Was The Civil War Avoidable?


An Analysis of the Battle of Gettysburg and Editorial on The Civil War

Photography by Robert Bluestein, 2002 ©

This is the view from the scaffolding built by Longstreet to overlook the Gettysburg Battlefield. He was in charge of the Infantry and one of Lee's Right-Hand Men

It will be the greatest battle in the Western Hemisphere. For three days in July of 1863, more lives will be lost than in any previous American war. It was a slaughter that changed the face of America forever. Two-Hundred Confederate Cannons pounded Union positions and it sets the stage for Robert E. Lee to order a charge of 13,000 men. The line was over a mile long. If the rebels win, a stalemate might have been the end-result, giving us two distinct America's -- One Slave, the other Free.

Lee was enormously successful in battle, and much to the dismay of Northern Generals, Lee was just as popular in New York as any of the Union Commanders would be. Lee was able to learn and assess what he had done at each battle and worked on fixing those aspects of the fight. Although he was unsuccessful at Cheat Mountain, he quickly realized that his reorganizing skills were vastly more expedient than anyone in the North. They were still relying on many older military formations and Lee could reform and be ready for re-engagement much more rapidly.

Lee had one more painful lesson to endure, and once again, he'd use what he learned to every advantage. Looming in front of him through the haze was South Mountain. The fall had begun, the leaves were changing and the peaceful lakes on either side enveloped the extension of the blue Ridge Mountains as the entered Maryland. With the cool air hovering the low tree-ridge a heavy fog laid the air with a density that the men noted.

''Thi(s) fog in the air is making us see things that aren't there.'' Wrote Jeffrey Bryant of the Second Artillery out of Texas. ''We hear things that aren't there too. But I had my first sip of something they call Brandy, and it was mighty delicious and warmed the chill right out of our bones.''

Lee had learned to take careful notes when coming upon an encampment site where the Union General McClellan had recently retreated from. He laid out patterns and could see where the Union was most vulnerable. And - he could issue orders based upon what he had learned. Orders that, as long as they were in the correct hands would masterfully play out on the chess board of war.

One such order was written to General Thomas 'Stonewall' Jackson. Drafted on September 9, 1862, during the onset of the Maryland Campaign, It gave details of the movements of the Army of Northern Virginia during the early days of its invasion of Maryland.

Often against any modern convention, Lee divided his army, which he planned to regroup later. According to the precise text - Maj. Gen. Stonewall Jackson was to move his command to Martinsburg while McLaws's command and Walker's command "endeavored to capture Harpers Ferry." Maj. Gen. James Longstreet, may have the most difficult of obligations, lugging hundreds of cannon into position to move his command northward to Boonsborough.

D. H. Hill's division was to act as rear guard on the march from Frederick. Lee delineated the routes and roads to be taken and the timing for the investment of Harpers Ferry. Adjutant Robert H. Chilton penned copies of the letter and endorsed them in Lee's name. Staff officers distributed the copies to various Confederate generals. Jackson in turn copied the document for one of his subordinates, Maj. Gen. D. H. Hill, who was to exercise independent command as the rear guard. Hill said the only copy he received was the one from Jackson.

Then, on September 13th, Corporal Barton W. Mitchell of the 27th Indiana Volunteers, part of the Union XII Corps, discovered an envelope with three cigars wrapped in a piece of paper lying in the grass at a campground that Hill had just vacated. His first thought was the good fortune of the three cigars, but his curiosity for the papers began to peak his interest.

Mitchell immediately realized the significance of the document and turned it in to Sergeant John M. Bloss. From there They went to Captain Peter Kopp. Excited, Kopp wrote the incident down in his diary. ''A most curious thing has arisen this morning. Corporal Mitchell from Indiana found these cigars - and these Confederate articulations, sir.'' And he handed them to regimental commander Silas Colgrove, who in-turn carried them to Headquarters.

McClellan was overjoyed at learning planned Confederate troop movements and reportedly exclaimed, "Now I know what to do!" He confided to a subordinate, "Here is a paper with which, if I cannot whip Bobby Lee, I will be willing to go home."

READ THE SPECIAL ORDER 191

This is from the Library of Congress

Special Orders, No. 191 Hdqrs. Army of Northern Virginia September 9, 1862

  1. The citizens of Fredericktown being unwilling while overrun by members of this army, to open their stores, to give them confidence, and to secure to officers and men purchasing supplies for benefit of this command, all officers and men of this army are strictly prohibited from visiting Fredericktown except on business, in which cases they will bear evidence of this in writing from division commanders. The provost-marshal in Fredericktown will see that his guard rigidly enforces this order.

