24 October 2005 by Published in: Civil War books and authors 20 comments

Dimitri Rotov has a very interesting post on his blog today. It got me thinking about a subject that bothers me a great deal.

I’ve always viewed part of my role as a responsible historian as mythbusting, not the perpetuation of those myths. The self-perpetuating myth that inevitably annoys me to no end is the one that says that Brig. Gen. John Buford’s successful stand at Gettysburg on July 1 was the result of the superior firepower of the Spencer carbines carried by his men. Never mind that the Spencer carbine didn’t go into mass production until September 1, 1863 and that only about five prototypes of it existed as of July 1, 1863. Never mind that of the 92% of Buford’s companies that filed ordnance returns on June 30, 1863, not a single one of those companies reported having repeating weapons. Never mind that the only Spencer RIFLES in the Army of the Potomac were in all of the 5th Michigan Cavalry and half of the 6th Michigan Cavalry of Custer’s brigade. Yet, this one particular canard lives on endlessly and relentlessly, repeated again and again by historians, and, yes, even by licensed battlefield guides.

DaCapo published a horrible little book on the July 1 fighting on McPherson’s Ridge by an academic historian named Stephen D. Newton a couple of years ago that repeats the myth of the repeaters yet again, even though it’s been disproved again and again. See the reviews of this little gem on its page on Amazon.com. In the interest of full disclosure, I am not the author of any of the reviews of Newton’s book on Amazon, although my friend J. D. Petruzzi is. Not only did Newton get any number of things wrong, he also perpetuates myths. How does this stuff get published?

Another myth that bugs me is the one that says that Gettysburg was a “meeting engagement.” Here’s the Army’s definition of meeting engagement: “a combat action that occurs when a moving force engages an enemy at an unexpected time and place.” This, by definition, then requires that the armies both be on the move and that they engage at an unexpected time and place. If both requirements are not met, then by definition, any action is NOT a meeting engagement. That the Battle of Gettysburg was a meeting engagement has been accepted for years by what Dimitri describes as Centennial history. According to this theory, the armies blundered together at Gettysburg in an unplanned engagement. On the Confederate side, that happened because Jeb Stuart was off joyriding.

Never mind that modern research plainly shows that both sides knew precisely where the other was; Buford provided Army headquarters with very precise reports on the dispositions of Lee’s army on June 30, and never mind that A. P. Hill knew that a large force of Union cavalry was in Gettysburg that day. Never mind that Lee himself had ordered Stuart’s “ride” and that Stuart actually obeyed those poorly written orders to the letter. Any other explanation other than that it was a meeting engagement by definition means that Robert E. Lee was, in fact, spoiling for a fight in Pennsylvania, that Gettysburg was the chosen location for it, and that Stuart cannot be blamed for the Confederate defeat in Pennsylvania.

However, this myth also gets perpetuated by the likes of Stephen Sears. It’s bad history, and it’s irresponsible.

Yet, this stuff is accepted as the gospel truth solely because a credentialed professional historian says it’s so. Just because one has credentials doesn’t necessarily make one right. And I would suggest that those credentials add to the professional historian’s duty to get it right, even if doing so means that a few sacred cows–cherished myths–get taken down along the way. The same, by the way, holds true for me. I strive for the truth, and I follow where the evidence leads me. Even when I don’t like where it leads me, and even when it leads me to precisely the opposite conclusion that I expected.

My interpretation of the Battle of Trevilian Station is an example of just that. I expected Sheridan’s management of the campaign to be magnificent, and I was terribly disappointed when I realized just what a brutal and incompetent job he actually did. Those conclusions, in turn, led me to write my book Little Phil. In my mind, following the evidence is the only path that a responsible historian can and should take.

Scridb filter

Comments

  1. Dave Kelly
    Mon 24th Oct 2005 at 7:28 pm

    Dang, you’ve been on a furniture throwin tear for the last couple of days. Starting to sound like a royal snit… :).

    Here we’re going to have to disagree: I think the case for calling this a meeting engagement is pretty solid.

    1. Purportedly Lee told AP Hill on 30 Jun, who shared with Heth and Pettigrew, his belief that the AoP’s center of mass was still Frederick; consequently he (Lee) believed he had 2 days to maneuver before he had to deal with Meade.

