Monday, October 18, 2010

Lost Triumph by Tom Carhart

This book is five years old and I've had it for quite a while but never got around to reading it until now. Nineteenth century American history is my major interest, which of course means I'm also a Civil War buff. Since we live in Pennsylvania and have spent time at Gettysburg, this book promised to answer a question I had long wondered about.

Most people who know anything about the battle at Gettysburg, know about Pickett's charge on the clump of trees. It was the main event of the battle. Pickett's men charged across an open field to attempt overrunning Union artillery and infantry on the other side in a clump of trees. It was, of course, a slaughter and although a few made it across, they were forced to retreat under withering fire. It was a costly defeat for the Confederate army.

My question has been: General Robert E. Lee was by all accounts a brilliant general. The North suffered many losses to this man because of his military planning and that he was such an inspiration to his men. So why would he send these divisions on such a suicidal charge? He would have known they didn't have a prayer of winning that battle.

If Tom Carhart is correct, I now know the answer. I had trouble reading parts of the book because Carhart is a retired military man who writes of the maneuvering of troops and planning for battles that I had to concentrate hard to grasp. I wish there had been more maps; it would have helped me. However, from what a layperson like me can understand, Pickett's Charge was part of a masterful plan that was stymied by General Custer and troops from Michigan.

Jeb Stuart's cavalry was positioned so that they could ride past Union cavalry and attack the rear of the Union lines just as Pickett charged the front. The Union was in a fishhook formation and Stuart's men would have collapsed the hook and decimated the line at the clump of trees. Stuart didn't show up though because, realizing what was happening, Custer personally led Michigan cavalry divisions in a charge of Stuart which succeeded in routing Stuart's cavalry back out of the action.

Lee never blamed Stuart and never admitted to this plan because he didn't want to destroy reputations, and why admit a plan of his had failed. Apparently Lee never discussed the war after he surrendered to Grant. Carhart did years of research to find hints of the truth, finally realizing Stuart had a role that he couldn't fulfill and that Custer was the Union hero of the day. We shouldn't think of Custer only as the guy who led his troops to slaughter by the Indians. He was a brave, though reckless, fighter.

If you have ever wondered at Lee's judgement at Gettysburg and thought he must have lost his mind, you should read this book and see what you think. I think Carhart must be right.

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