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By Jefferson Davis
OUR army having retreated from the Peninsula and withdrawn from the north side of the Chickahominy to the immediate vicinity of Richmond, I rode out occasionally to the lines and visited the headquarters of the commanding general. There were no visible preparations for defense, and my brief conversations with the general afforded no satisfactory information as to his plans and purposes. We had, under the supervision of General Lee, perfected as far as we could the detached works before the city, but these were rather designed to Protect it against a sudden attack than to resist approaches by a great army. They were, also, so near to the city that it might have been effectually bombarded by guns exterior to them. Anxious for the defense of the ancient capital of Virginia, now the capital of the Confederate States, and remembering a remark of General Johnston, that the Spaniards were the only people who now undertook to hold fortified towns, I had written to him that he knew the defense of Richmond must be made at a distance from it. Seeing no preparation to keep the enemy at a distance, and kept in ignorance of any plan for such purpose, I sent for General R. E. Lee, then at Richmond, in general charge of army operations, and told him why and how I was dissatisfied with the condition of affairs.
He asked me what I thought it was proper to do. Recurring to a conversation held about the time we had together visited General Johnston, 1 answered that McClellan should be attacked on the other side of the Chickahominy before he matured his preparations for a siege of Richmond. To this he promptly assented, as I anticipated he would, for I knew it bad been his own opinion. He then said: "General Johnston should of course advise you of what he expects or proposes to do. Let me go and see him, and defer this discussion until I return."
It may be proper here to say that I had not doubted that General Johnston was fully in accord with me as to the purpose of defending Richmond, but I was not content with his course to that end. It had not occurred to me that he meditated a retreat which would uncover the capital, nor was it ever suspected until, in reading General Hood's book, published in 1880, the evidence was found that General Johnston, when retreating from Yorktown, told his volunteer aide, McFarland, that 'he [Johnston expected or intended to give up Richmond."
When General Lee came back, he told me that General Johnston proposed, on the next Thursday, to move against the enemy as follows: General A. P. Hill, was to move down on the right flank and rear of the enemy. General G. W. Smith, as soon as Hill's guns opened, was to cross the Chickahominy at the Meadow Bridge, attack the enemy in flank, and by the conjunction of the two it was expected to double him up. Then Longstreet was to cross on the Mechanicsville Bridge and attack him in front. From this plan the best results were hoped by both of us.
On the morning of the day proposed, I hastily dispatched my office business, and rode out toward the Meadow Bridge to see the action commence. On the road I found Smith's division halted, and the men dispersed in the woods. Looking for some one from whom I could get information, I finally saw General Hood, and asked him the meaning of what I saw. He told me he did not know anything more than that they had been halted. I asked him where General Smith was; he said he believed he had gone to a farmhouse in the rear, adding that he thought he was ill. Riding on to the bluff which overlooks de Meadow Bridge, I asked Colonel Anderson, posted there in observation, whether he had seen anything of the enemy in his front. He said that he had seen only two mounted men across the bridge, and a small party of infantry on the other side of the river, some distance below, both of whom, he said, he could show me if I would go with him into the garden back of the house. There, by the use of a powerful glass, were distinctly visible two cavalry videttes at the further end of the bridge, and a squad of infantry lower down the river, who had covered themselves with a screen of green boughs. The colonel informed me that he had not heard Hill's guns; it was, therefore, supposed he had not advanced. I then rode down the bank of the river, followed by a cavalcade of sight-seers, who, I so? -posed had been attracted by the expectation of a battle. The little squad of infantry, about fifteen in number, as we approached, fled over the ridge, and were lost to sight. Near to the Mechanicsville Bridge I found General Howell Cobb, commanding the support of a battery of artillery. He pointed out to me on the opposite side of the river the only enemy he had seen, and which was evidently a light battery. Riding on to the main road which led to the Mechanicsville Bridge, I found General Longstreet, walking to and fro in an impatient, it might be said fretful, manner. Before I spoke to him, he said his division had been under arms all day waiting for orders to advance, and that the day was now so far spent that he did not know what was the matter. I afterward learned from General Smith that he had received information from a citizen that the Beaverdam Creek presented an impassable barrier, and that he had thus fortunately been saved from a disaster. Thus ended the offensive-defensive program from which Lee expected much, and of which I was hopeful.
In the meanwhile the enemy moved up, and, finding the crossing at Bottom's Bridge unobstructed, threw a brigade of the Fourth Corps across the Chickahominy as early as May 20th, and on the 23d sent over the rest of the Fourth Corps; on the 2th he sent over another corps, and commenced fortifying a line near to Seven Pines. In the forenoon of May 31st, riding out on the New Bridge road, I heard firing in the direction of Seven Pines. As I drew nearer, I saw General Ahiting, with part of General Smith's division, file into the road in front of me; at the same time I saw General Johnston ride across the field from a house before which General Lee's horse was standing. I turned down to the house, and asked General Lee what the musketry firing meant. He replied by asking whether I had heard it, and was answered in the affirmative; he said he had been under that impression himself, but General Johnston had assured him that it could be nothing more than an artillery duel. It is scarcely necessary to add that neither of us had been advised of a design to attack the enemy that day.
We then walked out to the rear of the house to listen, and were satisfied that an action, or at least a severe skirmish, must be going on. General Johnston states in his report that the condition of the air was peculiarly unfavorable to the transmission of sound.
General Lee and myself den rode to the field of battle, which may be briefly described as follows:
The Chickahominy flowing in front is a sluggish, and narrow river, bordered by marshes and covered with tangled wood. The line of battle extended along the Nine Mile Road, across the York River Railroad and Williamsburg stage road. The enemy had constructed redoubts, with long lines of rifle pits covered by abatis, from below Bottom's Bridge to within less than two miles of New Bridge, and had constructed bridges to connect his forces on the north and south sides of the Chickahominy. The left of his forces, on the south side, was thrown forward from the river; the right was on its bank, and covered by its slope. Our main force was on the right flank of our position, extending on both sides of the Williamsburg road, near to its intersection with the Nine Mile Road. This wing consisted of Hill's, Huger's, and Long. street's divisions, with light batteries, and a small force of cavalry; the division of General G. Smith, less Hood's brigade ordered to the right, formed the left wing, and its position was on the Nine Mile Road. There were small tracts of cleared land, but most of the ground was wooded, and much of it so covered with water as to seriously embarrass the movements of troops.
When General Lee and I, riding down the Nine Mile Road, reached the left of our line, we found the troops hotly engaged. Our men had driven the enemy from his advanced encampment, and he had fallen back behind an open field to the bank of the river, where, in a dense wood, was concealed an infantry line, with artillery in position. Soon after our arrival, General Johnston, who had gone farther to the right, where the conflict was expected, and whither reinforcement from the left was marching, was brought back severely wounded, and, as soon as an ambulance could be obtained, was removed from the field.
Our troops on the left made vigorous assaults under most disadvantageous circumstances. They made several gallant attempts to carry the enemy's position, but were each time repulsed with heavy loss.
After a personal reconnaissance on the left of the open in our front, I sent one, then another, and another courier to General Magruder, directing him to send a force down by the wooded path, just under the bluff, to attack the enemy in flank and reverse. Impatient of delay, I had started to see General Magruder, when I met the third courier, who said he had not found General Magruder, but had delivered the message to Brigadier General Griffith, who was moving by the path designated to make the attack.
On returning to the field, I found that the attack in front had ceased; it was, therefore, too late for a single brigade to effect anything against the large force of the enemy, and messengers were sent through the woods to direct General Griffith to go back.
The heavy rain during the night of the 30th had swollen the Chickahominy; it was rising when the battle of Seven Pines was fought, but had not reached such height as to prevent the enemy from using his bridges; consequently, General Sumner, during the engagement, brought over his corps as a reinforcement. He was on the north side of the river, had built two bridges to connect with the south side, and, though their coverings were loosened by the upward pressure of the rising water, they were not yet quite impassable. With the true instinct of the soldier to march upon fire, when the sound of the battle reached him, he formed his corps and stood under arms waiting for an order to advance. He came too soon for us, and, but for his forethought and promptitude, he would have arrived too late for his friends. It may be granted that his presence saved the left wing of the Federal army from defeat.
As we had permitted the enemy to fortify before our attack, it would have been better to wait another day, until the bridges had been rendered impassable by the rise of the river.
General Lee, at nightfall, gave instructions to General Smith, the senior officer on that part of the battlefield, and left with me to return to Richmond.
Thus far I have only attempted to describe events on the extreme left of the battlefield, being that part of which I had personal observation; but the larger force and, consequently, the more serious conflict were upon the right of the line. To these I will now refer. Our force there consisted of the divisions of Major-Generals D. H. Hill, Huger, and Longstreet, the latter in chief command. In his report, first published in the Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. III, pp. 277, 278, he writes:
Agreeably to verbal instructions from the commanding General, the division of Major-General D. Hill was, on the morning of the 31st ultimo, formed at an early hour on the Williamsburg road, as the column of attack upon the enemy's front on that road. .. The division of Major-General Huger was intended to make a strong flank movement around the left of the enemy's position, and attack him in rear of that flank. After waiting some six hours for these troops to
get into position, I determined to move forward without regard to them, and gave orders to that effect to Major-General D. Hill. The forward movement began about two o'clock, and our skirmishers soon became engaged with those of the enemy. The entire division of General Hill became engaged about three o'clock, and drove the enemy steadily back, gaining possession of his abatis and part of his intrenched camp, General Rodes, by a movement to the right, driving in the enemy's left. The only reinforcements on the field in hand were my own brigades, of which Anderson's, Wilcox's, and Kemper's were put in by the front on the Williamsburg road, and Colston's and Pryor's by my right flank. At the same time the decided and gallant attack made by the other brigades gained entire possession of the enemy's position, with his artillery, camp-equi age, etc. Anderson 5 brigade, under Colonel Jenkins, pressing forward rapidly, continued to drive the enemy till nightfall. The conduct of the attack was left entirely to Major-General Hill. The entire success of the affair is sufficient evidence of his ability, courage, and skill.
This tribute to General Hill was no more than has been accorded to him by others who knew of his services on that day, and was in keeping with the determined courage, vigilance, and daring exhibited by him on other fields.