  2. Major Taylor will proceed to Leesburg, Virginia, and arrange for transportation of the sick and those unable to walk to Winchester, securing the transportation of the country for this purpose. The route between this and Culpepper Court-House east of the mountains being unsafe, will no longer be traveled. Those on the way to this army already across the river will move up promptly; all others will proceed to Winchester collectively and under command of officers, at which point, being the general depot of this army, its movements will be known and instructions given by commanding officer regulating further movements.

  3. The army will resume its march tomorrow, taking the Hagerstown road. General Jackson's command will form the advance, and, after passing Middletown, with such portion as he may select, take the route toward Sharpsburg, cross the Potomac at the most convenient point, and by Friday morning take possession of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, capture such of them as may be at Martinsburg, and intercept such as may attempt to escape from Harpers Ferry.

  4. General Longstreet's command will pursue the same road as far as Boonsborough, where it will halt, with reserve, supply, and baggage trains of the army.

  5. General McLaws, with his own division and that of General R. H. Anderson, will follow General Longstreet. On reaching Middletown will take the route to Harpers Ferry, and by Friday morning possess himself of the Maryland Heights and endeavor to capture the enemy at Harpers Ferry and vicinity.

  6. General Walker, with his division, after accomplishing the object in which he is now engaged, will cross the Potomac at Cheek's Ford, ascend its right bank to Lovettsville, take possession of Loudoun Heights, if practicable, by Friday morning, Key's Ford on his left, and the road between the end of the mountain and the Potomac on his right. He will, as far as practicable, cooperate with General McLaws and Jackson, and intercept retreat of the enemy.

  7. General D. H. Hill's division will form the rear guard of the army, pursuing the road taken by the main body. The reserve artillery, ordnance, and supply trains, &c., will precede General Hill.

  8. General Stuart will detach a squadron of cavalry to accompany the commands of Generals Longstreet, Jackson, and McLaws, and, with the main body of the cavalry, will cover the route of the army, bringing up all stragglers that may have been left behind.

  9. The commands of Generals Jackson, McLaws, and Walker, after accomplishing the objects for which they have been detached, will join the main body of the army at Boonsborough or Hagerstown.

  10. Each regiment on the march will habitually carry its axes in the regimental ordnance—wagons, for use of the men at their encampments, to procure wood &c.

By command of General R. E. Lee R.H. Chilton, Assistant Adjutant General[6]

The orders were slow to make their way back to Northern Commanders in the field but the South began to lose momentum as they reached the Blue Ridge tributaries in Maryland. At Battle of South Mountain on September 14th, 1862, Lee lost a battle he had felt sure he was going to win. The north had answers for each move he made. This was a terrible loss for lee and left his weakened and vulnerable army wide open to complete annihilation. And yet McClellan balked, once again pulling his troops back , reorganizing and allowing Lee precious time to successfully engage at Antietam.

In late April of 1863, the Union Army of the Potomac under its new commanding general, Joe Hooker, attempted to maneuver Lee out of his strong position at Fredericksburg but Lee countered, winning a stunning victory at Chancellorsville. Military Historians believe that Hooker 'outsmarted' himself by overcomplicating plans and being unclear in his direction.

As he had done in 1862, Lee saw his victory as an opportunity to be followed up by invading the North in the hopes of annihilating a Federal army on Union soil. In essence, Chancellorsville represented the opening move of Lee’s Gettysburg campaign.

At Gettysburg, a time for decisiveness had come. Now Pickett's charge was all that he needed to be successful again. At 3:30 pm, the Union Army began to break. The future of America hung in the balance. The Union was outmaneuvered in battle after battle. He had defeated five of the Union's generals, and was gaining such popularity in the North that it frustrated Lincoln to madness. Sensing McClellan's superiority complex, he reasoned that ''Lee wins and wins and wins, even when he loses. Gracious to his own detriment, and yet our Generals have no stomach for the fight. And the public knows it, and they like their fighting men. If God cannot give me a man who will fight, where shall I find one.'' (Washington Post, 1862)

His strategy was to destroy the American will to fight. His Army of Northern Virginia of 75,000 men constitute the largest invasion in American history. Union Generals rarely wanted to fight Lee. His invasion into Maryland coincided with repeated changes in Northern Leadership, adding to poor morale, confusion, and desertion.

On June 27th, Abraham Lincoln sends an urgent message to an undistinguished career soldier who was a tough and unlikeable personality. One day after being made commanding General, George Gordon Meade has his army of 100,000 men on the move.

Meade knew Lee's background was in Gettysburg. The distinguished Confederate General went to the Army War College in Carlisle, just a few miles out from Gettysburg itself. Lee was a brilliant graduate of West Point. The geography was well known to Lee and Meade knew where to intercept him. But the Confederates had no idea where the Union Soldiers were. An advance detail of light infantry stumbled upon a detachment of Confederates.

