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3-second Men
July 2, 2008 5:45 AM   Subscribe

2 July 1863, second day of Gettysburg. Sickles has pulled his III Corps -- without orders -- off of Cemetery Ridge and positioned it a half mile in front of the rest of the Union lines. Longstreet smashes the hapless III Corps and its men are in full flight. Hancock rides back and forth inside the gaping hole left by Sickles. Below him, almost 2000 men of Wilcox's brigade are charging up the slope. They will gain a foothold on the ridge and be reinforced by Lee. As Longstreet pins down the Union left, Lee will roll up the center and right of the Northern army and chase them from the field. He will then march on and take Washington before turning north along the eastern seaboard. Lee will capture and burn Philadelphia and Boston in his March Along the Sea, chasing the Northern government from city to city until Lincoln finally sues for peace and the union is no more. Suddenly, a line of blue-coated soldiers comes into Hancock's view. "My God, is this all the men here? Who are you?" "1st Minnesota, sir." "See those colors?", says Hancock, pointing at the flags of the oncoming Confederates, "Take them."

The 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry was the first state volunteer regiment to answer President Lincoln's 1861 call for troops. At First Bull Run, they sustained the heaviest casualties of any Union regiment on the field in a portent of things to come. They were in the front lines at Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville. They are veterans and realize what Hancock asks of them. They quickly dress their lines into a front of less than 100 yards. Led by Colonel William Colvill, who had resumed command earlier that day after being relieved of arrest, they step off down towards Plum Run Valley. At first they stride down the slope with arms at right shoulder. Already the fire from the enemy is taking its toll and double-quick changes into a full speed assault. "...no man wavers, every gap is closed up... bringing down their bayonets, the boys press forward in unbroken line."

They smash into the oncoming lines and stop the Southern charge, but their success proves their undoing. As they push the center of the rebel lines back, the wings enfold them and they are soon caught in a sack. For every Minnesotan fighting, there are 6 Alabamans trying to kill him, sometimes from the distance of a handshake. The rebels are so thick around the 1st Minnesota that many Southerners are injured by friendly fire. The Minnesotans take cover behind trees and boulders as their world is reduced to smoke and screams, the ssszzz of bullets passing and the thock of bullets hitting home. Colvill is struck in the shoulder and foot. LTC Adams is hit six times. Maj. Downie is shot through both arms. Cpts. Muller and Periam, along with Lt. Farr, are all killed. Every officer is a casualty. The flag of the 1st Minnesota falls 5 times and is picked up 5 times. They fail to capture the enemy colors. They have stopped the charge, but they cannot retreat because they know that Hancock's implicit orders were to hold the rebels until he can patch the hole in the lines above them. So they stand and die.

As the 1st Minnesota melts on the slope below him, Hancock plugs the hole with new units arriving at the front and with men retreating from Sickles' debacle. The next day, during the largest artillery duel ever seen on the North American continent, he rides his horse back and forth on the ridge to encourage his soldiers. When his aides plead with him to get down, he answers, "There are times when a corps commander's life does not count", proving he understands the expendability of any soldier of any rank. As the Pickett-Pettigrew Charge storms against the Union lines, Hancock notices but does not recognize a gray-haired Confederate officer leading a penetration of the northern position, black hat riding on the point of his sword. Hancock orders a counterattack ("You better get over there goddam quick!") that kills his old friend Lo Armistead. A few minutes later, Hancock is badly wounded, but refuses to be removed from the field until the battle is over.

Eight companies of the 1st Minnesota -- 262 men -- charged down the hill. 47 men return, among them Cpl Henry O'Brien, carrying a wounded soldier on his back. No man ran away and none were taken prisoner. The 215 men left behind represent the largest percentage (82%) of casualties suffered in a single battle by any surviving unit in the history of the United States armed forces. "There is no other unit in the history of warfare that ever made such a charge and then stood its ground sustaining such losses." -- Lt. Colonel Joseph B. Mitchell, Decisive Battles of the Civil War

The next day, the survivors of the 1st Minnesota are reunited with 3 companies of the regiment that had been previously detached and are placed in the center of the Union lines to receive Pickett's Charge. The 28th Virginia pierces the Union lines at The Angle and are thrown back by a charge from the 1st Minnesota. Cpl Henry O'Brien earns a Medal of Honor for taking up the fallen colors and rallying the men around him despite being wounded twice. Another survivor from the previous day in Plum Run Valley -- Pvt Marshall Sherman -- also earns a Medal of Honor for taking the flag of the 28th Virginia. (They still won't give the flag back. When Virginia petitioned for its return in 2001, Governor Ventura said, "Why? We won.")

This is a very long post, but I wanted to illustrate something. If you're an average reader, it took you 5 minutes to read this far. Hancock threw that regiment into the jaws of the Confederate charge expecting 5 minutes respite. His intention was to trade their lives for time -- time to save the battlefield, his army, and quite possibly his country. Some histories don't even mention the 1st Minnesota, but they gave Hancock his 5 minutes (and more, so you may want to click on a link or two.)
posted by forrest (82 comments total) 191 users marked this as a favorite

 
Wow. Great FPP. Timely and rich. A+++ WOULD READ AGAIN.
posted by grubi at 6:00 AM on July 2, 2008


And THAT, ladies and gentlemen, is how to post. Wow.
posted by baltimoretim at 6:05 AM on July 2, 2008


How to post a blog entry you mean.
posted by smackfu at 6:08 AM on July 2, 2008 [8 favorites]


In "Stars in their Courses", Shelby Foote left open the question if Sickles' salient was a sound tactical move - which I thought was fair.

Not being a professional soldier, Sickles has invariably been criticised by military men for his improvisiation.

You have to understand that Sickles was on the far left of the Union line... separated from Little Round Top by a bit of marsh... he was the end of the line looking up. Sickles saw this as disaster. If the Confederates could put a rifle team up there, or better yet a few canon, Sickles would have been enfiladed.

Meade refused to send re-inforcements to occupy Little Round Top. Here's Dan Sickles... looking up at the hill.... knowing Lee is fond of flank attacks...

Umbeknownst to Sickles, Longstreet's men were asking for permission to do just this. Lee, who had already decided on his plans - which was to attack "up the emitsburg road" (which ran sort of parallel with the Union line) - refused three times the request.

