Governor General C. Warren In the blink of an eye, I saw a problem, a flash of Confederate bayonets threatening the positions of the Army of the Potomac on Graveyard Ridge near the village of Gettysburg. Behind the Warren was Little Round Top, a rocky outcrop that army commander George G. Meade had ordered troops to use as an anchor for the Union defensive position. To Warren’s surprise, the only Union troops to occupy Little Round Top at 3:00 pm on July 2, 1863, were a small signal detachment. As Meade’s chief engineer, part of Warren’s job was to identify weaknesses in Union lines. What Warren saw was not just weakness, but an impending disaster. If the Confederates captured Little Round Top, they would be able to fire artillery all over the Union line. The Battle of Gettysburg, the success of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s second invasion of the North, and perhaps the outcome of the war hung in the balance.
Contemporary accounts of what happened next differ, but no one questions Warren’s vital role at this critical moment in the three-day Battle of Gettysburg. Although he had no troops of his own, he persuaded two Union officers to cooperate. First, Colonel Strong Vincent agreed to lead his men to the top of Little Round Top. They arrived at the crest of the hill just 15 minutes before the Confederate advance. They repulsed several attacks. Warren then secured artillery support and then returned down the slope in search of reinforcements. He found them in his former regiment, the 140th New York, commanded by Colonel Patrick O’Rourke. O’Rourke protested Warren’s authority to lead his troops up the rocky slope, telling Warren that he had other orders. Warren told O’Rourke that he would be held responsible. O’Rourke had learned to trust Warren’s judgment while serving under him in the 140th, so he led his troops forward and over the edge in a full-scale assault on the approaching rebels.
I first heard the story of General Warren’s heroism in 2013 when my son Ben and I attended a 150th anniversary event. National Military Park at Gettysburg. For us, it was a last minute decision. So many people came to Gettysburg that year that the only hotel we could find was an hour away. On July 2, we listened to a park ranger describe the actions of General Warren 150 years ago. I remember the look on his face when he told this story. Shaking his head in disbelief, he said, “You just can’t make it up.” I wondered why the Battle of Gettysburg delights so many Americans. Why do so many Americans flock to Gettysburg every summer to commemorate the battle that caused so much death and destruction? Was it just because of the subplots in the battle that seemed stranger than fiction?
These questions continued to haunt me the next day. That afternoon, Ben and I joined the re-enactors at Seminary Ridge, preparing to recreate Pickett’s Charge, the infamous climax of the battle. I asked a nearby park ranger if he knew how the number of re-enactors, both in uniform and without it, correlated with the number of soldiers in Pickett’s charge. He told me that the Rangers had been discussing the matter all day. Although they did not have an exact number, everyone concluded that the reenactors had doubled or tripled the number of Pickett’s soldiers.
One answer to the question about the Gettysburg pilgrimage is offered by Civil War historian James McPherson, author of the book The battle cry of freedomthe best one-volume about the war. McPherson argues that “The Union won the war mainly through victories in the West, but the Confederacy came close to winning in the East.” Many Americans are fascinated by how close the Confederacy came to winning the war at this small crossroads in Pennsylvania.
The Battle of Gettysburg raises numerous doubts. What if John Buford’s Union cavalry had not bought a few precious hours with their blood, allowing Meade’s army to reach Gettysburg on July 1, 1863? What if Stonewall Jackson hadn’t died from his injuries in Chancellorsville two months earlier? Was Jackson’s presence decisive? What if the bombardment of Confederate positions prior to Pickett’s attack disabled Union guns?
Perhaps the biggest “what if” battle involved General Robert E. Lee. What if Lee had taken the advice of Lieutenant General James Longstreet and tried to outflank Union positions from the south and east? Could he place his army between Meade and Washington, only 80 miles away? If that happened, would President Abraham Lincoln’s ensuing panic trigger negotiations with the Confederacy? Would this have led to foreign recognition of the Confederation by France or Britain? Lee repeatedly rejected Longstreet’s advice, saying, “The enemy is here and I’m going to strike him here.” To Lee, his men had proven that they could achieve anything he asked them to. At Gettysburg, he asked them to do more than any army of the day could do.
Military historians consider Gettysburg the turning point of the war. Although it dragged on for another two years, Li’s army never again invaded the North. Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant as commander of the United States Army, and the rebellion turned into a war of attrition. A war that the Confederacy cannot win.
No one can predict what the United States would look like today if the seceding states won their independence. But we know that this would have delayed indefinitely the release of the four million souls who were enslaved in the 1860s. Enslaved people would continue to flee north to freedom. Tensions between the United States and the Confederate States would remain high – future wars are inevitable. Fortunately, this did not happen. The Union was victorious at Gettysburg and in the larger fight.
The legacy of Gettysburg is not only about the military outcome of the battle. It includes the vision of America formulated by President Lincoln in Gettysburg Address. It is a myth that Lincoln wrote the speech on the back of an envelope while driving to Gettysburg. Although he was not the keynote speaker at the ceremony, the honor went to Edward Everett, Lincoln was not going to come unprepared. Indeed, he began to develop the theme of his famous July 7 speech, when crowd celebrating the news of the Union victory gathered at the White House, urging the president to speak. “How long ago it has been—more than eighty years,” the President said, “since the Fourth of July, for the first time in the history of the world, a nation … proclaimed as a self-evident truth that “all men are created equal.” .'” Lincoln acknowledged the reason for the celebration of the crowd. The victory called for “a speech, but I’m not ready to make one worthy of the occasion.” At Gettysburg, eighty-odd years became “four-twenty-seven,” and the self-evident truth that “all men are created equal” became a statement under the greatest test.
By November of the same year, he was completely ready. The Emancipation Proclamation is almost a year old. African Americans responded to the call to join the fight for freedom and the Union, prompting Lincoln to admonish his friend James C. Conkling in August: “You say you will not fight for the liberation of the Negroes. Some of them seem ready to fight for you; but it doesn’t matter. Then fight solely for the sake of saving the Union. The victory at Gettysburg was followed by a similar triumph in the West, with Grant’s successful siege of Vicksburg. “The father of the waters is again walking calmly to the sea… The world does not seem so far away…” he said to Conkling. The war was no longer limited to saving the Union. It was about the principle of equality for all. In order for those who died at Gettysburg not to die in vain, there must be a “new birth of freedom”, a breaking of the chains of movable slavery.
Ray Tyler was a 2014 James Madison Scholar at South Carolina and graduated from Ashland University’s MA in American History and Government in 2016. Ray is a former director of education at TAH and is a frequent blogger.