27 Jan 2012

Did Lee’s Health Problems Play a Role at Gettysburg?

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The Battle of Gettysburg, generally looked upon as the turning point of the Civil War, occurred over three days, July 1 – July 3, 1863.

The first day of Gettysburg consisted of a meeting engagement, in which fate favored the Union. Elements of A.P. Hill’s Corps ran into veteran Union cavalry armed with repeating carbines occupying a good defensible position on a ridge. Reinforcements arrived for both sides, but the Union forces which arrived first consisted of the best troops in the Union Army, Reynolds‘ First Corps, including the renowned Iron Brigade. Nonetheless, the Confederate infantry eventually drove the Union forces back, compelling them to retreat to the next ridge line east of the town. The first day of the Battle of Gettysburg ended with a significant Confederate victory.

On the second day, Confederate forces attacked both the left and right ends of the Union line, attempting to turn the Army of the Potomac’s flank. But the Union positions on high ground were strong, the Confederate attacks were delayed and not ideally coordinated, and the Union defense held. The second day’s fighting of the Battle of Gettysburg ended in an indecisive stalemate.

On the third day, Robert E. Lee choose to emulate the offensive strategy adopted by Napoleon successfully at both Wagram and Borodino, a full-scale frontal attack on the enemy center intended to break his line decisively and to drive him from the field in full retreat. Lee sent Pickett’s Division and six brigades from A.P. Hill’s Corps, nearly 13,000 men, to advance and break the Union center. Pickett’s Charge failed, and the third day of Gettysburg resulted in a decisive Confederate defeat.

Robert E. Lee’s decision to order a frontal attack has provoked endless re-examination and criticism.

In the latest issue of The Gettysburg Magazine, Dr. Carl Coppolino proposes a medical explanation for General Lee’s misjudgment.

I don’t put any stock in these kinds of explanations myself, but there may be something valid in the mention of Lee’s heart trouble. The possibility that Lee’s cardiac illness played a role at Gettysburg has been offered before. Mainwaring, Tribble 1992.

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