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Civil War Bookshelf:
A Review of 'Lost Triumph: Lee's Real Plan at Gettysburg -
and Why It Failed'

Reviewed by Dave Carrino
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2008, All Rights Reserved

"Union artillery and rifle fire brutalized the nine attacking brigades of Pickett's Charge. By three-thirty, they reached the Clump of Trees, but could not hold. They retreated, bleeding, back across the open field, and Lee, it is said, was there to receive them, loudly telling one and all, 'It's all my fault!' But was it really?"

This passage from the book Lost Triumph: Lee's Real Plan at Gettysburg--And Why It Failed by Tom Carhart succinctly captures the question addressed in the book. Carhart's thought-provoking and provocative book explores the issue of Robert E. Lee's battle plan for the third day at Gettysburg. The author is a graduate of West Point and a Vietnam veteran. He received a law degree from the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. in American and military history from Princeton University.

To give credit where due, the book was brought to my attention by Dr. David Burke of Holden Arboretum and Case Western Reserve University, who professes a deep interest in the Gettysburg battle. As the title of the book implies, Lee's plan entailed more than merely Pickett's Charge. Carhart's book presents the author's argument that Pickett's Charge was only one component of a planned three-pronged attack on the Union Fishhook defenses on Cemetery Ridge, Cemetery Hill, and Culp's Hill. The specific details of Lee's real plan as articulated by Carhart have been intentionally omitted from this review to avoid spoiling the book for those who have not read it. Suffice it to say that Lee's real plan at Gettysburg required the kind of timing and coordination which characterized his battle plans in the Kanawha Valley and in the Seven Days battles earlier in the Civil War. In those instances, the inexperience and failings of some of Lee's subordinates caused Lee's plans to fall far short of his objectives. But by the battle of Gettysburg, the Army of Northern Virginia had become a highly cohesive fighting force capable of executing Lee's complex plans, which gave Lee the confidence to devise an intricate plan for the destruction of the Union Army of the Potomac. As the book's title further implies, Carhart explains the reasons why Lee's real plan was unsuccessful, and a prominent figure in this, according to Carhart, is someone who is remembered not for his actions at Gettysburg, but for his own disastrous failure thirteen years later.

As an ardent admirer of Robert E. Lee, I need no motivation to enthusiastically support any argument which vindicates Lee from what is widely considered, as Carhart states, "Lee's faulty decision making on July 3, 1863," and I am more than happy to put my eyes to a book which enhances Lee's already lofty status by removing the one blemish from his stellar military record. But for those skeptics whose opinion on this issue is solidified, the author's point of view is endorsed by no less a Civil War authority than James M. McPherson, who wrote the book's Foreword and who, according to the Acknowledgments, provided guidance and additional evidence to the author and also acted as devil's advocate to assist the author in honing his case. McPherson states in the Foreword, "Given the vast number of writings on Gettysburg, it seems impossible to come up with new information and insights about the battle. But Tom Carhart has done it."

Carhart's argument can be summarized in a single paragraph from his book. "Upon considering Lee and his life experiences to date, it is readily apparent that he was a consummate military strategist and tactician. When he defeated McClellan in the Seven Days, Pope at Second Manassas, Burnside at Fredericksburg, Hooker at Chancellorsville, and, despite the fact that the Union force was nearly twice the size of his own, fought McClellan to a draw at Antietam, Lee never left any of his forces inactive at the critical moments of those battles. I believe it frivolous and professionally insulting to think that Lee did not have some major plan…for the rest of his army during Pickett's charge by 13,000- less than 20 percent of his available force- against the heart of the Union defenses on July 3."

To support his argument, Carhart draws primarily from the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. The historical evidence is supplemented with what Carhart admits is conjecture and what McPherson in the Foreword refers to as "plausible inference." The majority of this inference involves extrapolation from Lee's training, statements, and prior performance to ask, "Now, at the most important battle of the war, one that could win it all for the Confederacy, are we really supposed to believe that he risked everything on Pickett's charge against the center of the Union line by 13,000 of his 63,000 troops while the rest stood by and did nothing?" The answer, according to Carhart, is an emphatic no.