The reference, made without qualification in General Longstreet's report, to the failure of General Huger to make the attack expected of him, and the freedom with which others have criticized him, renders it proper that some explanation should be given of an apparent dilatoriness on the part of that veteran soldier, who, after long and faithful service, now fills an honored grave.
it will be remembered that General Huger was to move by the Charles City Road, so as to turn the left of the enemy and attack him in flank. The extraordinary rain of the previous night had swollen every rivulet to the dimensions of a stream, and the route prescribed to General Huger was one especially affected by that heavy rain, as it led to the head of the White-Oak Swamp. The bridge over the stream flowing into that swamp had been carried away, and the alternatives presented to him were to rebuild the bridge or to leave his artillery. He chose the former, which involved the delay that has subjected him to criticism. if any should think an excuse necessary to justify this decision, they are reminded to the accepted maxim, that the march must never be so hurried as to arrive unfit for service; they must also be reminded that Huger's specialty was artillery, he being the officer who commanded the siege-guns with which General Scott marched from Vera Cruz to the city of Mexico. To show that the obstacles encountered were not of such slight character as energy would readily overcome, I refer to the report of an officer commanding a brigade on that occasion, Brigadier General R. Rodes, whose great merit and dashing gallantry caused him to be admired throughout the army of the Confederacy. He said:
On the morning of the 31st the brigade was stationed on the Charles City road, three and a half miles from the point on the Williamsburg road from which it had been determined to start the columns of attack.. - . I received a verbal order from General Hill to conduct my command at once to the point at which the at-tack was to be made. - .. The progress of the brigade was considerably delayed by the washing away of a bridge near the head of White&Oak Swamp, by reason of which the men had to wade in water waist-deep, and a large number were entirely submerged. At this point the character of the crossing was sud that it was absolutely necessary to proceed with great caution to prevent the loss of both ammunition and life. In consequence of this delay, and notwithstanding that the men were carried at double-quick time over very heavy ground for a considerable distance to make up for it, when the signal for attack was given, only my line of skirmishers, the Sixth Alabama and the Twelfth Mississippi Regiments, was in position. The ground over which we were to move being covered with thick undergrowth, and the soil being marshy so marshy that it was with great difficulty that either horses or men could get over it and being guided only by the fire in front, I emerged from the woods from the Williamsburg road under a heavy fire of both artillery and musketry, with only five companies of the Fifth Alabama.
General Huger's line of march was farther to the right, therefore nearer to White-Oak Swamp, and the impediments were consequently greater than where General Rodes found the route so difficult as to be dangerous even to infantry.
On the next day, June 1st, General Longstreet states that a serious at-tack was made on our position, and that it was repulsed. This refers to the works which Hill's division had captured the day before, and which the enemy endeavored to retake.
From the final report of General Longstreet, already cited, it appears that he was ordered to attack on the morning of the 31st, and he explains why it was postponed for six hours; then he states that it was commenced by the division of General D. Hill, which drove the enemy steadily back, pressing forward until nightfall. The movement of Rodes's brigade on the right plank is credited with having contributed much to the dislodgment of the enemy from their abatis and first entrenchments. As just stated, General Longstreet reports a delay of some six hours in making this attack, because he was waiting for General Huger, and then made it successfully with Hill's division and some brigades from his own. These questions must naturally arise in the mind of the reader: Why did not our troops on the left, during this long delay, as well as during the period occupied by Hill's assault, cooperate in the attack? And why, the battle having been preconceived, were they so far removed as not to hear the first guns? The officers of the Federal army, when called before a committee appointed by their Congress to inquire into the conduct of the war, have by their testimony made it quite plain that the divided condition of their troops and the length of tame required for their concentration after the battle commenced, rendered it practicable for our forces, if united, taking the initiative, they well might have been-to have crushed or put to flight first Keyes's and then Heintzelman's corps before Sumner crossed the Chickahominy, between five and six o'clock in the evening.
By the official reports our aggregate loss was, "killed, wounded, and missing," 6,084, of which 4,8-51 were in Longstreet's command on the fight, and 1,233 in Smith's command on the left.
The enemy reported its aggregate loss at 5,739. It may have been less than ours, for we stormed its successive defenses.
Our success upon the right was proved by our possession of the enemy's works, as well as by the capture of ten pieces of artillery, four flags, a large amount of camp equipage, and more than one thousand prisoners.
Our aggregate of both wings was about 40,500. The force of the enemy confronting us may be approximated by taking his returns for June 20th and adding thereto his casualties on May 31st and June 1st, because between the last-named date and June 20th no action had occurred to create any material change in the number present. From these data, viz., the strength of Heintzelman's corps, 18,810, and of Keyes's corps, 14,610, on June 20th, by adding their casualties of May 31st and June lst-we deduce the strength of these two corps on May 31st to have been 37,936 as the aggregate present for duty.
It thus appears that, at the commencement of the action on May 31st, we had a numerical superiority of about 2,500. Adopting the same method to calculate the strength of Sumner's corps, we find it to have been 18,724, which would give the enemy in round numbers a force of 16,000 in excess of ours after General Sumner crossed the Chickahominy.
Both combatants claimed the victory. j have presented the evidence an support of our claim. The withdrawal of the Confederate forces on the day after the battle from the ground on which it was fought certainly gives color to the claim of the enemy, though that was really the result of a policy much broader than the occupation of the field of Seven Pines.
On the morning of June 1st I rode out toward the position where General Smith had been left on the previous night, and where I learned from General Lee that he would remain. After turning into the Nine Mile Road, and before reaching that position, I was hailed by General Whiting, who saw me at a distance, and ran toward the road to stop me. He told me I was riding into the position of the enemy, who had advanced on the withdrawal of our troops, and there, pointing, he said, "is a battery which I am surprised has not fired on you. I asked where our troops were. He said his was the advance, and the others behind him. He also told me that General Smith was at the house which had been his (Whiting's) headquarters, and I rode there to see him. To relieve both him and General Lee from any embarrassment, I preferred to make the announcement of General Lee's assignment to command previous to his arrival.
After General Lee arrived I took leave and, being subsequently joined by him, we rode together to the Williamsburg road, where we found General Longstreet, his command being in front, and then engaged with the enemy on the field of the previous day's combat. The operations of that day were neither extensive nor important, save in the collection of the arms acquired in the previous day's battle.
General R. Lee was now in immediate command, and thenceforward directed the movements of the army in front of Richmond. Laborious and exact in details as he was vigilant and comprehensive in grand strategy, a power with which the public had not credited him soon became manifest in all that makes an army a rapid, accurate, compact machine, with responsive motion in all its parts. I extract the following sentence from a letter from the late Colonel R. Chilton, adjutant arid inspector general of the army of the Confederacy, because of his special knowledge of the subject:
I consider General Lee's exhibition of grand administrative talents and indomitable energy, in bringing up that army in so short a time to that state of discipline which maintained aggregation through those terrible seven day's fights around Richmond, as probably his grandest achievement.
American Civil War: Invading the North
Robert E. Lee firmly believed that for the Confederacy to survive he needed to win a major victory on Northern soil. He was to get two chances to put this theory to the test, and each case he was to loose his battle.
Maryland and Antietam
In each case, Lee was able to launch his invasion because of victory won on southern soil. 1862 had seen the North launch a massive invasion of Virginia. After the failure of McClellan&rsquos Peninsular Campaign, Lee was able to shift his troops back north, where they helped win the Second Battle of Bull Run or Manassas (29-30 August).
In the aftermath of Bull Run, Lee wanted to launch an invasion of Maryland. If successful, this would threaten Washington, possibly bring Maryland into the Confederacy, and perhaps convince Northern public opinion that the south could not be conquered.
Lee was confident that his army was now capable of beating anyone, but especially the defeated and, he hoped, demoralised northerners. This was his first mistake. The Union soldiers withdrawn from the Peninsular and their colleagues beaten at Second Bull Run may have been downhearted, but not demoralised, and they maintained their confidence in General McClellan, now restored to command of the army to defend Maryland.
Not all of Lee&rsquos army accompanied him north into Maryland. A significant number of his men were actually moderately pro-union, fighting for the south because they were opposed to any compulsion being used against the seceded states, or had enlisted to defend their home states against northern aggression and did not approve of southern aggression. All in all, Lee took 50,000 men into Maryland on 4 September, crossing the Potomac about thirty miles west of Washington.
On 7 September Lee&rsquos army stopped at Frederick, north of its crossing point. There Lee hoped to recruit secessionist Marylanders, but the secessionist areas of the state were further east and south. The first part of Lee&rsquos plan to fail was his hope for reinforcements from Maryland.
The same day saw McClellan lead an 85,000 Union army out of the Washington defences to face Lee. Another 72,000 men were left behind to defend Washington. This was a serious mistake, not because McClellan&rsquos army was too small, but because he had convinced himself that Lee had 100,000 men, and so he was outnumbered!
Lee&rsquos original plan had been to march north through Maryland into Pennsylvania, but he now allowed his entire campaign to be derailed by the small Federal garrison at Harpers Ferry, to his west on the Potomac. On 10 September Lee&rsquos army left Frederick, and headed west. Lee now took a massive gamble, splitting his army into five segments. Three were to concentrate against Harper&rsquos Ferry, while two guarded the routes east and north. Lee was confident that he could capture Harpers Ferry and reunite the army before McClellan got anywhere near, or possibly even before he realised that Lee had split his forces.
This was improbable to say the least. McClellan was receiving a great deal of accurate intelligence about Lee&rsquos movements now he was in Maryland, but on 13 September he received a stroke of luck that should have allowed him to role up Lee&rsquos entire army. A copy of Lee&rsquos Special Order 191, detailing his plan for the attack on Harpers Ferry, was found by two Union solders. Worse, the copy was written in handwriting that was recognised as belonging to Lee&rsquos assistant adjutant-general. The order was genuine, and McClellan accepted it as such.
Even with this information, McClellan still proved incapable of moving quickly. On 14 September he managed to force his way through the mountain passes north of Harpers Ferry, but then halted again. Harpers Ferry did not fall to the Confederates until the following day, 15 September. On that same day, Lee decided to move his part of the army, some 15,000 men, south to Sharpsburg, with Antietam Creek running south to north just to his east. The first Federal units reached the east bank of the creek at noon on the same day.
This was McClellan&rsquos great chance. The bulk of his army was no more than half a days march away. On 15 September he could have attacked Lee&rsquos 15,000-20,000 men with most of his 80,000. The following day part of the Harpers Ferry force reached Lee, but even at the end of the day he only had 25,000 men. Still McClellan did not attack.
Finally, on 17 September McClellan attacked. The resulting Battle of Antietam or Sharpsburg saw a series of determined but uncoordinated Union attacks that came close to breaking Lee&rsquos line on several occasions. On each occasion, McClellan failed to support the attack, and convinced that he was still outnumbered never used his reserves. Antietam saw the highest casualty figures of any single days fighting in the entire war. Lee lost 2,700 dead, 9,024 wounded and 2,000 missing out of a total force of 40,000. Union losses were 2,108 killed, 9,549 wound and 753 missing out, similar total numbers out of a much larger army.
McClellan was given yet another chance on 18 September. Lee remained in his lines all day, with his forces down to at most 30,000 men. McClellan had nearly that many fresh soldiers who had taken no part in the fighting on the previous day, but was still convinced that Lee had massive reserves, and did not attack. Finally, during the evening of 18 September Lee withdrew across the Potomac back into Virginia.
Antietam was McClellan&rsquos last great chance to defeat Lee. On 7 November he was finally replaced as commander of the Army of the Potomac. He persisted in claiming Antietam as a military masterpiece. Although it was far from that, it did have long reaching effects. For some time Lincoln had been waiting for a victory before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. Antietem was enough of a victory. The Proclamation helped change the nature of the war, giving the Union cause a great moral advantage. Antietam also discouraged any thoughts the British government might have had about recognising the Confederacy. Lee&rsquos gamble had failed.
Pennsylvania and Gettysburg
The following year gave Lee a better opportunity to invade the north. After defeat at Fredericksburg (13 December 1862) and Chancellorsville (2-5 May 1863), the Union Army of the Potomac was in no shape to launch any more attacks in 1863. McClellan was gone, and no commander had yet to maintain the trust of the army. Lee could launch his second invasion of the north in the summer of 1863 with some hope of winning a significant victory on Northern soil. For once, Lee was not hugely outnumbered. His own army was as large as it had ever been, while thousands of Union soldiers who had enrolled for nine months in the summer of 1862 left the army when their period of enlistment ended.
