Monday, August 27, 2012

Library Corner: Retreat from Gettysburg

Today I have decided to debut a new series here on the Battlefield Backstories blog - the Library Corner.

You see, I have a problem: books. I love books, and not just reading them, but collecting them as well. In fact, I find that I collect books at a much faster rate than I read. Luckily, my fiancee has shown remarkable patience with my affliction, and has even ceded control of the built-in bookshelves in our apartment. As a result of my obsession, I have plenty of books sitting on the shelves that I have yet to get to, and sometimes I purchase books right when they come out, only to get around to them five years later.

That brings me to the Library Corner Series. I decided a while back that I'd like to add some book reviews to this blog as a way to analyze and think critically about books that I've recently finished. At the same time, I realized that I am often reading books published five, ten, or even fifty years ago, and my reviews would not exactly be timely for readers. Eventually, I decided to ignore this issue and push ahead anyway. I know I'm not the only person with a book problem, and who knows: maybe my review will spur someone to finally dive into a book that's been sitting on their shelves for five or ten years. So let's get right to it.

Retreat From Gettysburg: Lee, Logistics, and the Pennsylvania Campaign
by Kent Masterson Brown
Published in 2005 by the University of North Carolina Press

Kent Masterson Brown's book gives long-overdue attention to the eleven days that followed the battle of Gettysburg, and in the process he forces the reader to reexamine many long-held perceptions of the Pennyslvania Campaign. Other authors have studied the retreat from Gettysburg - most notably Eric Wittenberg, J.David Petruzzi, and Michael Nugent published the excellent One Continuous Fight in 2008. Yet Brown sets his work apart with his focus on the logistical operations of the Army of Northern Virginia.

In the epilogue of Retreat from Gettysburg, Brown powerfully sums up his thesis:
It can be argued that the retreat from Gettysburg, at a minimum, turned a tactical defeat - and a potential strategic disaster - into a kind of victory for Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. It restored the balance of power between the two great, contending armies in the eastern theater of war. Although a costly tactical defeat for the Army of Northern Virgnia, Gettysburg cannot be viewed as the turning point of the Civil War or even a turning point of the eastern theater of war after Lee's remarkable retreat.
Brown offers as evidence of this "victory" his description of what Lee's army brought off from the Pennsylvania campaign, including more than 20,000 horses and mules, nearly 30,000 cattle and 25,000 sheep, as well as thousands of hogs, thousands of tons of hay and grains and barrels of flour. He explains that Lee never called attention to what his army collected, for fear of receiving fewer supplies, and that as a result Southern civilians and newspapers (not to mention future historians) never appreciated the size of the haul. He concludes:
The campaign may well have furnished enough meat, fodder, and stores to extend the life of the Army of Northern Virgnia until the harvests in the Southern seaboard states could be used. For certain, it guaranteed that Lee's men had flour and fresh meat for several months, and the horses and mules had fodder through the rest of the summer. All of that was totally unavailable in Virgnia at the time. Only two months before, Lee's army had been on the brink of collapse.
 Brown supports his closing statements fully as he lays out his evidence throughout this exhaustive study.

The logistical story of armies and campaigns often remains obscured and unexamined. The fighting along the front lines produces the most compelling narratives. Yet you cannot arrive at an accurate picture of the military decisions made by commanders without appreciating the logistical concerns and problems they faced. Gettysburg has produced more what-if scenarios than any other Civil War battle. Yet many of these scenarios fall apart when considering the logistical limitations of the contending armies.

I enjoyed this book immensely because it challenged me to reconsider several well-entrenched tenets of Gettysburg that I (and many others) expound upon when guiding new visitors across the battlefield. Many believe that Lee's principle goal in the Pennsylvania campaign focused on crushing the Army of the Potomac in northern territory and forcing a peace. To achieve this goal, the story goes, Lee engaged in a form of high-stakes poker during the battle, hurling his forces against Meade's strong position in a desperate attempt to win the war. This notion heightens the importance of Gettysburg, and adds increased weight to the sacrifices of the Army of the Potomac during the first three days of July. Carrying this reasoning forward - we accept that Lee's heavily losses at Gettysburg weakened his army to the extent that he could no longer mount major offensive operations, and that Gettysburg became the "high water mark" of the Confederacy and the turning point of the war.

Brown's narrative directly challenges this interpretation of the battle. Yes, Lee's army suffered severely at the hands of the Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg, and for several days after the battle the army's fate hung in the balance as they struggled against federals and dismal weather to get across the Potomac. Yet Brown argues that Lee's supply situation in the spring of 1862 had his army on the brink of collapse, and that gathering food stores and other supplies served as one of his principle goals of the invasion. Lee achieved this goal by escaping back to Virginia with a wagon train of quartermaster supplies that stretched over 35 miles. These supplies helped to keep the Army of Northern Virginia alive for another harvest.

How do we square the standard notion of Gettysburg as a great Union victory and a turning point of the war, with Brown's persuasive argument that Lee's invasion of Pennsylvania in the end helped to keep his army supplied and dangerous for another year? I am not quite sure that I can - though I do believe the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Gettysburg remains an important victory for an army desperately in need of a victory, and it forced Lee to return his army to Virginia sooner than he had wished.  At the same time, Brown's book shows us that the Pennsylvania Campaign did not end in complete disaster for Lee, and that his army perhaps remained as dangerous as ever in late July, 1863.

If you have not picked up this book yet, I would highly recommend it. In the sea of literature written about Gettysburg, this book stands out as a unique study of the little understood but greatly important logistical puzzles Lee faced during the overlooked retreat from Gettysburg.

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