While all this is going on, Sickles felt the only thing he could do was to get that hill off his shoulder so he advances his line forward about 1 mile leaving a big gap on his right.

When Longstreet's Corps saw this they knew it would be suicide to advance as Lee ordered so they made the flanking move - in direct disobedience of Lee's order.

This corrupted Lee's echelon attack and while, at the end of the day, Longstreet's men occupied Devil's Den, the attack failed.

Shebly couldn't criticize Sickles for his move, but for those people from Minnesota there can be little doubt that it resulted in their disaster.
posted by three blind mice at 6:09 AM on July 2, 2008 [4 favorites]


How to post a blog entry you mean.
Perhaps that was not meant negatively, but the last time I checked, this here site is a blog. The post is long, but there's nothing wrong with that.

Great post, forrest. I'm going to take some time to explore the links. Some wars were worth fighting, some battles were crucial in those wars, some moments were turning points, and this is one. I would guess, also, that this is the most documented battle ever fought; there seems to be no end of new literature on the subject.
posted by beagle at 6:19 AM on July 2, 2008


Wow. Now I understand why people are Civil War buffs. That was excellent. Thanks!
posted by A dead Quaker at 6:22 AM on July 2, 2008


(They still won't give the flag back. When Virginia petitioned for its return in 2001, Governor Ventura said, "Why? We won.") This has to be my favorite line. Awesome post btw, I love reading things of this nature.
posted by Mastercheddaar at 6:23 AM on July 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


Nothings cooler than Americans killing Americans in order to cement Washington's monolithic dominance over the states!
posted by norabarnacl3 at 6:27 AM on July 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Between the 1st Minnesota and the Iron Brigade (from Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana), it's amazing how much of the important fighting at Gettysburg was done by people from places so far away from the conflict itself.
posted by drezdn at 6:32 AM on July 2, 2008


Absolutely terrific post. Well put together and really fun to read. Sobering moment: realizing what five minutes is and what it can accomplish.
posted by redfisch at 6:37 AM on July 2, 2008


Great post. I've been trying to inform people about the 1st Minnesota and their sacrifice for quite awhile. It seemed like Chamberlain and the 20th Maine were getting all the press a few years back.

Only thing possibly missing from this post (and I may have missed it) is a mention Richard Moe's fine book: The Last Full Measure: the Life and Death of the First Minnesota Volunteers.
posted by marxchivist at 6:39 AM on July 2, 2008


It's been said here many times before, but man I love people who love stuff.
posted by resurrexit at 6:45 AM on July 2, 2008 [25 favorites]


Here's to the hope that tomorrow's Gettysburg post is as well researched.
posted by Dave Faris at 6:45 AM on July 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Jeez, you'd think that as a product of Minnesota public schools that they would have taught us about the 1st Minnesota. Of course I was too busy getting high most of the time but still...
This is a great post. I'm not a Civil War buff but I learned something new and it give me a chance to beam a little with some Minnesota pride. Thanks!
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 6:48 AM on July 2, 2008


Between the 1st Minnesota and the Iron Brigade (from Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana)

Damned Yankees.

What about Pender's bloody assault on the Union position on Seminary Ridge late in the second day? Scales' brigade was almost completely destroyed by Union artillery canister - Every field officer of the brigade save one had been disabled - but they still forced the Union troops back into Gettysburg.
posted by three blind mice at 6:49 AM on July 2, 2008


I had an ancestor who participated in Gettysburg on the Confederate side (wounded at Little Round Top). Many years ago I convinced my (Yankee) girlfriend that we needed to go to Gettysburg to see it. She scoffed and mocked my odd southern curiosity with the Civil War until we got to the field where Pickett's charge took place. We looked at the field from both sides in silence. We read about the horrible causalities on both sides while walking the lines. "Those poor bastards never had a chance..." was all she could mutter. You can almost see our young country teetering back and forth between possible futures on those three days. Lincoln was right: that is sacred ground.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 6:49 AM on July 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


this is an excellent post -- anyone who criticizes the length, well, that's what we've been getting since the "more inside" addition to the blue.

"why? i mean, we won". this is classic.

forrest, as in gump, or nathan bedford? either way, an ironic eponysterical post.

if i ever have a son (two XX so far) than i'm going to figure out a way to name him after william tecumsah sherman -- in-laws are southern so i'll have to sneak it ;)

thanks man!!! how long did it take you to compile?
posted by taumeson at 7:02 AM on July 2, 2008


Damn you, Forrest, I could have made this post. But the Glory is all yours.

Hancock's decision to order the 1st MN sums up the decisions that rest on a command in war. You will, at some point, have to order some of your men to die.

Drezden: Alas, Gettysburg was the place the Iron Brigade went to die. Indeed, by the time we reach the timeframe of this post, the Iron Brigade is, for all intents, gone -- they died, inch by inch, the day before, allowing the Union right to fall back to Seminary Ridge.

They lost 61% of their men that day. The 24th Michigan lost 80%.

The brigade remained -- 1st Brigade, 1 Division, I Corps -- but the men who'd made the Iron Brigade -- "Those boys must be made of Iron!" were gone.

Meade refused to send re-inforcements to occupy Little Round Top. Here's Dan Sickles... looking up at the hill.... knowing Lee is fond of flank attacks...

You've never been to the battlefield, then? You don't need the Roundtops to hold the flank of the ridge. The valley between them -- a gorge, really -- is a natural fortification.

Sickle's committed two grave tactical errors, and a grave military error. The grave military error was, of course, failing to follow orders. The first grave tactical error was he created a salient, with his troops inside. The second, graver error was his movements gapped the line -- which meant you could turn the left flank of the Union main body *and* Sickle's right flank, at the same time.

To add to his misery, his salient was lousy terrain, thus, he couldn't move reinforcements within the salient easily. Doubling that, he spread out over twice the distance he was ordered to cover, this thinned his lines considerably.

Then, of course, he really screwed up, and left his left flank hanging in the wind, in front of Longstreet. This trick never works, Longstreet had a bloodhound's nose for smelling a flapping flank, and he smelled this one, and turned it.