This time his target was Pennsylvania, further north and with no secessionist minority. Here his army could legitimately strip the countryside bare without any scruples about upsetting potential Confederate supporters. The invasion of Pennsylvania certainly produced an impressive quantity of booty. Nearly 50,000 cattle and sheep moved south into Virginia as Lee&rsquos army moved north.
This time, Lee&rsquos army did move north. On 3 June the Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia left its camps at Fredericksburg, and headed north west to the Shenandoah Valley. On 14-15 June it pushed aside the Union garrison of Winchester (Second battle of Winchester), and on 15 June crossed the Potomac into Maryland. On 14 June the Army of Potomac left its own camps opposite Fredericksburg and began to march north in pursuit of the Confederate army.
For the next two weeks the armies moved north. Lee&rsquos army behaved with deliberate restrain, in the hope of encouraging the pro-peace Democrats in the north, although still managed to extort large amounts of valuable Northern money. The Union army, still under Joe Hooker, was slowly closing on them, although Hooker was still somewhat stunned by his Chancellorsville defeat, becoming increasing uncertain as he approached Lee.
One of the acknowledged weaknesses in Lee&rsquos leadership was that he was unwilling to give clear and unambiguous orders to his subordinates. To do so would be an insult to them as fellow gentlemen. This approach had worked reasonably well with Thomas Jackson, who had normally performed as required, but with other men it simply allowed them to do what they wanted. In the case of Jeb Stuart that meant heading off on another raid around the rear of the enemy army. On 25 June he left with three brigades on a raid that lasted a week, and left Lee without effective scouts.
It took until 28 June for Lee to learn that Hooker and the Army of the Potomac were just behind him in Maryland. Hearing the news, Lee began to pull the three corps of his army back together, ready to fight his climatic battle.
On the same day Hooker was finally replaced. After an argument with General-in-Chief Halleck, Hooker had offered his resignation, and on 28 June it was accepted. He was replaced by Major-General George Meade. Meade was a relative unknown, who had commanded a division at Fredericksburg that had nearly pierced the Confederate line, and had risen to Corps command since. Only three days after being appointed to command the entire army, Meade was to find himself involved in the most famous battle of the war, commanding a recently beaten army against Lee&rsquos confident veterans.
That battle developed around the small community of Gettysburg. Lee had decided to concentrate his army in the general vicinity of the town, an important road junction. As they were going to be in the area anyway, A.P. Hill ordered one of his divisions into Gettysburg to seize a supply of shoes said to be in the town.
On the morning of 1 July, this division found Gettysburg defended by two brigades of Union cavalry. Those brigades had arrived on the previous day. Their commander had noticed that the hills around Gettysburg would make a strong defensive position, and had sent word to the nearby infantry corps commanded by John Reynolds. Reynolds set his men on the road to Gettysburg.
On 1 July these cavalry brigades were able to hold off Hill&rsquos infantry for two hours, until the first brigade of Reynold&rsquos corps arrived on the scene. They were soon joined by the Union 11th Corps and the lead divisions of Ewell&rsquos Confederate Corps. The first of the army commanders to arrive on the scene was Lee. He arrived to find 24,000 of his men facing 19,000 Union solders to the north and west of Gettysburg. Lee ordered a general assault, four divisions strong. The Union forces were swept from their positions, and forced to withdraw through Gettysburg to their reserve position on Cemetery Hill, half a mile south of the town.
Lee&rsquos style of command now led to one of the great controversies of the war. Although his army had had the best of the fighting so far, the Union army still held a strong position south of the town. If Lee was to gain his army-crushing victory, then he would need to deal with that position before the rest of the Union army arrived. Accordingly, he gave orders to Ewell to attack, but left the final judgement on whether to attack that day to Ewell. Ewell, who had replaced Stonewall Jackson, chose not to attack. This was probably the right choice. His men had been fighting all day, while there was already at least one fresh Union division on Cemetery Hill, and more men were arrived all the time. By the time Ewell could have organised an attack, the Union position of Cemetery Hill would almost certainly been strong enough to repel his attack with heavy losses. His decision has become yet another of the Confederacy&rsquos &lsquoif only&rsquo moments. If Jackson had not been killed, he would have attacked Cemetery Hill on 1 July. If Jackson had attacked, he would have swept the Union defenders off the hill. If the Union defenders of Cemetery Hill had been swept off the hill, the Confederacy would have won the war. Jackson&rsquos track record at the Seven Days Battles does not fill one with confidence about this series of ifs.
Overnight the bulk of both armies arrived around Gettysburg. Meade&rsquos line stretched south from Cemetery Hill along Cemetery Ridge to Little Round Top, and east to Culp&rsquos Hill. However, on his southern flank, General Sickles had moved his Corps west, to higher ground along a road that ran south west out of Gettysburg, in an area known as the Peach Orchard. This position presented a stronger front than Cemetery Ridge, which was not of any great height at this point, but left Sickles&rsquos Corps exposed on both flanks.
Lee planned a two pronged attack for 2 July. On his right, Longstreet was to attack Cemetery Ridge in force. On his left, Ewell was to act as if he was about to attack, and then turn his demonstration into a real attack if Meade weakened the Union right to deal with Longstreet. If all went well, both flanks would crumble, allowing Lee to surround the strong Union centre on Cemetery Hill.
Unfortunately, Lee was let down by Longstreet. Despite orders to attack as early in the day as possible, Longstreet&rsquos attack did not go in until 4 in the afternoon. Worse, Sickle&rsquos decision to move forward to the Peach Orchard meant that after several hours of intense fighting, in which the Union forces were pushed slowly back and back, all Longstreet achieved was to push the Union line back to Cemetery Ridge, where he had expected to find them in the first place. A great chance to seize Little Round Top, at the southern end of the Union line was also missed. Finally, towards dusk, the Union Sixth Corps reached the battlefield, and was immediately placed into the front line. Longstreet&rsquos attack had failed.
On the Confederate left, Ewell&rsquos attack inevitably went in late, as he was waiting for Meade to react to Longstreet&rsquos attack. When Ewell did go in, he was able to seize lightly defended Union positions on Culp Hill, but it was too late in the day for him to achieve any more. The next morning a Federal counterattack was to retake these positions.
Lee decided to try one more attack on 3 July. This time he would attack the centre of the Union line, on the northern part of Cemetery Ridge. Lee was able to form a force 13,500 strong to launch this attack, supported by 160 guns. However, the artillery bombardment was ineffective. The Union soldiers were safe behind stone field walls and their own breastworks, besides which most of the Confederate guns were firing too high. Eventually the Union guns ceased firing, simply to conserve ammunition and await the coming attack. This was taken as a signal that the Confederate bombardment was having the required effect, and the attack was ordered in.
Picket&rsquos Charge has become known as the High Water Mark of the Rebellion. His 13,500 men marched into devastating Union artillery fire, and then those that did get close to the Union line were exposed to the concentrated musket fire of the undamaged Union infantry. One can not help but think of the slaughter on the Western Front, just over fifty years later. No more than a few hundred of Pickett&rsquos men reached the Union positions on Cemetery Hill. The Confederates suffered around 7,000 casualties during Pickett&rsquos Charge, and achieved nothing. Lee had demonstrated a similar stubbornness at Malvern Hill in the previous year. He had entered Pennsylvania to fight a war winning battle, and he was not willing to give up after two days.
After three he was left with no choice. On 4 July his army was too battered to launch another assault. Meade&rsquos army was in slightly better shape, although was not in a fit state to launch its own counterattack. After staying in place at Gettysburg until about one in the afternoon of 4 July, Lee began a skilful retreat back to Virginia. The great gamble had failed. As Lee was pulling back from Gettysburg, the garrison of Vicksburg on the Mississippi was marching out to surrender. East and west the Union was victorious.
Lee was later to say of Gettysburg that &lsquothe battle resulted in the infliction of as great an amount of injury as was received and in frustrating the Federal campaign for the season&rsquo. The second claim was credible (although the defeat at Chancellorsville and the disappearance of a large part of the Union army when their enlistments ended also played a part), but the first was not. Confederate casualties were over 28,000, with 3,903 killed and 18,735 wounded. The Union army lost 23,000 men (3,155 killed and 14,529 wounded). These were casualties that the Confederacy could not afford.
Lee&rsquos reason for attacked the north was that he felt that victories in Virginia could not win the war. An examination of the casualty figures would suggest that this was not the case. At Chancellorsville, earlier in the year, the Union had suffered 17,000 casualties and the Confederacy 13,000. In the following year, Grant&rsquos army was to suffer much the higher casualties &ndash 17,600 compared to 7750 at the Battle of the Wilderness and 17,700 against 12,000 at Spotsylvania. These heavy Union casualties came close to costing Lincoln the 1864 Presidential election. How much more damage could Lee have done if he had still had the veterans lost at Gettysburg?
Lee&rsquos aim at Gettysburg was the destruction of the Union army. The entire campaign was launched in the belief that it was still possible to win a battle that would destroy your opponent&rsquos army, either directly through inflicting casualties, or preferably by out-manoeuvring them and forcing the army to either surrender or disintegrate. The ambition of commanders on both sides was to win an Austerlitz style of victory (At that battle Napoleon had destroyed the Austrian and Russian armies on a single day &ndash 2 December 1805). Lee was not alone in looking for this sort of victory. When Grant launched his 1864 campaign he still had some hopes of winning a great manoeuvre battle, but Grant had already come to realise that this might not be possible, and was prepared to alter his plans if needed. By 1863 it should have been increasingly clear that the Union Army of the Potomac was capable of recovering from the most severe defeats &ndash Second Bull Run had been followed by Antietam. Would not a Confederate victory at Gettysburg have been followed by another Union revival, and another battle?
Next: Clearing the Mississippi
A.C.W. Home Page | A.C.W. Subject Index | A.C.W. Books | A.C.W. LinksA Great Civil War, Russel F. Wiegley, Indiana University Press, 2004, 648 pages. This is a superb account of the civil war years. Weigley has produced a book that combines a good understanding of the military aspects of the war with a clear grasp of the wider issues at stake. [see more]
Following the failure to break the Union lines at Gettysburg, the Confederates were forced to end their invasion of the North, and to withdraw from Pennsylvania and retreat back to Virginia. The rebel army would never again mount a major invasion of the North.
It has never been entirely clear just why Lee ordered the charge by Pickett. There are some historians who contend that the charge was only part of Lee’s battle plan that day, and a cavalry attack led by General J.E.B. Stuart which failed to accomplish its objective doomed the effort of the infantry.
Looking at the Battle of Gettysburg Through Robert E. Lee’s Eyes
Anne Kelly Knowles loves places where history happened. She traces this passion to family trips she took as a girl in the 1960s, when her father would pile his wife and four children into a rented RV for odysseys from their home in Kalamazoo, Michigan, to iconic sites from America’s past.
