I was honored and delighted when my good friend Darroch Greer invited my wife Victoria and me to take part in another of his wonderful historical events at the Bedford Winery in Los Alamos, California, hosted by the great winemaker, history buff and raconteur Stephan Bedford.
Darroch is the Bedford Winery’s resident historian. (Does any other winery boast a resident historian?)
I’d been to several of Darroch and Stephan’s presentations staged in the courtyard of the Bedford Winery’s tasting room — and I’d always enjoyed the combination of fellowship, fine food and wine, and respect for history.
So, on November 16, 2013, Vic and I took part in Lincoln at Gettysburg: The 150th Anniversary of the Dedication of the National Soldiers’ Cemetery and Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863, Celebrated Through Eyewitness Accounts, Music and Victuals of the Era.
The main event was a staged reading of Remembering Lincoln at Gettysburg, written by John Copeland: featuring the words of eyewitnesses to that famous event at Gettysburg, when 15,000 people gathered in the town four months after the great battle to dedicate a final resting place for thousands of fallen Union soldiers.
Darroch gave me the task of summing up the battle itself before we began the reading.
What follows is my attempt to capture the stakes, the major action, and the drama of those three epic days of combat in ten minutes.
Reflections on The Battle of Gettysburg
Seminary Ridge, Culp’s Hill, Cemetery Ridge, the Peach Orchard, the Wheat Field, Devil’s Den, Little Round Top…
On June 30th, 1863, these were not yet legendary place names: they were simply topographical features on the landscape surrounding the small crossroads town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
In the summer of ‘63, the war to preserve the union was not going well for President Lincoln and loyal Americans who wished to keep the United States intact.
Crushing Confederate victories at Fredericksburg that winter and Chancellorsville that spring left Unionists anxious and dispirited. The Army of the Potomac staggered under the blows delivered by Robert E. Lee’s seemingly invincible Army of Northern Virginia.
After the debacle at Chancellorsville, another in a series of unsuccessful Union commanders had been sacked – as General Joe Hooker was replaced by George Gordon Meade. Meade was a Pennsylvanian. That would prove provident. Just three days after taking command, General Meade would face Lee at Gettysburg.
Yet, as bad as the war was going for the North, the stakes for the Confederacy were existential. Two years of warfare fought almost exclusively on Southern soil took a terrible toll in battle casualties, civilian morale, economic viability and agricultural productivity. Rebel leaders knew they couldn’t win a war of attrition against the superior industrial strength and manpower of the North.
Something had to be done to change what was ultimately a losing equation — and convince the European powers to recognize the Confederacy.
In the west, General Grant’s army was closing in on Vicksburg, the last rebel bastion on the Mississippi. If Vicksburg fell, the Confederacy would be split in two. Meanwhile, the Union naval blockade continued to strangle Southern ports and cripple its economy.
Lee decided to take the war to the North. The goal of his invasion was to relieve pressure on war-torn Virginia. And if Lee could beat the Federals on their home turf — his army could threaten, or even capture, Washington DC and force President Lincoln to seek peace.
As Meade took command of his army, Lee’s 75,000 veterans were already in Pennsylvania. The opposing armies weren’t sure where each other were, but Meade knew Lee was somewhere west of the state capitol at Harrisburg. As Meade groped northward to find his foe, nobody thought the decisive battle of such a critical campaign would be fought at an insignificant dot on the map like Gettysburg.
Yet, when the battle came, both sides well understood what was at stake. Gettysburg lies just 86 miles from Washington DC: two days forced march to the nation’s Capitol. The battle for Gettysburg, therefore, would ultimately decide the outcome of the war.
It was nearing 6:00 PM when General John Buford and his cavalry rode into Gettysburg on June 30th. Buford watched with concern as a brigade of Confederate infantry came down the Chambersburg Pike. When the rebels saw Buford’s troopers they withdrew — and informed their superiors that Union cavalry barred their way. But the Confederate generals refused to believe there was anything more than green Pennsylvania militia in Gettysburg.
In fact, Buford’s cavalry were the tip of the spear. The Army of the Potomac was on its way. The fighting would wait until morning.