The *right* way to secure the Roundtops if you insist, was to deliberately detach a brigade to fortify Big Round Top, with a few batteries as well, refuse the flank on Seminary Ridge, and turn the Little Round Top into a sucker hill. Anyone trying to get to the top would be caught in the crossfire between the ridge and BRT, anyone getting to the bare top would find they they'd won nothing -- the gorge between LRT and the line was the best trench possible.

Sickle's decision cost the Union well, basically III Corps, and his own leg. It didn't help Sykes corps either, who were ordered up from reserve to plug the hole left by the collapsing III Corp, and worse, since III Corps had detached from the line, it meant that the Union Left Flank was flapping in the wind -- and Longstreet saw that too.

Hancock, when he got wind of this, saw instantly what Sickles had done, and that he was about five minutes from getting flanked right off the ridge. He needed another corps -- he had one, Sykes V Corps in reserve, but he needed time to get them up.

So, he gave an order to buy the Union the time to get V Corps up and save the flank. He sees a unit on the line, in good order, and that unit's commander is nearby. He knows what he has to do, and he does it.

He rides up and saves the flank.

He rides up and orders men to die.

He rides up and says "See those colors? Take them."

And V Corp gets ten extra minutes to get up, and does so, and secures the Union left flank. The Union is saved. But the cost is very high indeed.

So: The last thing that Sickles grave error cost the Union? The 1st Minnesota.
posted by eriko at 7:06 AM on July 2, 2008 [15 favorites]


late in the second first day?

There. Fixed that for me.

While Gettysburg seems to be portrayed by the victors as a one-sided Union victory punctuated by Confederate blunders, it was, as Wellington said of Waterloo actually a pretty "a close run affair."

The outcome was held in balance for three days. Lee scored penetrations on the right and on the left of the Union line, but lacked the interior lines to exploit them. Sitting on his fishhook, Meade could shift men across the front with relative ease, but this didn't mean he didn't feel the sting of Lee's attacks. Union soliders, despite fighting from prepared defensive positions, suffered losses at a ratio of 3:2 versus their attackers. The Confederates were fearsome soldiers.

In the evening of the second day Meade held a council of war, looking for an excuse to withdraw to what he thought was an even better defensive position about 50 miles east on the Pipe Creek. These guys were - with plenty good reason - wary of Lee. Lee had savaged the Army of the Potomac in three major battles over three months.

They decided that the position they had was good enough and expressed hope that the Rebels would attack. Which of course is what Lee had in mind for Longstreet's divison held in reserve commanded by General Pickett.
posted by three blind mice at 7:12 AM on July 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


I was going to link to The Last Full Measure, a sterling counterpoint to the earlier observation that some of the more general Gettysburg histories ovelook the 1st Minnesota's attack. But I note someone else has already done just that. So referring back to Marxchivist's posted link, let me just add a hearty endorsement of that work to anyone seeking to broaden your Gettysburg reading.
posted by Mike D at 7:15 AM on July 2, 2008


I'm somewhat humored by the framing of the FPP. The idea that the 1st Minn won Gettysburg and prevented Lee from "burning Philadelphia" is really a stretch - is there any unit who fought at Gettysburg that didn't play a role? It sort of props the 1st Minn up at the expense of others. In any case, had the 1st Minn cut and run, perhaps it would have been another unit who saved the day. They should be recognized for bravery and discipline but not for winning Gettysburg or saving Philadelphia.
posted by stbalbach at 7:19 AM on July 2, 2008


forrest, I think that's a beautiful, well-crafted post. Thank you!
posted by RussHy at 7:25 AM on July 2, 2008


Wonderful post. I'm always kind of amazed at how little knowledge there is of the 1st Minnesota up here in, well, Minnesota. I know of one monument in St. Paul, but it's just a smallish column sitting in the middle of an empty block in a part of the city where people don't really go, at least not on foot.

The minutae of critical points of battles always amaze me, especially the way events can just sort of squirt beyond the control of any planning (I just deleted a 2-paragaph digression into the critical 5 minutes at Midway, which I think has some interesting similarities, but screw that).
posted by COBRA! at 7:29 AM on July 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


That's a top shelf post there forrest. My son is a total politics/history freak, and this will make his day, and mine.

I tip my hat to you first, unless your first and middle names are Nathan Bedford. Then I'll be shooting at yours.
posted by timsteil at 7:30 AM on July 2, 2008


This is the best post I've seen all year, hands down. (Sickles, as I recall, lost his leg and ended his military career there in Gettysburg but went on to sponsor the legislation that turned it into a National Park.)

I remember the first time I stood in Gettysburg. It was one of those cold, still Pennsylvania mornings where, with the mist still hovering over wet grass and between slender trees, you could easily lose track of time. Not just stand there for an hour feeling like only 5 minutes had passed. I mean you could start to wonder what year you were in. Was it 1999 or was it a hundred and thirty some earlier? It was almost as if it were so quiet I could hear back through time.

All the reading, the endless research, the movies, the stories passed down through the generation of men who fought their brethren, it somehow all can't prepare you adequately for standing on that field and setting your soul in that place on our planet, in that fleeting moment of time.

When you stop to look at what American men were able to once struggle through, right here on our own soil - when you stop and look at where we've come in so many long and painful years of civil struggles since, and you trace it back to its bloody birth that we call our Civil War - when you consider the price of life that so many were willing to put on the altar of our heritage of freedom and liberty for all...

It humbles you. To think that I share the slightest banner with such as these.

And then, in *your* lifetime, you get to see a man who in another generation would have been sold at a price - a human being owned by another, instead contending for the executive leadership of your country?

I don't know about you, but that gives a little more fuel to my flickering flame of hope for our nation, even in times such as ours.
posted by allkindsoftime at 7:31 AM on July 2, 2008 [11 favorites]


The *right* way to secure the Roundtops if you insist, was to deliberately detach a brigade to fortify Big Round Top, with a few batteries as well, refuse the flank on Seminary Ridge, and turn the Little Round Top into a sucker hill. Anyone trying to get to the top would be caught in the crossfire between the ridge and BRT, anyone getting to the bare top would find they they'd won nothing -- the gorge between LRT and the line was the best trench possible.

This is what happens when you rely on Wikipedia.