The first half of the book lays the foundation of the argument by briefly reviewing Lee's West Point training, which, as was the norm of that time, included a thorough study of Napoleon and the other Great Captains. Throughout the book, Carhart interjects examples of the Napoleonic influence on Lee. Also reviewed are Lee's Mexican-American War experiences and his Civil War battles prior to Gettysburg. All of this information provides support for the emphatic negative response to the question noted above. Carhart asserts that Lee intended Gettysburg to be the Cannae (or more appropriately Austerlitz) which would remove the Army of the Potomac as a viable fighting force. Lee's goal, in Carhart's view, was to effect a triumph in the Napoleonic tradition, which would eliminate the Army of the Potomac from the Union arsenal and perhaps even lead to a political settlement of the war. Carhart presents his rationale in a regrettably redundant fashion, although perhaps this is done for emphasis. In addition, the first part of the book, in which Lee's pre-Civil War career is reviewed, sometimes comes across as filler, although this information may be necessary for those who are not familiar with this part of Lee's life.

Carhart's point of view naturally begs the question why Lee's real plan for the third day had not been discerned previously. To address this, Carhart presents some "plausible inference" based again on Lee's known traits and on his adherence to a personal policy to never publicly criticize his subordinates. In fact, Carhart challenges the widely held notion of Lee's irate reaction to J.E.B. Stuart's delayed arrival at Gettysburg, a challenge which fits into Carhart's thesis regarding Lee's plan for the third day. The author's reasoning for why Lee's real plan remained undetected for over 140 years is one of the weaker aspects of the book. Carhart argues that Lee informed very few of his subordinates about the plan, which is difficult to believe in light of the plan's complexity, and it is even more difficult to accept that after the battle the details of this plan would have remained concealed by those individuals whom Carhart believes were the few who knew of it. In addition, and particularly in this instance, "plausible inference" is used unnecessarily to flesh out details of specific events. Whether such events occurred as the author speculates is not germane to the central thesis of the book, that is, that Lee's plan for the third day involved more than an assault on the Union center.

Another difficulty in the book is the lack of a map depicting the topological features and the roads in that region of the battlefield which the author posits is the location of the key engagement. While this area is described verbally, a map would have spared my feeble mind the mental exertion of translating the words into geography. A map which appears later in the book shows some of the pertinent features, but this map is not cited at the place where the area of the decisive engagement is verbally described.

The author lays out his argument through the insertion of contemporaneous quotes, with the clues to Lee's real plan highlighted. In this way, Carhart both buttresses his argument and builds his argument gradually to the climactic thwarting of Lee's real plan in an engagement which is largely overlooked and which, in the words of McPherson in the Foreword, "They (visitors) leave Gettysburg after driving around the rest of the park without realizing that they have missed an essential part of the battle."

An especially touching example of Carhart's use of contemporaneous quotes occurs in the chapter which focuses on the aftermath of the battle. In an exchange between Lee and John D. Imboden, which was recorded by the latter and which is probably familiar to many devotees of the Civil War, Lee reputedly told Imboden on the night of July 3, 1863, "I never saw troops behave more magnificently than Pickett's division of Virginians did to-day in that grand charge upon the enemy. And if they had been supported as they were to have been - but for some reason not yet explained to me, were not - we would have held the position and the day would have been ours. Too bad! Too bad! OH! TOO BAD!" Viewed in the context of Carhart's thesis, Lee was mourning not only the dead and wounded of the Army of Northern Virginia and not only the defeat at Gettysburg, but he was also mourning the demise of his real plan as only a consummate genius can agonize over the failure of his carefully conceived designs to come to fruition due to circumstances beyond his control. Lee's repetitious "Too bad" echoes in the forlorn emptiness of what might have been.