From This Story
Video: Anne Kelly Knowles: 2012 Smithsonian American Ingenuity Awards
Video: Anne Kelly Knowles Uses GIS Tools to Re-Write History
During World War II in Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia, the SS often located concentration camps and labor camps (crosses) near centers of steel (blue) and machine-tool production (red) to exploit inmates’ forced labor. (Toral Patel and Anne Kelly Knowles. Camps data courtesy United States Holocaust Memorial Museum) Anne Kelly Knowles uses geography and technology to trace history. (Ethan Hill) Atop the Lutheran Seminary, Lee could have seen the tan-colored areas—much more than historians have noted (light gray areas). (Anne Kelly Knowles, Caitrin Abshere and Will Roush) Near the Black Horse Tavern, Longstreet would have seen that his troops were exposed to Union sentries. (Anne Kelly Knowles, Caitrin Abshere and Will Roush)
“We’d study the road atlas and plot trips around places like the Little Bighorn and Mount Rushmore,” Knowles recalls. “Historical landmarks were our pins in the map.” Between scheduled stops, she and her father would leap out of the RV to take pictures of historical markers. “I was the only one of the kids who was really jazzed about history. It was my strongest connection with my dad.”
Decades later, Knowles’ childhood journeys have translated into a pathbreaking career in historical geography. Using innovative cartographic tools, she has cast fresh light on hoary historical debates—What was Robert E. Lee thinking at Gettysburg?—and navigated new and difficult terrain, such as mapping the mass shootings of Jews in Eastern Europe by Nazi death squads during World War II.
Knowles’ research, and her strong advocacy of new geographic approaches, have also helped revitalize a discipline that declined in the late 20th century as many leading universities closed their geography departments. “She’s a pioneer,” says Edward Muller, a histor- ical geographer at the University of Pittsburgh. “There’s an ingenuity in the way she uses spatial imagination to see things and ask questions that others haven’t.” Adds Peter Bol, a historian at Harvard and director of its Center for Geographic Analysis: “Anne thinks not just about new technology but how mapping can be applied across disciplines, to all aspects of human society.”
My own introduction to Knowles’ work occurred in August, when Smithsonian asked me to profile a recipient of the magazine’s award for ingenuity. Since the prizewinners weren’t yet public, I was initially told nothing other than the recipient’s field. This made me apprehensive. My formal education in geography ended with fifth-grade social studies class, during which a teacher traced the path of the Amazon on a Mercator projection map that made Greenland loom larger than South America. I knew, vaguely, that new technology had transformed this once-musty discipline, and I expected the innovator I’d been asked to profile would be a NASA scientist or an engineering nerd closeted in a climate-controlled computer lab in Silicon Valley.
No part of this proved true, beginning with the setting. Knowles, 55, is a professor at Middlebury College, which is close to the Platonic ideal of a New England campus. Its rolling lawns and handsome buildings, mostly hewn from Vermont marble, perch on a rise with sweeping views of the Green Mountains and Adirondacks. Knowles fits her liberal arts surrounds, despite belonging to a specialty she calls “fairly macho and geeky.” A trim woman with short hair and cornflower-blue eyes, she wears a white tunic, loose linen trousers and clogs, and seems very at home amid the Yankee/organic quaintness of Middlebury.
But the biggest surprise, for me, was Knowles’ book-lined office in the geography department. Where I’d imagined her crunching data before a vast bank of blinking screens, I instead found her tapping at a humble Dell laptop.
“The technology is just a tool, and what really matters is how you use it,” she says. “Historical geography means putting place at the center of history. No supercomputers are required.” When I asked about her math and computing skills, she replied: “I add, subtract, multiply, divide.”
Her principal tool is geographic information systems, or GIS, a name for computer programs that incorporate such data as satellite imagery, paper maps and statistics. Knowles makes GIS sound simple: “It’s a computer software that allows you to map and analyze any information that has a location attached.” But watching her navigate GIS and other applications, it quickly becomes obvious that this isn’t your father’s geography.
First, a modern topographical map of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, appears on her screen. “Not enough detail,” she says, going next to a contour map of the same landscape made in 1874, which she has traced and scanned. “Here’s where the carto-geek in me comes out,” she says, running her finger lovingly across the map and noting how it distinguishes between hardwood forest, pine woods and orchards—the kind of fine-grained detail that is crucial to her work.
Then, deploying software used in the defense industry, she taps functions such as “triangulated irregular network” and “viewshed analysis” and something that “determines the raster surface locations visible to a set of observer features.” I’m simplifying here. Imagine pixels and grids swimming across the screen in response to keystroke commands that are about as easy to follow as the badly translated instructions that came with your last electronic device. “There’s a steep learning curve to GIS,” Knowles acknowledges.
What emerges, in the end, is a “map” that’s not just color-coded and crammed with data, but dynamic rather than static—a layered re-creation that Knowles likens to looking at the past through 3-D glasses. The image shifts, changing with a few keystrokes to answer the questions Knowles asks. In this instance, she wants to know what commanders could see of the battlefield on the second day at Gettysburg. A red dot denotes General Lee’s vantage point from the top of the Lutheran Seminary. His field of vision shows as clear ground, with blind spots shaded in deep indigo. Knowles has even factored in the extra inches of sightline afforded by Lee’s boots. “We can’t account for the haze and smoke of battle in GIS, though in theory you could with gaming software,” she says.
Scholars have long debated Lee’s decision to press a frontal assault at Gettysburg. How could such an exceptional commander, expert in reading terrain, fail to recognize the attack would be a disaster? The traditional explanation, favored in particular by Lee admirers, is that his underling, Gen. James Longstreet, failed to properly execute Lee’s orders and marched his men sideways while Union forces massed to repel a major Confederate assault. “Lee’s wondering, ‘Where is Longstreet and why is he dithering?’” Knowles says.
Her careful translation of contours into a digital representation of the battlefield gives new context to both men’s behavior. The sight lines show Lee couldn’t see what Longstreet was doing. Nor did he have a clear view of Union maneuvers. Longstreet, meanwhile, saw what Lee couldn’t: Union troops massed in clear sight of open terrain he’d been ordered to march across.
Rather than expose his men, Long- street led them on a much longer but more shielded march before launching the planned assault. By the time he did, late on July 2, Union officers—who, as Knowles’ mapping shows, had a much better view of the field from elevated ground—had positioned their troops to fend off the Confederate advance.
Knowles feels this research helps vindicate the long-reviled Longstreet and demonstrates the difficulties Lee faced in overseeing the battle. But she adds that her Gettysburg work “raises questions rather than providing definitive answers.” For instance: Lee, despite his blind spots, was able to witness the bloody repulse of Longstreet’s men that afternoon. “What was the psychological effect on Lee of seeing all that carnage? He’s been cool in command before, but he seems a bit unhinged on the night of the second day of battle, and the next day he orders Pickett’s Charge. Mapping what he could see helps us ask questions that haven’t been asked much before.”
Knowles says her work has been well received by Civil War scholars. But that’s partly because military historians are more open than others to new geographical techniques. Many historians lack the technical know-how and assistance to master systems like GIS, and are accustomed to emphasizing written rather than visual sources.
“The old school, in history and geography, dug up records and maps, but did not pay much attention to the spatial aspect of history,” says Guntram Herb, a colleague of Knowles’ in Middlebury’s geography department. “And there’s this lingering image of geography as boring and pointless—what’s the capital of Burkina Faso, that sort of thing.”
Knowles’ work has helped reshape this outdated image. To students who now arrive at college with computer savvy and familiarity with Google Earth and GPS, geography seems cool and relevant in a way it didn’t in my long-ago social studies class. Knowles has also brought GIS, once a fringe methodology mainly used by planners to plot transportation routes and land-use surveys, into the historical mainstream. And she’s done so by creating teams of scholars from different areas of expertise, which is common in the sciences but less so among historians. “Technical expertise, archival expertise, geographic imagination—no one has it all,” Knowles says. “You have to work together.”
This embrace of collaboration, and willingness to cross academic boundaries, stems from the unusual path Knowles has followed since her girlhood in Kalamazoo. If she were to map her own career, it would show loops and islands rather than a linear progression. At first, her love of family journeys through the American past didn’t translate into an academic interest in history. “I wrote poetry and loved literature,” she says. As an English major at Duke, she started a magazine and was also a talented modern dancer, which led her to New York City after college.
There, she did editing work and after marrying and moving to Chicago, she worked for textbook publishers. One of her assignments was developing a text that told U.S. history through maps. The consulting editor was a University of Chicago geographer who conceived and compiled 110 maps and took Knowles on field trips. “I was blown away,” she says. “Mapping history brought everything to ground and showed me how history resides in the landscape.”
This led her to graduate study in geography at the University of Wisconsin, a teaching stint in Wales, a postdoctorate at Wellesley College, and a lonely period when she couldn’t find a job and formed her own community of like-minded scholars, devoted to the historical application of GIS. This was also the period when she conceived her breakthrough study of Gettysburg. “I was unemployed, down in the dumps, and was brushing my teeth one morning when I thought, what could Lee see, actually? I knew there was a GIS method, used to site ski runs and real estate views, and wondered what would happen if I applied that to Gettysburg.”
Though she’s now been ensconced at Middlebury for a decade, Knowles continues to push boundaries. Her current project is mapping the Holocaust, in collaboration with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and a team of international scholars. Previously, most maps of the Holocaust simply located sites such as death camps and ghettos. Knowles and her colleagues have used GIS to create a “geography of oppression,” including maps of the growth of concentration camps and the movement of Nazi death squads that accompanied the German Army into the Soviet Union.
The first volume of this work is going to press next year, and in it, Knowles and her co-writers acknowledge the difficulty of using “quantitative techniques to study human suffering.” Their work also raises uncomfortable questions about guilt and complicity. For instance, her colleagues’ research shows that Italians may have been more active in the arrest of Jews than commonly acknowledged, and that Budapest Jews, wearing yellow arm-bands, walked streets occupied by non-Jewish businesses and citizens rather than being sequestered out of sight.
Knowles hopes the ongoing work will contribute not only to an understanding of the Holocaust, but also to the prevention of genocide. “Mapping in this way helps you see patterns and predict what may happen,” she says.
More broadly, she believes new mapping techniques can balance the paper trail that historians have traditionally relied on. “One of the most exciting and important parts of historical geography is revealing the dangers of human memory.” By injecting data from maps, she hopes historical geography will act as a corrective and impart lessons that may resonate outside the academy. “We can learn to become more modest about our judgments, about what we know or think we know and how we judge current circumstances.”
Knowles is careful to avoid over-hyping GIS, which she regards as an exploratory methodology. She also recognizes the risk that it can produce “mere eye candy,” providing great visuals without deepening our understanding of the past. Another problem is the difficulty of translating complex maps and tables into meaningful words and stories. GIS-based studies can, at times, be about as riveting to read as reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Aware of these pitfalls, Knowles is about to publish a book that uses GIS in the service of an overarching historical narrative. Mastering Iron, due out in January, follows the American iron industry from 1800 to 1868. Though the subject matter may not sound as grabby as the Holocaust or Gettysburg, Knowles has blended geographical analysis with more traditional sources to challenge conventional wisdom about the development of American industry.
Like so much of Knowles’ work, the book sprang from her curiosity about place and past—an almost mystical connection she feels to historic ground. Years ago, while researching Welsh immigrants in Ohio, she visited the remains of an early 19th-century blast furnace. “It was draped in vines and seemed like a majestic ruin in the Yucatán. Something mighty and important, full of meaning and mystery. I wondered, how was that machine made and used, how did it work, how did people feel about it?”
