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Councils of War at Gettysburg: Robert E Lee and James Longstreet a Contest of Wills

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As night fell on July 2nd 1863 General Robert E Lee had already made his decision. Despite the setbacks of the day he was determined to strike the Army of the Potomac yet again. He did not view the events as setback, and though he lacked clarity of how badly many of his units were mauled Lee took no council. With the exception of A.P. Hill who came and submitted a report to him Lee neither required his other two corps commanders, James Longstreet or Richard Ewell to consult with him, nor took any action to visit them.

Lee did “not feel that his troops had been defeated” and he felt that “the failure on the second day had been due to a lack of coordination.”[1]

In his official report of the battle he wrote:

The result of this day’s operations induced the belief that, with proper concert of action, and with the increased support that the positions gained on the right would enable the artillery to render to the assaulting columns, that we should succeed, and it was ultimately determined to continue the attack…” [2]

While Lee’s charge of a “lack of coordination” of the attacks can certainly be substantiated his decision to attack was “utterly divorced from reality.” [3] His plan was essentially unchanged from the previous day. Longstreet’s now battered divisions were to renew their assault on the Federal left in coordination with Pickett and two of Hill’s divisions.

In light of his belief that “a lack of coordination” was responsible for the failures of July 2nd “Lee would have done well to have called out his three lieutenants to confer with them and spell out exactly what he wanted. That was not the way he did things however…” [4]

Lee knew about the heavy losses among his key leaders but “evidently very little was conveyed to him regarding the condition of the units engaged this day.” [5] This certainly had to be because during the day his only view of the battlefield was from Seminary Ridge through binoculars and because he did not get first hand reports from the commanders involved. Lee was undeterred and according to some who saw Lee that night he seemed confident noting that when Hill reported he shook his and said “It is well, General,…Everything is well.” [6]

It was not an opinion that his subordinates shared. Ewell and his subordinates were told to renew their attack on Cemetery and Culp’s Hill but “he and his generals believed more than ever that a daylight assault against the ranked guns on Cemetery Hill would be suicidal-Harry Hays said that such an attack would invite “nothing more than slaughter”…[7]

Longstreet was now more settled in his opposition to another such frontal attack and early shortly after dawn when Lee visited him to deliver the order to attack again argued for a flanking movement around the Federal left. His order was for Longstreet to “attack again the next morning” according to the “general plan of July 2nd.” [8] Longstreet had not wanted to attack the previous day and when Lee came to him Longstreet again attempted to persuade Lee of his desire to turn the Federal flank. “General, 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.” [9]

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Lee would have nothing of it. He looked at his “old Warhorse” and as he had done the previous day insisted “The enemy is there,” he said, pointing northeast as he spoke, “and I am going to strike him.” [10] Longstreet’s gloom deepened and felt “it was my duty to express my convictions.” he bluntly told Lee:

“General, I have been a soldier all of 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 any one, what soldiers can do. It is my opinion that no fifteen thousand men ever arranged for battle can take that position.” [11]

Lee was determined to force his will on both his subordinates and the battle, Lee was convinced that the plan could succeed and Longstreet “was certain” that the plan “was misguided and doomed to fail.” [12] Longstreet, now realized that further arguments were in vain recalled Lee “was impatient of listening, and tired of talking, and nothing was left but to proceed.” [13]

Even a consultation with Brigadier General William Wofford whose brigade had help crush Sickle’s III Corps at the Peach Orchard and had nearly gotten to the crest of Cemetery Ridge could not alter Lee’s plan. Wofford had to break off his attack when he realized that there were no units to support him. Lee asked if he could “go there again” to which Wofford replied “No, General I think not.” Lee asked “why not” and Wofford explained: “General, the enemy have had all night to intrench and reinforce. I had been pursuing a broken enemy, and now the situation is very different.” [14]

The attack would go forward despite Longstreet’s objections and the often unspoken concerns of others who had the ear of Lee, or who would carry out the attack. Walter Taylor of Lee’s staff wrote to his sister a few days after the attack the “position was impregnable to any such force as ours” while Pickett’s brigadier Richard Garnett remarked “this is a desperate thing to attempt” and Lewis Armistead said “the slaughter will be terrible.” [15]

Pickett’s fresh division would lead the attack supported by Johnston Pettigrew commanding the wounded Harry Heth’s division of Hill’s Third Corps and Isaac Trimble commanding two brigades of Pender’s division, Trimble having been given command just minutes prior to the artillery bombardment.[16] On the command side few of the commanders had commanded alongside each other before July 3rd. Trimble having just recovered from wounds had never been with his men. Pettigrew had been given command when Pender was wounded was still new and relatively untested, and Pickett’s three brigadiers and their brigades had never fought together. Two of the divisions had never served under Longstreet. From a command perspective where relationships and trust count as much as strength and numbers the situation was nearly as bad is it could be. Although the Confederates massed close to 170 cannon on Seminary Ridge to support the attack ammunition was in short supply and the Lieutenant Colonel Porter Alexander who had been tasked with coordinating fires only controlled the guns of First Corps.

The assaulting troops would attack with their right flank exposed to deadly enfilade fire from Federal artillery and with the left flank unsupported and exposed to such fires from Union artillery on Cemetery Hill. It was a disaster waiting to happen.

Longstreet noted “Never was I so depressed as on that day…” [17]

 

[1] Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee’s Lieutenant’s a Study in Command, One volume abridgement by Stephen W Sears, Scribner, New York 1998 p.558

[2] Lee, Robert E, Reports of Robert E Lee, C.S. Army, Commanding Army of Northern Virginia Campaign Report Dated January 20th 1864. Amazon Kindle Edition location 594 of 743

[3] Sears, Stephen W Gettysburg Houghton Mifflin Company, New York 2003 p.349

[4] Coddinton, Edwin Gettysburg, A Study in Command Simon and Schuster New York 1968 p.455

[5] Trudeau, Noah Andre Gettysburg, A Testing of Courage Harper Collins, New York 2002 p.411

[6] Ibid p.412

[7] Ibid. p.347

[8] Ibid. p.430

[9] DeWert, Jeffry General James Longstreet, the Confederacy’s Most Controversial Soldier A Tuchstone Book, Simon and Schuster, New York 1993 p.283

[10] Foote, Shelby The Civil War, A Narrative, Fredericksburg to Meridian Random House, New York 1963 p.529

[11] Ibid. Dewert p.283

[12] Ibid. Sears p.349

[13] Guelzo, Allen C. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion Vintage Books, a Division of Random House, New York 2013 p.377

[14] Ibid. Foote p.531

[15] Ibid. DeWert p.287

[16] Ibid. Freeman p.589

[17] Ibid. DeWert p.290

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