Thursday, June 5, 2008

Reflection on The Killer Angels

General Longstreet opposed General Lee in much of the battle strategy at Gettysburg, in retrospect, arguably the decisive battle of the Civil War. On the third morning Longstreet said to Lee, “General, it is my considered opinion that a frontal assault here would be a disaster.” (The Killer Angels p. 191) Just prior to engagement on the third day Armistead watched Longstreet’s face and saw that he was crying.
Lee desired Longstreet’s approval in each of the three battle days at Gettysburg, but did not require it – they went forward despite. Had Lee lost his touch? Or, was Lee simply inflexible in battle strategy? Or had he developed an inappropriate sense of confidence? To be sure, Longstreet’s theories on defensive warfare were generations ahead of his time, as Generals of Europe were still ordering massed assaults against fortified positions – and Lee was no exception, the 2nd and 3rd days of Gettysburg prime examples.
I contend that this kind of classic "Napoleonic assault" involves the following attributes in some mix: a feared leader on the scale of General Lee, a company of soldiers stoked by pride of nationalism/regionalism, hate of enemy and a searing fervor that thrives in ignorance. Attributes the South possessed in spades and attributes that human beings gravitate to uncorrected.
Longstreet’s opposite in temperament was George Pickett, just the sort of man made for assaults of heroism in the name of honor no matter how imposing the odds, such as marching across an open field, up hill, against a well armed opposition – the very description of day 3 at Gettysburg.
“Pickett was out in the open, waving his hat and yelling wildly. Longstreet sat on a fence rail motionless crouched forward, the tear stains still visible on his face in anticipation of the bloodbath to come. Pickett turned back through the smoke with joy in his face – and then the Union artillery opened up.” (paraphrased and amended from The Killer Angels p. 206)
Following the Rebel Army defeat at Gettysburg and subsequent defeat in the war, Longstreet and Lee went their separate ways. Longstreet being the younger man, sought political position to help rebuild the South, an effort he was reviled for, referred to by Southern newspapers as “the most hated man in the South.” Years after Lee’s death, a man who symbolized all that was fine and noble in the South, Longstreet stated an opinion that held Lee responsibile for losing the battle at Gettysburg. For this observation, Longstreet was branded a turncoat.
Lee lived a few short years following the war, enjoying a status as a living legend in the eyes of the Southern people. In death his mythical status only soared higher - to the heights of god-like status in the South and one of the most beloved and respected Generals for all America.
George Pickett, the epitomy of military vain-glory and obedience born of pride, would say bitterly of Lee following the war: “That man destroyed my division.” Pitiful. For more than any other, Pickett chomped for glory on that third day, unthinking to consequence, as Longstreet wept.
Gettysburg, and the dynamic between Lee, Longstreet and the Southern Army, is one small story in the longer narrative of humankind, but in my opinion it starkly represents the factions of ego, loyalty, heroism and dissent that characterize human interaction through the ages. The masses, whose power and reward is seemingly nested only in courageous heroism, become grist for the mill operated by the powers.

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