Finding answers took years. Working with local histories, old maps and a dense 1859 survey called The Iron Manufacturer’s Guide (“one of the most boring books on earth,” Knowles says), she painstakingly created a database of every ironworks she could locate, from village forges to Pittsburgh rolling mills. She also mapped factors such as distances from canals, rail lines, and deposits of coal and iron ore. The patterns and individual stories that emerged ran counter to earlier, much sketchier work on the subject.
Most previous interpretations of the iron industry cast it as relatively uniform and primitive, important mainly as a precursor to steel. Knowles found instead that ironworks were tremendously complex and varied, depending on local geology and geography. Nor was the industry simply a steppingstone to steel. The manufacture of iron was “its own event,” vital to railroads, textile factories and other enterprises hence, a driving force in the nation’s industrial revolution.
Knowles also brings this potentially dry subject alive with vivid evocations of place (Pittsburgh, according to a journalist she quotes, looked like “hell with the lid taken off”) and the words and stories of individuals who made and sold iron. The industry required extremely skilled laborers who “worked from sight and feel” at harsh jobs like puddling, which meant stirring “a mass of white-hot iron at close range to rid it of impurities.” At the other end were entrepreneurs who took remarkable risks. Many failed, including magnates who had succeeded in other industries.
To Knowles, this history is instructive, even though the story she tells ended a century and a half ago. “There are analogues to today, entrepreneurs overreaching their expertise and going into businesses they don’t understand.” As always, she also stresses the specificity of place. “In trying to export American capitalism, we fail to appreciate local circumstances that help businesses to succeed or fail. We shouldn’t assume we have a good model that can simply be exported.”
Though Knowles’ research has centered on gritty industry, genocide and the carnage at Gettysburg, she retreats at day’s end through rolling farmland to her home eight miles from Middlebury. En route, she instinctively reads the landscape, noting: “The forest cover would have been much less a hundred years ago, it was all cleared then. You can see that in how scrubby the trees are, they’re second and third growth.”
Her old farmhouse has wide pine floorboards and a barn and apple trees in the yard. She does most of her writing in a room with a view of an abandoned one-room schoolhouse. This faded rural setting is a striking contrast to the global and digital universe that Knowles inhabits in her research. But to her there’s no disconnect. One constant in her life is the keen sense of place she’s had since childhood. “Where we are on the map matters,” she says. “So does mental space. We all need that, and I find it here.”
About Tony Horwitz
Tony Horwitz was a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who worked as a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and wrote for the New Yorker. He is the author of Baghdad without a Map, Midnight Rising and the digital best seller BOOM. His most recent work, Spying on the South, was released in May 2019. Tony Horwitz died in May 2019 at the age of 60.
What was Robert E. Lee’s Real Plan on the Third Day of Gettysburg?
What was Lee’s real plan on Day 3 at Gettysburg? It seems to me that having seen the futility of frontal assaults against an entrenched enemy (Malvern Hill, Fredericksburg) Lee must have had something more in mind than throwing 12,000 infantry across more than a mile of open ground in the face of the center of an entrenched Union force. He had to have known that he would lose a significant portion of that force before they ever got near the Union line, and what were the survivors to do once they reached the copse of trees? Face left and storm Cemetery Hill? Meet up with the remnants of Ewell’s Corps? Was Stuart’s cavalry supposed to attack the Union line from the rear? Lee’s after-action statement “the plan remained the same” (referring to the previous day’s fight) tells us very little. What is your take?
It is all well and good for people with 151 years’ worth of hindsight to ask what Robert E. Lee was thinking on the third day of Gettysburg, but I believe he said it best himself afterward: “It’s all my fault. I thought my men were invincible.”
Of course, if one used the logic of hindsight—or any sort of general strategic logic—one would ask why Lee pursued his attacks at Gettysburg after the first day. Why assault a larger army that holds the defensive advantage of the high ground when you are deep within enemy territory? Wouldn’t the best course under such circumstances be to disengage and draw the enemy army along until you can engage him on ground more to your advantage—as Lee actually did at Antietam the previous September (and still lost)? Lee’s answer hides a real answer—after all the sometimes suicidally rash strategies and tactics he’d employed and gotten away with (even after the disaster at Malvern Hill, Maj. Gen. George McClellan just resumed his retreat), Lee was believing the built-up hype and genuinely thought he was invincible. His ego would not permit him to disengage, and in any case Lee’s strategy in venturing north was not geared toward taking Washington, D.C., Baltimore or even Harrisburg—it was to rout and preferably destroy the Army of the Potomac, after which Washington just might be open to negotiation.
Why the assault up the middle on the third day? Hell, my own brother, no Civil War buff, formulated a perfectly logical answer during his first visit to the battlefield: having failed to drive in either flank, the middle seemed the best remaining bet. This required some wishful thinking on Lee’s part: the previous two days’ attacks would have drawn reinforcements to the flanks, in addition to which the Union III Corps had been scattered in the Peach Orchard the previous day. To improve the odds, Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell’s Second Corps would be renewing its efforts against the Union left and Cemetery and Culp’s hills, and Maj. Gen. Jeb Stuart’s cavalry would create a demonstration in the Union rear that might draw off more troops. In theory, all so perfectly logical. In practice, all so wrong.
But above all, Lee had no more to go on than faulty intelligence on the enemy’s capabilities and dispositions, as well as of the newly appointed commander facing him and his own past history of success against seemingly impossible odds. What he lacked was 151 years’ worth of hindsight.
World History Group
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The Battle of Gettysburg:
The battle was fought over three days: 1-3 July 1863, with the final troop totals equaling close to 95,000 Federals and 75,000 Confederates. As the initial skirmishes began, almost accidentally, Kentucky-born Union General John Buford, an old Indian fighter, secured the high ground for the Federals.
The Confederates could have won the battle the first day. They pushed the Federals from their advanced positions in front of Gettysburg and along Seminary Ridge. The subsequent Union position—known as the “fish hook”—eventually formed like the base of the letter J at Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill, extending straight down Cemetery Ridge to Little Round Top and Big Round on the Union left.
Lee asked General Richard Ewell to attack the base of the fishhook, in order to sweep the Federal line, “if practicable.” Ewell, to Lee’s dismay, didn’t think it was, though Confederate General John B. Gordon knew otherwise: “The whole portion of the Union army in my front was in inextricable confusion and in flight . . . my troops were on the flank and sweeping down the lines. The firing upon my men had almost ceased. Large bodies of the Union troops were throwing down their arms and surrendering . . . .In less than half an hour my troops would have swept up and over those hills . . . .It is not surprising that . . .I should have refused to obey that order [to retreat].”
On the Union side of the line, it had been a lucky escape, but with heavy casualties. I Corps had lost nearly 10,000 men and some units had been virtually annihilated (the 24th Michigan suffered casualties of 80 percent). But arriving at midnight was the Army of the Potomac’s new commander, General George Meade, who inspected his defensive positions and found them solid.
That was one opportunity lost for the Confederate army. Another came on the second day, when Lee’s plan was to “attack the enemy as early in the morning as practicable”25 at the opposite end of the fish hook. The attack was entrusted to General James Longstreet. Longstreet, however, disliked Lee’s plan, preferring, according to his later testimony, to maneuver the Confederate army into a defensive position that would force the Yankees to attack it.
Longstreet delayed the attack until near day’s end, waiting for reinforcements. By that time, Union troops under General Daniel Sickles had advanced, contrary to General Meade’s orders, into an area known as the Peach Orchard, the Wheat Field, and Devil’s Den, smack in front of Longstreet’s long-delayed advance.
Confederate General John Bell Hood, dispatched scouts to see if it was still possible to flank the Union left, as originally planned. The answer was yes, if the Confederates moved their attack around to the hills of Little Round Top, which had no more than a Union observation unit, or unoccupied Big Round Top.
Hood reported this intelligence to Longstreet, but Longstreet refused to alter the plan of attack. He sent his men charging, en échelon, uphill, into spewing Union fire. Still, the Union line began to dissolve, and the Confederate attack spilled over to Little Round Top.
There the Confederates met the hastily formed line of the 20th Maine led by Colonel Joshua Chamberlain. Chamberlain’s thin blue line forced back the Confederate attacks, and trusting to courage against numbers, he counter-charged with fixed bayonets, stunning the Confederates into retreat and hundreds of surrenders.
But everywhere else on the center-right of the Union line, furious fighting continued. General William Barksdale, pushing his Mississippians to almost pierce the Union line, was killed. Union General Sickles lost a leg (smashed by a cannon ball), but nonchalantly lit up a cigar as though it were nothing. The 1st Minnesota regiment, rushing to plug a gap in the Union line, sustained 82 percent casualties, but did its duty and held the position. Cemetery Ridge remained in the hands of the bluecoats.
Twice, fate—in the form of reluctant generals—had deprived Lee of the victory he thought was possible at Battle of Gettysburg. On day three, Lee resolved on a daring stratagem.
That night, at the Union council of war, Meade and his officers resolved that they would hold their ground and brace for Lee’s next move. Having attacked the Federals on both flanks, Meade suspected that Lee would attack dead center. Meade was the first general to read Robert E. Lee exactly right.
Lee planned for Ewell to lead a diversionary attack on the Union right while Longstreet made the main attack under cover of the largest artillery barrage ever attempted by the Confederate army. Longstreet, however, wanted to renew his argument from the day before. He wanted either to renew his flanking attack or have the entire army shift to the Union left and establish a defensive line that would compel the Federals to attack.
Lee listened patiently, but rejected Longstreet’s arguments and told him to get his men into position. Longstreet, however, delayed all the morning through the afternoon. Indeed, by the time he got his men moving, the artillery, which had barraged the enemy, was depleted of ammunition.
The Confederates now had the challenge of crossing a mile of open ground with minimal artillery support to suppress federal fire. They did not flinch. The charge would be led by the brigades of General George Pickett. Officers to the front, General Lewis Armistead—whose father had been a general and whose uncle had been the lieutenant-colonel commanding the defense of Fort McHenry in the War of 1812—shoved his black hat over the tip of his sword and waved his men forward. With him were Pickett’s other brigade commanders: James Kemper, a former member of the Virginia House of Delegates whose grandfather had served on George Washington’s staff, and Richard B. Garnett, a West Pointer suffering from a bad knee and worse fever. He advanced on horseback, however obvious a target that made him.
The Confederates marched forward as if on parade, even stopping at one point to adjust and straighten their lines, oblivious to the holes being torn in their ranks by the Union fire. Of Pickett’s Virginians, Brigadier Garnett was shot off his horse, dead. Brigadier Kemper, calling for Armistead’s men to support his brigade, collapsed, shot in the groin.
Armistead waved his men to come on, they were close enough now to the Union line to break into a jog—and they were blasted by canister. But through the storm of smoke, artillery fire, and minié balls, the Union front was suddenly pierced. Chasing a line of retreating Federals was Armistead himself, still waving his black hat on his sword, shouting, “Come on boys! Give them the cold steel! Follow me!” They surged forward into hand-to-hand combat, Armistead and his troopers running straight into two Federal regiments rushing to close the line. Armistead, arm outstretched to a silent Federal cannon, went down, mortally wounded, falling at a point on the battlefield now called “the high tide of the Confederacy.” On another part of the front, the University Greys, made up entirely of students from Ole Miss, managed to plant their colors no more than a yard from the Union line before the devastating Union fire killed every last one of them.
