Sunday, July 2, 2023

160 Years Ago Today the Course Of World History Was Changed

It is exceedingly rare when you can point to an action and correctly declare it to have been a turning point in world history. Here is one example. 

You can describe the opposing forces in the American Civil War a number of ways, depending on the point you wish to make:

  • Blue vs. Grey
  • Free states vs  Slave states 
  • Republicans vs Democrats

It's hard to decide if it was the 20th Maine at one end of the line or the New Yorkers at the other or the boys in the middle but 160 years ago today the entire course of world history was changed.
Here's a post from a few years ago on those "boys in the middle" who, by suffering the worst casualty rate of any U.S. forces, stopped the Confederate advance which led, on July 3rd to Pickett's charge and the doom of the secessionists.

In the feat of almost superhuman sacrifice we are looking at, the morality or the politics probably weren't top-of-mind. The overriding concern was sheer terror.

Toward the end of the second day of battle at Gettysburg, July 2, 1863, around 6:00 pm, the Confederates from Alabama were charging at a gap in the Union lines which when taken would allow them to wheel 90 degrees left and roll up the bluecoats by attacking from an unexpected and thus undefended direction.

When the 'Bama boys broke through it would force the Union forces to retreat, losing any chance at crushing the rebels and force a stalemate of the battle and more than likely the entire war, leaving in place the status quo ante and leaving the slaves in chains for at least another generation.

And then General Winfield S. Hancock, in a futile, desperate tactic ordered the 262 men of the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment to charge the 1100 advancing rebs.
The Minnesotans had been in some bloody battles:

Bull Run
and Chancellorsville

And knew that those 5:1 odds meant, not some esoteric talking point, but that every single one of them would have five guns firing at him for the duration of the charge.
And they did it anyway.

And they charged, with bayonets fixed.

Gen. Hancock whose order “Colonel [Colvill], do you see those colors?” (pointing at the advancing Confederate forces) “Then take them!”, later stated:

     “I had no alternative but to order the regiment in. We had no force on hand to meet the sudden emergency. Troops had been ordered up and were coming on the run, but I saw that in some way five minutes must be gained or we were lost. It was fortunate that I found there so grand a body of men as the First Minnesota. I knew they must lose heavily and it caused me pain to give the order for them to advance, but I would have done it (even) if I had known every man would be killed. It was a sacrifice that must be made. The superb gallantry of those men saved our line from being broken. No soldiers on any field, in this or any other country, ever displayed grander heroism.”
Bruce Catton stated in Glory Road:
    “The whole war had suddenly come to a focus in this smoky hollow, with a few score westerners trading their lives for the time the army needed…They had not captured the flag that Hancock had asked them to capture, but they still had their own flag and a great name…”
Lt. Col. Joseph B. Mitchell in his Decisive Battles of the Civil War stated:
    “There is no other unit in the history of warfare that ever made such a charge and then stood its ground sustaining such losses.”

The "westerners" suffered 82.6% casualties, as far as is known the highest casualty rate of any U.S. unit in that or any other American war. 

    "They had not taken the Alabama flag, but they had held on to their own," Historian Shelby Foote wrote.
    "And they had given Hancock his five minutes plus five more for good measure."
Back to General Hancock:

    "There is no more gallant deed recorded in history"

In 1928 President Coolidge said:

    "Colonel Colvill and those eight companies of the First Minnesota are entitled to rank as the saviors of their country."

By suffering casualties at the rate of one every two seconds they stopped the Confederate advance and forced Lee into the desperate gamble on the third and final day of the battle. Back to Shelby Foote:

    Gettysburg was the price the South paid for having Lee. The first day's fighting was so encouraging, and on the second day's fighting he came within an inch of doing it. And by that time Longstreet said Lee's blood was up, and Longstreet said when Lee's blood was up there was no stopping him... And that was that mistake he made, the mistake of all mistakes. Pickett's charge was an incredible mistake, and there was scarcely a trained soldier who didn't know it was a mistake at the time, except possibly Pickett himself, who was very happy he had a chance for glory.  

    ....William Faulkner, in "Intruder in the Dust", said that for every southern boy, it's always within his reach to imagine it being one o'clock on an early July day in 1863, the guns are laid, the troops are lined up, the flags are out of their cases and ready to be unfurled, but it hasn't happened yet. And he can go back in his mind to the time before the war was going to be lost and he can always have that moment for himself.
—Shelby Foote in Ken Burns' "The Civil War"
Kinda makes this stock market stuff seem a bit sordid in comparison.