Extending his line in the direction of the higher ground of the Peach Orchard and the Round Tops is, as I understand it, what Sickles wanted to do (if reinforced) and is precisely what his orders did not permit. He's looking up and wondering how long it would take for some Confederate canon to start raining cannister and grape down on him. He was totally exposed.

Yeah, it was the opposite of a textbook maneuver and those Swedes got turned into ground meat as a result of his "blunder", but at the end of the battle, in the way things actually turned out and not the aimless speculation of "what if" it was a sound tactical move.

So I sort of like the way Foote didn't jump on the bandwagon and make Sickles out to be a fool. A historian should take a fair and broad-minded view of things and that is what charactertizes - distinguishes- Foote's work.
posted by three blind mice at 7:32 AM on July 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


I just want to say that this is an awesome post.

Thanks!
posted by kbanas at 7:53 AM on July 2, 2008


Nice strawman, stbalbach. There's no claim that the 1st Minnesota single-handedly won the battle. They were simply the unit that was there when needed and Hancock sacrificed them to gain time. The regiment exceeded his expectations by giving him twice the time he was counting on. (BTW, forrest, I just figured out your title.)

tbm, I understand your argument in defense of Sickles. However, while his movement may have been tactically sound (and inspired by his experience in previous battles) for his corps, it wasn't tactically sound for the Union army in general. It was unexpected by his superiors and upset their plans for the day. Hood did not attack up the Emmitsburg road as ordered because Sickles was in the way. Instead, he marched east and attacked Devil's Den and the Roundtops. Maybe Meade's plan was to allow the advance up the Emmitsburg road, but we'll never know.

Meade and Hancock spent most of their day shoveling in reinforcements to stop these (and other) attacks. I'm not well versed in Gettysburg history, but I believe that the surprise Sickles handed them may not have been the best thing that happened to them that day.
posted by joaquim at 8:01 AM on July 2, 2008


Well.

A superior post from every angle. Hats off.
posted by mwhybark at 8:10 AM on July 2, 2008


Hood did not attack up the Emmitsburg road as ordered because Sickles was in the way. Instead, he marched east and attacked Devil's Den and the Roundtops. Maybe Meade's plan was to allow the advance up the Emmitsburg road, but we'll never know.

And that's the point. We'll never know. We can never know.

I'm not defending Sickles so much as praising Foote. There are different ways to view this. Most pulp fiction histories of Gettysburg condemn Sickles. Perhaps rightly so, but Foote makes me see it from the other point of view. This is what I like about his novels.
posted by three blind mice at 8:19 AM on July 2, 2008


Fantastic post Forrest, thanks -- I love this stuff. Off to check if the library has Last Full Measure.
posted by Pantengliopoli at 8:48 AM on July 2, 2008


I'm going to take a good while and read all the links.

I grew up in New England, mostly in MA, where you can't swing even a small cat without hitting a Revolutionary War this or that. I thought Yankees were obsessed....and then I moved to Maryland.

Fantastic post, forrest. Thank you.
posted by rtha at 8:52 AM on July 2, 2008


Thanks for the great post. I used to have an obsession with the Civil War and posts like this will probably put me back on the road to addiction.

Sickles wasn't the greatest general but as a man I always liked him and his foibles. If you're going to lose a leg in battle, you might as well send the leg to Army Medical Museum where it can be put on exhibit and then you can go visit it on occasion and reminisce about the grand times the two of you once had.

Gettysburg was an important battle in terms of propaganda and morale but I'm not convinced of its importance on a strategic scale. Lee was in enemy territory with overstretched supply lines and little in the way of reserves. Even if he had secured a victory on that field, his casualties would have been roughly the same as he suffered, though with an intact Pickett's division, and he would have enjoyed a moment of glory before retreating back to home ground. Lee would forever be remembered as a reincarnation of Pyrrhus after he won Gettysburg and broke his army in the process.

Perhaps he could have burned Philly but that would have been a kamikaze mission with no hope of escape. Washington was out of the question due to the city's extensive fortifications. And the overall strategic picture for the South was already hopeless by mid-1863. Vicksburg is about to fall, giving the Union control over the Mississippi and cutting off the South's western states. The blockade is getting stronger by the day leading to crucial shortages. The Confederate armies, not just Lee's, are stretched to the breaking point with no hope of significant reinforcements. And despite their own extensive casualties, the Union is still overwhelmingly dominant in industrial capacity and population and is getting stronger by the day.

The only real hope from a Southern victory at Gettysburg would lie in propaganda. Convince the Union that their cause is hopeless because they lost on their own soil and convince Britain and France that it would be a great idea to dump money and men into the North American charnel houses. But even that hope would be very slim.
posted by pandaharma at 8:59 AM on July 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Great post. I'd like to see more like this, frankly, where the poster develops the narrative rather than just giving us a list-of-links.
posted by orthogonality at 8:59 AM on July 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


I have never understood why people fly the Confederate flag. Reading this post, it is even less clear to me. The only flag we should fly is our own.
posted by ewkpates at 9:02 AM on July 2, 2008 [3 favorites]


What about Pender's bloody assault on the Union position on Seminary Ridge late in the second day? Scales' brigade was almost completely destroyed by Union artillery canister - Every field officer of the brigade save one had been disabled - but they still forced the Union troops back into Gettysburg.

Well, one immediate difference that leaps to mind is that the Union forces weren't effectively fighting for the subjugation of a race. I'm not sure we should celebrate valor in the cause of evil.
posted by Justinian at 9:12 AM on July 2, 2008


I'm somewhat humored by the framing of the FPP. The idea that the 1st Minn won Gettysburg and prevented Lee from "burning Philadelphia" is really a stretch --Stbalbach

Nice strawman, stbalbach. There's no claim that the 1st Minnesota single-handedly won the battle. ---joaquim

Well, maybe I am misreading the FPP. Can you explain the first paragraph of the FPP - What is the alternative history of Washington being taken, Lee marching up the east cost and Philly being burned for? It's a rhetorical question, it's there to hook to reader into seeing the importance of the battle by contrasting what could have happened if the 1st Minn had not been there.
posted by stbalbach at 9:15 AM on July 2, 2008


this is one of the best fpps ever made.
posted by shmegegge at 9:16 AM on July 2, 2008


This is what happens when you rely on Wikipedia.