Not surprisingly, given the controversial nature of the book's thesis, not everyone is sanguine about the argument presented by Carhart. One such individual is Eric J. Wittenberg, who posted a review of "Lost Triumph" on the internet. Wittenberg is not at all satisfied with the evidence to support Carhart's thesis. As Wittenberg states in his review and reiterated in similar words in an e-mail to me, "…there simply is not a single shred of evidence to support it (Carhart's thesis)." Wittenberg further contends that Carhart either ignores evidence which contradicts his thesis or makes attempts to disparage such evidence, and based on information in Wittenberg's strongly worded review, there is some merit to this criticism.

In his internet book review, Wittenberg presents one such piece of ignored evidence which, he argues, refutes one of the key elements of Carhart's perspective, specifically a supposed signal sent to Lee by the firing of a cannon. Wittenberg has written his own book about the part of the Gettysburg battle which Carhart considers the decisive engagement. Wittenberg's book, Protecting the Flank: The Battles for Brinkerhoff's Ridge and East Cavalry Field, Battle of Gettysburg, July 2-3, 1863, is, in Wittenberg's opinion (as expressed in an e-mail to me), "the factual version" about this part of the Gettysburg battle.

Clearly, in spite of the endorsement by McPherson, Carhart's point of view is not universally accepted. Wittenberg's "Protecting the Flank," which I have not yet read, might provide a useful counterpoint to Carhart's thesis. Another opinion on this issue from someone who participated in the decisive engagement at Gettysburg can be found in Volume III of "Battles and Leaders of the Civil War" in the article by William E. Miller, who was a captain in the Second Pennsylvania Cavalry. In light of the Roundtable's upcoming field trip to Gettysburg and the type of good-natured discussions which characterize the Roundtable field trips, Carhart's thesis seems like a timely and novel topic for us to consider, and hopefully we can visit the site which Carhart considers the location of the battle's decisive engagement and decide for ourselves which point of view is the historically correct one.

Lost Triumph: Lee's Real Plan at Gettysburg--And Why It Failed
By Tom Carhart
Berkley Trade (April 4, 2006), 304 pages

From Booklist: Lee's actions on July 3, 1863, are among the most widely examined military issues of the Civil War. Military historian Carhart presents a novel, provocative, but definitely debatable interpretation of Lee's motivations and actions that led to the slaughter on the approaches to Cemetery Ridge. Carhart asserts that the attack upon the Union center must be seen within a larger context as part of a coordinated, three-pronged attack. The plan included a frontal assault against the Union right on Culp's Hill and, most critically, a rear assault on Union lines led by Jeb Stuart's cavalry. Of course, both of these attacks failed, dooming the third prong. In this reinterpretation, the real "hero" of Gettysburg was the oft-maligned "boy general" George Armstrong Custer, who thwarted Stuart with repeated gallant charges. This is a well-argued piece of revisionist history that is sure to inspire further and heated discussion. Jay Freeman Copyright © American Library Association.

Also referenced in this article:

Protecting the Flank: The Battles for Brinkerhoff's Ridge and East Cavalry Field, Battle of Gettysburg, July 2-3, 1863
By Eric J. Wittenberg
Savas Beatie; Reprint edition (February 2013), 224 pages

From the publisher: Few aspects of the battle of Gettysburg are as misunderstood as the role played by the cavalry of both sides. Protecting the Flank at Gettysburg: The Battles for Brinkerhoff's Ridge and East Cavalry Field, July 2-3, 1863 by award-winning author Eric J. Wittenberg is the first and only book to examine in significant detail how the mounted arm directly affected the outcome of the battle.

On July 3, 1863, a large-scale cavalry fight was waged on Cress Ridge four miles east of Gettysburg. There, on what is commonly referred to as East Cavalry Field, Union horsemen under Brig. Gen. David M. Gregg tangled with the vaunted Confederates riding with Maj. Gen. Jeb Stuart.

This fully revised edition is the most detailed tactical treatment of the fighting on Brinkerhoff's Ridge yet published, and includes a new Introduction, a detailed walking and driving tour with GPS coordinates, and a new appendix refuting claims that Stuart's actions on East Cavalry Field were intended to be coordinated with the Pickett/Pettigrew/Trimble attack on the Union center on the main battlefield.

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The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable