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Why did the South lose at Gettysburg? (FLS 8/13/05)

Lost Triumph: Lee's Real Plan at Gettysburg and Why It Failed
by Tom Carhart Ph.D.
By Michael Aubrecht, FLS Town & Country
Date published: 8/13/2005 CIVIL WAR

My own obsession with Civil War history began in 1978 when, at the age of 6, my parents took me on a trip to the national military park at Gettysburg, Pa. It was my first introduction to the War Between the States, and as our weekend progressed, the tales of these brave men and their three-day battle captivated me as nothing had before. What had started off as a simple family vacation changed my life forever, as Gettysburg left a remarkable impression that remains to this very day.

Over the years, I have read stacks of books on the subject. Unfortunately, very few have provided any original insight. Most have presented the same events over and over, while drawing identical conclusions. As a result, the explanation for the North's victory and the South's defeat has become rather commonplace. The two reasons that are most widely accepted as determining the outcome of the battle are the Union's tactical advantage (due to the occupation of the high ground) and the absence of J.E.B. Stuart's Confederate cavalry on the first day of fighting. Although these facts provide both logical and believable answers, other questions still remain.

Most prominent is the mysterious rationale behind the desperate and disastrous charge by Pickett on the third day that resulted in massive Confederate casualties and the subsequent retreat of all Southern forces. For years, many historians (including me) have reluctantly accepted the notion that Robert E. Lee was the unfortunate victim of multiple circumstances that were beyond his control. Others have accused the general of sporting a sense of invincibility that ultimately played into the hands of his more cautious adversary, George Meade.

Inevitably, one must ask oneself how a commander as brilliant as Lee could tactically blunder in such an epic manner. After all, the very logic of ordering an attack as doomed as Pickett's Charge is mind-boggling when judged against his previous victories. Simply stated, it doesn't make sense.

This is a query that has sparked debate for generations. Some historians over the years have attempted to hypothesize, but few have ever presented their alternative theories in such a complete manner as Tom Carhart, author of "Lost Triumph: Lee's Real Plan at Gettysburg and Why It Failed." A most original and thought-provoking work, "Lost Triumph" presents a refreshing study of the Battle of Gettysburg that will leave many seasoned historians re-evaluating their own convictions.

A West Point grad himself (Class of 1966) and an infantry combat veteran who was awarded two Purple Hearts for service in Vietnam, Carhart is a very credible subject-matter expert. He is the author of several military histories and holds a Ph.D. in history from Princeton University. His work on "Lost Triumph" is further validated in the book's foreword, which is written by Pulitzer Prize-winning author James McPherson.

With meticulous attention to detail, Carhart spends the first few chapters of his book constructing a solid foundation for his assumption. This includes personal biographies of the battle's main participants, a thorough and unbiased synopsis of the cause of the Civil War and, most importantly, an unparalleled presentation of the 1800s curriculum taught at West Point, which provided the majority of Civil War commanders with their "playbook." A summary of all previous battles leading up to Gettysburg is also outlined in order to emphasize the relative success of the Confederacy up to that point.

One of the many interesting character profiles in "Lost Triumph" is a recollection of the distinguished, but rarely discussed, service record of a young Union commander named George Armstrong Custer. Often remembered solely for his tragic defeat at the Little Big Horn, Custer's performance during the Civil War was quite impressive. Carhart also provides equally compelling portraits of the supreme commander, Lee, and his subordinate J.E.B. Stuart. By clearly defining these individuals, Carhart helps the reader to understand what made each of them special. He then shows how they were trained to execute the intellectual art of war.

Complete with maps of Napoleon at Austerlitz, Frederick the Great at Leuthen and Hannibal at Cannae, Carhart's book provides a marvelous tutorial on the art of warfare as presented to West Point officers. In essence, Carhart teaches the readers what Lee was taught, thus opening up their minds for his own conclusion that the Confederate commander had actually intended a more diverse plan that, if executed correctly, could have won the day--and perhaps the war.

Carhart's conclusion, based on the principles and tactics that Lee would have most certainly called upon, presents another strategy that includes a crucial rear assault by Stuart's cavalry. When combined with the frontal assault of Pickett's infantry, it would most likely have cut the Union lines in half. Only in the final hours of the battle was the attack reversed through the daring actions of Custer and his men.

The author then goes on to outline a very convincing series of events that, when added to our current knowledge base, leave little doubt that Lee was not guilty of poor planning. Rather, he was unable to launch the simultaneous assault he so desired, resulting in the ill-fated debacle that wiped out Pickett's troops, including Gen. Lewis Armistead.

In an e-mail interview with me, Carhart explained what inspired "Lost Triumph" and what separates it from previous studies on the Battle of Gettysburg.

"If I were to say anything additional about the book," he said, "it would be that I have spent most of my life confused about Lee's one 'bad day' on 3 July at Gettysburg. But I have always believed, and my research has confirmed, that Lee simply didn't have any 'bad days.'" He added: "Instead, he had formulated a plan for 3 July that, had it been carried out, would have resulted in one of the greatest battlefield triumphs in recorded history. It was truly brilliant, but the brilliance was all Lee's--I did no more than stumble over it and finally expose it to the light of day."

I, for one, am grateful for Carhart's "stumbling," which has not only renewed my own interest in the Battle of Gettysburg, but has also provided me with a better understanding of that fateful day of July 3, 1863, when the balance of power in the Civil War shifted on the sacrifice of more than 5,000 men.

For more information on "Lost Triumph," visit the author's Web site at

MICHAEL AUBRECHT of Spotsylvania County is the author of "Onward Christian Soldier: The Spiritual Journey of Stonewall" and "Christian Cavalier: The Spiritual Legacy of J.E.B. Stuart." Visit his Web site at...