The next day, July 1st, the Rebs returned down the Chambersburg Pike determined to push Buford’s cavalry off the ridges north of Gettysburg. Fighting dismounted, Buford’s troopers put up a stiff resistance, buying time for reinforcement. In the cupola of the Lutheran Seminary overlooking the fight, Buford watched the progress of the battle raging to his front — and looked anxiously to his rear for the approach of General Reynold’s First Infantry Corps.
I would’ve loved to be there at the moment Reynolds rode up to the seminary and called out, “How goes it, John?” And Buford shouted back — “The devil’s to pay!”
Buford was right. Before the day was done, Reynolds was dead and Union troops were driven off Seminary Ridge, through the town of Gettysburg, and into defensive lines on Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Ridge above the town and fields below. The Union First Corps lost two thirds of its men: dead, wounded, taken prisoner, and missing in action. But their sacrifice had kept the rebels from taking the high ground.
Lee wasn’t pleased that Union forces occupied the heights. But his army had once again driven their enemy from the field.
Day Two at Gettysburg was a violent, chaotic stage on which some of our favorite Civil War characters played their most memorable roles. For most of the day both armies consolidated their positions.
Ironically, Lee’s units arrived on the battlefield from the north and Mead’s army came up from the south.
It wasn’t until 4:00 pm that General Longstreet’s Corps began the Confederate attack on the Union’s left flank along Cemetery Ridge.
But the Rebel advance ran into something unexpected: Union General Dan Sickles’ Corps, posted in a peach orchard – far in front of the main Union line.
Sickles was the only Union corps commander without a West Pointeducation. But while he was not a professional soldier, he was a born leader: a pugnacious New Yorker who never shied away from a fight.
And he was in for an epic one.
There were innumerable peach orchards in America on July 2, 1863. But the stand of trees that Sickles’ troops defended from 4:00 to 6:30 PM that day would be known ever after as The Peach Orchard. It was here that Confederate General William Barksdale’s brigade of Mississippians made their famous charge. It was here that Sickles lost his leg to a cannonball. It was here that, after fierce fighting, Sickles’ men were forced to fall back under heavy fire.
And it was here that New York’s Excelsior Brigade made their heroic stand.
But the bravery of the Excelsior Brigade could not stem the flood of Rebels charging through the peach orchard to exploit the gap in the Union line caused by the collapse of Sickles’ exposed position.
General Winfield Scott Hancock – in command of the Union center – and another Pennsylvanian — knew that, in just a few minutes, the Rebs would plow through that gap and penetrate his defensive line. The day, the battle, and the war, could be lost.
Hancock rode toward the crisis point and rallied Sickles’ retreating troops. But the few shell-shocked soldiers willing to reform their lines would not be enough. Hancock called for reserves, but they’d never arrive in time. He needed something to plug that fatal gap.
That something was the First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment.
Hancock asked the unit’s officer, “What regiment is this?” “First Minnesota,” replied 23-year old Colonel William Colvill. With the clock ticking toward disaster second-by-second, Hancock pointed toward the oncoming Rebels and bellowed, “Charge those lines!”
Said a First Minnesota veteran, “Every man realized in an instant what that order meant — death or wounds to us all, the sacrifice of the regiment to gain a few minutes’ time and save the position. And every man saw and accepted the necessity for the sacrifice”.
The 262 men of The First Minnesota advanced on the double quick, shouldering their muskets through a hail of lead, bearing down on the center of the enemy line. On Colvill’s order to charge, they raced forward with leveled bayonets. The lines collided with a shock, muskets blazed, and fighting raged hand-to hand. The First Minnesota’s flag fell five times, but it was taken up again each time.
The Southerners were stunned by the First Minnesota’s fury and tenacity, and for 15 precious minutes, paid for in blood, the Rebel advance was stalled. Of the 262 men who made that charge, only 47 survivors rallied back to General Hancock: an 83% casualty rate that remains the greatest loss by any American military unit in a single battle. But the men of The First Minnesota bought Hancock the time he needed to reinforce the gap in his defensive line.
