The Road to Gettysburg: Lee is Puzzled as Meade Acts


General Robert E. Lee

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

For those that have followed my writing for some time you know that I teach military history and ethics at the Joint Forces Staff College. One of the great joys that I have is leading the Gettysburg Staff Ride, which is an optional event for students that want to participate. When I took the position here I took some of my older writings on Gettysburg and put them into a student study guide and text. That was two years ago. Then the text was about 70 pages long. It is now about 870 pages long and eventually I hope to get it published. When and if that happens I expect it to become two, and possibly three books.

This is the third of a series of articles that I will be posting potions of a chapter that I have rewritten about the surprises that various commanders experienced on June 28th 1863. The lessons for today are that war, any war, is the realm of chance, as such, surprises always happen. It is said that no plan survives first contact with the enemy, but some plans don’t survive that long. As you read this don’t just look at the events, but look at the people, and their reaction to the surprises that they encountered, for that is where we come to understand history.

So even if you are not a Civil War buff, or even a history buff, take the time to look at the people, their actions, and the things that made them who they were, and influenced what they did. History is about people.

So please enjoy,


Padre Steve+

Any commander that embarks on a high risk offensive operation in enemy territory must do so with great care, especially in regard to command and control of his forces. This is especially true regarding reconnaissance. By June 28th Lee had been operating blind for well over a week, and this was in large part his own fault.

There are two reasons for this. The first of these was his decision regarding Stuart’s cavalry. The orders that Lee issued were so vague that Stuart was free to interpret them in any way that suited him. The result was that Stuart and the cavalry that Lee was counting on to screen his own army and keep tabs on the Federal army was well to the east and completely useless to Lee. Now Lee was reaping the fruit of his carelessness and overconfidence as he bemoaned his lack of contact with Stuart.

The second reason is that Lee failed to wisely employ the cavalry that he did have available, which by all means should have been enough to provide what Lee needed. After all, Lee still had three brigades of Stuart’s Cavalry Division available, but none were in a position to assist his reconnaissance needs. Some of this is Stuart’s fault, and some the fault of the commander of the forces left behind to screen Lee, but at least some of the blame for this has to be laid at the feet of Lee. Robertson’s and Jones’ brigades were still deep in Virginia guarding Snicker’s and Ashby’s Gap. Imboden’s Brigade was to the west at Hancock Maryland. Jenkins’ brigade, which was not a part of Stuart’s division, was far to the front with Ewell’s Corps.

Had Robertson followed Stuart’s orders “Lee would not have felt the want of adequate cavalry support” [1] but since Robertson had remained stationary Lee had nothing available when he needed it and made no effort to bring these units up to help.

In selecting Jones’ and Robertson’s brigades for the mission of screening Lee, Stuart made a critical mistake. Jones and Robertson both had serious deficiencies as leaders and proved that neither had Lee’s “confidence or understood his expectations…and Stuart badly misread the amount of personal connection his superior required.” [2] Jones was actually the better officer, but was junior to Robertson who failed miserably.

While Lee’s orders to Stuart allowed him to go off on his mission, Lee still had plenty of cavalry available had he employed it well. However, Lee employed it in a woeful manner and did not take the steps necessary to ensure that the commanders assigned understood his expectations. This was another critical mistake made by Lee. Alan T. Nolan wrote: “There seems to be no excuse for Lee’s finding himself at Chambersburg on the 28th without a single regiment of cavalry” [3] The tragic thing for the Confederacy was that Lee would make this same mistake in failing to communicate his intent with other subordinates throughout the campaign.

Late on the night of June 28th Lieutenant General James Longstreet “was woken by someone banging on his tent pole.” [4] It was his assistant Inspector General, Major John W. Fairfax. Fairfax had with him a man claiming to have information on the movement and location of the Army of the Potomac. The man’s name was Henry Thomas or “Harry” Harrison and he was an actor. Longstreet hired him as a “scout” or what we would now term a spy during the Suffolk campaign. Longstreet paid Harrison in U.S. dollars versus Confederate money, something that Moxey Sorrel said was worth it because he “always brought us true information.” [5]

Harrison was described as an “altogether an extraordinary character” [6] by Sorrel, and was one of those mysterious figures that occasionally show up in the context of a historical event and make it even more interesting. Very few senior Confederate commanders employed spies, “but Longstreet, with his usual care for detail, saw that his spies were well chosen and diligent.” [7] On this expedition Longstreet paid Harrison in gold and instructed him “to travel to Washington and secure any information he could obtain.” [8] He gave the spy a long leash and told him “I did not care to see him again till he could bring me information of importance.” [9]

Harrison arrived at Longstreet’s headquarters having been detained by men of Pickett’s division “dirt-stained, travel-worn, and very broken down.” [10] The spy brought Longstreet the first information about the whereabouts and situation of the Army of the Potomac that the army had since before Brandy Station.