    2. Thus Hill pooh-poohed Pettigrew’s assessment.

    3. Buford did a classic job of cover and intel gathering at Gettysburg. Unfortunately his solution didn’t come until the evening of 30 Jun. In time and distance his reports failed to get to AoP HQs until Meade made his orders for 1 July. And what Buford reported got filtered thru your friend A Pleasonton.

    4. According to OO Howard’s memoirs Reynolds last instructions on the morning of 1 July was to ease his columns forward to Gettysburg on 1 July because there would be no battle that day.

    5. Meade’s movement orders for 1 July certainly give no indication that he was expecting a fight as he sent his Corps off on a 35 mile arch, still trying to cover all possibilities.

    I can think of several other points but I think that’s probably enough to demonstrate that the only general with a clear and certain precience for what was about to happen on the morning of 1 July was a very lonely Cav Div commander who stood at ground zero with no orders, and something less than certainty that he would be supported by any infantry…

  2. Mon 24th Oct 2005 at 7:47 pm

    Dave,

    I agree with about 90% of what you say. It also bears noting that you would be hard pressed to find a more devoted or staunch admirer of John Buford, so that reflects my perspective.

    What you don’t know is that Buford met with Reynolds on the morning of June 30 after the skirmish with Fairfield, and reported the presence of a large force of Confederate infantry at Fairfield. Thus, Reynolds had full and accurate knowledge that there was Confederate infantry operating in the vicinity of Gettysburg.

    Buford was alone for the morning, but I also think it can be shown that he had a very good idea that his old friend John Reynolds was on his way to cover his back.

    All of which brings me back to the original point. At least on the Union side, the Federal high command had a very clear picture of the enemy dispositions, Buford chose a position at the logical concentration point, and prepared a defense that he executed brilliantly the next day. That very fact means that this cannot be, by definition, a meeting engagement.

    Eric

  3. Dave Kelly
    Mon 24th Oct 2005 at 9:20 pm

    I don’t think Reynolds actions indicate that he gave that much weight to the skirmish vic Fairfield. His sending Doubleday out that way on 1 July would have been rather high risk if he believed there was a substantial threat.

    The opposing sides weren’t completely blind as to each others presence. But opposing actions would appear to indicate some lack of conviction as to opposing centers of mass and intent prior to the 1 July convergence.

    Neither army was well placed to exploit the fact that they had caught each other strung out that morning (Lee was batter placed but still refused to commit forces – Anderson – for fear that more federals were just out of view)

    respectfully, for your consideration.

  4. Mon 24th Oct 2005 at 10:02 pm

    Dave,

    Looks like we will have to agree to disagree on this one. That’s okay, though–good perspective can be had that way.

    Thanks for your feedback and your time.

    Eric

  5. Tue 25th Oct 2005 at 12:55 am

    Hi Dave,
    As the Federal perspective, I think we can dismiss the classic definition of meeting engagement simply by examining Buford’s dispositions for his troops on June 30 and July 1. Note that he places a strong vidette line, literally 7.2 miles long from end to end, covering the approaches to Gettysburg from the west, north, and east – from the Fairfield Road all the way to the Hanover Road. As of June 30, Buford knew fairly well the locations of all three ANV Corps. Thus his vidette dispositions (for detail please see my article in “America’s Civil War” magazine of July 2005 titled John Buford: By the Book.

    Therefore, when one unit of an army knows the enemy dispositions – in this case, Buford’s two brigades with him at Gettysburg, and the advance detail – I think the case for “meeting engagement” weakens. I understand about the timing of his dispatches that you mention, however Buford does indeed send the intelligence up the line on both June 30 and July 1, and units of the AOP act on it. It’s indisputable that the I Corps, XI Corps, etc arrive on that particular battlefield precisely because of Buford’s first contact and subsequent intel dispatches.