Confederate General Richard Ewell hadn't intended on fighting the Union soldiers because he was greatly outnumbered. Lee was still eight miles away and he had little reconnaissance that an infantry would have given him. This was due to the fact that Jeb Stuart swung his infantry wide around Pennsylvania and although he gathered supplies and took prisoners, he wasn't there in order to be the eyes for Robert E. Lee.

Bloody Angle

Robert Bluestein, 1998©

Meanwhile, Meade is thirty miles away. Instead of falling back to DC, he stands up to Robert E. Lee and each side reinforces themselves. The skirmish was a triumph for Ewell and the Union army broke and ran for their lives. The Yanks immediately began racing through town as they made their way to Cemetery Ridge.

Lee quickly realized that the Union held the high ground. He ordered the takeover of Culp's Hill. Furiously building breastworks of tree-trunks and stones, the Union staunchly holds their ground against 4,700 men. The Confederates hold a 3:1 advantage, but the Union holds the high ground. Each of these southern soldiers knew the bloody result ahead for them.

At Bloody Angle, a desperate bayonet charge and hand-to-hand combat took place. As the evening of the first day of battle fell and the last cannon fired, the smell of gunpowder and ash and death descended on the unlucky survivors. Soft moans and cries faded away.

At day-break, the gunfire began all anew. At Little Round Top the Union held. Losses on both ends of the Union line were mounting. The grim statistics of war tell the story. 25,000 men in total were killed. Nothing could have prepared these young men for this carnage.

Gettysburg in the Fall

Robert Bluestein, 2008©

General Meade had ruled for all of five days when he convened a council. Military scholars have long argued whether Meade's council was the actions of an insecure and weak leader or one of consensus building. He had never cared what others had thought of him before, so it would seem that he is reflecting an uncertain sense of confidence. He took his Generals and asked them to vote on whether they should retreat or fight on. The results were astonishing to Meade. 100% were in favor of fighting on.

At the end of the second day, Jeb Stuart and 5,000 of the Confederate's finest horsemen arrive. Lee greeted him tersely. ''General, I see you made it.'' Stuart tried to explain that he picked up supplies and took prisoners, but Lee was not in the mood.

Nonetheless, Lee believes in the Confederate position. His battle plan was based on sound military science. He was going to send Stuart around to the Union rear and pinch the middle of the Union army from all four sides. At Cemetery Ridge, one bombardment of cannon after another opened fire. But Meade was prepared. He put his men on the very front lines and the cannons shot past them.

There was one problem. For all their sound and fury, the cannons overshot the Union armies. The cannons proved all but worthless. Lee is unaware that the cannons had failed. Jeb Stuart's calvary would try to cut the army in two but a 23-year old Michigan General was ready and prepared. Outnumbered almost 10:1, this tiny band of Union Calvary intercepted Stuart in a shocking upset. The young General was George armstrong Custer.

Stuart couldn't believe that Custer would carry out his charge. The bold rear attack was stopped in its tracks and now two out of three of his plans had failed. Lee orders fellow Virginian, George Pickett, to lead the largest infantry attack in the history of the western hemisphere.

It was Lee's final act in a three part, three-day bloodbath. To the men on the Union side, the charge is daunting and their gallantry is described by the north as 'brave and purposeful'' Because Stuart's calvary doesn't affect the rear, and because the cannons were of no real help, the charge results in a brutal slaughter.

There was an obstruction that the Confederates had not accounted for. A two fence system along Emmitsburg Road. Many were picked off climbing the fences. Although they were in range of Union rifles, they were in no position to mount a real counter attack while they were charging. Union soldiers cut down Confederates at an alarming rate. Several hundred meters away, the gray-coat soldiers raced forward and incredibly made it to the line. The Yankees flee in panic. The rebels soon find themselves boxed in, taking fire from three sides. They were awaiting the arrival of Stuart's calvary - which never arrived.

Finally, Pickett's men retreat. The few who were left barely made it back to Lee. The older General looked out on a battlefield of death and ordered Pickett to reform their lines. Pickett declined an order. ''General, I have no more men to make a counter-charge.'' In a single hour, 6000 Confederates were lost. In all, 50,000 Americans died.

For Meade, the battle is a great victory. He lost an opportunity to chase after Lee but I believe his men needed a break. Lincoln considered it a bittersweet victory. The carnage was awful.

In one of the great ironies of the war, the decisive battle occurred on the land of a freed slave.

COULD THE CIVIL WAR HAVE BEEN AVOIDED?

I think the Civil War was inevitable.

But to understand this, we must understand the underlying causes of the war itself and we will see it went far beyond the issue of slavery. The issue was the states rights to self-determination, something that mattered greatly to them when we declared Independence from England.

