Lost Triumph: Lee’s Real Plan at Gettysburg—And Why It Failed

One would naturally assume that to date, everything that could or should have been published about the Battle of Gettysburg and its aftermath has already been written. Just in recent years, however, such works as Mark H. Dunkelman, Gettysburg’s Unknown Soldier: The Life, Death, and Celebrity of Amos Humiston (1999); Thomas A. Desjardin, These Honored Dead: How the Story of Gettysburg Shaped American Memory (2003); James M. Paradis, African Americans and the Gettysburg Campaign (2005); Margaret S. Creighton, The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Hidden History (2004); Earl J. Hess, Pickett’s Charge: The Last Attack at Gettysburg (2001); and Carol Reardon, Pickett’s Charge in History and Memory (1997) have revealed that the subject of the Civil War’s most famous battle is by no means exhausted. Tom Carhart’s and Kent Masterson Brown’s seminal volumes also aptly demonstrate that the subject of Gettysburg is still a vital and volatile topic, with enough material for both the student of the Civil War and academician alike to relish and interpret.

Since the Civil War, a multitude of theories have been promulgated to explain the defeat of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg, from the failure of Pickett and Pettigrew’s Charge to fuse problems or faulty shells used by the Southern artillery. Years after the close of the war, former Confederate, General Harry Heth, passed judgment by stating that “the failure to crush the Federal Army in Pennsylvania … can be best expressed in five words—the absence of the Cavalry” (as quoted and italicized by John S. Mosby, Stuart’s Cavalry in the Gettysburg Campaign [1908], 154).

Through the use of primary sources and deduction from the evidence, Carhart reveals the astute knowledge General Robert E. Lee had of the tactics and strategies of Napoleon and demonstrates that the Confederate commander did not simply make a poor tactical decision that fateful day on July 3, 1863, but that “Pickett’s Charge … was at least in part, a massive distraction” (p. 4) of a master plan known only to Lee and possibly a few other key individuals.

Carhart presents evidence that it was Lee’s desire to replicate the Napoleonic victory in Italy at the Battle of Castiglione in 1796. J. E. B. Stuart’s force “would have come up behind Culp’s Hill” to “roll up the Union right wing.” This strategy, however, was altered to create instead a new “plan of attack,” one that “would involve cutting the Union force in half and then defeating it in detail,” as had been done at Austerlitz by Napoleon in 1805 (p. 176). This plan was cut short, mainly by the heroic actions of a Civil War officer of post–Civil War fame, George Armstrong Custer, serving with the Michigan cavalry at the time.

Though not everyone will agree with Carhart’s final conclusion, one cannot come away from reading Lost Triumph without a greater understanding of both the genius of Robert E. Lee and also the significant role the cavalry played in bringing victory to the federal army. Tom Carhart’s work is a refreshing example of the reason for the continuing popularity of the Civil War. Its causes as well as its battles and participants are as open to diverse interpretation today as they were at the time of the conflict itself. Lost Triumph demonstrates that the history of the American Civil War and the Battle of Gettysburg in particular have by no means reached their high water mark, but have many “charges” left to be made in the realm of investigation.

 

 

By Tom Carhart