    On the Confederate site, Pettigrew knew, and reported (although there’s the argument that it was not taken seriously) of Buford’s presence. In fact, both Pettigrew’s pickets and Buford’s videttes camped within sight of each other and watched each other all the night of June 30 and the early morning of July 1. When Heth marches to Gettysburg on the morning of July 1, he marches right past Pettigrew’s pickets in the area of McKnightstown. When you have opposing pickets camped and staring at each other for at least 12 hours prior to a major battle starting, each obviously aware of the presence and dispositions of the other, I have difficulty calling it a “meeting engagement” as the military specifies it (and the definition of which Eric has quoted). For evidence, see one of Buford’s dispatches on the night of June 30 in which he writes that Pettigrew’s pickets are “camped in sight of mine” on the Cashtown/Chambersburg Road.

    We have examples of many other meeting engagements during the war – for the Gettysburg Campaign, simply look at some of the cavalry actions that take place… Hanover and Hunterstown to name two. They were definitely meeting engagements as in both cases each unit was on the move and clashed with each other completely unexpectedly. Gettysburg was hardly such a case.

    The “meeting engagement” or “stumbling into each other” was the classic, romantic ideal that arose withing the first few decades after the war, most particularly in southern writings. It went along with the old “Heth was just looking for shoes” myth. To think that the largest, most pivotal battle in the East arose simply by poor old Confederate soldiers looking for shoes and food stumbling into a Federal cavalry detachment and suddenly a battle was sparked – lends the air of high dramatics and romanticism to the Gettysburg battle. Pretty stuff, but the unfortunate consequences of it all is that it clouds the facts of June 30 and July 1. That’s one of the reasons I wrote the article – I wanted folks to get a better idea of what elements of the ANV and the AOP (Pettigrew and Buford in particular) REALLY knew prior to the battle.

    As Eric said, it’s amazing how one still reads these myths even in purportedly scholarly works today. They never seem to die. They fade and disappear when one goes deep into the facts, but sadly they’re showing no signs of fading once and for all anytime soon.

    J.D. Petruzzi

  6. Dave Kelly
    Tue 25th Oct 2005 at 9:29 am

    J.D. :

    I understand the point that popular myth obscures detail to reinforce cultural memory (preferences). There is also the problem of being so rigorous in correcting that memory that one raises the bar way too high. (Harry Heth said in his memoirs he was looking for shoes. That lends some credence to the argument; at least from Heth’s perspective. What Hill did on 1 July went far beyond foraging as he ordered his Corps forward and dispatched to Ewell that he should change his point of rendevous to conform with Hills move. So is the shoe story purely myth, or part of the fabric of the event?)

    Whether or not a pitched battle is a meeting engagement or deliberate should relate to command intent. Did Lee or Meade prepare a battle at Gettysburg on 1 July? Nope. Both sides assumed they had more time based on what intel they were responding to the evening prior.

    I think you’re dazzled by Bufords personal efforts to the point of over magnifying their import to what was going on at AoP and ANV HQs.

    I’m stuck by how good Kenneth Williams assessment reads even today as he points out the pregnency of Meades correspondence with Halleck at this time.

  7. Dave Kelly
    Tue 25th Oct 2005 at 9:34 am

    >I’m stuck by how good Kenneth Williams assessment reads even today as he points out the pregnency of Meades correspondence with Halleck at this time.

  8. Tue 25th Oct 2005 at 10:03 am

    Hardly dazzled, Dave. Simply convinced by the evidence. Don’t worry though, I hear such comments all the time. Of eight magazine articles and two books I’ve written only one article dealt with Buford on July 1, so my interests are pretty wide-ranging. A library of over 3000 volumes and a room full of other primary source material attests to that fact…

    No, hardly dazzled. I will contend that neither commander of the armies intended battle on July 1. However, look at the army’s definition of “meeting engagement.” Gettysburg does not fit. In fact, the events of July 1 are used specifically in the army’s manual (FM-1795) to illustrate a “covering force action” employed to receive a KNOWN enemy from a KNOWN position. In effect, then, the US Army does not define Gettysburg as a meeting engagement. Pretty hard to argue with that.

    As to the shoe myth, I contend it’s just that. A myth. Again part of the dramatics and romanticism. Heth’s contemporary writing, not his later writing, states he was looking for “supplies, shoes especially.” So, what does that mean? Nothing. Nothing beyond a foraging effort. However, does a commander take his entire division, led by his artillery no less, on a foraging expedition? No other such example during the war that I’m aware of (if you can point one out, please do). Heth was well aware that someone – militia, AOP cavalry, or otherwise – was in Gettysburg due to Pettigrew’s report, and I believe he intended to brush them aside and see what he could get in the town. Heth would enjoy the fight if there was one – virtually every other unit had gotten into scraps in MD and PA except Heth.

