The 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg

Today is the 150th anniversary of Pickett’s Charge and the last day of the Battle Gettysburg. Many modern historians take issue with the traditional view that this Union victory was the decisive battle of the Civil War. They point out that the Confederacy still had a chance to win by demoralizing northern public opinion during the 1864 campaign. But there is little doubt that Gettysburg was an extremely important victory, even if not absolutely decisive. It broke the aura of invincibility that had gathered around Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia, and inflicted enormous losses on the Confederates that the South could not replace. Gettysburg should be remembered for its crucial role in putting an end to an odious regime established for the purpose of perpetuating the evil institution of slavery.

For most of the last 150 years, military historians and other commentators have debated the issue of which Confederate general deserves the blame for the defeat at Gettysburg. Various writers have argued that such generals as James Longstreet, Dick Ewell, A.P. Hill, and Jeb Stuart were responsible. The effort to blame Longstreet (the second-highest ranking officer in Lee’s army) gathered steam after the war, when he committed what many white southerners viewed as the unforgivable sin of joining the Republican Party. I am just an amateur reader of this literature. But, for what it is worth, I tend to agree with modern revisionist scholars such as Alan Nolan and Gary Gallagher, who argue that the main culprit was Robert E. Lee. It was Lee who ordered the disastrous Pickett’s Charge, overruling Longstreet’s opposition. To the extent that other generals made mistakes, it was in part because Lee didn’t give them proper supervision, even though he knew that several key subordinates were new to their commands. But the most insightful comment on this subject was made by General Pickett. Asked for his opinion on the reason for the Confederate defeat, he said “I always thought the Yankees had something to do with it.” The people who turned back Pickett’s Charge and the Confederate attacks of the previous two days deserve our gratitude on this anniversary.

UPDATE: For those who may be interested, here is a post I wrote on competing libertarian perspectives on the Civil War.

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