- Historic Sites
The Tragic Motive
August 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 5
There died also, at Gettysburg, the last hope of the Confederacy. This should have been the South’s last chance to force a decision in the Civil War. The chance died a-borning, as Mr. Dowdey points out, because, of all of the people in authority at Richmond, only Lee saw what might have been done. The climactic effort was limited before it was made, and when it finally was made it was further limited by the failures of men who had key decisions to make; and after that the only hope of the Confederacy was to hang on, to make the war as expensive to tb^ Unionists as it could possibly be, and to hope that before the inevitable end came, the people up North would conclude that it was not quite worth the effort. The Northern people never came to that conclusion—although they skated on the edge of it, once or twice—and the Confederacy died.
Most of all, however, the center of attention here is Lee himself. If others failed at Gettysburg, so did Lee—as, be it noted, he himself was the first to point out. Here was the great man of war, the soldier who wore success about his shoulders like an emblazoned cloak, the master not only of other men but of his own emotions—and at Gettysburg, the supreme moment of his life, all of these got away from him. He could not enforce his will on his own generals, this man who, thus far, had been so competent to enforce his will on the enemy; and the victory slipped away from him, step by step, eluding the hands that had been so sure on all other fields. Stuart failed, Ewell failed, Longstreet failed—and failing with them was the gray commander himself, the Confederate general whom most of the Northern soldiers respected even more than they respected their own leaders.
Mr. Dowdey suggests that Lee saw all of it coming from the beginning. He was ill at Gettysburg, the robust man who had hardly been sick in his life before; ill, perhaps because he knew that something essential was lacking and that it was too late for him to supply it. He relied on his government, which crippled his effort before he made it; relied on his army, which was weaker than it should have been at this moment; relied on his generals, who could not quite come up to the standard he had set for them—and, finally, relied on himself, and was not quite capable of making up all of the cumulative deficiencies. He emerges as the supremely tragic figure, the man who contends with the undefeatable, knowing it, in the moment of striving, to be undefeatable, and who loses everything—and who then goes on into legend, capturing the imagination of people who came to the earth long after he had died but who remember him, not because of what he did for them, but simply because in an unforgettable way he epitomized the nobility with which a man can face defeat by destiny.
Lee himself … and 70,000-odd young men in gray uniforms who lost with him. The stage somehow is theirs. A nation dedicated to success, in which the great credo is that courage and native ability and patient endurance will win out over everything, retains a special place in its memory for the tragic failures. Say what we like about Gettysburg—and we have had a great deal to say about it, from Abraham Lincoln’s words in the cemetery down to the present day—we wind up by looking at the men to whom this was defeat and not victory.