    But it all comes down to the definition as set by the military – if there are 3 aspects to the definition, and if Gettysburg only meets, say, 2 of them, then by definition it’s not a meeting engagement.

    Plus, if the advance elements of both armies make contact, and keep contact for 12 hours before clashing again, I fail to see how that can be even a layman’s definition of meeting engagement. Certainly neither Meade or Lee expected battle at Gettysburg on July 1, but if the definition doesn’t apply to every part, then it doesn’t apply to the whole. And when the US military itself does not term the battle a meeting engagement, I think that’s hard to argue with 🙂

    J.D. Petruzzi

  9. Vince Slaugh
    Tue 25th Oct 2005 at 12:21 pm

    With the modern military definition of “meeting engagement” in mind, I can see how a labeling the event a meeting engagement could detract from Buford’s Gettysburg generalship by emphasizing the role of chance over solid planning. So, I was wondering, Is there anything inside Sears’ assessment of Buford that you would deem inaccurate/misleading?

    To add something else to the mess, I saw the following quote in a Mark Grimsley review of Pfanz’s First Day book:
    “The strength of The First Day lies in Pfanz’s ability to make this a large-scale meeting engagement comprehensible without sacrificing its complexity.”
    http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/civil_war_history/v049/49.2grimsley.html

    Thanks for all your posts,

    Vince Slaugh

  10. Dave Kelly
    Tue 25th Oct 2005 at 4:26 pm

    JD:

    Okay. Point taken. I still think you’ve set the bar too high. And what field component commands do or don’t do has to have context to what their senior HQ think they’re trying to accomplish. George Meade was very lucky to have some very veteran subs who made him look good at a critical moment.

    Telling me that the Army’s way is the right way and you’re covered by Field Manuals doesn’t earn Brownie Points though. ;). I put my 20 in and most of it was general staff; up to Unified Commands, with a TRADOC stint. I’m not trying to impress or overawe. Your bona fides are known to me and respected. I’m a stranger to you folks and just thought it might be helpful to know I shovelled manure for the alpha elephants for a long time ;).

    I recall a certain DA campaign that proposed to its soldiers that fighting “outnumbered and winning” required the resolve of the British attacking Bunker Hill. How moronic can you get? Another campaign sent junior historians out to teach soldiers Jackson’s Valley Campaign. One crusty old Col rose up after the presentation and said he had one question: which side won the Civil War? That happened often enough that TRADOC decided to drop the tour cause it wasn’t selling in Poughkipsie….
    That didn’t stop them from joy pumping it to the victims in the schools.

    Just have a care as to which cards you build your house out of. Murphy is still in charge of operations….

  11. Tue 25th Oct 2005 at 8:21 pm

    Thanks, Vince. I appreciate the kind words. I’m glad to hear that you enjoy my rants.

    Eric

  12. Tue 25th Oct 2005 at 8:28 pm

    LOL, Dave, gotcha. Now that we’ve shown each other our scars… 😉

    I guess it’s in the semantics to a degree. The definition could be applied to the armies as a whole, but not to Buford and Heth in my opinion. I guess I look at it this way – if the definition of “meeting engagement,” as I see it anyway, doesn’t apply to the two units involved in the initial clash, then it doesn’t apply to the resulting battle.

    Others see it differently, and I respect that.

    J.D. Petruzzi

  13. Thu 27th Oct 2005 at 9:45 am

    Let’s go back to your statement: “I’ve always viewed part of my role as a responsible historian as mythbusting, not the perpetuation of those myths.”

    This sort of depends, doesn’t it? I hardly consider the point of the discussion between mrs Petruzzi and Kelly a form of mythbusting. It is my view that a historian should research any subject without any bias, with respect for the people involved. I wouldn’t regard the perpetuation of myths nor its busting a primary task.