Now it really was over. The Confederate lines wavered and buckled. As one rebel commander said, “The best thing the men can do is get out of this. Let them go.” As the shattered Confederate units drifted back, Lee rode forward to meet them. “All good men must rally. . . .General Pickett. . . your men have done all that men could do the fault is entirely my own . . . .All this has been my fault—it is I that have lost this fight and you must help me out of it the best way you can.” The Confederate soldiers cheered Lee. They even begged another chance. But Lee waved them down, and prepared them—with a newly revitalized Longsteet—for a counterattack that didn’t come.
Both sides licked deep wounds. The Union army had suffered 23,000 casualties. The statistics were even grimmer for the Confederates. Twenty-eight thousand men were lost, more than a third of Lee’s army, and among them a high proportion of senior officers whose talents and experience could not be replaced. Lee’s officers had sacrificed their lives in the battle they hoped would secure Southern freedom.
America’s Civil War: Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet at Odds at Gettysburg
History has come to many obscure places, has stayed awhile and, after its departure, has rendered those places famous. In America’s saga, perhaps no out-of-the-way place has taken on greater historic importance than the southern Pennsylvania village of Gettysburg. There, during three summer days, July 1-3, 1863, the nation’s fate may have been decided. When the battle was over, General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia began the retreat to Virginia, defeated by Major General George G. Meade’s Union Army of the Potomac. ‘Gettysburg’ would forever hold a place in the minds of all Americans.
Since those unforgettable three days of battle, controversy has stalked nearly every facet of Gettysburg. In the postwar years, Southerners came to regard the battle as the great ‘if’ of Confederate history. Southern independence had beckoned on the farmers’ fields and wooded knolls for three days, then, like an alluring siren, had disappeared. To Southerners, the fault lay not with the great chieftain, Lee, but with his most trusted and senior lieutenant, James Longstreet. Of all Gettysburg’s controversies, none has so shaped history’s interpretation of the battle as has the Lee-Longstreet dispute.
The controversy had its origins in the days following Lee’s brilliant victory at Chancellorsville, May 1-5, 1863. In the woods and fields west of Fredericksburg, Va., Lee’s outnumbered army defeated the Federals of Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, the victory achieved by Lee’s audacious tactics and Lt. Gen. Thomas J. ‘Stonewall’ Jackson’s assault on the evening of May 2. Lee defied the odds, divided his army, and drove Hooker’s troops back across the Rappahannock River. It was arguably the crowning offensive stroke of the war for Lee, although its price was the mortal wounding of Jackson. In Chancellorsville’s wake, Lee held the strategic initiative in the East.
Lieutenant General James Longstreet, commander of the Confederate I Corps, had missed the Battle of Chancellorsville while serving with two divisions on detached duty in a supply operation in southeastern Virginia. Longstreet rejoined Lee outside Fredericksburg on May 9. The next day, a Sunday (the same day that Jackson would succumb to his wounds), the two generals began a series of private conferences that continued for four days. Together, they fashioned a plan that would carry the Confederate army northward in a second invasion of Union territory.
Longstreet was 42 years old at the time, the senior subordinate officer in the army. Since Lee had assumed command of the Confederacy’s major force on June 1, 1862, Longstreet had emerged as Lee’s finest lieutenant. In the aftermath of the Seven Days’ campaign outside Richmond, Lee had privately described Longstreet as ‘the staff in my right hand,’ and on the bloody field at Sharpsburg, Md. (Antietam), Lee called him ‘my old war-horse.’ Promotion to senior rank, above Jackson, followed for Longstreet, and he and Lee developed a relationship Longstreet described as ‘affectionate, confidential, and even tender, from first to last.’ Now, with Jackson gone, Lee needed Longstreet’s counsel more than ever.
At their initial meeting in early May, in all likelihood, Longstreet proposed a plan he had broached to Secretary of War James Seddon in Richmond a few days earlier. As Longstreet saw it, the Confederates needed to concentrate troops in Tennessee for an offensive thrust into Kentucky that would relieve the threat posed by Union Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, Longstreet’s best friend in the antebellum U.S. Army, against Vicksburg, Miss. If the Southerners advanced into the Blue Grass State, the administration in Washington would pressure Grant to detach troops to the endangered region. Longstreet argued that two divisions from Lee’s army should be sent to Tennessee.
‘I laid it before him [Lee],’ Longstreet wrote later, ‘with the freedom justified by our close personal and official relations.’ But Lee objected to the plan, as he had during the previous weeks in Richmond. Lee wanted to exploit the initiative earned at Chancellorsville with a strategic offensive across the Potomac River. Lee argued that such a movement would disrupt Federal operations for the summer, garner needed supplies, and temporarily relieve Virginia of the war’s burden. Longstreet agreed to Lee’s operation, and on the 14th, the commanding general journeyed to the capital to persuade President Jefferson Davis and the Confederate Cabinet.
In time, during the postwar Gettysburg controversy, Longstreet presented versions of these meetings in published writing. He asserted that he had opposed the offensive movement but accepted it once Lee assented to fight a defensive battle when the two armies collided. ‘All that I could ask was that the policy of the campaign should be one of defensive tactics,’ Longstreet stated in his memoirs, ‘that we would work so as to force the enemy to attack us, in such a good position as we might find in his own country, so well adapted to that purpose — which might assure us of a grand triumph.’
Before his death in 1870, Lee denied that he had acquiesced to the idea of a defensive battle, terming the assertion ‘absurd’. Although Lee never promised Longstreet to fight only such an engagement, it was understood within the army by certain officers, besides Longstreet, that the Confederates would maneuver to force their opponent to attack them unless circumstances compelled otherwise. Lee even stated in his campaign report that ‘it had not been intended to fight a general battle at such a distance from our base, unless attacked by the enemy.’ Longstreet also presented additional insight into what he termed ‘the ruling idea of the campaign’ in an 1873 private letter to his former division commander, Lafayette McLaws. Longstreet wrote the letter before the controversy about his role in the battle had been reported in the press. He informed McLaws that he and Lee had talked ‘almost every day from the 10th of May 63 until the Battle.’ The two men discussed previous Confederate victories and ‘concluded even victories such as these were consuming us, and would eventually destroy us.’
Lee and Longstreet concurred on what ‘the ruling idea of the campaign’ must be. In Longstreet’s words: ‘Under no circumstances were we to give battle, but exhaust our skill in trying to force the enemy to do so in a position of our own choosing. The 1st Corps to receive the attack and fight the battle. The other corps to then fall upon and try to destroy the Union Army of the Potomac.’
This significant letter has the ring of truth to it because it reflects Longstreet’s beliefs as a soldier and because of the events that would unfold at Gettysburg. In the spring of 1863, Longstreet thought that the Confederacy faced a crisis of manpower. If offensive assaults continued as they had at Chancellorsville, the blood of the South would be drained away before ultimate victory could be attained. ‘Our losses were so heavy when we attacked,’ he asserted to McLaws, ‘that our army must soon be depleted to such extent that we should not be able to hold a force in the field sufficient to meet our adversary.’
To Longstreet, assaults meant the sacrifice of men. If the Confederates had to assail the enemy, it should be done when success seemed assured, and the resultant victory was worth the cost. He believed that Lee’s Second Manassas campaign in August 1862 was that general’s masterpiece, the ideal mix of a strategic offensive and a tactical defensive. On the old killing ground along Bull Run, Longstreet had watched Jackson’s troops defend a position until his divisions rolled forward in a counterattack that nearly destroyed the Union Army. As Longstreet headed north with the army, he expected Lee to fight as he had at Second Manassas, and not with the audacious tactics employed at Chancellorsville.
On June 3, 1863, the leading elements of the Rebel army began the march. During the previous fortnight, Lee had reorganized and refitted his splendid force. Jackson’s death had necessitated a change in commanders, so Lee divided the army’s two corps into three, promoting Lt. Gens. Richard S. Ewell and Ambrose P. Hill to corps commanders. Lee knew the weapon he possessed, saying before the operation commenced that his men, ‘if properly led… will go anywhere & never fail at the work before them.’ A sense of invincibility permeated the army’s ranks as the Southerners marched toward Pennsylvania.
Before they departed, all the Rebels knew that a collision with the enemy was inevitable. It came on Wednesday, July 1, as both armies followed the roads to Gettysburg. But Lee neither expected nor wanted a battle on this day, issuing orders against bringing on a general engagement.
For a week, Lee had heard nothing from his cavalry commander, Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, about the whereabouts of George Meade’s units, and the lack of any report from Stuart worried him. It was one of Longstreet’s spies who carried the initial news to Lee that the Federals also had crossed the Potomac. While Lee endeavored to reconcentrate his corps, his Confederate units collided with Union troops outside Gettysburg, precipitating a battle.
Longstreet was riding with Lee when the two Confederate commanders heard the sounds of artillery in the direction of Gettysburg. Lee spurred ahead while Longstreet oversaw the movement of Southern units toward the village. The Confederate commander was ‘a blinded giant,’ according to historian Douglas Southall Freeman, as he rode toward the ominous rumble. He arrived west of Gettysburg in time to give his consent to an assault by troops belonging to Hill and Ewell that routed two Union corps, driving the Federals through Gettysburg’s streets to Cemetery Hill, south of the village. Although Lee would have preferred to offer battle only after his divisions had been reunited, the day’s outcome brought both a victory and the tactical initiative.
Longstreet joined Lee on Seminary Ridge west of Gettysburg about 5 o’clock in the afternoon. When he arrived, Lee was busy, so Longstreet examined through field glasses the Federal position to the south and east. When Lee finished, Longstreet turned to him and remarked: ‘We could not call the enemy to position better suited to our plans. All that we have to do is file around his left and secure good ground between him and his capital.’
Lee reacted with some anger to Longstreet’s advice and, jabbing a fist toward Cemetery Ridge, replied, ‘If the enemy is there tomorrow, we must attack him.’
‘If he is there,’ Longstreet shot back, ‘it will be because he is anxious that we should attack him — a good reason, in my judgment, for not doing so.’
Neither man said anything else, and as Longstreet admitted later, he ‘was not a little surprised’ at his commander’s reaction, his apparent ‘impatience.’
Longstreet wrote McLaws about how surprised he was to find ‘all of our previously arranged plans to [be] unexpectedly changed and why I might wish and hope to get the Gen. to consider our former arrangements.’ It looked like another Chancellorsville, perhaps another uphill assault as at Malvern Hill, to Longstreet, and he thought it a mistake, a dismissal of their previous discussions.
In Lee’s defense, his subordinate’s proposal made little tactical sense at the time. Lee knew only that two corps of Meade’s army were on the field, but what of the other five? Where was Meade’s flank? Without Stuart’s cavalry, Lee could not countenance a vague march beyond an unknown flank. He had not wanted this day’s fight, but a battle had occurred, his units had won, and the enemy was there. ‘A battle thus became, in a measure, unavoidable,’ Lee stated in his report, and ‘in view of the valuable results that would ensue from the defeat of the army of General Meade, it was thought advisable to renew the attack.’
Lee and Longstreet soon parted — Lee to visit Richard Ewell on the army’s left Longstreet to his camp along Chambersburg Pike. Lee’s visit with Ewell resulted in little regarding the next day’s plans. The commanding general was committed to be offensive, but the details of the operation would have to be completed with another morning’s sun.
