Two “did it really happen?” stories from the Battle of Gettysburg

Stepping back from the Great Reunion for this post…

Many, many stories came out of the Battle of Gettysburg, the same as with any major battle in any war. Two of these stories are interesting from the aspect of the question of their historical accuracy. Even if one or both are “urban legend” they are still worth mentioning from the aspect of “I wonder if…”

Story #1: The Battle of Gettysburg was triggered by the Confederates searching for shoes.

The story goes that Confederate Major General “Harry” Heth sent his forces into the borough of Gettysburg in search of shoes, and that’s when and where they encountered Buford’s Cavalry; and then the confrontation that could have been just one more “minor” skirmish instead mushroomed into the Battle of Gettysburg. The source for this story? General Heth himself, in his memoirs. Did it happen? Some historians believe that despite Heth’s claim, he would have known that other Confederate forces had already been into the borough of Gettysburg days before the battle as part of Lee’s invasion of south-central Pennsylvania, and such a trip would have been a waste.

We will never know for certain but there is the possibility that indeed a search for shoes was the catalyst for the three days of terrible battle that followed.

Story #2: A Confederate General aided his wounded Union opponent at Gettysburg, thought the Yankee General died, but met him years later.

Confederate Major General John B. Gordon, later the first Commander of the United Confederate Veterans (UCV), stated in his memoirs that he aided his wounded Union opponent, Major General Francis Barlow, in the midst of the battle and presumed that Barlow had died from his wounds. However, years later, the two men were seated together, exchanged pleasantries, and that’s when Gordon discovered that indeed Barlow was still alive.

As with the tale of Heth’s supposed search for shoes, the Gordon-Barlow story is doubted by many historians based on the respective actions of each General during the remainder of the Civil War. Basically, historians claim that the two Generals opposed each other later in the war so it’s unlikely Gordon wouldn’t have known that the man he had tended to, Barlow, was facing him yet again. This doubt is in spite of Gordon’s written claims in his book, the same as with Heth claiming in his own memoirs to have been searching for shoes.

A common thread to both of these stories and the historical doubt is that in both cases, the General officers themselves made the claims in written memoirs. Could they have been mistaken? Exaggerating? We’ll never know for certain and 150 years later, it really doesn’t matter in the “big picture” that was the Battle of Gettysburg.

So whether we take Heth’s and Gordon’s claims at face value or cast a doubt on them is a personal choice each one of us makes. Regardless, the stories – if true – are interesting ones.

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