Wikipedia? The only thing I used it for was to check Sykes' name.

Have you been there? Have you stood on the end of Cemetery Ridge, or on the Round Tops, or on the lower ridge that features Devil's Den -- the one that Sickle's actually deployed on?

Have you tried to walk between Cemetery Ridge and Little Round Top, or LRT to Big Round Top?

If not, do so. See, and feel, the landscape. You'll then understand why Sickles' refusal to follow orders was wrong, and why the disposition of his forces was even more incorrect. If he'd simple strung his line up and down the Round Tops, he'd have been better off -- though Sykes did it correctly -- fortify the end of the ridge, LRT and BRT, and dare the Confederates to try and run past.

He left the Union left flank wide open, he left his *own* left flank wide open, and he barely covered his own right flank. He put his forces in a salient with almost no lines of communications through the salient. And he did all of that in front of James Longstreet, who, despite a bitter disagreement with Lee about the attack, was renown for being able to find a weak point of the line and break it. The Union was lucky that Longstreet decided to throw a snit with Lee about the attack (He thought the Union Right was the place to attack) -- if he'd really pressed the attack, he might have broke the whole line.

He certainly broke the III corps line, in three places. Indeed, for a moment, he took LRT -- which Sickles' deployment was supposed to prevent!

If Sickles was so concerned about the Roundtops, he should have just deployed on them. He, instead, deployed well in front of them, and he broke contact with the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. If he'd just deployed from the ridge down to Devil's Den, with a refused flank, he'd have had a much stronger position. If he'd *deployed as ordered*, along the end of the line and turned to refuse, the III corp would have been there the next day.

(Note: in my first comment, I confused my ridges in the second half, and said "Seminary" instead of "Cemetary" when referring to the events of July 2nd. Sorry, and they do sound alike.)
posted by eriko at 9:19 AM on July 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Perhaps he could have burned Philly but that would have been a kamikaze mission with no hope of escape. Washington was out of the question due to the city's extensive fortifications. And the overall strategic picture for the South was already hopeless by mid-1863.

Lee and Jefferson Davis were actually hoping that a victory in Pennsylvania would encourage the floundering peace movement in the North (those spineless Quakers and the like) to sue for peace. Playing to the peace movement, on the march through Maryland into Pennsylvania, Lee specifically ordered his Army to treat the civilian population with utmost respect. Many have remarked on the manners and good order displayed by the Southern troops.

The average Northerner wasn't really that fucking interested in fighting "evil" and didn't have any more love for the negro than his Southern cousin. They were sick of the war, sick of getting whipped by those Southern boys, and well of the mind to negotiate re-unification under new terms and conditions as Davis would have offered them had Meade's Army suffered the destruction Lee had intended for it.

After Gettysburg, that window of opportunity was lost forever. That's why many see it as the turning point.
posted by three blind mice at 9:26 AM on July 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


if i ever have a son (two XX so far) than i'm going to figure out a way to name him after william tecumsah sherman -- in-laws are southern so i'll have to sneak it ;)

How about "General William Tecumseh Sherman's March To The Sea Engelson"?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:30 AM on July 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Just an astounding post, a timely recalling of some of the bravery, sacrifice, and unquestioning devotion to our nation that has brought to life the parts that are the best they can be, defying the parts that make it the worst. It is good to remember why we hope, and what others who have gone before us have done, at terrible cost, to make that hope possible.

And while it is hard not to admire the nobility and bravery of many of the Southerners, it is also hard to understand how such nobility could be founded on such evil. That is a reconciliation that seems to me yet unresolved.

That we must all, every day, struggle to bring up ourselves, rather than letting the best of us go down.

Anyway... thanks for a great post, on a day it is good to honor, and remember.
posted by emmet at 9:32 AM on July 2, 2008


Great post. I visit the Battlefield every few years, and it's always humbling. Thank God they worked to preserve so much of it, and that they try to keep it similar to the way it used to be. Anyone who gets a chance to go really should. Reading the exploits is interesting, but seeing the rocky ground and fields really hammers it home.
posted by Patapsco Mike at 9:33 AM on July 2, 2008


The average Northerner wasn't really that fucking interested in fighting "evil" and didn't have any more love for the negro than his Southern cousin.

This is absolutely true. It's also fairly true about World War II as well. But as Churchill said, I refuse to remain impartial between the fire brigade and the fire.
posted by Justinian at 9:34 AM on July 2, 2008 [7 favorites]


Very well done. Thank you.
posted by boo_radley at 9:39 AM on July 2, 2008


If he'd simple strung his line up and down the Round Tops, he'd have been better off -- though Sykes did it correctly -- fortify the end of the ridge, LRT and BRT, and dare the Confederates to try and run past.

Sickles was already stretched thin and without reserves (which he was refused by Meade and Reynolds because they did not have them to give) he could not extend his line southwards and preserve the integrity of his line. He had enough military experience to know not to do that. Advancing as he did he kept his firing lines intact, ready to repel the frontal assault he expected and received.

The salient exposed himself and the Union left to fire from the flanks. And? The Union left (i.e., Sickles) was already exposed to fire on its flank. Standing where he was, if Confederate cannister started to fall on him from the higher ground, his only option then would be to retreat - exposing the Union left to enfilade and flank assault.

Anyway you look at it, there was gonna be a fight.
posted by three blind mice at 9:46 AM on July 2, 2008


This is an absolutely top-notch post. Well done and thanks, forrest.
posted by malocchio at 9:57 AM on July 2, 2008


Can you explain the first paragraph of the FPP
The first paragraph was a hook to get the reader interested, including an oblique reference to Sherman's March to the Sea and the burning of Charleston. The rest of the post illustrates not only the bravery and sacrifice of the 1st Minnesota, but also Hancock's decisions about how to use both himself and the men under his command to win a battle. Mostly, it's a story of how 212 men were traded, not for territory or capturing some war prize, but for some 10 minutes ("3-Second Men" -- the life/limb of each man was worth 3 seconds) in an action that may have changed the outcome of the battle and possibly the war.

tbm, I join your praise of Foote. I've read his trilogy 4 times and it's still fresh. I can't go along with his almost unabashed admiration of NB Forrest, though.
posted by joaquim at 10:07 AM on July 2, 2008


Another voice in the choir -- great post, Forrest. Thank you for putting it together for us.
posted by dancestoblue at 10:16 AM on July 2, 2008


convince Britain and France that it would be a great idea to dump money and men into the North American charnel houses

I don't think that was a realistic possibility; the South was hoping for diplomatic recognition and to demoralize the North.

