Civil War general blindsided at pivotal Gettysburg battle

Sat Jun 29, 2013 6:13am EDT

Selby Kiffer, American manuscript expert at Sotheby's, discusses historical documents in front of a signed portrait of Confederate General, Robert E. Lee that is part of a collection of historical American manuscripts to be auctioned by Sotheby's in New York March 28, 2008. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Selby Kiffer, American manuscript expert at Sotheby's, discusses historical documents in front of a signed portrait of Confederate General, Robert E. Lee that is part of a collection of historical American manuscripts to be auctioned by Sotheby's in New York March 28, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Lucas Jackson

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(Reuters) - Confederate General Robert E. Lee was "virtually blind" to the superior positions held by Union troops hidden by rolling hills and valleys, which contributed to his downfall at the pivotal battle of Gettysburg in the American Civil War, researchers said on Friday.

Lee's ill-fated combat decisions and ultimate defeat likely stemmed from bad reconnaissance reports, his forces spread too thinly across 7 miles, and an inability to see the more compact and elevated Union forces, according to geographers and cartographers who synthesized old maps, text and data into a digital model of the three-day Pennsylvania battle in 1863.

"We know that Confederate General Robert E. Lee was virtually blind at Gettysburg," Anne Kelly Knowles, a geography professor at Middlebury College, wrote in the article accompanying the interactive map on smithsonianmag.com.

"Altogether, our mapping reveals that Lee never had a clear view of enemy forces ... In addition, Lee did not grasp - or acknowledge - just how advantageous the Union's position was," Knowles wrote.

This week marks the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg, which took place over July 1-3 and claimed roughly 50,000 soldiers from the North and South.

It is regarded a crucial turning point in the bloodiest war in U.S. history that preserved the United States as a single country and led to the abolition of slavery. Roughly 620,000 Americans died.

On July 2, 1863, the second day of battle, Lee decided to launch an attack against a vulnerable patch of Yankee resistance around a pair of hills to the South - called the Round Tops.

But he failed to see thousands of Union troops that had gathered during the night and lurked in the vicinity. Union General Governor K. Warren spotted the advance and summoned reinforcements.

"Realizing the limits of what Lee could see makes his decisions appear even bolder, and more likely to fail, than we knew," she wrote.

The Confederate defeat at Vicksburg, Mississippi, came a day after Gettysburg. Lee ultimately surrendered in Virginia in 1865.

(Reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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Comments (14)
elhamb3166 wrote:
The task of protecting Little Round Top, the lower of two hills on the Union flank, was given to the 20th Maine under Colonel Joshua Chamberlain who prior to the war had been a language professor at Bowdoin College.

Chamberlain and his men withstood charge after charge from the Confederate troops. Finally, ammunition nearly exhausted, Chamberlain ordered a bayonet charge against the Confederate center and simultaneously their flank. The charge completely demoralized the enemy, routing them and thus saving the Union flank and, quite likely, the battle of Gettysburg.

Jun 29, 2013 7:53am EDT  --  Report as abuse
Umm… Lee ultimately surrendered in MARYLAND in 1865. (Appomattox

Jun 29, 2013 7:54am EDT  --  Report as abuse
Umm… Lee ultimately surrendered in MARYLAND in 1865. (Appomattox

Jun 29, 2013 7:54am EDT  --  Report as abuse
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