For someone like Hall County’s Ralph Mills, who had family fight and die in the Battle of Gettysburg, the sleepy town in rural Pennsylvania is more than just a setting for history tours and 150th anniversary commemorations.
It’s hallowed ground.
“You can kind of lose yourself and get just a glimmer of what they went through,” Mills said Sunday afternoon, speaking by phone after re-enacting Pickett’s Charge, one of the most significant assaults in the Civil War, not just Gettysburg.
Historians may argue whether Gettysburg, which raged July 1-3, 1863, was a strategic turning point in America’s deadliest war, but they can’t dispute its significance in terms of the nation’s history, or its effect on Southern fighting morale for the rest of the war.
And perhaps there was no more controversial figure at Gettysburg than Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, who would spend many of his last years in Gainesville as a hotel owner and, against the political climate of the time, a staunch Republican.
Second-in-command to beloved Gen. Robert E. Lee, he reluctantly oversaw the last-gasp Pickett’s Charge, which resulted in a slaughter of Confederate troops.
“With few options remaining to him, (Lee) ordered his army back to Virginia,” states the National Park Service’s Gettysburg website. “The Union victory ... resulted not only in Lee’s retreat to Virginia, but an end to the hopes of the Confederacy for independence.”
“It was the first significant loss that the Army of Northern Virginia had suffered under Lee,” said Glen Kyle, director of the Northeast Georgia History Center in Gainesville, of Gettysburg.
Before Gettysburg, “there was a serious crisis of leadership in the (Union) Army of the Potomac, because Washington policy, coming from (President Abraham) Lincoln, was that whenever a general couldn’t quite beat Lee or manage that army, he was kicked out and replaced by another one,” Kyle said.
“As for the Confederates, their leadership had remained constant and Longstreet was one of those.”
For a time, Lee’s key subordinates were Longstreet (dubbed Lee’s “Old War Horse”) and Gen. Stonewall Jackson — both regarded still today as brilliant war tacticians.
The Confederacy suffered a huge blow when Jackson was killed by friendly fire on May 10, 1863.
Lee, depending on Longstreet “even more,” developed an ambitious, bold plan: Invade the North and, with a victory, inspire the rattled and discouraged Union to pressure its government to end the Civil War.
Longstreet would become “the primary corps commander” at Gettysburg, said Peter Claymore, president of The Longstreet Society, which was formed in 1994 in Gainesville to honor Longstreet’s life and preserve his memory.
“His corps was involved in battles on the second and third day. They were not successful, but it was not because he failed, necessarily. It was because of a variety of things, including the fact that they were facing a very strong opponent.”
And there were internal struggles too, as Longstreet disagreed with Lee on offensive tactics. The general, supposedly despondent, simply nodded his head and waved his hand to begin Pickett’s Charge on July 3.
He “argued against attacking that well-fortified a position with a frontal assault,” Kyle said. “After the failure of that attack, Lee took total blame.”
But history wouldn’t be kind to Longstreet.
After the war ended, Longstreet became a Republican, advising Southern states to extend civil and voting rights to freed slaves. He also was close to Union commander and future U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant.
Post-war memoirs from Confederate officers blamed Longstreet for the failures at Gettysburg.
Lee, still revered after the war, was virtually untouchable.
“You cannot accuse the paragon of everything that was Southern of that defeat, so who else better than his second-in-command?” Kyle said.
Longstreet also wrote about the war, blaming Lee.
“Well, that was the end of that,” Kyle said.
Longstreet’s reputation would remain tainted decades after his death on Jan. 2, 1904, in Gainesville. He is buried in Alta Vista Cemetery off Jesse Jewell Parkway.
Kyle said he believed the general’s place in history began to change when the Pulitzer Prize-winning historic novel “The Killer Angels” by Michael Shaara was published. The book inspired the four-hour movie “Gettysburg,” featuring actor Tom Berenger as Longstreet.
“That was the first time since Reconstruction that people said ... maybe (Gettysburg failures were) Lee’s fault, and maybe Longstreet was doing the best he could and his concerns were valid,” said Kyle, who believes the Atlanta Campaign of 1864 marked the “real turning point of the war.”
Claymore said, “Modern scholarship has improved his position significantly, and he’s now recognized as Lee’s most reliable and successful subordinate.”
The Longstreet Society doesn’t have anything planned concerning Longstreet at Gettysburg, he said.
It does hold an annual meeting, or seminar, at a site significant to the general.
The society visited Gettysburg four years ago. This year, the group is planning an Oct. 12-13 seminar at the Chickamauga battlefield on the Georgia-Tennessee border near Chattanooga.
Even though Mills’ unit — the 43rd Volunteer Infantry Regiment — wasn’t at Getttysburg, “the thing about it is so many of us have ancestors who were in the Army of Northern Virginia, (and so) that’s why this is real important to us,” he said.
And for Mills, who portrays an infantry captain, the Gettysburg re-enactments over the weekend were moments to remember.
“It was a grand event,” he said. “During a re-enactment, you’ll have a little moment or two and you’ll think, ‘I believe this is what it was like.’”