Dramatis Personae: Gettysburg

“History is not was, it is”- William Faulkner

“What we need to remember most of all is that the Civil War is not over until we, today, have done our part in fighting it, as well as understanding what happened when the Civil War generation fought it.” -Barbara Fields.

The Civil War. What a daunting episode in our nation’s history.

It is so daunting that it took me a long time to get around to read about it. And reading about it, takes real time and commitment. For example, Shelby Foote’s account of the war is told across three volumes and over 3,000 pages. The Civil War is the most written about event in American History. The estimate is around 100,000 volumes about out National bloodletting. The President of the Union, Abraham Lincoln, is the most written about historical figure, coming only second to Jesus. About 15,000 books have been written about Honest Abe. Where do you have the time? And where do you even start?

The impetus for me, was my late brother Greg. Greg was an educator of American History and a voracious reader of American nonfiction. One summer we decided to read a book that had been sitting on our book shelves for a while, gathering dust. It was yet another biography of Lincoln. But this one, had been hailed as the latest and greatest history of our 16th, and perhaps our greatest presidents. The book: David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln.

Over the summer we held our unofficial book club over the phone. We discussed Lincoln and his times and the events that shaped his presidency. Greg had to fill me in on many of the details of the Civil War. Now here was a huge void in my understanding of American History. I had avoided delving into the Civil War partly because of it’s overwhelming scope and breath as a subject and also because it seemed to be a blotch on our national character that was uncomfortable to face head on. How could it be that a nation called the “United” States of America be so ununited? (Sounds very contemporary I know!)

I wanted to read more about the Civil War and my brother suggested a very enjoyable read: the narrative and fictionalized historical account of the Battle of Gettysburg: Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels.

After reading the Lincoln biography and Shaarra’s masterpiece (which inspired the film Gettysburg) I asked my brother for a reading recommendation for the best single volume account of the Civil War. I wanted to understand the times and context of the Civil War without taking a lifetime to read about it. Greg’s response was Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson.

I bought Battle Cry of Freedom and like any great or important undertaking, it sat on my bookshelf awaiting the first turn of it’s 909 pages. I thumbed through the pages and looked at the photos but I could not bring myself to take the first step on this long journey of learning.

Then on April 5, 2021, Greg died.

His death was the impetus to finally start reading about our nation’s greatest struggle. I spent the summer reading Battle Cry of Freedom. This masterpiece covers the causes of the Civil War as well as focusing on the people who fought it and it’s battles.

I realized that to really understand the Civil War, you had to visit some of the battlefields. And the the one battlefield that seems to rise above the others is Gettysburg, the battle that became the turning point in the war. (spoiler alert: the North won).

I planned to visit Gettysburg and a few other battlesites in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia. And before I take any trip, I do a bit of sketching.

This time I want to sketch the Dramatis personae of the Battle of Gettysburg. Four from the North and four from the South.

By the time of the Civil War, portrait photography was popular and many of the generals, North and South, sat to have their portraits taken. All off my sketches were draw from these portraits.

The Portraits

The North (Left to Right):

Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, head of the Army of the Potomac. Meade became the commander of the Army of the Potomac just three days before the first battle at Gettysburg. Meade’s horse “Old Baldy” was injured during Gettysburg but survived the General to participate in the general’s funeral procession in 1872.

Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds of the First Corps. Reynolds fought in the Mexican War become friends with Winfield Scott Hancock of the North and Lewis Armistead of the South.This Pennsylvanian was killed on the first day of battle on July 1, 1863. He was a friend and had served under General Meade.

Col. Joshua L. Chamberlain of the 20th Maine. He is know as the Fighting Professor and the hero of Little Round Top for his heroic bayonet charge. Chamberlin taught at Bowdoin College where he was not aloud to enlist, but went on a leave of absence and enlisted anyway. He is one of the key figures in Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels. Chamberlain suffered six wounds during the Civil War, eventually dying of them in 1914. He is said to be the final casualty of the Civil War.

Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock of the Second Corps, was fighting in his home state of Pennsylvania. During the fighting in the Peninsula Campaign, he received the nickname, “Hancock, the Superb”. He was wounded on the final day of the Battle while defending Cemetery Ridge against Pickett’s Charge.

The South (left to right):

Gen. Robert E. Lee, Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee was born in Virginia in 1807. In 1829, he graduated from the US Military Academy, second in his class. He married Mary Anne Curtis and he moved into her family estate home in Arlington, Virginia, later to become Arlington National Cemetery, first opened to bury the Civil War dead. In 1861, Lincoln offered Lee the command of the U.S. Army, he refused and on April 20, 1861, resigned his commission and fought for the South. Lee was a brilliant strategist in the Civil War but the Battle of Gettysburg proved to be his Waterloo.

Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, Commander of the First Corps. Nicknamed “Old Pete” Longstreet served in the Mexican War with many of the men he would be fighting against during the Civil War. Longstreet disagreed with Lee’s tactic on the third day at Gettysburg. He was reluctant to send men forward in what became known as “Pickett’s Charge” because he believed it would fail, which was ultimately the case.Longstreet became a critic of Lee after the war.

Maj. Gen. George E Pickett, head of Pickett’s division in the First Corps. Ranked last in his class at West Point, Pickett served in the Mexican War with Longstreet. The flamboyant Pickett lead the charged on the Northern position on Cemetery Ridge loosing almost his entire division in the process. On their retreat from the charge, Pickett encounter Lee and the General asked Pickett to rally his division for defense, to which Pickett replied, “General Lee, I have no division.”

Brig. Gen. Lewis A. Armistead, came from a military family. He was a West Point drop out that learned his trade during the Mexican War. During the last day of Battle of Gettysburg, Armistead led his Brigade, hat on sword, and made the deepest advance on the Northern lines, becoming mortally wounded in the process. The wounded General was misidentified as Longstreet and under a truce flag on July Fourth, a Northern messenger encountered the very much living Longstreet letting him know that the General “would be taken care of”. Old Pete “told the messenger he believed he could take care of himself quite well”.

2 thoughts on “Dramatis Personae: Gettysburg

  1. Thanks John. I don’t know much about the details of the Civil War. It must have been heart-rending for the soldiers. This makes me realize how little I know. Robin

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