My sympathy in a military and every other sense so far as the enemy is concerned, goes out to Longstreet sitting on the fence with bowed head, a picture of despair and blasted hopes probably not only on account of a useless slaughter of his brave men which he foresaw, but because of a loss of faith in the ability of his chief and in consequence the loss eventually of the cause of the Confederacy; and what thoughtful military man of experience can't see what else for scapegoats are always found for such occasions on which to try and lay the blame. But it won't do with ripe scientific military men nor would it with Lee were he living, for when too late he doubtless saw his mistake, as he acknowledged like the man he always was to his veterans, when returning from the slaughter after the assault that the calamity of defeat was all his fault.1 How pathetic!
Longstreet's heart was doubtless breaking when Pickett seemingly too thoughtless to comprehend the situation rode up to Longstreet and then “gaily” to his command in the midst of the artillery fire preceding the assault, and asked if he should commence the charge.2 Longstreet's heart and tongue were doubtless as good as paralyzed or at any rate refused to perform their function, and he answered with a sad and silent nod.
How any military student of age and extended experience in warfare — for few others are expert judges — who ever studied the country north of the Potomac river, field and battle of Gettysburg or Antietam, can class Lee with Marlborough and Wellington, it is difficult to understand; and Lee's mistakes here were by no means his only. He never found his superior, though, on the battlefield until he met Grant when, for the first time, he found a genius who didn't know what it was to retreat before the Army of Northern Virginia, nor did Lee ever advance again but to be checkmated. Prior to that the Army of the Potomac had taken care of itself single-handed — so to speak—as it would have done anywhere after 1862, if placed in line and told to fight, if let alone: it would have carried any man at its head through to victory, as it did Meade at Gettysburg, and especially in such a place as that when so much depended upon it.
It was the intrepid men with the guns, many of whom were more competent in battle than some of their officers, who largely won the battles, and not unfrequently because of greater physical endurance and undaunted courage led in the hottest places by scores in all assaults, for otherwise but few battles would have been won. To be in such company was an inspiration for such men knew no fear and they were not reckless either, but coolly alert in taking every advantage of surroundings and conditions, as well as of the enemy. Such needed no officer to lead them, but they would be devoted to one who had the pluck to go with them, and fortunate was he who was strong enough to put fear behind him and do it. It is more elevating morally to be born with such a gift than rich.
Anyone who has read Lincoln's telegrams and letters to Meade imploring him not to let Lee escape across the Potomac after Pickett's suicidal charge which is only exceeded in American War history in lack of ability by Abercrombie's maladministration of his Ticonderoga campaign in the Colonial war in 1758. cannot possibly think Grant or Sheridan would have showed so little military genius; and it is a disappointment to one in mature years who fought continually under Meade in youth about two years to find that he was so lacking in sagacity and military enterprise as to not take advantage of his great opportunities. He was all right when a subordinate, but out of place as chief.
It was largely lack of ability on the part of commanders of the Army of the Potomac as military men until Lee met Grant, which in contrast makes Lee appear to some unread in civil war history so much more brilliant than he really was as a military man. It was very generally supposed during the war it was interference from Washington that caused a lack of success on the part of the Army of the Potomac, but official correspondence between Lincoln and others at Washington with the different commanders of the Army of the Potomac published since the Civil War shows that it was largely due to their downright ignorance of how to conduct a campaign until Grant took command, which rendered it absolutely necessary to interfere. To a man of long expert military training some of the questions asked by commanders of Lincoln and others, are astonishing. They not only show a lack of judgment, self reliance and ability, but in some cases utter incompetency; and when such didn't asked to be relieved from force of circumstances, they had to be. In most cases it was disingenuously claimed by the incumbent that they were handicapped by the Washington authorities, which is probably what largely created the false impression that they were much imposed upon. The government doubtless considerately thought it could not afford to let the truth be known for obvious reasons, and besides it was doubtless thought such men might be efficient in a less responsible position in cases of emergency and their usefulness would be impaired if the real facts were made known; hence the position of Lincoln and others near to him in Washington in such a respect was not only a noble self sacrifice, but must have been even more trying than at any time or even now generally known. Under such circumstances any ordinary commander of the Confederate Army would appear to good advantage as Lee did, which, to any but one who is expert, is misleading. He had military talent but it even was never fully developed. His was not Genius:
“Genius spreads its wings
And soars beyond itself, or selfish things.
Talent has need of stepping-stones; some cross,
Some cheated purpose, some great pain or loss,
Must lay the groundwork, and arouse ambition,
Before it labors onward to fruition.”
1 See Burrage, “Gettysburg and Lincoln,” pp. 19-33.
2 See Burrage, “Gettysburg and Lincoln,” pp. 19-65.
SOURCE: Lemuel Abijah Abbott, Personal Recollections and Civil War Diary, 1864, p. 203-7