The latter was a possibility for more than a year after Gettysburg. Lincoln was challenged by George McClellan on the Democrats' Peace ticket (McClellan personally supported the war). Until Sherman took Atlanta in September 1864, many people thought Lincoln could lose the election.
posted by kirkaracha at 10:21 AM on July 2, 2008


The only real hope from a Southern victory at Gettysburg would lie in propaganda. Convince the Union that their cause is hopeless because they lost on their own soil and convince Britain and France that it would be a great idea to dump money and men into the North American charnel houses. But even that hope would be very slim.

No, that was a very reasonable hope. If the South had won at Gettysburg, it would certainly have won them vital time and encouraged the Northern peacemakers, and very likely have won them help from abroad. It would have been comparable to the Tet Offensive, which drove the U.S. out of Vietnam despite (as U.S. military types keep frustratedly pointing out, as if battlefield success were everything) being a defeat on the ground. Gettysburg was absolutely a must-win for the North.

Like everybody else said: great post!
posted by languagehat at 10:25 AM on July 2, 2008


Er, by "that was a very reasonable hope" I was referring to diplomatic recognition and money, as kirkaracha said, not to actual military intervention.
posted by languagehat at 10:26 AM on July 2, 2008


I just signed up to MeFi to comment on how great of a FPP this was.

Years ago, when I was a little kid of 6 or 7, the family took a trip from Minnesota to Gettysburg, mainly because my 17-year-old brother was a big Civil War buff. I don't remember much about the trip except for one small thing. My brother and I decided that we were going to climb up Little Round Top -- my brother wanted to see what it was like to scale the hill. Partway up, I fell and skinned my knee pretty badly. Being a little kid, I cried a little, and I remember looking up at my brother, who busts out laughing. Thankfully, he didn't explain the joke to me, which was that men had died on the very spot where I was whining about a couple of small cuts.

The one thing that always surprises me, watching reenactments, reading books, seeing movie portrayals, etc., is that neither side truly understood how to handle the lethality of their opponents tactics and the technology they had on hand. Honestly, who charges up a hill in only marginal cover (trees, various boulders, etc), directly into the face of enemy gunfire? Who marches in lockstep, shoulder-to-shoulder, presenting an unwavering target for anyone to shoot at? I always wondered what the Civil War would have been like had either side resorted to much less "conventional" (for the time) tactics.
posted by mark242 at 10:33 AM on July 2, 2008 [4 favorites]


.
posted by lester's sock puppet at 11:04 AM on July 2, 2008


Super awesome post! Well done.

mark242: Honestly, who charges up a hill in only marginal cover (trees, various boulders, etc), directly into the face of enemy gunfire? Who marches in lockstep, shoulder-to-shoulder, presenting an unwavering target for anyone to shoot at? I always wondered what the Civil War would have been like had either side resorted to much less "conventional" (for the time) tactics.

This is sort of off topic, but it's something I've always really wondered about as well. I think that in many ways, the American Civil War marked the beginning of a transition to a new era of warfare. Before this transition, marching rigidly in a straight line towards a group of enemies was not necessarily suicide. Weapons were laughably inaccurate and underpowered, and regardless: the guys you were fighting against were probably doing the same thing. But in the time period immediately before (and also during) the Civil War there were tremendous technological advancements that made combat much more deadly to soldiers. Rifling and cartridges made firearms much more precise and quick to load, artillery became larger and developed longer range, the locomotive completely transformed supply systems, ships armored with and made of metal were developed -- and that's completely ignoring the invention of the machine gun (though not widely used in the Civil War).

Military leaders during this time period (especially in the Civil War) had learned the old techniques at their various military schools and as such applied them, with somewhat disastrous results, to modern combat. If you consider the major wars that came after, like the Franco-Prussian War and the Russo-Japanese war, and even in the early parts of World War I, you can see that this took a very long time to catch on. It took commanders a surprisingly long time, even in the midst of WWI, to consider the machine gun anything other than a defensive weapon. Hell, people were still riding and fighting on horses in WWI.

So, anyway, "had either side resorted to much less 'conventional' (for the time) tactics", I think that we would have seen the Civil War become much more of a portent of things to come in the Great War. As soon as one side started using vastly different tactics, the other would have picked it up very quickly. There would have, in my opinion, been many more deaths and many of the battlegrounds would have been transformed into no-man's lands of entrenchments and fortifications.

While it's interesting to speculate, I have to say I'm very thankful that history did not go that way. The Civil War was bloody and angry enough as it was.

Again, thanks for the post, forrest, and sorry for the derail.
posted by malthas at 11:56 AM on July 2, 2008


I share with several other posters here the experience of having actually walked this ground. In my case, I was on a three-day tour with guides who were military history teachers from Kingston (Ontario, Canada)'s Royal Military College. Each day of the tour focused on that day's events in the sequence of the battle.

On Day 3, as we walked the mile and a half of Pickett's Charge, the experience became otherworldly as one of the most powerful thunderstorms I've ever been in without shelter quickly to hand struck our little group. The rain was being whipped horizontally into our faces from precisely the direction of the union line, while from a black sky overhead thunder cracked and lightning flashed so frequently it was almost strobe-like in its intensity. To say it gave a vague sense of what the battle environment must have been like that 1863 July 3 afternoon is probably still a long way from reality, but so too was it a long way from the placid sunshine in which we had passed our previous two days on the field.

1863 was a time when the quality of weapons took a quantum leap past the tactics of the day. The Parrott rifle, for example (actually a cannon, but called a "rifle" because its barrel was grooved to give a spin to the shell as it was fired) meant that artillery shells could be fired accurately from three or four miles away. On day 3 of Gettysburg, a battery of union Parrotts was placed so as to be in the flank position as the line advanced and a lot of Pickett's and Pettigrew's men simply had no idea where the fire was coming from that tore sideways through vast lengths of their advancing line. Troop advances, meanwhile, were still conducted under the principle of massed formations, because most muskets of the day were still inconsistently manufactured and were still most effective not they were aimed on the basis of one rifle - one target, but rather when a wall of muzzles discharged a flung wall of lead. But the rifled barrel was beginning to change that -- not just for artillery, but for muskets and even pistols. The result was withering to a massed formation of men.

