“Stars in Their Courses : The Gettysburg Campaign, June-July 1863” ” is an extended excerpt on the Gettysburg Campaign from Shelby Foote’s absolutely superb three volume narrative history of the Civil War. The Gettysburg Campaign is a gripping story in its own right, the central impressive thread of which is Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s general’s aura of invincibility.
The background for what would become the sixty day montage known as the Gettysburg campaign, Foote explores the Southern decision to invade Pennsylvania. Backed by Lee himself, the general’s aura of invincibility proved irresistible and awe inspiring even to one not easily impressed, Jefferson Davis. Setting the honorable tone for the ensuing conflict, Lee said to his soldiers: “It must be remembered that we make war only upon armed men…and that we cannot take vengeance for the wrongs our people have suffered without lowering ourselves in the eyes of all whose abhorrence has been excited by the atrocities of our enemies, and offending against Him to whom vengeance belongeth, without whose favor and support our efforts must all prove in vain.”
Before Gettysburg Lee’s four major engagements in the prior ten months against superior Union forces had yielded three spectacular victories. Now, on the eve of battle, the Union’s improbable appointment of Meade made the Pennsylvanian the fifth different commander to oppose Lee in as many tries.
From the beginning, however, Stuart’s bizarre reconnaissance delay disadvantaged Lee of important information regarding enemy position and troop strength, and he found himself in the unknown position of waging battle at a time and location not of his own choosing.
The ending of the three day conflict which concluded with Pickett’s unfortunate charge, was ordered by an inflexible Lee, executed by a unwilling Longstreet, and carried out by a multitude of fearless soldiers in the wake of the greatest concentration of artillery ever amassed on the continent. Longsreet’s reserve at the undertaking was shared by many of the commanders, with the notable exception of Pickett, who was “entirely sanguine of success in the charge.” Commanding another flank of the attack was Pettigrew. Fluent in most of the European languages and a scholar in Greek and Hebrew, he presided over a Southern peculiarity: Four of his regiments, despite a well-earned history of valor, and a four to one numerical advantage, abruptly defected in the midst of a Union assault as bold as it was unexpected.
The University Greys, made up entirely of students from the State University, were part of a Mississippi regiment that managed to nearly reach the Union line but paid the staggering price of a tabulated 100% loss. In all, the courageous efforts of 11,000 of Lee’s finest men were repulsed, and Union forces were to witness the devastation of Fredericksburg in reverse.
“This has been my fight, and upon my shoulders rests the blame,” Lee explained to a downhearted Pickett. He continued, “Your men have done all that men can do.” As he expressed the same emotion to his troops up and down the line, they responded to the tableau of the great general, and expressed their near common unchanged support in kind. The historic Gettysburg campaign had come to an end, and the two armies returned to their respective approximate starting positions. As was the Union custom, Meade did not pursue his advantage.
“Stars in Their Courses” provides a meticulous treatment of the details that comprised the events surrounding Gettysburg. Yet, such treatment is necessary, and in Foote’s skilled hands, welcome. It is so well written that you do not realize it is exerted from Foote’s Trilogy. Read and reviewed by Jimmie A. Kepler.