On June 23rd, 1863, General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia crossed the Potomac River and entered Pennsylvania. On July 1st, it engaged in battle with the Unionist Army of the Potomac, commanded by Major General George C. Meade, which had set up defensive positions on McPherson’s Ridge in Gettysburg. Initially the battle went well for the Confederates, who broke through enemy lines but allowed the Unionists to fall back on Cemetery Ridge. The next afternoon the Confederates attacked the Unionists’ positions again, almost breaking through on both the left and the right flank, but eventually the Unionist line held and the Confederates retreated at nightfall. Two days in a row Lee had smelled victory, and now he decided to finish the battle with a frontal assault on the centre of the Unionists’ position, which was held by General Winfield S. Hancock’s corps. Against the advice of his second in command, Lieutenant General James Longstreet, Lee ordered Major General George E. Pickett to march on Hancock’s position with his division of 13,000 infantrymen.
On the third day of the battle Pickett’s men marched in formation across open grounds towards Cemetery Ridge, into a wall of fire from Unionist infantrymen and artillery. Thousands were killed, and only a handful reached the enemy lines, where they were easily captured. The next day Lee’s army withdrew to Virginia and it never invaded the North again. The books that have been written about ‘Pickett’s Charge’ can fill a small library, and the question they all try to answer is why Robert E. Lee, arguably the most accomplished commander in either the North or the South, had made such a fatal mistake, sending 13,000 men out on what was essentially a suicide mission. The answers fall in two categories, optimistic and pessimistic. Answers of the first kind claim that Lee was confident that after two days of fighting the Union army would be so demoralized that it could be overrun even by an attack that defied all military wisdom, while answers of the second kind suggest that Lee realized that the South could not win the war, and that in a moment of self-destructive clarity he decided to make a major contribution to its ending.
There are no conclusive records of what Lee was thinking, but undeniably Pickett’s charge was a desperate move, and that brings me to Donald J. Trump. Quoting Abraham Lincoln’s famous ‘Gettysburg Address’ Trump gave a speech in Gettysburg today, in which he unfolded the policies he would implement during the first 100 days of his presidency. If Lee thought he would eventually lose the war, Donald Trump must have thought the same about this election.
His despair was evident both from the content of his speech and from the style in which it was delivered. Trump seemed as exhausted as Lee may have been when he sent Pickett’s men to their death, and his words were about as effective as those men’s rifled muskets. He basically summarized everything he has proposed the last 12 months, without any passion or conviction.
The clearest sign that Trump sees his demise coming could be found in the opening lines of his otherwise entirely scripted speech, where he announced that all the women who had accused him of sexual assault would be sued. Not the words of someone who expects to be in the White House soon.