  14. Thu 27th Oct 2005 at 9:58 am

    Well, good point Edwin – in fact, on one popular Civil War chat board, several of us got into a discussion of what was actually a “myth” versus what was just and “error.” There is definitely a difference. The idea of Gettysburg being a meeting engagement may not truly be a “myth” (for those of us who believe that) but perhaps more in the category of an erroneous interpretation of evidence. I think in his blog, Eric was using the term “myth” more in a general sense, and was speaking of the way many of us historians feel – that there is an amount of myths, legends, errors – call them what you will – out there that a particular interpretation of the evidence won’t support.

    J.D. Petruzzi

  15. Thu 27th Oct 2005 at 1:25 pm

    Edwin,

    I agree with JD’s interpretation of my words. I view my role as making sure that myths–things that are not true, but which are accepted as true–are eradicated.

    Eric

  16. Thu 27th Oct 2005 at 10:38 pm

    Eric and I together have, in fact, taken such a perceived responsibility to “bust myths” that we have worked an entire book around it. Early next year, Savas-Beatie is publishing our joint work on Jeb Stuart’s ride to Gettysburg, a book called “Plenty of Blame to Go Around.” The project, however, didn’t start out to be so involved in the discussion of the controversy surrounding Stuart’s involvement in events at Gettysburg. We originally wrote a book that was more of a modern telling of the events of Stuart’s ride the eight days before the battle, with just a cursory mention of the controversy.
    As we got further along, we realized that there was such a wealth of previously untapped primary material on the controversy, we mutually decided to change the scope of the book. All of our narrative on the ride still exists, but it’s now only about half the book. The second half deals with a modern treatment of the controversy of Stuart’s role.
    What was important to us, we learned, was that full disclosure of the primary sources of the controversy was needed – along with a discussion of scholarly references to it in the 20th century. We went far beyond the “Stuart was joyriding and was to blame” or “It wasn’t Stuart’s fault” – in effect, we saw these oversimplifications as “myths.” Contradictory myths to be sure, but oversimplifications unless a full discussion of the facts takes place.
    In the end, we present everything possible to the reader and let them decide for themselves. Wherever the reader’s opinion falls then, after reading our book, it’s no longer so much a “myth.” 🙂

    J.D. Petruzzi

  17. Fri 28th Oct 2005 at 5:14 am

    Still, though I admire the effort you all make, I have a problem with the approach you are making, but it might be the language difference or semantics. I mean to say, if you write a historal scientific work on a subject, the subject is treated scientifically and unbased facts and opinions could be treated but should suitabilly be treated with.

    But I agree that is difficult to separate myth (‘a collective opinion on’, so to speak) from opinion, propaganda and mistakes. The use of logic should sort that out. I must say I have some problems with myth-debunking as a start for research, it reminds me too much of bad revisionism.

  18. Fri 28th Oct 2005 at 9:40 am

    As I said, we didn’t start out that way. The second half of the book deals with the controversy, but 99% of it is a discussion of what the participants and early commentator had to say about it. Again, by “myth busting” I’m only making the point that we saw an oversimplification of the matter and decided to address it in full like it’s never been done before.

    Before folks make an assessment on something as “big” as the effects of Stuart’s ride, it help to have all the information possible. We have put it all in one book, for the very first time, for folks to then judge for themselves.

    J. D. Petruzzi

  19. Fri 28th Oct 2005 at 1:57 pm

    Thanks for your comment.

  20. Wed 25th Apr 2007 at 3:59 pm

    As a reader who thoroughly enjoys history, I am happy you are striving to present the facts and eliminate myths. I’m working on my little project here involving a general in the Spanish American War who was known to take a few drinks once in a while. Like many of his peers.

    Suddenly, he’s a self-pitying alcoholic and his bad habit is being covered up by no one other than the President and top officials. So I naturally get the material from all three authors to determine what information they are using to write about this new revelation and they all quote each other but not one has any documentation. Pure conjecture based on what??

    I’ve been able to pretty much knock the legs out from under the conclusion but there are three books out that completely revamp history with a new ‘myth’ that has no basis in fact.

    So, keep knocking out the myths.

Add comment

*

Copyright © Eric Wittenberg 2011, All Rights Reserved
Powered by WordPress

Warning: substr() expects parameter 3 to be long, string given in /home/netscrib/public_html/civilwarcavalry/wp-content/themes/wittenberg/footer.php on line 54