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The Tragic Motive

July 2024
5min read

The tragic pattern seldom finds a place in the American story. Our history is keyed to the mood of success: the victorious struggle, the rise from depths to heights, the triumph that grows out of daring and endurance. Fidelity, bravery, and nobility of soul always pay off, and the reward is always immediate and tangible. Our most enduring legends seem to be built around the winner.

But human life does not always work that way—not even in America; and it may be that our deep, unfailing interest in the Civil War simply reflects the fact that here the tragic pattern holds across four dreadful years. For the Civil War was (to use the burnished cliché) the war between brothers, the war which Americans waged against themselves and which, as a result, brought tragedy as well as triumph. It was the great struggle against the dark star, the contest with fate itself, one of whose lessons was that victory and defeat are opposite sides of the same coin.

Our approach to the Battle of Gettysburg is symptomatic. Here was one of the most momentous battles in all American history; a decisive and significant victory, a landmark in our national development, a turning point in history—call it by any star-spangled title you wish. Yet when we re-examine it (as we have been doing, systematically and with deep feeling, for nearly a century), we seem to spend most of our time trying to see, not how the battle was won, but how it was lost. In a very real sense it compels our attention as a defeat rather than as a victory. We keep looking at the losers; in their behalf we ask “Why?” even though we would not for a moment wish the battle or the war to have had a different outcome.

It is this haunting sense of tragedy that infuses Clifford Dowdey’s new book, Death of a Nation , which is one of the best and most moving of all of the accounts of the battle. With vast professional knowledge and painstaking attention to facts, and also with a great capacity for communicating his own emotions to the reader, Mr. Dowdey undertakes to answer that enduring “Why?”

In a way, he suggests, Gettysburg was lost before it was fought, a foredoomed battle against odds that were just too long. From the moment of its inception, the campaign refused to go as Lee had planned it. What Lee planned was a swift, massive counterthrust into the very heart of the North, a blow so hard that the Federals would be compelled not only to lift the siege of Vicksburg but even to contemplate the making of peace. But President Jefferson Davis saw it as something smaller; seeing it so, he made it smaller by withholding troops that Lee counted on and by deciding not to assemble the supporting elements that might have been provided. Lee went north with less than he had thought he would have.

Much less; for when Stonewall Jackson died at Chancellqrsville, Lee’s way of command was weakened. Lee used to give his lieutenants very broad orders and then keep his hands off the controls, trusting the lieutenants to do what was wanted. With Jackson, it always worked; at Gettysburg—a reorganization of the whole army had followed Jackson’s death—none of it worked, and Lee was never quite the same afterward. Stuart took the cavalry off on a senseless foray that made Lee fight blind. Dick Ewell, commanding the remainder of Jackson’s old corps, looked his permissive orders in the eye and found himself unable to do anything at all; A. P. Hill, reflecting perhaps on his shortcomings, took sick; and James Longstreet—

Well, Longstreet has been the villain of the Gettysburg drama for years, but Mr. Dowdey puts a new light on him. Longstreet’s trouble was not that he was slow—his delay, on the second day, probably made little difference—but that he wanted to be another Jackson and could not make it. Lee gave him a battle plan which Longstreet did not like, Longstreet tried to substitute another plan for it and failed, and then he could not make himself go through with a conscientious execution of Lee’s plan. He did precisely what he had been told to do, no more and no less, and because the situation had changed between the time Lee gave the orders and the time Longstreet had to execute them, this was not nearly enough. The attack on the peach orchard, the wheat field, and the Round Tops on the afternoon of the second day was bungled by an officer who was surrendering to a case of the sulks.

Death of a Nation: The Story of Lee and His Men at Gettysburg, by Clifford Dowdey. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 383 pp. $5.00

It was even worse with Pickett’s charge. As Mr. Dowdey points out, this was “Pickett’s charge” only by courtesy. Pickett commanded slightly more than 7,000 men, but 15,000 were sent forward in the great assault—and nobody really commanded them. Pickett was responsible for his own 7,000; the rest were answerable to no one, and they got murdered. Confederate command arrangements simply fell apart at Gettysburg, and all of the might-have-beens died on the field. So, as it happened, did approximately 6,000 young men, evenly divided between those in blue and those in gray.

There died also, at Gettysburg, the last hope of the Confederacy. This should have been the South’s last chance to force a decision in the Civil War. The chance died a-borning, as Mr. Dowdey points out, because, of all of the people in authority at Richmond, only Lee saw what might have been done. The climactic effort was limited before it was made, and when it finally was made it was further limited by the failures of men who had key decisions to make; and after that the only hope of the Confederacy was to hang on, to make the war as expensive to tb^ Unionists as it could possibly be, and to hope that before the inevitable end came, the people up North would conclude that it was not quite worth the effort. The Northern people never came to that conclusion—although they skated on the edge of it, once or twice—and the Confederacy died.

Most of all, however, the center of attention here is Lee himself. If others failed at Gettysburg, so did Lee—as, be it noted, he himself was the first to point out. Here was the great man of war, the soldier who wore success about his shoulders like an emblazoned cloak, the master not only of other men but of his own emotions—and at Gettysburg, the supreme moment of his life, all of these got away from him. He could not enforce his will on his own generals, this man who, thus far, had been so competent to enforce his will on the enemy; and the victory slipped away from him, step by step, eluding the hands that had been so sure on all other fields. Stuart failed, Ewell failed, Longstreet failed—and failing with them was the gray commander himself, the Confederate general whom most of the Northern soldiers respected even more than they respected their own leaders.

Mr. Dowdey suggests that Lee saw all of it coming from the beginning. He was ill at Gettysburg, the robust man who had hardly been sick in his life before; ill, perhaps because he knew that something essential was lacking and that it was too late for him to supply it. He relied on his government, which crippled his effort before he made it; relied on his army, which was weaker than it should have been at this moment; relied on his generals, who could not quite come up to the standard he had set for them—and, finally, relied on himself, and was not quite capable of making up all of the cumulative deficiencies. He emerges as the supremely tragic figure, the man who contends with the undefeatable, knowing it, in the moment of striving, to be undefeatable, and who loses everything—and who then goes on into legend, capturing the imagination of people who came to the earth long after he had died but who remember him, not because of what he did for them, but simply because in an unforgettable way he epitomized the nobility with which a man can face defeat by destiny.

Lee himself … and 70,000-odd young men in gray uniforms who lost with him. The stage somehow is theirs. A nation dedicated to success, in which the great credo is that courage and native ability and patient endurance will win out over everything, retains a special place in its memory for the tragic failures. Say what we like about Gettysburg—and we have had a great deal to say about it, from Abraham Lincoln’s words in the cemetery down to the present day—we wind up by looking at the men to whom this was defeat and not victory.

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