Longstreet renewed his relentless assault on the Union left in bloody engagements that made The Wheat Field and Devil’s Den synonymous with savagery, gallantry and wholesale sacrifice.
Before the fights in The Peach Orchard and Wheat Field, Union General Gouvernor Warren stood on Little Round Top and saw Longstreet’s battle line forming on the ridges beyond The Wheat Field.
Realizing that Sickles’ advanced position left Little Round Top undefended, Warren sent couriers scrambling for units to help defend the hill. One of his couriers encountered 26-year old Colonel Strong Vincent.
Told that Warren needed troops “to occupy yonder hill,” Vincent declared, “I will do so and take the responsibility.”
Vincent rushed to Little Round Top and placed the four regiments of his brigade in line on the extreme left of the Union army, with the 385 men of Joshua Chamberlain’s 20th Maine anchoring the end of the line. Soon after that, the Confederate assault began.
Vincent, brandishing his wife’s riding crop, urged his men, “Don’t give an inch!” It wasn’t long before Strong Vincent fell, mortally wounded. Like General Warren, Vincent had done his part to save the Union left flank. Now, it was up to Chamberlain’s 20th Maine to play their role in the deadly, decisive drama on Little Round Top.
At 6:30 PM, after repulsing yet another rebel attack, Chamberlain’s troops were nearly out of ammunition — and running out of time. Ordered by Vincent to “Hold at all hazards,” Chamberlain knew he couldn’t retreat. He ordered his men to “fix bayonets.”
Said Chamberlain, “I ordered the bayonet. The word was enough. It ran like fire along the line, from man to man, and rose into a shout, with which they sprang forward on the enemy, now not 30 yards away. The effect was surprising; many of the enemy’s first line threw down their arms and surrendered… The enemy’s second line broke and fell back, fighting from tree to tree, many being captured, until we had swept the valley and cleared the front of nearly our entire brigade.”
Longstreet’s Corps had failed to take Little Round Top – and both sides regrouped for the fighting that would climax the next day.
On July 3, 1863 the exhausted armies faced each other across a mile of open farmland — preparing to commence the final violence of their epic battle. Though Lee planned to strike the Union center early in the day, the thunderous cannonade preceding General Longstreet’s assault did not begin until 1:00 in the afternoon.
Actually, the third day of the battle began at dawn as Union guns opened fire in defense of Culp’s Hill on the Federal right flank. By 11:00 am, Billy Yank was once again in possession of the earthworks they’d lost to Johnny Reb the day before. The fight on the Union right was over almost before it began.
Lee had attacked both Union flanks – and the Federals had paid dearly in their defense. Since General Meade must have had to draw troops from his center to reinforce his embattled flanks, Lee resolved to attack the Union center.
Lee’s “Old War Horse” Longstreet argued that the wiser course was to go around Big Round Top, get behind the Union army’s left flank and threaten the roads to Philadelphia and Washington D.C. – thereby forcing the Union army off the high ground on Cemetery Hill to give battle on ground of the South’s choosing.
But Lee was resolved to strike – and break – the Union center. “The enemy is there, and I am going to attack him there.” After all, his army had never failed to break the Union lines in a frontal assault. But Gettysburg was a different: for the first time, Pennsylvanian Generals Meade and Hancock and the Army of the Potomac under their command were defending home turf. There was nowhere to run. As Hancock rode his lines that morning, he no doubt reminded his troops of the need to hold firm and give no ground.
General Pickett’s division would lead the charge that became known forever after as “Pickett’s Charge.” The three brigades of General Pickett’s division were led by Generals Garnett, Kemper and Armistead. General Lo Armistead was a close friend of General Hancock, who waited for him across the open killing field.
Pickett’s brigade commanders would pay a heavy price: Garnett and Armistead died in the charge. Kemper was severely wounded. The rebels managed to punch a hole in the Union center, led by Armistead, shot down as he placed his hand on a Federal cannon. But the Army of the Potomac sent the rebels in retreat across the farm fields over which they had so gallantly, but futilely, charged.
Of the more than 13,000 Confederates who made the assault, more than 7,000 lay dead or wounded on the field afterward.
