“Our landings have failed and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”
—–Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, as found on a piece of paper he wrote on just before the D-Day invasion began, and just after he ordered it to commence, on June 6, 1944.
Eisenhower wrote these words to be his own apology and acceptance of responsibility had the massive invasion at Normandy been a defeat rather than the history-altering victory it was.
It almost was a defeat, and as the note, which Ike’s naval aide, Captain Harry C. Butcher, found crumpled in his shirt pocket weeks later and saved for posterity, shows, Ike realized all too well that it might be. The secret dry run for the invasion had been a deadly fiasco, the weather was atrocious, and no military operation on this scale had ever been attempted before in the history of man. It took a combination of German mistakes, high command confusion, individual heroics and the usual twists and turns of chaotic fate that decide most battles to allow the Allies to prevail. Continue reading
I wrote this post two years ago, concerning my favorite neglected episode of the Civil War, when young George Armstrong Custer shocked Confederate J.E.B. Stuart with his unexpected and furious resistance to Stuart’s attempt at disrupting the Union flank while Gen. Meade’s army defended itself against Pickett’s Charge. As with the First Minnesota’s suicidal stand on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Custer’s crucial moment of truth has been largely neglected in the assembly of the battle’s heroes; I don’t think it has ever been depicted in a Civil War film, for example, though there is at least one book about it.
The incident is especially fascinating to me because of the its multiple ironies. Custer succeeded when his nation needed him most because of the exact same qualities that led him to doom at the Little Big Horn years later. Moreover, this man who for decades was wrongly celebrated in popular culture as an American hero for a shameful botched command that was the culmination of a series of genocidal atrocities actually was an American hero in an earlier, pivotal moment in our history, and almost nobody knows about it.
Thus it is that among the brave soldiers of the Blue and Gray who should be remembered on this 150th anniversary of the greatest battle ever fought on this continent is a figure whose reputation has sunk to the depths, a figure of derision and ridicule, a symbol of America’s mistreatment of its native population. Had George Armstrong Custer perished on July 3, 1863, he might well have become an iconic figure in Gettysburg history. The ethics verdict on a lifetime, however, is never settled until the final heartbeat. His story also commands us to realize this disturbing truth: whether we engage in admirable conduct or wrongful deeds is often less a consequence of our character than of the context in which that character is tested.
Here is the post, slightly lengthened:
July 3, 1863 was the date of Pickett’s Charge, when Confederate General Robert E. Lee ordered a desperate Napoleonic advance against the Union line at Gettysburg in what has come to be a cautionary tale in human bravery and military hubris. The same day marked the zenith of the career of George Armstrong Custer, the head-strong, dashing cavalry officer who would later achieve both martyrdom and infamy as the unwitting architect of the massacre known as Custer’s Last Stand. Continue reading
Officers of the First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment
For the last two years, I have posted here about the courage and sacrifice of the men of the First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment at the Battle of Gettysburg. There was more than enough of those qualities, on both sides, to go around that day, and unless you are in the vicinity of that lovely and unbearably sad little Pennsylvania town, it isn’t just the brave Minnesotans who are neglected, but all of the participants. Yesterday was July 1, the anniversary of the beginning of the battle in 1863, and there was scant mention of it in the media. After all, there is the Zimmerman trial, and outrage over Jennifer Lopez accepting a million dollars to sing “Happy Birthday” for a brutal dictator, and whether movie viewers will flock to see Johnny Depp play Tonto. One of the few excellent acknowledgements of the date and its significance was by CBS, which also featured the famous feature on the battle published years ago by the Saturday Evening Post.
In an ambitious mood, I once resolved to find a different group of battlefield heroes from that day to feature every July 2, the messiest, most important pivotal of the battle that itself has been overshadowed by the tragedy of suicidal Pickett’s Charge on July 3. But I have neither the historical research skills nor time to do justice to such a task, though the injustice of so many forgotten heroes is great. It is best to allow the First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment, who obeyed a desperate order to fill a breach in the Union line, knowing that it meant almost certain death, “to gain a few minutes’ time and save the position and probably the battlefield,” to stand for all of them.
As for me, I’m going to watch, once again, Ted Turner’s excellent film Gettysburg, and play its soaring score in my home and my car. We have a duty to remember, and honor, every moment of those three days in July, 150 years ago. Continue reading
Quiz: What do Gen.Lee and Bill James have in common?
You see, our strengths do us in, sooner or later. The greater the strength, the more successful it has made us, the more dangerous it is.
In the American Civil War, Robert E. Lee was the smartest general on the field…so smart that he broke iron-clad rules of battle strategy again and again, and prevailed every time. When everyone told him how it was usually done, always done, Lee knew that he could get an edge by doing something else. You never divide your forces, his aides, subordinates and the military books told him. So Lee did, at Chancellorsville, and won an incredible victory.
