Gettysburg plays a central role in the mythology of the Lost Cause. Two Confederate generals present on the battlefield, Isaac Trimble and Jubal Early, were among the myth’s first proponents, and adherents believe that if Lee had won there, the war might have gone differently. The Army of the Potomac might have been destroyed; European allies might have interceded on the South’s behalf; Lincoln might have gone to the bargaining table. As such, it became very important to identify whose fault it was that the Army of Northern Virginia had been defeated. However, the blame could not land on the Saints of the Lost Cause – Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Jackson’s death at Chancellorsville made him immune, but Lee had been in overall command. Thus the Lost Causers hunted for fault among his subordinates.
Harry Heth and A.P. Hill could be blamed. Heth, with Hill’s approval, had made an intemperate foray towards Gettysburg on the 1st, bringing on a battle that Lee did not yet want to fight. However, the first day went well for the Confederacy, arguably better than it would have if Richard Ewell had taken the Second Corps to Cashtown that day and they had advanced in force along the Cashtown Pike on the 2nd. Hill comes in for further criticism since he made no real contribution to the battle on the following days. Although divisions from his Corps were engaged on the 2nd and 3rd, he personally contributed almost no leadership, not even to correct obviously faulty alignments on both days.
Many critics blamed J.E.B. Stuart. He had taken the best brigades of Confederate cavalry on a useless raid around the Army of the Potomac that netted some irrelevant plunder and barely affected Yankee communications. In the process, the story goes, he rendered the Army of Northern Virginia blind, forcing it to battle on ground it did not know against an army it had not scouted. Worse, the need to use infantry to cover the cavalry’s traditional tasks meant that Pickett and Law were delayed reaching the battlefield. However, Stuart didn’t take all of the cavalry with him. Lee had two brigades of cavalry (Jones and Robertson) and one of irregulars (Imboden) that he could have used to scout and serve as rearguard. He mishandled these troops, however, leaving Jones and Robertson to guard passes that needed no guarding, and giving Imboden too free a hand to do as he wished. Stuart allowed his wounded pride to tempt him into a mistake, but if the Army of Northern Virginia was blind, it was not entirely his fault.
Ewell, despite successfully pushing aside the XI Corps on the first day, also became a target. His decision not to attack Cemetery or Culp’s Hills on the first day has long been criticized for ceding the best ground available to the Union. His desire to keep his men positioned on the right, too far from the rest of the army for Lee to exert any real control, left the Confederates in an awkward tactical position and interfered with operations. His attacks on Culp’s Hill were mostly fruitless and never achieved their aim of drawing troops away from the rest of the field. Aside from his first day’s success, Ewell did little to help the Confederate cause. Yet, the failures were not his alone. Lee declined to offer any support for an attack on the hills on the first day, and he could have simply ordered Ewell to move over towards the main body of the army if he had wished to do so. Instead, Lee deferred to his subordinate’s wishes; if Ewell erred, it was because Lee let him.
Many Lost Causers focused on James Longstreet, not least because of his friendship with Ulysses S. Grant and his Republican politics. Longstreet also was not shy about sharing his opinion that Lee had made critical errors at times – a sin by Lost Cause standards. Longstreet had not wanted to invade Pennsylvania, had not wanted to fight at Gettysburg, and had not wanted to use the tactics that Lee ordered. He had been absent during the successes of the 1st, slow and inefficient on the 2nd, and reluctant on the 3rd. Yet, he had also been the only one of Lee’s Corps commanders to take an active hand in operations, and the slowness on the 2nd had not been entirely his fault. Longstreet performed poorly in many ways, but the blame could not all land on him.
The truth, unpleasant as Lost Causers might find it, is that Robert E. Lee is The Man Who Lost Gettysburg. He lost because he did not exert enough control over Hill and Stuart. He lost because he deferred excessively to Ewell, while disregarding Longstreet’s misgivings. He lost because he counted on an artillery barrage without making sure that Porter Alexander had the authority and ammunition to make it succeed. Mostly, though, he lost because of a sin as old as Aeschylus: hubris. Robert E. Lee had great pride in his army, and believed it invincible. He had contempt for Yankee fighting men, and even more for their leaders. He believed that he could not be defeated by “those people”, as he called them. And in the end, he believed that he was The Man Who Lost Gettysburg. “All this has been my fault,” Lee told Cadmus Wilcox, and he was right.
But asking who The Man Who Lost Gettysburg was already concedes the matter to the Lost Causers. The question itself reflects the belief that victory was something due the noble warriors of the South, only denied to them by the small-mindedness of corps commanders and the overwhelming power of Northern material wealth. The question assumes Lee’s contempt for the Yankee army was justified. But the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac, with few exceptions, fought bravely and well, and they were led, for the most part, by generals who made the right decisions and saved the army in moments of crisis. John Buford’s excellent defense in depth, Abner Doubleday’s skillful management of the I Corps, Gouverneur K. Warren’s quick recognition and solution of the danger at Little Round Top, Winfield Hancock’s capable management of the defense on the second and third days of the battle, and Henry Hunt’s brutally effective artillery placements all could be viewed as critical to Union success on the field. So perhaps the question we should be asking is, who is The Man Who Won Gettysburg?