Springfield’s Civil War Symposium will be all Gettysburg, all the time

On March 4, the Clark County Heritage Center will be most exclusive Gettysburg address in the nation when the Springfield Civil War Symposium dedicates its entire program to the war’s pivotal battle and the speech that changed American political culture.

Here are brief descriptions of the four scheduled presentations, three of which involve controversies that are 160 – make that eight score – years old.

They weren’t rank amateurs

D. Scott Hartwig, a Civil War historian and the historian of Gettysburg Military Park, will focus on the second day of the Gettysburg battle, he said, “but not about decisions by commanders or troop movements.”

His topic: What was it like for the people who fought it?

“Why did they fight the way they did? How did they fight the way they did? What were physical circumstances? What was morale?”

Beyond question, he said, the summer battle was fought by seasoned troops.

Two years into the war, “the overwhelming majority of soldiers on both sides of the battle are veterans” – many as knowledgeable about battles as their commanders, Hartwig said.

“They had a good appreciation of ground: what they could hold, what they couldn’t – what was good or bad for defensive or offensive operations.”

They also understood the effect of tactical moves and ebbs and flows of a fight.

Hartwig said “many of their letters home describe the entire battle” in the kind of detail that might be expected by people with the vested personal and professional interest they had.

Said Hartwig: “They have a role to play in (the battle), and the outcome is going to affect their lives.”

While both sides went into battle with a same sense of urgency that had been building for a week, Hartwig said Union troops arrived having “made forced marches every day for more than a week,”

And their pursuit of the Confederate troops was as humid as it was hot.

Union Gen. Alexander Webb’s forces, for instance, marched 34 miles in a single day, he said, a hike Hartwig said “took a toll.”

Another march undertaken by the Union Sixth Corps, the largest in the Army of the Potomac, may have been the most important troop movement of the three-day battle.

That 19-hour March began at 10 p.m. July 1 and ended in Gettysburg at 5 p.m. July 2, giving the Union army an advantage in numbers going into the decisive day – the third day of what would be, at that time, the largest battle in world history.

Of horses and helicopters

While serving with 3rd and 11th U.S. Armored Cavalry during a 26-year military career, Retired U.S. Army Col. Peter Monsoor didn’t ride horses or fire Sharpe’s carbines like the cavalry units at Gettysburg.

But the now professor of military history at Ohio State University says the essentials of cavalry “remains the same” as it was 160 years ago, a point he plans to illustrate assessing the Gettysburg battlefield at the Symposium from the point of view of a modern cavalry officer.

Mansoor said at Gettysburg, mounted cavalry had as distinct a mobility advantage over infantry units as the Bradley Fighting Vehicles, attack helicopters and Abrams tanks provide the U.S. Army cavalry of today.

The Sharpe’s carbines they carried also gave them the essential advantage over infantry forces as modern ordnance provides today’s soldiers.

The carbines allowed them to fire eight to 10 projectiles the size of a modern deer slug in a minute’s time, while infantry muskets could return fire with much smaller balls at the rate of only two or three times a minute.

That “big punch,” Monsoor explained, meant and means that infantry units can’t just stand pat and fire back.

“When a unit comes under fire, it needs to spread out its lines to lessen its exposure (to fire) and bring greater firepower to bear upon the enemy.”

That gives cavalry the power to shape the positioning of enemy infantry on the battlefield, which is what the cavalry of Brig. Gen John Buford’s I Corps did on June 30th, when it came upon Gen. Henry Heth’s (pronounced Heeth’s) Confederate infantry.

Because the deployment of thousands of infantrymen takes time, Hartwig added, “a cavalry threat buys an interval (of time for its side) to bring up reinforcements.”

And that is crucial, he said, because their big punch notwithstanding “they can’t hold ground” without infantry support.

By the time he delivers his talk, Mansoor also may have a better sense of whether the critical absence of Confederate cavalry that could have protected Heth’s troops as the battle was shaping up was due to what some Southern newspapers of the time claimed: That Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, leader of that cavalry, was out chasing headlines instead of serving the best interests of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Monsoor served as Gen. David Petraeus’ executive officer during the 2007-08 surge of U.S. Troops in Iraq and said this about the experience: “It was gratifying to be part of a winning effort. And, yes, I’ll claim that we won, based on where we were in 2006 (before the surge).

You be the judge

Frank Williams served 13 years on the Rhode Island Supreme Court, roughly half as its Chief Justice. He also has been president of the Abraham Lincoln Association, was founding chair of the Lincoln Forum and was longtime president of the Ulysses S. Grant Association.

But when he returns to the Springfield Civil War Symposium, don’t expect him to render judgment on another century-and-a-half old controversy: Whether President Abraham Lincoln or Union Gen. George Meade was more justified about tearing his hair out because of the other after the stunning Union victory at Gettysburg.

“Lincoln believed Meade lost an opportunity to destroy Lee and the Army of northern Virginia” – and with it, end the war, Williams said.

He then offered a reason for Lincoln’s frustration “The (Potomac) River was swollen and he had a chance” to trap Lee before he could escape to Virginia.

But, faster than ESPN’s Lee Corso says “Not so fast” to Kirk Herbstreit, Williams seemed to take Meade’s side: “Was the Union Army too exhausted? Were there too many high-ranking casualties among commanding and regimental officers” to make the pursuit either wise or advisable.

“I’m not going to answer the question,” Williams said.

The judge wants attendees to judge for themselves.

Last and, likely, least

The final presentation of the day has been left to a local yokel: Me.

I will discuss the Gettysburg Address and my 30-year obsession with how to read and understand the speech that Garry Wills’ Pulitzer-Prize book “Lincoln at Gettysburg” calls “The words that remade America.”

See you there.


What: Springfield Civil War Symposium

Where: Clark County Heritage Center

When: Saturday, March 4, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Cost: $60, $50 for members, $20 for students

To register by the Feb. 24 deadline: https://cutt.ly/cws23

More info: heritage.center/civil-war-symposium

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