It wasn’t easy building a new nation, but one thing nearly prevented it. The rights for the states to choose their own laws based on their own individual economies. Once that was compromised, the very real threat that the southern states would remain loyal to the British was on the table. South Carolina and Georgia both came close to not joining the other eleven colonies in declaring their independence from England. Concessions HAD to be made, even if it challenged the ideas of freedom by keeping slaves.

Then, in 1803, something remarkable happened. Our president, Thomas Jefferson, was offered a chunk of real estate that would double the size of America. And yet Jefferson was really outspoken in keeping the government limited in scope. He had not intended to double the size of the States with the Louisiana Purchase, but it was too good a deal at $15M dollars. Jefferson knew however, that one day, this vast land would have to be surveyed and the question of slave-state of free-state would arise again. It was an ominous moment in our history.

Once Lincoln was elected President, compromise after compromise failed to solve the opening wounds of slavery. At issue was representation in congress. The northern states were experiencing a boom in immigrants coming over from Europe. (Mainly Ireland) This gradually shifted the balance of power in the House. The Southern States, with two distinct income streams, cotton and tobacco, were left out of the economic growth and the northern states levied more and more taxes on the southern states.

Confederate Battlefield at Shiloh

Photography by Robert Bluestein, 2007 ©

This stalled their development.

The southern states sought to stem this imbalance by counting the slaves as members of the population, thereby increasing representation in congress. But the North would have none of it. They argued that the South couldn’t count the slaves as people if they were stripped of their

rights to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’’ And this led to the famous 3/5ths compromise which sealed the impending doom of bloodshed.

In 1854, it became clear that the USA would be adding more and more states to the country. Making one a slave-state and the next one a ‘free-state’ was never going to work. Once a slave escaped and ended up in ‘free’ territory, what was his fate?

Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney declared that a slave was mere property and thus could never be considered free, even if he escaped. It made way for the ‘Fugitive Slave’ law which essentially allowed southern planters to put a bounty on the head of escaped slaves. Gradually, every avenue that America had to avoid the Civil War had failed. First congress, then the Supreme Court. And finally, with the election of Lincoln, a staunch Unionist, the Executive Branch had failed in the eyes of many in the country.

It has always been interesting to me that secession even happened at all. There was little in the constitution which could put any weight behind the prohibition of secession. After all, if a state opted out of the country, who can stop it? One-by-one the southern states pulled their senators and congressmen out of the Capitol and said they were United in going their own Confederate way. States Rights had won the day. Confederate War Cemetery

Tupelo Ms

Robert Bluestein, 2007 ©

Except for one thing.

Lincoln refused to recognize the South and determined himself to preserve the Union. Truthfully, he could care less about slavery. He said as much when he remarked that if could ‘’preserve the Union without freeing a single slave, he’d do that.’’ He foretold the future when he added, ‘’If I could preserve the Union and free some slaves but not others, I would do that too.’’

And this is EXACTLY what he did. The Emancipation was issue a full TWO years after the War started. Lincoln wasn’t about to lose any border states in an outward expression of disgust for the institution. In fact, Lincoln believed in the separation of the two races and made it clear he didn’t consider blacks to be equals to whites. (We have REALLY failed our kids when we put Lincoln so high on a pedestal. He was a man of his time and by all accounts, every bit the bigot and racist)

In my book, I make the case that the Emancipation was not supposed to be a meaningful and legal document. It was after all, absolutely powerless in its execution. It freed only those slaves who lived in ‘States of Rebellion’’ and even went so far as to list certain counties along the border that were in the North as being legally allowed to maintain their slaves. Kentucky, a border state with a geographic importance to the war effort was a neutral state with over 140,000 slaves. All were legally bound to remain as slaves, while Lincoln issued his Emancipation.

So think of the application to today’s problems.

We have a presidential candidate who wants to swell the ranks of the country by allowing mass immigration from other nations into our nation. The balance of power in the House is once again at issue. By flooding our nation with waves of immigrants, the Federal Government puts strains on the State Governments that it was not intended to uphold. Frankly put, some of the states don’t have the infrastructure to educate and take care of their own citizens, let-alone ones from outside our borders.

Furthermore, it is a security issue. Most of those immigrating the USA are not the proud immigrants who came over and formed the backbone of the Industrial Revolution. Becoming US citizens is NOT on their minds at all. These immigrants come here from nations torn by their own civil wars and while some are genuinely authentic, others are resentful of the freedoms we have.

While history cannot and does not truly repeat itself, the precautionary lesson of the Civil War is one we can ill-afford to neglect. The aftermath of the war made it illegal for states to secede from the country, which leaves but one way out if this lesson isn’t learned. It’s easy to dismiss this as unimportant given the apathy that exists in this nation, but make no mistake, we are facing an impending crisis that threatens to shred this nation as it has never been before. And this time, a re-union may not be possible. ###

Robert Bluestein


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