In an interview that appeared in the Summer 1999 issue of The Paris Review, Shelby Foote offered a few thoughts about the battle of Gettysburg, which he’d famously written about in “The Stars in Their Courses: The Gettysburg Campaign” (part of his mammoth three-volume Civil War narrative).
“The single greatest mistake of the war by any general on either side was made by Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg,” Foote said, “when he sent Pickett’s and Pettigrew’s divisions across that open field, nearly a mile wide, against guns placed on a high ridge and troops down below them, with skirmishers out front. There was no chance it would succeed.”
Foote likened Lee’s decision to “another instance of life imitating art”:
Not only had he won those battles leading up to Gettysburg—Chancellorsville was only [two months] back—but the first day he nearly crushed the Union army. Then when that army grew and took position on that ridge he charged it on the second day and got all the way to the top. If he’d pushed any further he’d have taken it. We go back to Greek tragedy now; the gods were leading him to destruction. That’s not an overstatement. He never would have made this greatest of all errors without these greatly encouraging things that were happening one after another. He was facing much shorter odds than he had at Chancellorsville, where he won a great victory. He was just being pulled along. I don’t claim that the gods made him mad in order to destroy him, but they did suck him into committing this most grievous of all errors. It’s almost unbelievable that it can be so in tune with Greek tragedy, but it is.