Thursday, July 23, 2009

Two of the Civil War Wounds: A Hero & an Irony

I hope you caught Bill Birdsong’s talk at the museum on three human stories caused by three different Civil War wounds. Bill could make drying paint a fascinating subject, and he had good stuff to work with. He is also a very humorous guy.

His first story was the ironic death of Albert Sydney Johnson during the late afternoon at the first day of the battle of Shiloh in April 1862. The second was Joshua Chamberlain’s many wounds, including at Gettysburg where he arguably saved the Union Army from disaster by holding Little Round Top on the second day.

Many people have argued that Gettysburg was the most important battle of the Civil War and that The South might have won the war, if they had seized Little Round Top and rolled down the Union line in flank, or if Picket’s charge on the third day had succeeded. There is, in my opinion, no truth to one assertion and doubtful truth to the other.

Lee did not go off to invade Pennsylvania with the idea of destroying the Union in decisive battle. His plan was to take some heat off Virginia so crops could be harvested and try to sway Northern public opinion further against the war. He accomplished the first, but not the second. While many in the North were against the war, Lincoln had solid backing in Congress, and, most importantly in the army to finish the job.

Lee’s problem was that Meade had just too many men and resources, and Lee too little. If Lee had managed to rout Lee and scatter his army, there were still plenty enough union soldiers in position to prevent Lee seizing Washington. Moreover, at the end of the third day at Gettysburg, Lee’s army was much reduced in size from deaths and wounded. Even more critical, he was virtually out of ammunition. Had Meade attacked Lee in retreat the war might well have ended in 1863. Certainly had Grant been in charge instead of Meade, he would have attacked.

It might be that Chamberlain saved the battle, but Oates confederates attacking Chamberlain had taken heavy causalities, and couldn’t have pushed on much further. Longstreet was not in a position to exploit gains they made. It is one this to seize a position on the flank. It is another to drive a determined enemy from good defensive positions.

But Shiloh was a much more critical matter. Johnston had caught the union army by surprise, which is to say he caught Sherman and Grant by surprise. Grant was some miles away at Pittsfield Landing when the attack came, and didn’t arrive at the battlefield until late afternoon. He immediately began to sort out the mess in his unflappable way. But it was a near thing. Grant was close to being pushed into the river, and losing most of his army, and then, providentially, Johnson was killed.

He had not shared his battle plan with his second-in-command Beauregard who decided to stop for the night, and get organized to finish the battle in the morning. When the morning came, it was Grant who attacked and soon, Don Carlos Buell showed up with 40,000 fresh union troops. The Confederates were soon in a headlong retreat back to Corinth in Mississippi.

Had Grant and Sherman lost the battle of Shiloh decisively, they would have been busted out of the army. But instead the South was pummeled and took casualties it could not replace. It took Grant another 18 month to conquer The West of the Confederacy, but, at no time during that period, did the South have the men and material to stop him

The death of Albert Sydney Johnson was the critical turning point of the Civil War.

Gettysburg is easy to reach by car, and a fascinating place. I have been there at least twenty times. When the pressures of being a lawyer with lots of irons in the fire got to be too much, I would head there for the day and stay until dark. My own personal problems didn’t seem so important by the time I got back home.

Shiloh is hard to reach by car, but a moving experience. It’s tucked in the extreme southwest corner of Tennessee, very close to Mississippi. The battlefield is very well preserved – it looks just like it did when the battle raged – and the rangers are wonderful in evoking the events of those two days.

So now you know the rest of the story.