Before dawn of July 2, Longstreet rejoined Lee on Seminary Ridge. The I Corps commander had not been able to hide from his staff at the previous evening’s meal his disagreement with Lee’s decision to renew attacks. Now, for a second time, Longstreet repeated his proposal for a broad turning movement around Meade’s left flank. As he had on the afternoon of the 1st, Lee rejected it. He responded by informing Longstreet that he would need the services of the divisions headed by Maj. Gens. Lafayette McLaws and John Bell Hood.
Sometime between 7 and 8 o’clock, Captain Samuel R. Johnston of Lee’s staff returned from a reconnaissance of the Union left flank near the Cemetery Ridge-Little Round Top area. When Johnston assured Lee that he and his party had reached the base of the hill and found no Federals on the ground, Lee prepared an attack scheme that would have McLaws and Hood advance up the Emmitsburg Road toward Cemetery Ridge. Longstreet objected to the troop alignment, but Lee firmly overruled him. A short time later, Lee mounted his horse Traveller and rode to Ewell’s headquarters for another conference with the II Corps commander.
Lee had not issued specific orders to Longstreet before he departed, but the latter undoubtedly understood what Lee intended — and what role was intended for Longstreet’s own I Corps in the assault. Undoubtedly, too, Longstreet was troubled by the plan. He ‘failed to conceal some anger,’ wrote Major G. Moxley Sorrel, his chief of staff. To Hood, Longstreet confided, ‘The General is a little nervous this morning he wishes me to attack. I do not wish to do so without [George] Pickett. I never like to go into battle with one boot off.’
Lee returned to Seminary Ridge approximately two hours later, about 11 o’clock. While he had been on the army’s left, Longstreet had done virtually nothing to implement the movement, except to order Colonel E. Porter Alexander to find a concealed route to the right for the artillery. He neither conducted another reconnaissance, nor checked with Alexander to ascertain if he had located a route, nor conferred with McLaws and Hood. ‘There was apparent apathy in his movements,’ admitted Sorrel. ‘They lacked the fire and point of his usual bearing on the battlefield.’
Longstreet allowed his disagreement with Lee’s plans to affect his generalship, and he deserves censure for this. While he may have opposed the idea of an offensive, he was still in a position of responsibility. What Lee expected of Longstreet during the two-hour interim is uncertain, but Lee expected something. Without specific orders, duty required that Longstreet attend to the preparations for a movement. On that morning, Longstreet was not the same general who had performed so capably on previous battlefields. His judgment about the offensive may have been correct, but he owed more to Lee than he gave.
Lee now issued the orders. Longstreet asked for a delay until one of Hood’s brigades reached the field, and Lee consented. Sometime before 1 o’clock, McLaws and Hood began the march toward the southern end of the battlefield. Along the way, the two divisions had to countermarch to avoid detection from a Union signal station on Little round Top. Instead of finding unoccupied ground once they cleared Seminary Ridge, the Confederates found the Union III Corps stretched from Little Round Top to the Peach Orchard and northward along Emmitsburg Road. Adjustments in the attack formation were needed, and Hood argued for a movement around the Round Tops, a request Longstreet refused.
Finally, after all the disagreements, delays and realignments, the Southern assault rolled toward the enemy. The Federal lines exploded with artillery fire men fell with each step, with one of them writing a few days later, ‘I could hear bones crash like glass in a hail storm.’ But Longstreet’s veterans kept coming, crashing into the salient at the Peach Orchard, clawing their way over Houck’s Ridge into the Valley of Death, sweeping through the now famous Wheat Field and scaling Little Round Top. Federal reinforcements hammered them back, recoiled before the counterattacks, and fought with a tenacity that saved Meade’s army. Longstreet was at the front, issuing orders, doing his duty as he had previously in the hell of Sharpsburg and in the fury of Fredericksburg. He later stated that his men rendered ‘the best three hours’ fighting ever done by any troops on any battlefield.’
It had not been enough, however. Against successive waves of Federal units, the Rebels had finally stalled. When other Confederate divisions did not continue the en echelon assaults as Lee had directed, Meade’s army still clung to Cemetery Ridge and Little Round Top. Lee watched the terrible struggle and concluded that if his commanders could coordinate their assaults, the Yankees could not withstand the thrusts. That night Lee ordered a renewal of the offensive for daylight, Friday, July 3.
Before sunrise Lee rode to Longstreet’s position, near the position known ever since as the Peach Orchard, where he expected to find preparations for the assault underway. When he did not find the men forming, Lee sought Longstreet and an explanation.
‘General,’ Longstreet said in welcome, ‘I have had my scouts out all night, and I find that you still have an excellent opportunity to move around to the right of Meade’s army and maneuver him into attacking us.’
Lee clearly was angry he had heard enough. He pointed toward Cemetery Ridge and said, ‘The enemy is there, and I am going to strike him.’
As Longstreet saw the situation, Lee wanted too much. Longstreet said that a direct assault on the Federal position was doomed — that it would mean ‘the sacrifice of my men.’ As Longstreet recalled later: ‘I felt then that it was my duty to express my convictions. I said, ‘General, I have been a soldier all my life. I have been with soldiers engaged in fights by couples, by squads, companies, regiments, divisions, and armies, and should know, as well as anyone, what soldiers can do. It is my opinion that no fifteen thousand men ever arranged for battle can take that position.”
The exchange was a defining moment between the two generals — the culmination of three days of disagreement over the army’s tactics. From the afternoon of the 1st, Longstreet had seen Lee taking risks, willing to accept casualties while striking the enemy. Now, Lee was asking even more, a frontal assault with no chance of success, with an enormous loss of life a certainty. The idea went against the basic beliefs and characteristics of Longstreet’s generalship.
‘Never was I so depressed,’ Longstreet wrote afterward of this day. But Lee’s orders stood, and preparations proceeded throughout the morning. Longstreet had responsibility for the assault force comprising Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett’s three brigades and six brigades from A.P. Hill’s corps.
Following a thunderous artillery bombardment, the brave Pickett rode to Longstreet for the order to advance. The senior officer was so overcome with emotion that he could not speak — he only nodded his head. When Pickett turned away, Longstreet went to Alexander’s batteries and there told the artillery officer: ‘I don’t want to make this attack. I believe it will fail — I would not make it even now, but the General Lee has ordered it & expects it.’
Longstreet then watched as the Confederate ranks marched toward the ridge — and to the slaughter he had predicted. Union cannon crews and infantrymen blasted apart the Southern units in a gale of death. As the remnants of the brigades stumbled back to Seminary Ridge, Longstreet saw that ‘Pickett’s division was gone.’ Nearby, Lee rode among the survivors, remarking to a general, ‘All this has been my fault — it is I that have lost this fight.’
Pickett’s Charge, as it came to be called, was a dramatic finale to a battle rich in drama. Lee’s army began its retreat the next day and within a fortnight had returned to safety in Virginia. Before long, examination of Gettysburg began and it will, in all likelihood, continue as long as Americans seek explanations of the past. Part of the nation’s soul lay in such places as Culp’s Hill, Cemetery Hill, Little Round Top, the Wheat Field, the Valley of Death, Devil’s Den, Trostle’s Woods and Cemetery Ridge. After Appomattox and the end of the Confederacy two years later, Southerners fashioned their own interpretation of the conflict, and Gettysburg became the tantalizing and bitter ‘if’ of the war.
Lee and Stonewall Jackson became enshrined as Southern heroes, above blame, and Longstreet — for too many — the scapegoat. After the war, the former I Corps commander became an apostate in his native region: a former Confederate who had joined the Republican Party and accepted federal jobs! Politics and personal animosity fed the controversy, and Longstreet became known as the man who lost the war for the South.
Gettysburg became the cornerstone of his critic’s case. Had he done his duty, had he not sulked, had he not stalled, Lee would have achieved victory on July 2. To be sure, Gettysburg was not one of Longstreet’s better performances of the war — his conduct on the morning of the 2nd warrants criticism. But his failings were not isolated — the confederate effort at Gettysburg revealed an army plagued with command problems and an extended, five-mile-long battle line. Lee’s incomparable infantry could not overcome those crippling handicaps.
E. Porter Alexander, who became perhaps the Confederate Army’s most astute chronicler after the war, wrote that Lee ‘never paid his soldiers a higher compliment than in what he gave them to do’ at Gettysburg. But Longstreet was correct in his judgment, Alexander argued, because ‘the Union position could never have been successfully assaulted.’ As for Longstreet’s objections to Lee’s attack plan, Alexander explained in a private letter, ‘It is true that he obeyed reluctantly at Gettysburg, on the 2nd & on the 3rd, but it must be admitted that his judgment in both matters was sound & he owed it to Lee to be reluctant, for failure was inevitable do it soon, or do it late, either day.’
James Longstreet died in 1904, a man still vilified by former friends and comrades. Before his death, Longstreet told one of his opponents at Gettysburg, Union General Daniel Sickles, that the battle ‘was the sorest and saddest reflection of my life for many years.’ He grieved not for what might have been during those three July days, but what had been — the terrible price that he had foreseen.
This article was written by Jeffry Wert and originally published in the August 1994 issue of Military History.
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Robert E. Lee & Gettysburg: How the Confederacy Lost
Robert E Lee’s Gettysburg Campaign ended in the Union claiming victory after three days of battle with Lee’s army. Both parties suffered major losses of life.
Robert E Lee Gettysburg Campaign
With Ewell engaged, Lee changed his mind and decided to attack the center of the Union line. The evening before, Union Major General John Newton, Reynolds’s replacement as commander of the First Corps, had told Meade that he should be concerned about a flanking movement by Lee, who would not be “fool enough” to frontally attack the Union army in the strong position into which the first two days’ fighting had consolidated it. Around midnight Meade told Brigadier General John Gibbon that if Lee went on the offensive the next day, he would attack Gibbon’s Second Division of the Second Corps in the center of the Union line. Gibbon replied that if Lee did so, he would be defeated.
Lee, however, saw things differently. Again ignoring the advice and pleas of Longstreet, Lee canceled Longstreet’s early morning orders for a flank attack and instead ordered the suicidal assault known as Pickett’s Charge.144 After studying the ground over which the attack would occur, Longstreet said to Lee, “The 15,000 men who could make a successful assault over that field had never been arrayed for battle.” Longstreet was not alone in his bleak assessment of the chances for success. Brigadier General Ambrose “Rans” Wright said there would be no difficulty reaching Cemetery Ridge but that staying there was another matter because the “whole Yankee army is there in a bunch.” On the morning of the third, Brigadier General Cadmus Wilcox told his fellow brigadier Richard Garnett that the Union position was twice as strong as Gaines’s Mill at the Seven Days’ Battles.
Edward Porter Alexander shared the complete, almost blind, faith of the Confederate troops in Lee, later remarking, “ . . . like all the rest of the army I believed that it would come out right, because Gen. Lee had planned it.” But historian Bevin Alexander has severely criticized Lee’s order: “When his direct efforts to knock aside the Union forces failed, Lee compounded his error by destroying the last offensive power of the Army of Northern Virginia in Pickett’s charge across nearly a mile of open, bullet-and-shell-torn ground. This frontal assault was doomed before it started.”
