A version of this post has previously appeared on Bret Schulte’s blog.
I’ve always been one to buck settled history. In my mind, the only way to make sure that history remains a living, breathing, evolving thing is to challenge its settled assumptions. Properly and responsibly done, revisionism can be a powerful and welcome tool that causes us all to sit back and ask whether we should change the way we look at things. Consequently, I’ve always been known as one who’s not afraid of tilting at windmills.
However, doing so carries a great deal of responsibility. Whenever we challenge settled interpretations of history, we must do so carefully. Words are an extraordinarily powerful tool, and the choice of words can play havoc on people and on settled interpretations. Consequently, the only appropriate way to revise settled history is to do so responsibly and where there is ample evidence to support those revisionist interpretations of history.
I wish I could say that Tom Carhart’s recent book, _Lost Triumph: Lee’s Real Plan at Gettysburg–and Why It Failed_ is a worthy piece of revisionist history that adds something to the existing body of knowledge. Sadly, I cannot. Carhart’s work is revisionism of the worst sort–it’s grossly irresponsible, and there is not a shred of evidence to support Carhart’s contentions. What astonishes me most of all is that people have been flocking to buy this piece of tripe and that prominent and well-respected historians such as James McPherson and John Keegan have put their imprimatur on something that has no basis in fact.
Carhart’s theory is that Pickett’s Charge was to be coordinated with Jeb Stuart’s thrust at the Union rear with his cavalry. According to Carhart, the one true hero of the Battle of Gettysburg–the man who saved the Union–was Brig. Gen. George A. Custer. Thus, the clash on East Cavalry Field takes on an importance that it never had. Even for the most ardent cavalry admirer–like me–East Cavalry Field, while tactically important, has never been much more than a sideshow to the big show, to borrow a line from Sam Watkins.
The problem with this theory is that there simply is not a single shred of evidence to support it. There is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that Stuart’s movement was in any fashion coordinated with what we now know as Pickett’s Charge. Not to be deterred by the facts, Carhart makes the preposterous and wholly unsubstantiated claim that the historical evidence was either destroyed, or even more absurd, that it was hidden and kept from Jeb Stuart to protect his delicate ego. Never mind that there is not a single stitch of evidence to support any of this. Where there is no evidence, Carhart just makes it up, inventing conversations that never took place to suit his purposes.
Where there is historical or documentary evidence that rebuts his theory, Carhart either manipulates it to suit his purposes, or he launches personal attacks on them. An excellent example of this is Brig. Gen. David M. Gregg, who commanded the Federal forces on East Cavalry Field. Gregg, according to Carhart, lied in his official report of the action in order to steal the credit that rightfully belonged to George A. Custer. The problem with this is that even the staunchest Custer supporter–Capt. James H. Kidd, who was Custer’s hand-picked successor to command the Michigan Cavalry Brigade when Custer was promoted to division command–saw it otherwise. Here’s what Kidd had to say about this:
“Thus, it is made plain that there was no ‘mistake’ about it. It was Gregg’s prescience. He foresaw the risk of attempting to guard the right flank with only the two decimated brigades of his own division. With him, to see was to act. He took the responsibility of intercepting Kilpatrick’s rear and largest brigade, turning it off the Baltimore pike to the right, instead of allowing it to go to the left as it had been ordered to do, and thus, doubtless, a serious disaster was averted. It makes us tremble to think of what might have been, of what inevitably must have happened had Gregg, with only two two little brigades of McIntosh and Irvin Gregg, and Randol’s battery, tried to cope single-handed with the four brigades and three batteries, comprising the very flower of Confederate cavalry and artillery, which those brave knights–Stuart, Hampton and Fitzhugh Lee–were marshaling in person on Cress’ Ridge. If Custer’s presence on this field was opportune, and, as has often been said, providential, it is to General D. M. Gregg to whom, under Providence, the credit for bringing him here is due. Gregg was a great and modest soldier; let us pause a moment before we enter upon a description of the coming battle, to pay him the tribute of our admiration. In the light of all of the official reports, put together link by link, so as to make one connected chain of evidence, we can see that the engagement which took place twenty-six years ago, was, from first to last, a well planned battle, in which the different commands were maneuvered and placed with the same sagacity displayed by a skillful chess player in moving the pieces upon a chess board; in which every detail was the fruit of the brain of one man, who, from the time when he turned Custer to the northward until he sent the First Michigan thundering against the brigades of Hampton and Fitzhugh Lee made not a single false move; who was distinguished not less for his intuitive foresight than for his quick perceptions at critical moments. That man was General David McM. Gregg.”