Even to characterize the event as Pickett's "Charge" is a misnomer. Those 13,000 men walked the entire advance at a march pace, even stopping roughly halfway across the field to dress their line and fill in the gaps torn by union fire. I simply cannot comprehend what put the ability into those men to walk that distance, under that storm of steel. And to keep walking. I have read pathetically sad descriptions of them bending forward as though moving through a driving rain. And don't think those descriptions didn't come to mind as our faces and bodies were needled by the torrential fusillade of raindrops into which we pressed ahead.

(As an aside, I have a similar removal from the same spirit that fired the First Newfoundland Regiment when they went over the top on day 1 of the Battle of the Somme, July 1 -- ironically-- 1916. In that case, they funnelled into gaps in the wire on which the Germans had pre-ranged their machine guns. They kept going forward until there were literally none left to continue.)

I realize I'm all over the map here, but my point is that it really helps to visit these sites. Gettysburg is a solemn and breathtaking place. It helps that it is also a relatively compact field, unlike, for example, The Wilderness, and that the battle itself unfolded in a very clear sequence of specific events. I am not saying you're ineligible to talk about it unless you've been there; I'm only saying your understanding of any battle will take a quantum leap forward with every battlefield you walk.
posted by Mike D at 12:06 PM on July 2, 2008 [6 favorites]


I was on a three-day tour with guides who were military history teachers ... Each day of the tour focused on that day's events in the sequence of the battle.

Man, I envy you. I will probably never have a chance to do that, but I'd love to. And what an experience you got out of it! Great comment.
posted by languagehat at 12:19 PM on July 2, 2008


I can only add that this is a great post. Thank you, Forrest.
posted by aldus_manutius at 1:42 PM on July 2, 2008


I'll just add my voice to those thanking forrest for his post, and also to those who recommend a visit to Gettysburg. The only danger is that you might well be turned into a Civil War buff, which isn't a great danger except that your family will all think of you as an eccentric and slightly annoying nut.

What happened to me is what happened to 1f2frfbf and his girlfriend when they visited the site of Pickett's Charge. I stood there at the Angle and looked across the wide-open field, and trembled at the thought of what could have sent so many men to march forward, in an almost stately manner, to certain death.

You can read about Pickett's Charge all you want, but until you walk the field, you really don't get that gut feeling of what it might have been like.
posted by math at 1:44 PM on July 2, 2008


In keeping with guys marching into a storm of lead semi-derail: From Mike D's comment above: I have read pathetically sad descriptions of them bending forward as though moving through a driving rain. I have read a good amount of Civil War soldiers' letters and memoirs and that comparison comes up constantly. They also often talk of hunching their heads between their shoulders, turtle-like, as they advance.

As far as walking the ground, yes, walking toward Cemetery Ridge from the Confederate lines is an awesome experience. The place that really got me was Omaha Beach in Normandy. I was fortunate to visit there and looking down on the beach from the German positions on the cliffs, wow. If you wanted to design a place to dump a bunch of men into to slaughter them with machine guns I don't think you could do better than Omaha.

Gotta put in my plug for the Confederate charge at Franklin TN on November 30, 1864. Often called the "Pickett's Charge of the West," it actually should be the other way around. At Gettysburg the Confederates crossed a mile of open ground against an enemy that had been fighting for two days and had been subjected to a pre-assault artillery bombardment. At Franklin, they crossed over almost two miles of open ground, with no artillery support. The Army of Tennessee at Franklin made repeated assaults against the well-entrenched Yankees over a period of five hours. Confederate casualties: 1,750 killed and 3,800 wounded. Six Confederate generals killed. Fifty-three regimental commanders killed, wounded or captured.

The Union casualties? 189 killed, about 1,000 wounded.

That battle destroyed the Army of Tennessee, the Confederacy's main fighting force in the west. A good non-fiction account of the battle is The Confederacy's Last Hurrah by Wiley Sword. The Black Flower, a novel by Howard Bahr, has a scene does a great job of conveying the pre-charge tension. Makes me want to read that passage again just thinking about it.

Back to Gettysburg. I'll do a Franklin post November 30.
posted by marxchivist at 1:45 PM on July 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


"except that your family will all think of you as an eccentric and slightly annoying nut."

Sounds like math has read Horwitz's hilarious (and not a little disturbing) book.
posted by Mike D at 1:55 PM on July 2, 2008


malthas,

There was ruinous trench warfare by the end of the Civil War. See this 1864 Harper's Weekly illustration of Union trench jockeys (note sandbags, gun-slits, and humorous helmet hat-on-a-stick gag). One of the great morale benefits of Sherman's March was that he was actually on the move and fighting while Grant and Lee crouched bleeding in the dirt for nine months.
posted by ormondsacker at 2:20 PM on July 2, 2008


What a fascinating subject and a superb post (including comments); even to someone who lives on the other side of the world. I am in awe of all of your passion and understanding about a war with yourselves – very moving. Thank you.
posted by Samuel Farrow at 2:31 PM on July 2, 2008


That was stirring. I didn't even realize that Minnesota existed in 1863. As a Vermonter it's my patriotic duty to get misty-eyed about Stannard's Vermonters, and it was great to read about other Northerners kicking ass elsewhere at Gettysburg.

Also - ormond - the hat on a stick is not a gag, it's how you find out if there is a sharpshooter waiting to pick you off if you leave cover, which I gather there frequently was in those days.
posted by alexwoods at 2:34 PM on July 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Thanks for the post, Forrest.

It's very difficult for me to read about things like this without tearing up...while also, strangely, feeling a great deal of pride in men on both sides...and anger at both them and their superiors, and their brothers and sisters,and their fathers and mothers, and everyone of the people who let the war happen.