The famous attack was preceded by a massive artillery exchange—so violent and loud that it was heard 140 miles away. Just after one o’clock, Alexander unleashed his 170 rebel cannon against the Union forces on Cemetery Ridge. Two hundred Federal cannon responded. Across a mile of slightly rolling fields, the opposing cannons blasted away for ninety minutes. The Confederate goal was to soften up the Union line, particularly to weaken its defensive artillery capacity, prior to a massive assault on the center of that line. Some Federal batteries were hit, as were horses and caissons on the reverse slope near Meade’s headquarters.
Alexander’s cannonade continued until his supply of ammunition was dangerously low. A slowdown in the Union artillery response gave a false impression that the Confederate cannonade had inflicted serious damage. Although Alexander received some artillery assistance from Hill’s guns to the north, Ewell’s five artillery battalions northeast of the main Confederate line fired almost no rounds. Artillery fire was one thing that Ewell could have provided, but the commanding general and his chief of artillery also failed to coordinate this facet of the offensive.
The time of decision and death was at hand for many of the fifty-five thousand Confederates and seventy-five thousand Yankees. The rebels were about to assault a position that Alexander described as “almost as badly chosen as it was possible to be.” His rationale:
Briefly described, the point we attacked is upon the long shank of the fishhook of the enemy’s position, & our advance was exposed to the fire of the whole length of that shank some two miles. Not only that, that shank is not perfectly straight, but it bends forward at the Round Top end, so that rifled guns there, in secure position, could & did enfilade the assaulting lines. Now add that the advance must be over 1,400 yards of open ground, none of it sheltered from fire, & very little from view, & without a single position for artillery where a battery could get its horses & caissons undercover.
I think any military engineer would, instead, select to attack the bend of the fishhook just west of Gettysburg.
There, at least, the assaulting lines cannot be enfiladed, and, on the other hand, the places selected for assault may be enfiladed, & upon shorter ranges than any other parts of the Federal lines. Again there the assaulting column will only be exposed to the fire of the front less than half, even if over one fourth, of the firing front upon the shank.
Around 2:30, Alexander ordered a cease-fire and sent a hurried note to General Longstreet: “If you are coming at all, you must come at once or I cannot give you proper support, but the enemy’s fire has not slackened at all. At least 18 guns are still firing from the cemetery itself.” Longstreet, convinced of the impending disaster, could not bring himself to give a verbal attack order to Major General George E. Pickett. Instead, he merely nodded his permission to proceed after Pickett asked him, “General, shall I advance?”
On the hidden western slopes of Seminary Ridge, nine brigades of thirteen thousand men began forming two mile-and-a-half-long lines for the assault on Cemetery Ridge. Their three division commanders were Pickett, Major General Isaac Trimble (in place of the wounded Dorsey Pender), and Brigadier General J. Johnston Pettigrew (in place of the wounded Henry Heth). Pickett gave the order, “Up men, and to your posts! Don’t forget today that you are from old Virginia!” With that, they moved out.
After sending his “come at once” message, Alexander noticed a distinct pause in the firing from the cemetery and then clearly observed the withdrawal of artillery from that planned point of attack. Ten minutes after his earlier message and while Longstreet was silently assenting to the attack, Alexander sent another urgent note: “For God’s sake come quick. The 18 guns are gone. Come quick or I can’t support you.” To Alexander’s chagrin, however, the Union chief of artillery, Henry J. Hunt, moved five replacement batteries into the crucial center of the line. What Alexander did not yet know was that the Union firing had virtually ceased in order to save ammunition to repel the coming attack and to bring up fresh guns from the artillery reserve. Hunt had seventy-seven short-range guns in the position the rebels intended to attack, as well as numerous other guns, including long-range rifled artillery, along the line capable of raking an attacking army.
The rebel lines opened ranks to pass their now-quiet batteries and swept on into the shallow valley between the two famous ridges. A gasp arose from Cemetery Ridge as the two long gray lines, a hundred fifty yards apart, came into sight. It was three o’clock, the hottest time of a scorching day, and forty thousand Union soldiers were in position directly to contest the hopeless Confederate assault. Many defenders were sheltered by stone walls or wooden fences. Their awe at the impressive parade coming their way must have been mixed with an understandable fear of battle and confidence in the strength of their numbers and position.
As the charging rebels approached the stronghold on Cemetery Ridge, their fear grew and their confidence waned with every step. The forty-seven regiments (including nineteen from Virginia and fourteen from North Carolina) initially traversed the undulating landscape in absolute silence except for the clunking of their wooden canteens. Although a couple of swales provided temporary shelter from most of the Union rifle fire, the Confederates were under constant observation from Little Round Top to the southeast. Long-range artillery fire began tearing holes in the Confederate lines. The attackers turned slightly left to cross the Emmitsburg Pike and found themselves in the middle of a Union semi-circle of rifles and cannon. They attempted to maintain their perfect parade order, but all hell broke loose when short-range round shot from Federal cannon exploded along the entire ridgeline—from Cemetery Hill on the north to Little Round Top on the south.
Minié balls and double loads of canister (pieces of iron) decimated the Confederate front ranks. The slaughter was indescribably horrible, but the courageous rebels closed ranks and marched on. Taking tremendous losses, they started up the final rise toward the copse that was their goal, all the while viciously assaulted from the front, from both flanks, and even from their rear. The rifle fire from Brigadier General George J. Stannard’s advanced Vermont brigade, shot point-blank into the rebel right flank, was especially devastating. Soon the numbers of the attackers dwindled to insignificance. The survivors let loose their rebel yell and charged the trees near the center of Cemetery Ridge. With cries of “Fredericksburg,” the men in blue cut down the remaining attackers with canister and Minié balls. General Lewis Armistead led 150 men in the final surge across the low stone wall, where he fell mortally wounded. The rest were killed, wounded, or captured within minutes.
Seventeen hundred yards away, Lee watched his gray and butternut troops disappear into the all-engulfing smoke on the ridge and then saw some of them emerge in retreat. Fewer than seven thousand of the original thirteen thousand returned to Seminary Ridge. There was no covering fire from Alexander’s cannon because he was saving his precious ammunition to repel the expected counterattack. As the survivors returned to Confederate lines, Lee met them and sobbed, “It’s all my fault this time.” It was.
Lee and Longstreet tried to console Pickett, who was distraught over the slaughter of his men. Lee told him that their gallantry had earned them a place in history, but Pickett responded: “All the glory in the world could never atone for the widows and orphans this day has made.” To his death, Pickett blamed Lee for the “massacre” of his division.
The result of Lee’s Day Three strategy was the worst single-charge slaughter of the whole bloody war, with the possible exception of John Bell Hood’s suicidal charge at Franklin, Tennessee, the following year. The Confederates suffered 7,500 casualties to the Union’s 1,500. More than a thousand of those rebel casualties were killed—all in a thirty-minute bloodbath. Brigadier General Richard Garnett, whose five Virginia regiments led the assault, was killed, and 950 of his 1,450 men were killed or wounded. Three regiments—the Thirteenth and Forty-Seventh North Carolina and the Eighteenth Virginia—were virtually wiped out on Cemetery Ridge.
That night Lee rode alone among his troops. At one point he met Brigadier General John D. Imboden, who remarked, “General, this has been a hard day on you.” Lee responded, “Yes, it has been a sad, sad day to us.” He went on to praise Pettigrew’s and Pickett’s men and then made this puzzling statement: “If they had been supported as they were to have been—but for some reason not fully explained to me were not—we would have held the position and the day would have been ours. Too bad. Too bad. Oh, too bad.” General Alexander found that comment inexplicable since Lee was the commanding general and had personally overseen the entire preparation for and execution of the disastrous charge.
Even if Lee was nonplussed, his officers had little difficulty seeing the folly of Pickett’s Charge and its similarity to the senseless Union charges at Fredericksburg the previous December. Having lost over half his own 10,500 men in the July 3 charge, Pickett submitted a battle report highly critical of that assault—and probably of the commander who ordered it. Lee declined to accept the report and ordered it rewritten. It never was.
The only saving grace for Lee’s battered army was that General Meade, believing his mission was to not lose rather than to win, failed to follow up his victory with an immediate infantry counterattack on the stunned and disorganized Confederates. To Lincoln’s chagrin, Meade developed a case of the “slows” reminiscent of McClellan after Antietam and took nine days to pursue and catch Lee, who was burdened by a seventeen-mile ambulance train. Unlike McClellan’s army at Antietam, however, Meade’s entire army had been engaged and battered in the fight at Gettysburg. After missing his chance for a quick and decisive strike, Meade wisely did not attack Lee’s strongly entrenched position at Williamsport, Maryland, on the Potomac River after Meade had caught up with him. As the Confederates waited to cross, Confederate officers hoped for a Union assault: “Now we have Meade where we want him. If he attacks us here, we will pay him back for Gettysburg. But the Old Fox is too cunning.” Alexander recalled, “ . . . oh! how we all did wish that the enemy would come out in the open & attack us, as we had done them at Gettysburg. But they had had their lesson, in that sort of game, at Fredbg. [Fredericksburg] & did not care for another.” Lee’s army crossed the receding river and returned ignominiously to Virginia.
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Meade and Lee’s Philosophy
More than just explicating his lack of aggressiveness, this statement was his philosophy, as well as that of Robert E. Lee’s, for the remainder of 1863. Both generals had seen the futility of frontal attacks at Fredericksburg and Gettysburg. Both had seen the success of the attack on the enemy’s flank at Second Manassas and Chancellorsville. Both generals wanted victory without the carnage of a heads-on attack.
In October 1863, Lee went on the offensive using the strategy that had worked so well for him previously. His initial plan was to assault the right flank of the Union army near Culpeper Court House. That plan failed because Meade rapidly withdrew his army north across the Rappahannock River.
Rather than abandon the offensive, Lee decided to try again. The second flanking maneuver would find his army striking the Union right and rear near Bristoe Station. Again, Meade frustrated Lee’s plans by withdrawing.
Both times Lee could have assaulted the Union army. He must have known that the rapid withdrawal had left it somewhat disorganized, and yet he did not press the advantage. He did not want to make a frontal attack, even when the enemy had little time to prepare.
Kilmeade: Left’s attack on American history giving foreign enemies ‘ammunition’
Kilmeade: Putin summit the biggest test of Biden's presidency
'Fox News Primetime' host criticizes Biden's performance on the world stage
The Democrats’ cynical view of U.S. history and present-day government has given foreign enemies a clear advantage, "Fox News Primetime" host Brian Kilmeade argued Tuesday.
BRIAN KILMEADE: It has not been easy watching Americans criticizing America day in and day out. The radical left, in many cases, has had a field day ridiculing our past, mocking our present, and seemingly determined to undermine our future. While our fighting has been mostly internal it’s clear our enemies have been watching. And we're giving them ammunition to attack us and deflect from their own atrocities and their own transgressions.
Instead of standing strong in the face of those vile accusations, the Biden administration chose to make our problems, in my estimation, even worse –- apologizing for America's inherent, systemic racism, erecting black lives matter flags at U.S. embassies across the globe -- letting every country know how bad we think we are.
Vladimir Putin has also been taking notes. When the Russian president was asked if he killed political dissidents -- he deflected. He pointed the finger back at America. Russia and China are able to attack us this way because we wrote the script for them. We punctuated their copy.