Sunday, October 14, 2007

For Want of a Nail

On the 3rd July, 1863, one of history's greatest generals, the Confederate(the slave supporting South) general Robert Lee, launched a suicidal attack with a significant portion of his force into the teeth of the Union(the slavery opposing North) army, entrenched on hilly fixed positions. This attack, Pickett's Charge, failed, and was to go down in history as a major turning point in the American Civil War.

Frankly speaking, up to now I could never figure out how such a decorated general could be so stupid to send his men into a direct assault with numerical inferiority. Historians simply waved their hands and said, "Everybody has an off day, and Lee's one off day was at Gettysburg."

I don't believe that. Heck, there are generals in history who did not have off days. Wellington, for example, though the nearest he came to an off day was when Napoleon stole a march on him("Napoleon has humbugged me") before Waterloo. So the biggest question everybody always had about Pickett's Charge was: What the @*$&%! was Lee thinking?!?

Everybody knew such an attack would fail. Why would an intelligent, informed, and experienced general of Lee's stature commit such a mistake?

So what happened? I came across a book at the library today that explained it quite well: Tom Carhart's Lost Triumph. All the evidence that Carhart managed to glean from primary information from the battle's participants, as well as the battlefield dispositions, all point to one almost undeniable fact: Lee intended for Jeb Stuart to fast flank from the Confederate left and fall upon the Union's rear just as Pickett charged his men, trapping the Union forces and subjecting them to attack on both sides. Soldiers, no matter how well trained, would always suffer a severe morale blow when informed of enemy troops to the rear. The Union line would have been severed in the middle and risked defeat in detail as Confederate troops poured in.

It would have been a decisive victory for the South, and despite the Grant's victory at Vicksburg, might have been enough to force the Union government to sue for peace, effectively ending the war in favor of the South, which simply needed to survive to win the war.

There was no other reason why Lee would assign all of his mobile troops, his cavalry, to Jeb Stuart, exposing his own flanks, if he didn't have some form of audacious gamble in mind. And that gamble failed when Custer stood in Stuart's way and delayed him long enough that Pickett's Charge went off unsupported by Stuart's simultaneous attack into the rear of the Union lines.

One paragraph says it all. After the battle, after most of his generals had reported in, Lee said, "I never saw troops behave more magnificently than Pickett's division of Virginians did to-day in that grand charge upon the enemy. And if they had been supported as they were to have been, -- but, for some reason not yet fully explained to me, were not -- we would have held the position and the day would have been ours. Too bad! Too bad! OH! TOO BAD!" Support, from where? Since at that time, Jeb Stuart was the only general yet to be report to Lee for debrief and give his excu... uhhhh... explanations, it only stands to reason that Stuart was to be that support.

So it boils down to two things: Lee was indeed a great general still, and his failure at Gettysburg was not due to his simply being stupid enough to send 20 percent of his men careening into enemy lines on a whim, but due to his counting on everything to come off exactly as planned, and not managing to consider the interference of the infamous Murphy: Whatever can go wrong, does go wrong. Which is a completely different kind of mistake.

And the second thing was the old nursery rhyme:
For want of a nail the shoe was lost
For want of a shoe the horse was lost
For want of a horse the rider was lost
For want of a rider the battle was lost
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail
That nail(or lack of) was the presence of a significant Union force in Stuart's way. If not for that, Gettysburg would have ended very differently.

So for all of you students studying for your 'A' levels, or preparing for your OP for PW, remember, the devil is in the details!!!


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