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  • Writer's pictureJeff Matthews

Saturday Edition: Twelve Roads to Gettysburg

It was the shoes that started the whole thing.

142 years ago today, at this very hour, on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Union troops waited in rising heat on a low hill—roughly in the formation of an upside-down “j” immediately south of town—for an attack they knew was coming from an army that had routed the same Union army two months ago to the day in the woods of Chancellorsville.

The Union troops knew the attack was coming because Confederate General Robert E. Lee had nearly destroyed them the day before—the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg—and they knew Lee would not stop with “nearly.”

The way it had all started that first day was simple and seemingly random: the morning of July 1, 1863, two divisions of Confederate infantry had marched east on the Chambersburg Turnpike towards Gettysburg, a quiet town in southern Pennsylvania known not yet for the battle that would mark the high-water mark of the Confederacy, but for its Lutheran Seminary.

Those Confederates troops were looking for shoes—specifically, a large supply of shoes rumored to be at the Gettysburg depot.

Shoes were important because armies, in those days, moved on their feet. (Some Confederate troops at Gettysburg had marched 30 miles before going straight into battle: think about walking thirty miles quickly, on an empty stomach, before doing anything let alone fighting.) And, while the Union troops were generally well supplied with blue uniforms, boots and caps thanks to the huge industrial base of the North; the Confederate troops were not so well dressed.

In fact, as many as a third of the troops Robert E. Lee marched north into Maryland and Pennsylvania that summer of 1863—with the specific intent of bringing the war home to North and inflaming anti-war passions in Congress—were barefoot.

Which is why any pictures or paintings or movies you have seen about the Civil War showing brightly uniformed blue and grey troops clashing in brave and dramatic poses, are fiction. And why the first thing the Rebel soldiers stripped from dead Union soldiers were their boots. And, in fact, why the Confederate soldiers were marching to Gettysburg on July 1, 1863.

That the decisive battle of the Civil War took place in Gettysburg owes itself to one peculiar and significant attribute of the town entirely unrelated to its Lutheran Seminary: a dozen roads from important towns and cities like Chambersburg, Baltimore and York all converged on Gettysburg, like the spokes of a wheel.

So, in late June, when Robert E. Lee halted his second invasion north of the Potomac River and ordered the scattered troops of the Army of Northern Virginia to consolidate against the sudden threat of the Army of the Potomac moving north under its new commander, George Meade, those twelve roads made Gettysburg the almost inevitable meeting ground of the two large armies.

But the initial clash that started three days of fighting was merely about the shoes coveted by the ill-clad Confederate forces—and the determination of a single Union cavalry officer, General John Buford, to make a stand against the Confederate troops from positions on McPherson Ridge and the banks of Willoughby Run just west of town.

What gets me thinking about this, aside from the significance of the dates involved, is that Shelby Foote, the Mississippi born novelist-turned-Civil War chronicler, died this week. If you have not read Foote’s “The Civil War, A Narrative,” you ought to give it a try—or at least listen to the excerpt devoted to the Battle of Gettysburg, called “Stars in Their Courses,” which is read by Foote himself.

Foote chronicles a bloody, disjointed mess of a three-day battle in a way that makes it almost poetry, and brings to the surface precisely what created an entire category of individuals—and I am one of them—called “Civil War Buffs”: the human element of the war itself. Specifically, the actions and character of the men (they were all men in those days) who fought in a war where individual acts mattered greatly.

For what is really interesting about all those battles is not the blood and guts and guns of war: what is interesting—as Foote makes plain—is the clash of personalities encompassing the great struggle.

It was a war fought largely on foot. Officers still carried sabers, and the infantry charged with bayonets when the fighting got close. Airplanes, tanks, trucks had not been invented: individuals and their actions mattered as much as raw firepower.

There are too many instances during the Civil War when individual actions changed the direction of an engagement or of a battle to list here, but it is a fact that one man on the Union side saved the entire Army of the Potomac from disaster on the Battle of Gettysburg’s second day—and thus probably saved the Union.

He was Gouverneur K. Warren, and he was not even a line officer: he was Meade’s chief engineer, inspecting the geography south of the Union forces concentrated on Cemetery Hill. Warren saw that the rocky, undefended hill called “Little Round Top” (think of it as the dot on the upside-down “j”) held the key to the entire Union line. If the Confederates took it (which they were about to try to do) and muscled a few rifled guns to the top, the battle was lost.

So he ordered passing troops to the top, telling their officer who hesitated at not following his original orders, “I’ll take responsibility.” The Union troops took, and held, Little Round Top by the hardest. The Army of the Potomac held its lines and fended off Pickett’s Charge the following day, and the Battle of Gettysburg went down in history as the high watermark of the Confederacy.

On Monday, July 4th, the New York Times will reprint the Declaration of Independence as it always does each July 4th. It is an extraordinary document—and one we might not be re-reading each July 4th if one individual had not made a split-second decision and taken complete responsibility for his actions 142 years ago today. Pretty cool stuff.

And all because of some shoes, and a lot of barefoot soldiers.

Jeff Matthews I Am Not Making This Up

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