Unlike Tom Carhart, James H. Kidd was there, and was an active participant in that battle. Kidd had the benefit of his own observations, as well as of speaking with many other veterans. Kidd also worshipped George Custer. Kidd also said, “This conclusion has been reached by a mind not–certainly not–predisposed in that direction, after a careful recent study, and review of all the information within reach bearing upon that eventful day. If the Michigan Brigade won honors there that will not perish, it was to Gregg that it owed the opportunity; and his guiding hand it was that made its blows effective. We shall see how, later in the day, he again boldly took responsibility at a critical moment and held Custer to his work on the right, even after the latter had been ordered by higher authority than he (Gregg), to rejoin Kilpatrick, and after Custer had begun the movement.”
It bears noting that these passages by Kidd come from his speech at the 1889 dedication of the monument to the Michigan Cavalry Brigade that stands on the spot where the 1st Michigan Cavalry’s charge crashed into the onrushing Confederate cavalry on East Cavalry Field. This address has been published a number of times, including in Kiddâ€™s well-known memoirs and also in a MOLLUS paper, and was readily available to Carhart. He never mentions it in his book.
Another point that needs to be made here is that Gregg actually usurped Custer twice during the fighting on East Cavalry Field. On two separate instances, Gregg issued orders directly to the commanders of first the 7th Michigan and later the 1st Michigan Cavalry regiments to charge. On both instances, Custer joined the charges, but he never ordered them. The fact that Custer had only been a general officer for four days, and that other than the fights and Hanover and Hunterstown, he had never led anything larger than a squad, while Gregg had been a general officer since the fall of 1862 and had a great deal more experience may have had something to do with this. Alternatively, perhaps expedience may have required that Gregg usurp Custer. Irrespective of the motives, the fact remains that Custer never ordered these charges, Gregg did. There is plenty of historical evidence to prove this.
Quite disenguously, Carhart then argues that Gregg–who, by the way, was known as one of the modest and self-effacing officers to serve in the Army of the Potomac–intentionally downplayed Custer’s role in order to play up his own role. This outrageous, slanderous claim flies directly in the face of ample historical evidence: David Gregg was remembered fondly by his men as â€œtall and spare, of notable activity, capable of the greatest exertion and exposure; gentle in manner but bold and resolute in action. Firm and just in discipline he was a favorite of his troopers and ever held, for he deserved, their affection and entire confidence.â€ Gregg knew the principles of war and was always ready and eager to apply them. Endowed â€œwith a natural genius of high order, he [was] universally hailed as the finest type of cavalry leader. A man of unimpeachable personal character, in private life affable and genial but not demonstrative, he fulfilled with modesty and honor all the duties of the citizen and head of an interesting and devoted family.â€ A former officer later commented that Greggâ€™s â€œmodesty kept him from the notoriety that many gained through the newspapers; but in the army the testimony of all officers who knew him was the same. Brave, prudent, dashing when occasion required dash, and firm as a rock, he was looked upon, both as a regimental commander and afterwards as Major-General, as a man in whose hands any troops were safe.â€ His men called him â€œOld Reliable.â€ Does that sound like a man who would downplay Custer’s role just to advance his own interests?