Harrison brought news of Hooker’s relief and replacement by Meade as well as the location of the Federal army. He noted the location of John Buford’s Cavalry division as well as the location of five of the Army of the Potomac’s seven army corps, all of which were too close for comfort. Though his information was now almost two days old it was shocking. While Lee and his subordinates believed that the Army of the Potomac was still south of the Potomac, Harrison reported that “Hooker’s army had begun crossing the river three days before and was now well up into Maryland.” [11] The information was

Questioned by Longstreet about the location and activities of Stuart, Harrison could give no information, but the news that he brought was electrifying, and Longstreet immediately sent Harrison accompanied either by Sorrel or Fairfax to Lee’s headquarters.

Lee’s aide Walter Taylor noted “Great was his surprise and annoyance, therefore, when on June 28th he received information from one of the scouts to the effect that the Federal army had crossed the Potomac…” [12] Lee distrusted spies and did not employ them, but when whichever aide was present “vouchsafed for Longstreet’s confidence in him” [13] Lee “listened to Harrison’s report with “great composure and minuteness.” [14] The “contents, timing, and source of the spy’s report bothered Lee.” It was upsetting, especially since it “was brought by a person unknown to him whose word had to be taken on faith” [15] rather than from Stuart who he implicitly trusted.

However, Lee was “very reluctant to make a move without confirmation of his cavalry.” [16] Lee was skeptical of the report given by Harrison, especially because Stuart had not reported anything. He told Fairfax “I do not know what to do….I cannot hear from General Stuart, the eye of the army. What do you think of Harrison? I have no confidence in any scout, but General Longstreet thinks a good deal of Harrison.” [17]

Lee’s puzzlement at finding the federal army across the Potomac is curious. As early as June 23rd he had known of the pontoon bridge being built over the Potomac. However, Lee decision making process seemed paralyzed by the absence of Stuart. The surprise of the Union Army being concentrated so near him took away Lee’s ability to retain the initiative of a campaign of maneuver.

Because his army was so scattered he was now in danger of being hit and defeated in detail by the Federal army, “Meade, in short, might be able to do what he had planned to do to Hooker- defeat him in detail.” [18] It was a dangerous position for him to be in and he knew it. In a sense he was fortunate that on June 28th the Army of the Potomac was in the midst of changing command and thus unable to strike while his army was so vulnerable.

With the knowledge that the Federal army was near Lee acted with alacrity to concentrate his army in the Cashtown and Gettysburg area. “Within eight hours of Harrison’s report to Lee” [19] Lee had set in motion orders to all commands of his scattered army. Lee still had “no idea of the whereabouts of the enemy’s forces beyond what Longstreet’s spy had just told him- information that was already twenty-four hours old,” and he did have “any idea of how to remedy this intelligence gathering void.” [20]

Lee knew precious little other than the fact that “Hooker’s army, now under Meade, was across the mountain from him and that it was Stuart who was still in Virginia.” [21] He had learned the latter information from Captain James Power Smith who informed Lee that he had met two troopers of Stuart’s division who:

“casually told him that on the preceding day (Saturday the 27th) that they had left the main body of cavalry under Stuart in Prince William County back in northern Virginia. When Smith passed on this information, General Lee, he said, “was evidently surprised and disturbed.” [22]

Another consequence of his lack of available cavalry was that he had to leave Pickett’s division to guard the rear until Imboden’s cavalry could arrive to take up the task. Imboden’s troops had been far to the west completely away from the army when Lee discovered their location. Because of this Pickett’s division was detained to guard the army’s trains far to the rear of the march. This would be another unfortunate consequence of Stuart’s absence that would plague Lee during the battle, especially on July 2nd, when Longstreet’s corps would be without Pickett’s troops as they assaulted the Federal left.

On the afternoon of June 29th Lee met with a number of officers and his outward calm was still present. He told them “Tomorrow, gentlemen, we will not move to Harrisburg, as we expected, but will go over to Gettysburg and see what General Meade is after.” [23] When questioned by his subordinates about the relief of Hooker, and by his replacement by Lee’s former subordinate, Meade, Lee noted “General Meade will commit no blunder in my front, and if I make one he will make haste to take advantage of it.” [24]

Despite his surprise Lee was still confident. He had not fully appreciated Harrison’s information. He believed that instead of concentrating for battle that “the Army of the Potomac was shaking itself into pieces that Lee could turn upon and beat one by one, with the all the odds in his favor.” [25] Likewise he was confident that Meade would be so cautious as to not seek out an engagement, or would if forced by Washington attack him on ground of his choosing.

Implicit in Lee’s orders to concentrate east of the South Mountain range near Gettysburg was “his deliberate challenge to the enemy.” [26] Rather than waiting for the Federals to come after him he would seek them out. When John Bell Hood visited Lee, Lee remarked “Ah! General, the enemy is a long time in finding us….If he does not succeed soon, we must go in search of him.” [27] In moving his army east, “he gave away his exact location….By June 29th the approach of the Confederate army was evident to the people of Gettysburg.” [28]

Meade too had recognized the importance of Gettysburg and began to move his forces toward the town even as Lee tried to concentrate his army. On the evening of June 29th Meade sent the 1st Cavalry Division under the command of Brigadier General John Buford, a seasoned Indian fighter ahead to Gettysburg. In Buford Meade had something that Lee currently was missing, an outstanding cavalry officer in the time and place that he needed one. “Buford was a supremely confident and tenacious soldier” [29] who would provide Meade with the information that he needed to enter the battle, while Lee was practically blind due to the absence of Stuart and the mishandling of the cavalry that he should have had available.

While Lee’s army was still greatly scattered and few divisions in a place that they could provide support to each other, Meade was concentrating his army. After ordering Buford to Gettysburg he stopped the advance towards the Susquehanna and “redirected the 1st, 3rd and 11th Corps north toward Emmitsburg and the Pennsylvania state line, and the 2nd, 5th, 6th and 12th Corps to the northeast toward Pipe Creek and Taneytown.” [30]

Buford arrived and survey the ground around Gettysburg. He reconnoitered all the ridges to the front as well as Cemetery Hill and Ridge and there was nothing that his trained eye missed. Noting how the Schoolhouse Ridge, Herr’s Ridge, McPherson’s Ridge and Seminary Ridge offered successive lines of good ground for defense, and that Cemetery Hill provided a rally point he thought his plan through. He realized that the Confederates would have to come up to Gettysburg along the Cashtown Pike and that even a small force such as his could delay the enemy advance.

With that in mind, Buford made his decision. He convinced himself that “he could pull off something never achieved in this war: a defense in depth by dismounted cavalry against a large force of foot soldiers with artillery support.” [31] He also took into account the approach of Ewell’s troops from the north, and deployed one of his brigades to watch it. It was a calculated risk, if the Federal infantry did not come up to support him in time, it would risk the annihilation of his division, but if successful it would ensure that Meade’s army would hold excellent defensive ground.

Buford had a keen eye for terrain and instantly recognized that the area around Gettysburg was favorable ground. He also through the hard work of his troops surmised that Hill’s Third Corps with the divisions of Heth, Anderson and Pender would approach from the west, while Ewell’s Second Corps with the divisions of Rodes, Early and Johnson would come to Gettysburg from the north and east and provided that information to Reynolds and Meade. He again proved his “reputation as an expert gather of intelligence.” As one historian observed “this was cavalry scouting and reporting at their best, a model of precision and accuracy, with fact carefully separated from rumor.” [32]

On the morning of June 30th, Buford detected the Confederate infantry of Pettigrew’s brigade to the west of the town. Buford knew that the battle was to be there and sent word back to John Reynolds, commander of I Corps:

“Have Occupied Gettysburg. Contacted large force of Reb infantry. I think they are coming this way. Expect they will be here in force in the morning.”[33]


[1] Ibid. The Gettysburg Campaign, A Study in Command p.184

[2] Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg, A Testing of Courage. p.69

[3] Nolan, Alan T. R.E. Lee and July 1 at Gettysburg in The First Day at Gettysburg, Gallagher, Gary W. Editor, Kent State University Press, Kent Ohio 1992 p. 20

[4] Korda, Michael. Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2014 p.542

[5] Wert, Jeffry D. General James Longstreet: The Confederacy’s Most Controversial Soldier, A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster, New York and London 1993 p.237

[6] Ibid. Wert General James Longstreet p.237

[7] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenants p.551

[8] Ibid. Wert General James Longstreet p.254

[9] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.113

[10] Ibid. Wert General James Longstreet p.237

[11] Ibid Sears. Gettysburg. p.124

[12] Taylor, Walter. General Lee: His campaigns in Virginia 1861-1865 With Personal Reminiscences University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln Nebraska and London, 1994 previously published 1906 p.184

[13] Ibid. Wert General James Longstreet p.255

[14] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.113

[15] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign, A Study in Command p.181

[16] Ibid. Wert A Glorious Army p.237

[17] Ibid. Freeman Lee p.320

[18] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two pp.462-463

[19] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two p. 463

[20] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.124

[21] 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.49

[22] Ibid. Dowdy Lee and His Men at Gettysburg p.48

[23] Ibid. Freeman Lee p.321

[24] Ibid. Freeman Lee p.321

[25] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.114

[26] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.133

[27] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.114

[28] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign, A Study in Command p.195

[29] Ibid. Korda Clouds of Glory p.544

[30] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion pp.115-116

[31] Longacre, Edward G. John Buford: A Military Biography Da Capo Press, Perseus Book Group, Cambridge MA p.185

[32] Ibid. Longacre John Buford p.187

[33] Shaara, Michael. The Killer Angels. Ballantine Books, New York. 1974 p.40



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