On July 4th, the day after General Meade’s Army won the Battle of Gettysburg, the Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg fell to Union troops under General Grant.
At great cost, the soldiers of the Union Army had given their war-weary nation two great birthday gifts. And while it would wear on for two more grinding years, the Civil War was essentially over.
Vic & Paul & Obama & Mother Mary — Blog 2012: The Third Year In Review.
Days after the year 2012 ended, I was delighted to join with my wife, daughters and Cleveland relations to celebrate the 80th birthday of my wonderful mother, Mary Barrosse. I knew I was tardy in posting my blog’s 2012 year-end review — but honoring my mom in the grand style she deserves came first.
2012 was a very busy year on this blog — dominated by the “The Vic & Paul Show” Summer Tour and the momentous Presidential election. Vaudevillians Vic & Paul traveled to Chicago, Cleveland, Wisconsin, and Los Angeles — and President Obama covered even more ground than that (often in one day). We both emerged victorious — and when all was was said and done, Victoria and I might have come out slightly ahead because we don’t have to deal with John Boehner and Mitch McConnell.
2012 was also the third year for this blog. And it was a very good year.
Paul’s Voyage of Discovery & Etc. has attracted over 129,900 views in 2012 — nearly doubling the number of visitors that dropped by during this blog’s first two years. (There were 62,900 visits in 2012.) I’ve posted 255 articles since this blog began and you folks have contributed 1,231 comments. Politics and history remain among the most popular topics.
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I continue to be honored that 118 subscribers have signed on to have my posts automatically delivered to them via e-mail. (And 31 more folks follow this blog on Twitter.) Are you a subscriber? If you’re not — then look to your right at the photo of the saluting Matey and follow the simple instructions to “Hop Aboard!”
Most of my posts focus on the main topics I established at the outset of this blog: history, adventure, politics, sailing and rock & roll — plus relentless promotion of The Practical Theatre, my band Riffmaster & The Rockme Foundation, and The Vic & Paul Show. But what posts were readers of this blog most attracted to this year?
What follows is a list of The Top Ten Most Popular Posts of 2012.
Just click on the title of each post to access the original article.
1. Victory at Pearl Harbor
Originally posted in 2010 on the anniversary of the “day that will live in infamy” – this post has become an annual event. A lot of military history fans visit this blog, but I think Pearl Harbor fascinates and resonates with Americans whether they have an interest in military history or not. The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks took more American lives – but Pearl Harbor was the shocking opening act in a drama that ultimately made the United States the world’s preeminent superpower. Can we say that we’re a better nation after 9-11?
2. Happy Birthday Bill of Rights!
On December 15, 2010 – the 215th birthday of our Bill of Rights – I wrote this basic primer on the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution. For some reason, it’s become one of the most-read post in the history of this blog. I guess that’s because Americans still give a damn about their rights and are keen to understand their Constitutional foundation.
3. The Occupy Wall Street Movement Doesn’t Need Black Bloc Buffoonery
The bold, brave and vital Occupy Wall Street movement has inspired a lot of posts on this blog since 2011 – but this post, written on November 2, 2011, has proven to be the most popular. Maybe that’s because people agree that we don’t need a bunch of cowardly anarchists screwing up a noble movement that ultimately helped to put Barrack Obama back in office. Without Occupy Wall Street, would Romney’s attack on the 47% have evoked such a profound and spirited response?
4. A Childhood Memory of Kent State, May 4. 1970
On the May 4, 2012 anniversary of this very dark day in America history, I posted this personal remembrance of a young Ohioan’s earliest memories of that terrible day.
5. Growing Up in the Space Age
The last American space shuttle launch inspired this July 14, 2011 remembrance of my personal connection to the Space Age. This popular post salutes my fellow Ohioan, John Glenn, who served as both the first man to orbit the Earth and as a Senator from my home state. I wish that my three daughters had grown up experiencing something half as exciting and inspirational as The Race to the Moon.
6. My Book Report: “The Battle of Midway”
What a great book! What an amazing chapter of world history! On January 23, 2012, I wrote this review of a book that captures all the incredible heroism, good luck, and turns of fate that made this epic World War Two naval battle an overwhelming victory that turned the tide of the war against Imperial Japan.
