The Frustrations of General Lee at Gettysburg: Mistakes, Miscommunication and Misunderstanding, the Confederate Failure on July 2nd


On the morning of July 2nd 1863 General Robert E Lee appeared to be angry and anxious. Many who had traveled with him over the course of the last year of campaigning noted that “Lee was not at his ease…” and “more anxious and ruffled than I have ever seen him before…”[i]

One can understand Lee’s frustration. He was angry. He was angry at General Stuart for failing to follow his directions, although his orders to Stuart were vague and confusing and had opened the door for Stuart’s absence.  Stuart had left Lee without his best cavalry commanders and units and those that Lee had were unavailable because of how Lee had deployed them. Lee was also displeased with Harry Heth for “disobeying his instructions, not to bring on a general engagement and equally displeased with corps commander Powell Hill for letting it happen.”[ii]

Lee was also frustrated with Ewell, Rodes and Early of Second Corps. They had resisted Lee’s suggestion of renewing the main attack in their sector. They also objected to leaving their positions around Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill feeling that to give up hard won ground would demoralize their troops. Instead they offered to “support” an attack on the right when it started, but Lee left no exact instructions for them to do so. Lee was beset by a situation he had never found himself in before. It was as if “the attitude of these high-ranking officers…was strangely out of keeping with the aggressive spirit of the Army of Northern Virginia…Instead of offering their commander hearty cooperation and eagerness to respond positively to his suggestions, they gave him objections and reasons why they should not do certain things.”[iii]

But even more importantly Lee was frustrated by the attitude and actions of his “Old War Horse” Pete Longstreet of First Corps. Longstreet was vehemently opposed to Lee’s plan to attack. Lee had told him the previous night “If the enemy is there tomorrow, we must attack him.” Longstreet’s reply “If he is there… it will be because he is anxious that we should attack him-a good reason, in my judgment for not doing so,”[iv] failed to deter Lee from his plans. Lee became even more anxious when returning from a visit to Ewell at mid-morning to find neither that Hood nor McLaws’ divisions of Longstreet’s had yet to step off to the attack.

There is much controversy in what happened as no copy of a plan of attack exists and there are conflicts in how the key participants remembered the meetings. Lee obviously believed that Longstreet would mount an early attack. Longstreet claimed that no order was given to attack until Lee returned from his trip to Ewell.

Gettysburg_Battle_Map_Day2Gettysburg Day Two- Map by Hal Jesperson

Early in the morning Lee still was unaware of the location of most of the Federal army or where its flanks were. He knew that the Federal army occupied favorable ground and had good interior lines. He also knew that his forces were spread out over a wide arc which made it hard for each of his corps to render support to the others.  Likewise he had no cavalry with him to make a reconnaissance and the officers that he dispatched to make a reconnaissance gave him faulty information indicating that there were no Federal troops between him and the Round Tops.

His battle plan for July second hinged on factors that he did not control. First it depended on his scout’s report that there were no Federal troops between Cemetery Ridge and the Round Tops and that the Round Tops were undefended. Theoretically had the information that he received about the Federal positions been accurate it would have been a good plan. Longstreet’s Corps attacking en echelon with McLaws leading supported by Hood and Anderson’s division from Hill’s Corps. His second assumption based on the scouting report was that “General Meade lacked either the troops or the intellect to anchor his left flank properly.”[v] Meade proved him wrong on both counts. Likewise, though Lee explained the concept of attack to McLaws, none of the other commanders, Longstreet, Porter, Hood or Anderson recounted being given those instructions.

Despite that Lee was determined to take the offense and categorically rejected any possibility of going over to a defensive posture. With his senior commanders each causing him trouble Lee “dug in his heels. In order to assert his authority, he would not- increasingly he could not- alter his plan.”[vi]  Thus Lee went ahead and forced the reluctant and recalcitrant Longstreet to attack, even when it became apparent that Federal troops occupied the ground that he was planning to attack in strength.

Lee’s intent was again garbled, though Lee explained his concept of attack to McLaws, none of the other commanders, Longstreet, Porter, Hood or Anderson recounted being given those instructions.  As such the coordinated attack en echelon never took place, and this was compounded by Longstreet’s failures in leading the attack that day.


Once again the Confederate onslaught appeared that it might sweep the field but again it fell short at great cost of life. The Confederate attacks were uncoordinated, corps commanders did not control division commanders and division commanders operating independently of each other failed to coordinate their attacks. As a result all failed, despite the gallantry and initiative exercised by Confederate soldiers, who according to some Confederate commanders was the best they had ever fought.

Lee was a burdened man. The war had aged him greatly. Though he was still “only” the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia he also had on his mind what was going on in other theaters. He was burdened by the knowledge that the South was depending on him for victory, and he had forced the issue of invading the North.