Then I look at a map of the conflicts in the world today and I realize I should feel the same about all of us in the world today, too.
posted by lord_wolf at 3:26 PM on July 2, 2008


Aw, man, am I that transparent? You're right, Mark D, I have indeed read Confederates in the Attic, and now I'll just have to go read it again. That link of yours to Shawn's review of the book is worth reading, too.
posted by math at 4:46 PM on July 2, 2008


(They still won't give the flag back. When Virginia petitioned for its return in 2001, Governor Ventura said, "Why? We won.")

Well, that's just Jesse, isn't it?

Back in 1965, Pope Paul VI returned to Turkey the battle standards taken from the Ottomans by the Holy League at the battle of Lepanto.

In 1571.

Make of that what you will.

(Good post, by the way. But you knew that.)
posted by IndigoJones at 5:38 PM on July 2, 2008


Wow. I posted and then went to work. Didn't think it would get much notice because of the previous Gettysburg thread. I appreciate the kudos.

taumeson, believe it or not, I'm distantly related to NBF, but I've never been a fan of the man's work. I knew most of the facts about 1st Minnesota already, so it wasn't hard to pull this together. Most of the time was spent tracking down source material for what I was writing, but the actual post took about 3 hours to write

stbalbach, I apologize if I gave you the wrong impression. The 1st Minnesota was of course not the only unit responsible for the Union victory at Gettysburg. They just happened to be in a certain place at a certain time and responded well to what was asked of them. As joaquim noted, the part about burning Boston and marching along the sea was just a hook -- there were too many things going on in the South to allow Lee to sustain a campaign like that. OTOH, a loss at Gettysburg could have meant a political shift in the North that led to the dissolving of the Union, so there was some truth behind my hyperbole.

joaquim, I think you understand what intrigued me the most about this story: Hancock traded the 1st Minnesota for time, nothing more. It had been done before (Thermopylae, the Alamo), but not very often with the immediate urgency shown here.

mark242, I thought you were kidding until I looked at your profile. I deeply appreciate the compliment. mathowie, I'm bringing in paying customers here!
posted by forrest at 6:52 PM on July 2, 2008


I always wondered what the Civil War would have been like had either side resorted to much less "conventional" (for the time) tactics.

Maybe it would have looked more like Grant's assault on Vicksburg or Sherman's approach to Atlanta and subsequent march through Georgia and the Carolinas. Or, I'll grudgingly admit, Forrest's cavalry raids and Lee's dispositions of his forces at various times. Where terrain and other circumstances permitted, there were Civil War commanders with the creativity to break out of conventional strategic and tactical thinking.
posted by stargell at 8:19 PM on July 2, 2008


and now I'm reading all his FPPs.
posted by krautland at 10:01 PM on July 2, 2008


At 11:00 a.m. on December 13, 1862, six and a half months before Gettysburg, Union troops began crossing 500 yards of open ground, uphill, to storm Marye's Heights outside Fredericksburg. Edward Porter Alexander had arranged the Confederate artillery to cover the ground so well that "a chicken could not live on that field when we open on it." The Confederate infantry was sheltered behind a stone wall along a sunken road at the top of the heights, lined up in rows so the men in front shot while the men behind them loaded rifles and passed them forward. The Union men charged, then charged again, then charged again, a total of sixteen times. After the last charge at dusk, 7,000 Union soldiers had been killed or wounded. None of them reached the wall.
If you put every man on the other side of the Potomac on that field to approach me over the same line, and give me plenty of ammunition, I will kill them all before they reach my line.
-- General James Longstreet to General Robert E. Lee on Marye's Heights

During Pickett’s Charge, the Union men behind their own stone wall yelled “Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!”

See also: forrest's previous post about the Angel of Marye's Heights.
posted by kirkaracha at 10:05 PM on July 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Sure it's long, but this is one of the best metafilter posts I've ever seen.
posted by The Monkey at 10:18 PM on July 2, 2008


I read once that Longstreet wanted to decline engagement at Gettysburgh completely and force the Union to come up against the Confederates at carefully prepared defensive positions, and that Lee overruled him because he feared declining engagement would trash Confederate morale.
posted by BrotherCaine at 2:47 AM on July 3, 2008


Jeez, you'd think that as a product of Minnesota public schools that they would have taught us about the 1st Minnesota.

They did. At least, they did back in 1984. I had an old battle-axe, Mrs. Wegstadt, who drilled us with MN counties and county seats and how to find our county on the map without county markings (I can still do this) and indians and "Hail Minnesota" and lady slippers and 1858 and and and and and...

I hated her but, man, she was an excellent teacher.
posted by unixrat at 6:35 AM on July 3, 2008


alex-
Sure, but the guy in the etching isn't about to break cover - he's sitting with his back to the enemy, watching a card game. It's my understanding that if you knew you were going to be stuck in the trenches for the foreseeable future, the helmet-on-a-stick maneuver was more of an idle pasttime. At most, you get a bored enemy soldier to waste a bullet.

Good discussion, everybody.
posted by ormondsacker at 8:58 AM on July 3, 2008


Don't forget the Battle of Gettysburg in Lego.

But this is where the real fun is.
posted by marxchivist at 9:06 AM on July 3, 2008


(They still won't give the flag back. When Virginia petitioned for its return in 2001, Governor Ventura said, "Why? We won.")

Well, that's just Jesse, isn't it?


No, that's pretty much all of us. If that battle standard ever goes back, the governor that gives it back and her(his) party will be relegated to minority status for a long time.
posted by mygoditsbob at 9:32 AM on July 3, 2008


Good posts will suddenly convert you from died in the cynic into a geek for what ever the subject matter happens to be.

I, sir, am now enlisting in the 47th Inf. Indiana "Red Leg's" Civil War re-enactment brigade.

Great post.
posted by tkchrist at 4:18 PM on July 3, 2008


Tkchrist, you better not be a farb.
posted by BrotherCaine at 5:53 PM on July 3, 2008


CHARGE!
posted by tkchrist at 6:29 PM on July 3, 2008


Awesome. I got directed here by the MeTa props thread, and I'm now sensing a trip to the bookstore in my immediate future.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:10 AM on July 4, 2008


Well, that's just Jesse, isn't it?

I don't think so. Virginia took up arms against the federal government. Traitors.
posted by mlis at 9:53 PM on July 8, 2008


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