7. A New Presidential Biography Reminds Us Why We Should Like Ike
Even if Los Angeles Times editor Jim Newton weren’t my good friend, I still would have written this September 28, 2011 post extolling the virtues of his excellent biography of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
8. The Top Ten Rock & Roll Singers of All Time
There’s nothing like a Top 10 list to promote discussion on a blog – and this December 5, 2011 post did just that. Check it out – and then weigh in with your own opinion. Just realize that your opinion on rock & roll singing cannot possibly be as informed as my own.
9. 150 Years Ago Today
Since the spring of 2011, we’ve been in the midst of the American Civil War sesquicentennial: the war’s 150th anniversary. Between now and April 2015, there’s an opportunity every day to write the kind of post that I wrote on March 13, 2012.
10. The Wrecking Crew
Glen Campbell, Hal Blaine, Carol Kay, Tommy Tedesco, Leon Russell, Earl Palmer: the cream of Los Angeles studio musicians in the late 50’s, 60’s and early 70’s became known as “The Wrecking Crew”. I’m thrilled that my March 21, 2011 blog article celebrating Tommy Tedesco’s son’s marvelous documentary film about these rock & roll legends has proven to be such a popular post. If you haven’t done it already, start a Google search on “The Wrecking Crew” now. Until then, your rock & roll education is not complete.
So, that’s the best of 2012. Stay connected. Subscribe. And please post those replies!
Here’s to another adventurous voyage in 2013!
And here are the All-Time Top 10 Blog Posts from January 2010 up to today:
1. Happy Birthday Bill of Rights!
2. Victory at Pearl Harbor
3. The Occupy Wall Street Movement Doesn’t Need Black Bloc Buffoonery
4. History & Honeymoon: Part Three
This post was also the #3 post in 2010. 23 years ago, my wife Victoria and I went to Gettysburg and other Civil War battlefields on our honeymoon! I needed no other assurance that I had married the perfect woman. On our 20th anniversary, we returned to Gettysburg. Now both students of the battle, we walked the battlefield on July 1, 2 and 3, 2010 on the 147th anniversary of that critical conflict. My four-part account of our battlefield tramping became one of the most popular items on the blog. (Originally posted July 20, 2010)
5. Aliens Among Us?
I’ve always wondered where singular, epochal, “out of this world” geniuses like William Shakespeare, Leonardo da Vinci and Bob Dylan came from. So, on January 26, 2011, I wrote this speculation on the possible alien origin of such monumental minds. Evidently, my curiosity (if not my Erich Van Daniken “ancient astronaut” fantasy) is still shared by a lot of people who read my blog in the past year.
6. Growing Up in the Space Age
7. Bazooka Joe, Jay Lynch & Me
One of the first posts I wrote for this blog back on January 9, 2010 celebrated my brief but soul-satisfying collaboration with the legendary underground comix artist, Jay Lynch, who gave Vic and I the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to write a series of Bazooka Joe comics. It was one of the great chapters in my creative career. The Practical Theatre Company, Saturday Night Live, Behind the Music, The Vic & Paul Show and Bazooka Joe. Can I retire now?
8. The Saints Come Marching In…
This was the #1 post in 2010 — and, like the Saints, has shown staying power. The New Orleans Saints got 2010 off to a great start by winning the Super Bowl. (What about that bounty scandal?) So, why does a man who was born in Cleveland, went to college and met his wife in Chicago, and moved to Los Angeles two decades ago care if the New Orleans Saints finally won a Super Bowl after years of epic gridiron failure? Simple: my daddy was New Orleans born and raised. Who dat say what about dem Saints? (Originally posted February 8, 2010)
9. History & Honeymoon: Part Four
2011 was the 150th anniversary of the commencement of the American Civil War – and that might be the reason that two of my “History & Honeymoon” posts are still among the most-read this past year, including this one, posted on July 26, 2010. This post covers everything from my wife Victoria and I battle tramping Pickett’s Charge on the third day of Gettysburg –to our visit to Philadelphia and the eccentric, visionary artwork of Isaiah Zagar.
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