Then came July 3, 1863: the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg, and Pickett’s Charge. Everyone told Lee that a massed Napoleonic assault, over an open field, into enemy artillery and a fortified line, was suicidal. But when conventional wisdom dictated a course of action, that was when Lee had always succeeded by ignoring it. So he ordered Pickett’s Charge. This time, conventional wisdom was right. The same qualities of creativity, courage, certitude, and willingness to resist the power of convention that had caused Lee’s men to trust him unconditionally had resulted in the massacre of thousands. Pickett’s Charge wasn’t bold or ingenious. It was irresponsible. Lee, because of a lifetime of success challenging what others thought was obvious, was no longer able to tell the difference. Continue reading
Last year on this date, I posted about the injustice of historical memory, and how the heroic exploits of the Maine soldiers on Little Round Top commanded by Col. Joshua Chamberlain on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg have all but obliterated recognition of the even more remarkable sacrifices made by the First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment that same day, when it took on the suicide mission of blocking a hole in the Union line against a Confederate force that outnumbered it five to one. Those Minnesotans quite possibly saved the United States of America at the price of their lives.
I see that some readers are finding that post today: let me make it easier for everybody. Here is the link. This a day for all of us to honor the heroism of the First Minnesota, and indeed all of the Americans, North and South, who fought for their nation, their states, their ideals and the soul of America in the Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg, on July 2, 1863. Continue reading
Sometimes the Enabling Virtues will save an army, and sometimes they’ll get you killed.
July 3, 1863 was the date of Pickett’s Charge, when Confederate General Robert E. Lee ordered a desperate Napoleonic advance against the Union line at Gettysburg in what has come to be a cautionary tale in human bravery and military hubris. The same day marked the zenith of the career of George Armstrong Custer, the head-strong, dashing cavalry officer who would later achieve both martyrdom and infamy as the unwitting architect of the massacre known as Custer’s Last Stand.
Custer’s heroics on the decisive final day of the Battle of Gettysburg teach their own lessons, historical and ethical. Since the East Calvary Field battle has been thoroughly overshadowed by the tragedy of Pickett’s Charge, it is little known and seldom mentioned. Yet the truth is that the battle, the war, and the United States as we know it may well have been saved that day by none other than undisciplined, reckless George Armstrong Custer. Continue reading
If you know anyone from Minnesota, today would be a good day to say “thank you.”
July 2 was the second day of the decisive Civil War battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and the most complicated and wide-ranging day in the conflict. So much was going on at Seminary Ridge and Cemetery Ridge, on Little Round Top, the Peach Orchard, Devil’s Den and a half dozen other key features on the battle field that whether an instance of heroism was recorded or forgotten is as much a matter of chance as anything else. Even determining what was the turning point in the day’s conflict, which ultimately was won by the forces of the North, is an exercise in searching for order in chaos.
There is no question, however, that the First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment’s astonishing heroics stand out even among the many other examples of gallantry on that day. The battlefield monument to the First Minnesota is the one of the largest erected to any Union regiment, and yet it has not guaranteed our cultural memory of the epic sacrifice those soldiers made. Other second day exploits, due to sometimes arbitrary choices made by historians and film makers, have taken up the limited space available in the public’s attention to the details of the Civil War.
This is an injustice. As the battle raged for Cemetery Ridge, crucial high ground occupied by Union forces, General Winfield Hancock saw a serious breach in the Union line, and realized that Wilcox’s Alabama Brigade had to be opposed and stopped in their advance until he could round up reinforcements. He ordered the First Minnesota to charge the brigade and hold the position, even though its 262 men would be outnumbered by a force of more than 1200. Continue reading
Today is July 1, which is being treated across the United States as the gateway to a long weekend and the Fourth of July, and little more. July 1 is also, however, the anniversary of the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, the most important and most deadly battle of the many important and deadly conflicts in the American Civil War. The two American armies that clashed in the Pennsylvania town sustained more than 50,000 casualties on the Gettysburg battlefield, which may be the saddest and noblest place in America.
If you have not made at least one pilgrimage to the battlefield, you owe it to yourself, and to the memory of the combatants, to go. Continue reading
"It is all my fault."
After the catastrophic miscalculation of Pickett’s Charge led to the slaughter of his soldiers and the loss of the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg, Confederate General Robert E. Lee met the bloody survivors returning from the field of fire, telling them, one by one, “It is all my fault!” To Pickett, whose division was all but wiped out, he said, “Upon my shoulders rests the blame.”
I am no admirer of Robert E. Lee, but this was his finest moment as a leader, and an example for all leaders who are followed in faith and meet disappointment or worse. I wrote two days ago that Harold Camping, the evangelical broadcaster who proclaimed with absolute, 100% certainty that his calculations foretelling the end of the world on May 21 were correct, had better be prepared to be held accountable when we were all still here on May 22. He wasn’t. From Reuters:
” With no sign of Judgment Day arriving as he had forecast, the 89-year-old California evangelical broadcaster and former civil engineer behind the pronouncement seemed to have gone silent on Saturday. Family Radio, the Christian stations network headed by Harold Camping which had spread his message of an approaching doomsday, was playing recorded church music, devotionals and life advice unrelated to the apocalypse.” Continue reading
At some point, delaying an important leadership decision stops being resposnible, and begins being unethical.
The White House put out word today that President Obama’s decision regarding troop levels in Afghanistan is on the verge of being revealed. When it is, a few things are certain. If his decision is to increase troop levels to the degree requested by the Pentagon, Obama’s pacifist Left supporters will be furious. If it is to withhold more troops and prepare for U.S, withdrawal, supporters of an aggressive war policy on the Right will go on the attack. If it is anything in between, neither of these camps will be happy.
It is also certain that nobody will be able to tell if what the President has decided is the “right” decision. Continue reading