The crux of the matter was that after the loss of Jackson Lee never altered his manner of command. Lee exercised “his command of the Army of Northern Virginia through his corps commanders. Each was expected to understand the overall plan and his specific role within it. Once he conveyed his intentions, Lee assumed the role of observer.”[vii] Although he knew almost all of his senior commanders, including their strengths and limitations as commanders he did not adjust his command style to those factors. One has said quite correctly that Lee “did not think of his general’s suitability to the nature of his their assignments.”[viii] This was critical. He depended on Longstreet to act with the swiftness of Jackson, of Hill to control his corps, Stuart to maintain contact and Ewell to support his course of action. In each case he failed to grasp how each man needed a different leadership style and did not effectively communicate his directions to them.

lee and longstreet 10709161246_9f5baf6452_o

There were chances to win the day had Lee or any of his commanders exercised proper command and control of their units. Men who had seldom failed Lee over the past year made mistakes and acted in manners contradictory to their previous performance of duty. Perhaps in some cases this was due to their inexperience in working directly for Lee, or in others lack of sensitivity to the nuance of Lee’s command style that Jackson understood so well.

This compounded the mistakes that Lee made in returning to the offensive and leaving Ewell’s command in a place where it could not lend its weight to his attack. In the end Lee’s “toleration of the shortcomings of his subordinates that day lessened the chances of Confederate success.”[ix]

Lee conducted the battle in manner that had to be his worst performance of the war. His loose style of command coupled with the extended lines of his army was insufficient, unlike Meade, Hancock and others on the Federal side Lee took little personal role in the events of the day receiving only one report and issuing one order after the battle was joined.[x] He was joined in this by his senior commanders especially Hill and Ewell, though Longstreet did venture in and take control of the fighting in the Peach Orchard. Porter Alexander described what he saw as “the utter absurdity” of the Confederate position which made it “preposterous to hope to win a battle when so strung out & separated that cooperation between the three corps was impossible except by a miracle.” [xi]He observed that “comparatively little pains was exercised to bring it about either.”

Porter Alexander’s comments go to the heart of what went wrong on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg. Lee assumed that his subordinates would act as Jackson would and he ignored his own best advice. In the end it set hi  up for disaster on July 3rd as he still continued to believe that he could take the Federal position and with that win the war.


Padre Steve+

[i] Sears, Stephen. Gettysburg Houghton and Mifflin Company, Boston and New York, 2003 pp.237-238

[ii] Ibid. p.237

[iii] Coddington, Edwin B. The Gettysburg Campaign, A Study in Command, A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster New York, 1968 p.365

[iv] DeWert, Jeffry D. General James Longstreet The Confederacy’s Most Controversial Soldier, A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster, New York and London 1993 p.257

[v] Ibid. Sears p.264

[vi] Ibid. Sears, p.238

[vii] Tredeau, Noah Andre. Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2002 p.315

[viii] Dowdy, Clifford. Lee and His Men at Gettysburg: The Death of a Nation Skyhorse Publishing, New York 1986, originally published as Death of a Nation Knopf, New York 1958 p.173

[ix] Pfanz, Harry F. Gettysburg The Second Day. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill 1987 p. 427

[x] Ibid. DeWert. pp.278-279

[xi] Ibid. DeWert. p.267


Filed under civil war, History, leadership, Military

2 responses to “The Frustrations of General Lee at Gettysburg: Mistakes, Miscommunication and Misunderstanding, the Confederate Failure on July 2nd

  1. Ian Stewart

    Dear Padre Steve,
    I’m not sure I can agree with the argument that the loss of Jackson required Lee to change his style of leadership.
    Lee took command of the Army of Northern Virginia (ANV) in June, 1862. Jackson was killed in May, 1863. Surely, in the 11 months before Jackson’s death, Lee’s subordinate commanders would have gotten used to Lee’s style of command and working together. I can understand that the loss of Jackson must have had an impact across the ANV. However, two months had passed (between Jackson’s death and Gettysburg) and I find it difficult to accept that experienced, battle-tested senior officers could not adjust to Jackson’s absence and needed personalized leadership from Lee.
    There were many mistakes made on the part of Lee and his commanders, but I can’t accept that they were caused by Lee not changing his style of command.



    • padresteve

      Ian, thank you for your comments and point of view. My view is that Lee needed to change his manner of command, and actually after this battle he did. His senior commanders for the most part were new in their positions. While most had served in the Army of Northern Virginia almost all were new to their positions and with the exception of Longstreet most had not worked directly under Lee. This was especially true of all who had served under Jackson, who was a much more engaged commander than Lee. Many, especially the newly elevated brigade and division commanders had not served under the command of those that the were now under. Others had served in units that had missed many of the battles that the army had fought after Lee took command. When a commander has new personnel in key positions he cannot assume that they will automatically understand his intent. That is his responsibility. Lee realized that too late. Almost every historian, military theorist and military historian of the last 100 years make the same point that I do here regarding Lee’s management of his generals. Again, thanks for your comments and blessings, Steve+

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