- the entire Union line engaged and pinned in position, unable to make use of the interior lines to reinforce, while Lee hammered with most of his army. As we are aware, the plan did not reach fruition for a number of reasons which Harmon discusses in his work.

 

    What really happened became known as Pickett’s Charge. The “true tactical intent of the charge” was “to be a grand general movement diagonally toward Cemetery Hill” and the aiming point was “Ziegler’s Grove” and not the “Copse of Trees”. In the affirmed version of the charge, the Copse of Trees was the target but why? It offered no advantage at all. Cemetery Hill was the key in Lee’s mind and once he controlled that hill, Meade and his army were finished.

 

    This review barely touches the content of Harmon’s book, but there are some points to consider. First of all, when the official records of the Confederate artillery units involved in the cannonade of July 3 are read, there are only one or two references to a copse of trees as the target of the charge and even these may mean the larger, more visible [in 1863] growth of trees at Ziegler’s Grove. Longstreet talks about a thick growth of trees and claims that the assault was to be “directly at the enemy’s main position, the Cemetery Hill” [my emphasis]. If Harmon’s viewpoint is valid then it would explain a number of anomalies in the traditional interpretation. For example, the so-called “Second Wave” theory of Richard Rollins which failed to materialize and lessened the chance of success is no longer valid. Rollins’ reasoning for the second wave is quite a feat of logical gymnastics. According to Rollins, the second wave existed simply because it did not occur!!? He spends an entire article in The Gettysburg Magazine on a non-event, proving (?) that the second wave must have existed since no one mentioned it. In Harmon’s version, the initial attack as conceived would have been sufficient and that would explain why the ‘second wave’ was never mentioned. The traditional version never explains why Pickett was initially deployed so far south of the so-called target. The oblique attack in the area of Wright’s penetration, then the push north to Cemetery Hill would explain such a deployment.

 

    The points to keep in mind in this theory are: what did Lee know at the time and are his actions consistent with such knowledge? There is a good chance that he was unaware of or did not realize the extent of McGilvery’s artillery line in the area of the present day Pennsylvania monument – the area he initially planned for Pickett to penetrate. There is an excellent article in The Gettysburg Magazine, issue #26, by Cooksey which deals with the question of Lee’s perception for the day two attack and in Last Chance for Victory, Bowden and Ward likewise downplay the importance of Little Round Top in the Confederate strategy of July 2nd. Such a claim may come as a blow to Chamberlain lovers but the arguments seem convincing. People need to remember that there is Michael Shaara’s Gettysburg and there is the real Gettysburg. Harmon’s book is simply pointing out that what is called historical accuracy is often just an agreed upon interpretation which may change as the language to describe it changes. Such an assertion does not destroy history but rather breathes new life and thought into an historical event. This is not simply politically correct revisionism. Harmon goes back to the language of those involved and peels away the layers of affirmed facts and forces the reader to look with different eyes into the glow of history.

 

Review By T.G. Crooks

 

 

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