Carhart also claims that Stuart’s decision to order one of his batteries to fire four shots in the four directions of the compass was a signal to Robert E. Lee that he was in position and that Lee could then order the grand assault that became Pickett’s Charge. There is not a single shred of documentary evidence to support this claim. None at all. Further, historian Bill Styple has recently published an excellent new book titled _Generals in Bronze_, which consists of transcripts of interviews conducted by the eminent sculptor, James Kelly, who sculpted the monument to John Buford on the Gettysburg battlefield. One officer interviewed by Kelly was Alexander C. M. Pennington, who commanded the battery of horse artillery assigned to serve with Custer’s brigade. Here’s what Pennington had to say about this episode:
“When Jeb Stuart rode round our army at Gettysburg without striking us on the morning of July 3rd, he found that he could not locate us. Now [Maj. Henry] McClellan who was on his staff told me this story. He said that Stuart looked in every direction but could find no sign of our troops, so he ordered a gun out and ordered it to be fired in different directions in hopes of getting an echo or a reply from one of our guns, and then through his glass locate the smoke.
He fired in one direction, and then [received] an answering gun. He said that shot from that gun entered the muzzle of their gun, and knocked it off the trunions, breaking two wheels. Now, he said, this seems remarkable, almost incredible, but when he told me that story he said, ‘I assure you on the honor of a gentleman that it is true.’ And the singular fact is that it was my gun that did it. I was standing with Custer when I told my gunners to fire at them. He was an Irishman by the name of ————. I noticed he took a long time before he fired. Of course we could not tell at that distance exactly what happened.”
My experience is that H. B. McClellan, who was Stuart’s adjutant, is a reliable and dependable source. So much for Carhart’s nonsensical theory.
Carhart also devotes a major portion of this book–in redundant and poorly written fashion–discussing the historical battles that were taught as the primary curriculum at West Point. The actual discussion of the fighting on East Cavalry Field occupies only a small portion of the overall book, but Carhart claims that these historical lessons molded, formed, and drove Lee’s strategy for the third day at Gettysburg. Never mind that there is no evidence to support any of this. Instead, Carhart conveniently claims that a 1935 fire destroyed the evidence. How convenient.
The rest of this book is just as poorly researched. The book has no bibliography, which makes it impossible to examine the scope of his research. When we reach the discussion of East Cavalry Field, the only real primary sources consulted by Carhart seem to be the Official Records of the Civil War, and the correspondence by veterans included in _The Bachelder Papers_. While the _Bachelder Papers_ are an invaluable source, there are many more important primary sources that Carhart either ignored outright, or more likely, simply disregarded if they did not support his thesis. That this is lazy at best and intellectually dishonest at worst should be obvious.
This book also contains many major errors. How, for instance, is it possible to sneak 4,000 mounted men behind Union lines without detection? According to Carhart, the paved road network meant that billowing clouds of dust would not betray his presence. Later on, Carhart claims that Custer saw the dust of Stuart’s advance, thereby enabling him to prepare his brilliant defense. Which is it? These sorts of inconsistencies fill this book and leave the reader scratching his or her head and wondering just what the hell Carhart’s really trying to say.
I think that the thing that bothers me the most about this book is that Amazon.com, which seems to be selling the hell out of it, has apparently decided that it is no longer interested in honest and fair critical assessments of the works it sells in its reviews section. There have been multiple negative reviews of this festering pile of garbage, and most–but not all–have been censored by Amazon. I am aware, for instance, that one individual has had three different reviews deleted/censored by Amazon. Of course, any fawning review is kept, but anything that questions or otherwise criticizes this terrible book gets censored, meaning that unknowing or unsuspecting consumers will end up buying this book because they have been intentionally misled. In my mind, this is consumer fraud. Then, when the likes of Keegan and McPherson endorse this garbage, it only adds to the appearance of the legitimacy of what is a lousy piece of work.
This book is an intellectually dishonest, poorly researched, fabricated piece of tripe that manipulates SOME of the available evidence to support foregone conclusions and which should be marketed as fiction. It is certainly not history, and it constitutes revisionism of the worst variety. Save your money. Buy a happy meal at McDonald’s. You will find it to be a much better–and ultimately more satisfying–use of your hard-earned money.Scridb filter