LOST TRIUMPH: LEE'S REAL PLAN AT GETTYSBURG AND WHY IT FAILED. By Tom Carhart. Putnam. 272 pages. $25.95.
If author Tom Carhart is correct, this is the most important book written about Gettysburg in decades and perhaps ever.
It is also bound to be terribly controversial. No battle in American history has been studied as thoroughly as this one, and serious students of the Civil War are bound to roll their eyes when they hear his theory of who the real hero was: Gen. George Armstrong Custer, the pride of Monroe, Mich., who is today mainly remembered for the utter disaster at the Little Big Horn.
It seems very reasonable to say that at Gettysburg, Custer truly saved the Union, the author says. No, this might not be the kind of man you would want to have in your home for a quiet dinner, but thank God he was there when this nation s survival hung in the balance.
Anyone who reads those lines may snort unless and until they actually read this book. Gettysburg, of course, is the most famous battle in our history. Everyone knows, or thinks they know, that the normally brilliant Gen. Robert E. Lee made a terrible mistake on the third day of the battle, July 3, 1863.
That s when he ordered Pickett s Charge, when thousands of rebels were mowed down by artillery fire and Union rifles in what proved to be a suicidal attack against a stone wall over more than a mile of open field.
That moment has become legendary as the high water mark of the Confederacy and the turning point of the Civil War. Portrayed most vividly in Ted Turner s 1993 movie Gettysburg, the doomed charge makes Lee look like a hapless, dreamy medieval romantic.
But Tom Carhart, a lawyer, Vietnam veteran, and historian for the Army, makes a persuasive case that we ve never understood what really happened on that fateful day. He believes that Pickett s Charge was only half the story, and that as it was being launched, Jeb Stuart, the famed Confederate cavalry officer, was supposed to crash into the Union forces from behind.
Had that happened, the South would have won the battle, and most likely the war, right there. We would have become two nations, and who can say how world history would have played out afterwards.
Yet Stuart s 6,000 mounted solders were blocked by the man who Carhart sees as the real hero of Gettysburg, George Armstrong Custer, who stopped him cold with, at first, no more than 400 or so members of the First Michigan Cavalry, crying Come on, you Wolverines! to rally his men.
Why was none of this known before? Some of it was, but it was never previously realized how important Custer s first stand was, or what Lee was trying to do. To some extent, Jeb Stuart s failure to get past a Union cavalry force that was less than half the size of his own remains a mystery.
The author, however, has worked hard to piece together scanty bits of evidence that demonstrate that Robert E. Lee engaged in a massive cover-up of the sterling military image and reputation Stuart enjoyed.
Why would he do that? The reputation of any of his veterans was more important to Lee than his own, concludes Carhart. He was a mature man who was comfortable with himself and his decisions, and he didn t care what other people thought of him. He just didn t care.
How far out are Carhart s conclusions? Suffice it to say that his diligence in meticulously assembling a persuasive body of evidence has convinced the man who is perhaps today s leading Civil War historian, James M. McPherson.
No historian before has pieced together the whole story, Princeton University s McPherson concludes in a forward. Given the vast number of writings on Gettysburg, it seems impossible to come up with new information and new insights about the battle. But Tom Carhart has done it.
For Civil War buffs, this is a book not to be missed.
Jack Lessenberry is The Blade s ombudsman. Contact him at: OMBLADE@aol.com.