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  • De Gaulle and Ike at Gettysburg January 26, 2012

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Modern , trackback

    One of Beachcombing’s many files in the rusty filing cabinet in the downstairs bathroom is a surprisingly bulky: ‘battlefields after the fact’. Here there are a series of great men and women visiting the places of carnage past and reflecting on ‘the father of all things’.

    There are many precious references in said file including Roosevelt’s trip to the killing plains of northern Africa in late November 1943: at one point Roosevelt and Eisenhower have a picnic in an olive grove with a large picket of military policemen standing in a circle, their backs to the commander in chief and his entourage.

    Of course, the American battles in Tunisia were a recent memory when Roosevelt flew in. But the British generals who were taken in the same year on a friendly visit to Yorktown – of all places! – by their opposite numbers in the US forces was an unlikely attempt to put the Atlantic alliance on a firm footing.

    However, Beachcombing’s favourite twentieth-century instance – any others: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com – is De Gaulle’s and Eisenhower’s visit to Gettysburg in 1960.

    De Gaulle was in the United States to discuss Cold War strategy: just four short years after the painful events of Suez when Eisenhower had cobbled the Anglo-French initiative in the Mediterranean. Yet despite this recent disagreement between the US and France De Gaulle and Eisenhower got on well and their adventures at the site of the Civil War’s most decisive battle saw them playing like two mud larks in a foot of Thames water.

    General de Gaulle had told me before the trip that he would ask Eisenhower to make time to visit the Gettysburg battleground. A scholar of military history, de Gaulle said he greatly admired Gen. Robert E. Lee, ‘by far the most brilliant generally in your Civil War’…. On the farm at Gettysburg, President Eisenhower proudly gave de Gaulle the grand tour of the stables and the barn. De Gaulle’s eyes gleamed when he saw some beautiful Arabian horses but began to glaze over as Eisenhower presented his Angus cows and bull. Growing impatient, de Gaulle finally managed to suggest tactfully that they get to the nearby battleground before the hot day had tired them out.

    Eisenhower agreed at once and asked de Gaulle what particular site he would like to visit, since there would be not time for an extensive tour. Ike was impressed when de Gaulle talked learnedly of Cemetery Ridge, Culp’s Hill, Round Top and the tide of battle. ‘I had to concentrate to keep pace with my French friend’, Ike told me later, ‘He knows his battle of Gettysburg like a West Pointer.’

    The two leaders scrambled over the field and eventually came to two, rusting artillery pieces.

    Two of the guns in the battle are still in place at Gettysburg, a monument to the bravery of both sides. There is a 3-foot-high stone wall in front of the cannons to discourage trespassers. I watched in amazement as the two 70-year-old generals clambered over the wall, frisky as youngsters, curious as tourists. Charles de Gaulle was fascinated by the guns. He ran his hands over them, bent down to squint, to find their field of fire. He shook his head and said to Eisenhower, ‘Those gallant, crazy Southerners. How could they have charged into that wall of fire?’ Sweat was pouring down de Gaulle’s forehead. The French president was wearing his traditional heavy, worsted, double-breasted navy-blue suit. President Eisenhower, less formal than the stiff Frenchman, wore a more appropriate beige raw-silk summer suit, his bald head protected from the sun by a fedora. Ike’s cheeks were scarlet from the heat, but, like De Gaulle, he was enjoying himself. His aides kept whispering urgently that they were falling behind schedule. They were due to continue their conference at Camp David, and a helicopter was waiting to whisk them away. Finally, reluctantly, the two old soldiers allowed their aides to lead them away from the battleground.

    Beachcombing has a special place in his heart for de Gaulle and Eisenhower and the picture of them enjoying themselves with the irresponsibility of ten year olds in the middle of weighty presidencies is one that he treasures.

    Poor Ike also took the insufferable Montgomery over the same plots of land.

    Beach has to confess on, the other hand, to a certain indifference to Lee’s tactics at Gettysburg. But for the record and for the Google spiders these were Lee’s two mistakes as seen by de Gaulle and recounted later to the author of this piece, David Schoenbrun, by Ike himself.

    ‘Well, first… Lee allowed Gen. J.E.B. Stuart to continue his cavalry raids against the capital at Washington. De Gaulle acknowledged that these raids did keep Washington dithering in fright and that this was hurting President Abraham Lincoln’s chances to be nominated for re-election. So the raids were useful. But they could not be decisive in winning the war. To win the war Lee had to win a major victory on Federal soil and hold Union ground. Stuart would have been far more useful in battle at Gettysburg. Without Stuart’s mobile cavalry, Lee was fighting blind. He did not have enough intelligence on Union strength and positions and was thus unable to turn the Union flank. De Gaulle felt that this cast Lee the victory… De Gaulle felt that General Pickett should never have been given permission to charge the strong center of the Union line. That was the second error. The South – with less manpower, less weapons, less money than the North – could not afford a bloody, if gallant, assault that drained its strength. Superior Federal power would always triumph in a man-to-man assault. The South had to be a wily fox, not a charging bull.’

    The conversation ended, according to Eisenhower, with a more general reflection of how wars are won and lost.

    ‘Oh, I had a few observations of my own to make. When de Gaulle told me how surprised he was at some of Lee’s blunders, I told him about the blunders of the Union Commander, George Meade. Meade could have ended that war then and there if he had pursued the rebel army as it retreated southward from Gettysburg. Lee could not get his men across the storm-swollen Potomac. If Meade has pursued him, he could have destroyed the Army of North Virginia, ending the Civil War. De Gaulle agreed, then paused. ‘Victory’ he said sardonically, ‘often goes to the army that makes the least mistakes not the most brilliant plans.’’


    The Count remembers Patton and battlefields and reincarnation. Patton’s curious views on his past lives deserve several posts of their own. As often with reincarnation believers he seems to have been a series of famous people. ‘You want to know if other modern commanders have made a point of visiting the sites of historical battles – well, surely the ultimate example must be General Patton? According to the movie Patton, he not only loved to visit such places, but believed that in a long succession of previous incarnations, in all of which he seems to have been a soldier, he actually fought in those battles, some of them over 2000 years ago! Of course, that’s just a movie, but since I understood it to be an exceptionally accurate biopic with no really major distortions of the facts, I was inspired by your latest post to do a quick google, and apparently Patton really did have these beliefs, and according to some sources, seemed to have an uncanny familiarity with ancient battlefields he had never visited before. Also, he wrote poetry, some of which is quoted in the film, explicitly describing his previous lives in a totally non-metaphorical way. Perhaps you might like to look into this. I’m no military historian, but it does appear to be true. Indeed, the first site that comes up if you google ‘Patton + reincarnation’ makes a very sincere and surprisingly good case for Patton and Hannibal being the same person.’ Thanks Count!