James Holmes

Top 5 Lessons From The Battle of Gettysburg: 150 Years On

The clash “was about far more than repulsing a Confederate invasion of the North.”

Today marks the 150th anniversary of day one of the three-day Battle of Gettysburg, among the most consequential — if not the most consequential — battlefield conflagrations ever to shake North America.

The Naval Diplomat family has Civil War history, albeit history unrelated to Gettysburg. One of my wife's kinsmen fell in action with Union forces at the Battle of Stones River, at Murfreesboro, Tennessee, near Nashville. Here's the spooky part, or rather spooky parts: my wife's ancestor was a Holmes, whereas one of my ancestors, a McDonald, stood among the Confederate forces arrayed there. And Murfreesboro, now part of greater Nashville, happens to be my birthplace. You can't make this stuff up.

Here endeth the detour into family lore. On to my Top 5 Takeaways from the Battle of Gettysburg:

Battle by accident. We often assume that master tacticians hatch master plans that yield great victories. Gettysburg implies that master tacticians are those who improvise on the fly amid shifting surroundings. Neither Confederate commander Robert E. Lee nor Union commander George Meade set out to fight for the town, for the nearby heights, or for any other piece of local terrain. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia invaded Pennsylvania, and Meade's Army of the Potomac followed. They met at a then-obscure town in the Pennsylvania outback. Opportunism matters in combat situations.

Dispersal v. concentration. Lee's army had dispersed across southern Pennsylvania to forage when Meade's more or less concentrated host crossed the Potomac River into northern Maryland to constitute a threat. Lee hastily gathered his army lest isolated units be entrapped and annihilated, subjecting the Army of Northern Virginia to the death of a thousand cuts. Clausewitz's counsel that there's no higher or simpler law than to concentrate at decisive points on the map at crucial junctures applies. As Corbett observes, channeling Clausewitz, successful military forces exhibit a sort of elasticity. They disperse and concentrate as circumstances warrant.

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Battlefield leadership. Friends of this blog are familiar with Plutarch, who saw past lives — particularly those of classical Greeks and Romans — as guides to the good life. Had Plutarch been alive and writing ca. 1900, he may well have chosen the figure of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, colonel of the Twentieth Maine Regiment, as the subject for one of his capsule biographies. This warrior-professor left his duties at Bowdoin College to take up arms in the Union cause. Chamberlain and his doughty Mainers occupied Little Round Top, one of two heights overlooking Gettysburg, following a disastrous first day of fighting. Their heroics helped keep the Confederates from turning the Union left — and potentially collapsing the Union position as a whole. Chamberlain was awarded the Medal of Honor for stalwart leadership under fire.

Elegiac character. President Abraham Lincoln traveled to Gettysburg the fall after July's bloodletting. There the president delivered his Gettysburg Address, a marvel of brevity and eloquence. Modeled on Pericles' Funeral Address, Lincoln's oration exhorted the living to honor the dead by prosecuting their cause to victory. His words consecrated Gettysburg as a central event in American history, imparting political significance far beyond the immediate battlefield results.

Diplomatic ramifications. Great Britain and France had flirted with the idea of mediating an end to the struggle between Blue and Gray. Diplomatic intervention would have heartened Southerners while lending new credence to the secessionist cause and, perhaps, making foreign material support available to the beleaguered Confederacy. But no government hitches its prestige to a losing cause. Gettysburg helped debunk the myth of Lee's invincibility, and thus ensconced the Confederacy in foreign perceptions as the weaker horse in the contest. The clash, then, was about far more than repulsing a Confederate invasion of the North. It was about reaffirming that the Union was a heavyweight power and the likely victor.