Perceiving the Importance of Specific Events

by Johnny Whitewater on October 9, 2005 · 0 comments

This past week my father had the incredible fortune of getting to attend a business meeting in Gettysburg, becoming my second non Civil War obsessed relative to wind up there by chance in as many months, while I freeze in Milwaukee. And yet I still had to talk him into going on a tour of the field. Having gone there in 1993 and 2003 on family road trips, he made the nonsensical remark that he had already gone on battlefield tours, and that they were all the same.

My father did end up going on a bus tour Thursday morning, and his experience was a microcosm of the way in which personal perception of events can fundamentally affect our understanding of Civil War history over the past 140 years.

Recently, in a series of Gettysburg related entries Eric Wittenberg noted the extreme fascination that some individuals have for certain battlefields, Gettysburg obviously being no exception. While he (and I) can commend people like licensed guides for the devotion and knowledge necessary for the job, he also wonders why individuals concentrate solely on those 3 days and exclude broader studying of other events during the Civil War. In the final entry, while discussing certain revisionist theories, Wittenberg concludes that people might be seeking relevance for their decision to specialize their knowledge, which in turn has a decisive influence on their perceptions.

When I talked to my father after the tour and asked him how things went, he immediately understood I wasn’t talking about his business. After hearing that he had taken the bus tour, I asked him what the tour guide told him. Noting that the tour guide was extremely excited, he proceeded to tell me the following information:

If the Confederates had taken Culp’s Hill on Day 1 or Day 2, the South would have won the war. And the Confederates failed both times due to nightfall.

Detachments from Culp’s Hill (presumably from the XII corps) made it to Little Round Top 10 minutes before the Confederates because a scout (presumably Warren) found it unguarded.

Camp Pope Publishing

The Confederates who made it to the “Angle” during Pickett’s Charge were “salivating” until they found a sea of blue around them.

It’s possible that the context of the last two examples were lost in translation (or disinterest) between the guide and him. I find it particularly hard to believe that a tour guide would claim the elements of the XII corps beat Longstreet’s attacking Confederates to Little Round Top, since those detachments moved off Culp’s Hill hours after the attack commenced (and never made it anyway). I am going to assume my father got parts of the stories mixed.

But the first example is unmistakable, and the perception that Gettysburg represented the South’s last chance to win the war is quite pervasive in overall perceptions of the battle’s lore.

It’s also troubling for a number of reasons. While Day 1 of the battle alone would have been one of the largest 30 battles of the entire war, Day 1 was clearly a tactical Confederate victory, regardless of the eventual decision not to attack Culp’s Hill. With much of the Army of the Potomac not even up at Gettysburg by the night of Day 1, it’s likely that the portions of the Army of the Potomac that were on Cemetery Ridge, Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill would have retreated south if Culp’s Hill was taken by a Day 1 offensive from Ewell’s II Corps. Meade had already drawn up a defensive line at Pipe Creek and was not disposed to fight at Gettysburg until Day 1 had closed. I would argue that taking Culp’s Hill on Day 1 would not have made the Confederate victory more complete, and instead we might have 2 million tourists filing in to Emmitsburg or somewhere else other than Gettysburg annually.

If the II Corp’s attack on Day 2 had taken Culp’s Hill, the Confederates certainly would have won the Battle of Gettysburg, and the Army of the Potomac would have had to retire. With available roads leading South, a retreat, while harrowing and representing a logistical nightmare, probably would have avoided an annihilation of the Army of the Potomac.

So how does this guide (and various others) extrapolate these types of scenarios leading to the South winning the Civil War? I believe the underlying problem in these types of perceptions is that people are too apt to generally place events in a vacuum, in order to enhance an event’s importance (and, possibly, attempt to justify their specialized knowledge and/or perceptions at the same time). Working with these scenarios, within 48 hours of any possible Confederate victory at Gettysburg, the Confederacy would be slit across the Mississippi River with the capitulation of Vicksburg. The point is that the what if questions are almost always hard to verifiably answer, seeing as how they’re “what ifs” precisely because they didn’t happen, and this perception of Gettysburg is but one example of this larger trend. At the end of the day, unwitting tourists got off that bus assured by a Gettysburg enthusiast that Gettysburg was the most important event in deciding the war.

To get back to the larger point, this trend as it relates to the Civil War is hardly anything new. In fact, I would argue that it was the principal driving force in determining how Americans have interpreted the Civil War. The most notable example is the Southern Historical Society’s interpretation of the Civil War and its impact in perpetuating the “Lost Cause” perception. In its case, the Southern Historical Society’s papers reinterpreted the war to justify the results. At the same time, the Richmond based institution’s papers often attached the importance of certain actions to promote their presupposed conclusions: the prototypical Confederate soldier as hero with Virginian virtues personified by Robert E Lee. The Southern Historical Society is largely responsible for making Lee likely the second most recognizable figure of the Civil War period.

And though the tenants of the Lost Cause supposedly meant the South couldn’t win the war, the SHS still found plenty of faults in others’ conduct, the most public case being Jubal Early (ironically, one of the figures who argued not to make an attack on Culp’s Hill on Day 1) charging James Longstreet (a non Virginian) with losing Gettysburg and, thus, the war.

These perceptions spread throughout the 19th century until they were almost totally collective across the nation. The Lost Cause is still one of the most popular topics among Civil War authors, and it remains the most popular topic from a historiographical standpoint of studying the South. Robert E. Lee, despite being one of the most influential rebels, and despite doing near irrevocable damage to the Union, is one of the most celebrated figures of the period today.

Clearly the effects of these types of perceptions are very palpable today. And they will continue to be palpable tomorrow, when people like my father get off that Gettysburg tour bus and new people get on.

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