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Getting to know Grant,
afresh (FLS 9/10/05)

U.S. Grant: The Making of a General, 1861-1863
by Michael B. Ballard
By Michael Aubrecht, FLS Town & Country
Date published: 9/10/2005 CIVIL WAR

Every so often, someone authors a biography that not only changes my entire perception of an individual I thought I "knew," but also reminds me that all men are created equal. By "equal" I mean human, and humans are far from perfect. Unfortunately, historians have had a tendency to forget that fact.

Even today, many biographers shy away from "the ugly truth" and prefer to take the easy way out by putting their subject on a pedestal while simultaneously leaving his or her faults on the editing-room floor.

I, for one, find it very refreshing when an author has the conviction to depict a subject's story with honesty and balance. Also, I find that I am able to appreciate someone's success more pleasurably after being exposed to some of his failures.

Such is the case with Michael Ballard's wonderfully unbiased study of America's top Union officer, who later became the eighteenth president of the United States. In "U.S. Grant: The Making of a General, 1861-1863," the author details the life and times of Ulysses Simpson Grant during three years of military service that ultimately formed the character of the man we remember today.

As a historian, I have often pondered the difference between the disheveled general captured in Matthew Brady's photographs and the elegant statesman whose portrait graces the 50-dollar bill. After reading Mr. Ballard's book, I finally feel that I understand the one they called "Uncle Sam."

Focusing specifically on Grant's life from 1861 to 1863, Ballard introduces us to a budding officer who was still struggling to find his place in American history. By refusing to compromise on either the positive or negative aspects of Grant's service, he skillfully paints a candid portrait of a "soldier's soldier" who was afraid of failure and full of contradiction. Ballard recalls Grant's education at West Point and how it affected the graduate's campaigns to maintain control in the Midwestern territories. From Belmont to Shiloh to Vicksburg and more, the author recounts Grant's ascension through the ranks, his extensive use of early amphibious operations and his radical diplomatic policies that ultimately changed the course of the Civil War.

Throughout the book, we are exposed to a complex figure who vehemently believed in the delegation of duty, yet struggled to follow the orders of his superiors. We learn of an officer who prided himself on being a soldier's confidant, yet sometimes practiced deception within the chain of command. We also see a general who preached the swift and total destruction of opposing forces, and then ordered the protection of the Southern citizens. It seems that Grant was a man of many faces whose sole incentive was to win at all costs.

Ballard, who is a professor and coordinator of the Congressional and Political Research Center at Mississippi State University, takes a unique approach to this story. His book is different from previous studies of Grant, presenting the social, political and personal challenges that were faced by many up-and-coming commanders during the Civil War. These descriptions help to provide the reader with a broad view of the Union chain of command and the "red tape" that bound them on and off the battlefield.

One revelation I found startling was the constant back-stabbing that occurred among generals of the same army, who were jockeying for rank and reputation. Politics and egotism played a vital role in the lives of Civil War generals.

Ballard's research exposes Grant and his peers as being both brilliant and ignorant, as well as gracious and stubborn.

Ballard also recalls Grant's relentless frustration with difficult terrain, unpredictable weather and the spread of disease, while attempting to cross the Mississippi River.

We learn that due to many circumstances beyond his control, Grant was unfairly held responsible for multiple stalemates and defeats that left his service record tarnished in the eyes of the War Department. Eventually, the general became fair game for the Northern press, which was exceptionally critical of the loss of life under his command.

Only through his own tenacity and perseverance was Grant able to escape retribution from the leaders in Washington. Despite having a reputation for indecisiveness and erratic decision-making, Grant demonstrated an extraordinary aptitude for the tactics of diversion. Clearly, he understood that a successful campaign depended on intelligent and constant maneuvers that not only produced superiority in numbers, but also forced the scattered Southern forces to maintain a defensive posture. By keeping up this initiative at all times, he was able to ultimately compensate for multiple disappointments.

In addition to his skillful narrative, Ballard personalizes his subject matter by quoting Grant's own diary entries and letters. A myriad of little-known facts, rare photographs and detailed battle maps of the general's most pivotal engagements further complement the book. Thanks to many of these gems, we can all fully appreciate the contributions of Ulysses S. Grant.

In an e-mail interview with me, Ballard discussed his personal view of Grant.

"I found him to be a sympathetic figure at times, especially in his life before the war when his marriage into a Missouri slave-holding family placed stress on his relationship with his own family. Also, the unfair charges of his being a drunkard haunted him, as did his repeated failures in business. The Civil War gave him a chance to prove himself, but his rise to fame was not easy. His performance at the Battle of Belmont was not particularly skillful, and he was fortunate at Fort Donelson to be up against incompetent Confederate leadership. His experience at Shiloh angered his immediate superior, Henry Halleck, and caused him much depression and embarrassment. Yet, with the encouragement of his friend, William T. Sherman, he stuck it out, and despite run-ins with other generals, he got the job done."

He added, "That is what I admire about him most, and why I think his admirers, then and ever since, find him so compelling. Grant refused to quit, no matter the problems, troubles, and tribulations he faced. Yes, he was fortunate in not having to fight competent generals in the West, but he still fought brilliantly, especially during the latter phases of the Vicksburg campaign. He had pride, but he was unpretentious, and he was a superior tactician during battles. Yet, he never stopped being old Sam Grant, the failure from Missouri; instead, he took advantage of opportunities to become Sam Grant, the best general in the Union army."

After reading "The Making Of A General," I too, have come to admire Ulysses S. Grant, and I thank Michael Ballard for re-introducing him to me.

MICHAEL AUBRECHT of Spotsylvania County is the author of "Onward Christian Soldier: The Spiritual Journey of Stonewall" and "Christian Cavalier: The Spiritual Legacy of J.E.B. Stuart." Visit his Web site at...


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