- Historic Sites
The Tragic Motive
August 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 5
The tragic pattern seldom finds a place in the American story. Our history is keyed to the mood of success: the victorious struggle, the rise from depths to heights, the triumph that grows out of daring and endurance. Fidelity, bravery, and nobility of soul always pay off, and the reward is always immediate and tangible. Our most enduring legends seem to be built around the winner.
But human life does not always work that way—not even in America; and it may be that our deep, unfailing interest in the Civil War simply reflects the fact that here the tragic pattern holds across four dreadful years. For the Civil War was (to use the burnished cliché) the war between brothers, the war which Americans waged against themselves and which, as a result, brought tragedy as well as triumph. It was the great struggle against the dark star, the contest with fate itself, one of whose lessons was that victory and defeat are opposite sides of the same coin.
Our approach to the Battle of Gettysburg is symptomatic. Here was one of the most momentous battles in all American history; a decisive and significant victory, a landmark in our national development, a turning point in history—call it by any star-spangled title you wish. Yet when we re-examine it (as we have been doing, systematically and with deep feeling, for nearly a century), we seem to spend most of our time trying to see, not how the battle was won, but how it was lost. In a very real sense it compels our attention as a defeat rather than as a victory. We keep looking at the losers; in their behalf we ask “Why?” even though we would not for a moment wish the battle or the war to have had a different outcome.
It is this haunting sense of tragedy that infuses Clifford Dowdey’s new book, Death of a Nation , which is one of the best and most moving of all of the accounts of the battle. With vast professional knowledge and painstaking attention to facts, and also with a great capacity for communicating his own emotions to the reader, Mr. Dowdey undertakes to answer that enduring “Why?”
In a way, he suggests, Gettysburg was lost before it was fought, a foredoomed battle against odds that were just too long. From the moment of its inception, the campaign refused to go as Lee had planned it. What Lee planned was a swift, massive counterthrust into the very heart of the North, a blow so hard that the Federals would be compelled not only to lift the siege of Vicksburg but even to contemplate the making of peace. But President Jefferson Davis saw it as something smaller; seeing it so, he made it smaller by withholding troops that Lee counted on and by deciding not to assemble the supporting elements that might have been provided. Lee went north with less than he had thought he would have.
Much less; for when Stonewall Jackson died at Chancellqrsville, Lee’s way of command was weakened. Lee used to give his lieutenants very broad orders and then keep his hands off the controls, trusting the lieutenants to do what was wanted. With Jackson, it always worked; at Gettysburg—a reorganization of the whole army had followed Jackson’s death—none of it worked, and Lee was never quite the same afterward. Stuart took the cavalry off on a senseless foray that made Lee fight blind. Dick Ewell, commanding the remainder of Jackson’s old corps, looked his permissive orders in the eye and found himself unable to do anything at all; A. P. Hill, reflecting perhaps on his shortcomings, took sick; and James Longstreet—
Well, Longstreet has been the villain of the Gettysburg drama for years, but Mr. Dowdey puts a new light on him. Longstreet’s trouble was not that he was slow—his delay, on the second day, probably made little difference—but that he wanted to be another Jackson and could not make it. Lee gave him a battle plan which Longstreet did not like, Longstreet tried to substitute another plan for it and failed, and then he could not make himself go through with a conscientious execution of Lee’s plan. He did precisely what he had been told to do, no more and no less, and because the situation had changed between the time Lee gave the orders and the time Longstreet had to execute them, this was not nearly enough. The attack on the peach orchard, the wheat field, and the Round Tops on the afternoon of the second day was bungled by an officer who was surrendering to a case of the sulks.
Death of a Nation: The Story of Lee and His Men at Gettysburg, by Clifford Dowdey. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 383 pp. $5.00
It was even worse with Pickett’s charge. As Mr. Dowdey points out, this was “Pickett’s charge” only by courtesy. Pickett commanded slightly more than 7,000 men, but 15,000 were sent forward in the great assault—and nobody really commanded them. Pickett was responsible for his own 7,000; the rest were answerable to no one, and they got murdered. Confederate command arrangements simply fell apart at Gettysburg, and all of the might-have-beens died on the field. So, as it happened, did approximately 6,000 young men, evenly divided between those in blue and those in gray.