July 3, 1863, morning
History again demands a change from Michael Shaara.
At the end of the second day (July 2) of the legendary Battle of Gettysburg, General Lee, contrary to Shaara’s implied claim, had not conceived of Pickett’s Charge the way we envision it now. The morning’s plan was merely to repeat the second day’s assault, reinforced by the new division of Pickett’s men, attacking the southern flank of the Federals, and rolling them upward. It was only after meeting Longstreet on the morning of July 3 was Pickett’s infamous attack designed.
According to Shaara’s historical novel The Killer Angels, the morning of the third day finds Confederate General James Longstreet at his headquarters on the west side of Cemetery Ridge. Longstreet still hopes to move around to the right and south, the defensive maneuver he has pushed for since the start of the battle. Indeed, Longstreet the night before had dispatched scouts around the Big Round Top, hoping to find clearance to turn Meade’s southern flank from the Taneytown Road. This was a similar plan to the large-scale placing movement he advocated before – of inserting the Army of Northern Virginia between Meade and Washington. This new alternative plan only required threatening the Union position and ground, utilizing support from Ewell’s troops by moving them from the Federal right flank up north to Longstreet’s flank in the south. (Sears, 2003, p. 347)
In Shaara’s narrative, we find Longstreet’s morning reverie disturbed by the appearance of General Lee through the mists. Lee wants Longstreet to join him on observation towards the east, closer to Cemetery Ridge. This meeting did in fact take place – at about 4:30 AM. It was the first meeting of these generals since after the second day’s fighting (Sears, 2003, p. 357). (Note that the meeting of Lee and Longstreet on the night of July 2 as described by Shaara did not historically take place. The lack of personal communication on this crucial night played a large part in heightening the tension between the two Confederate commanders and in precipitating Pickett’s Charge, as we shall see.)
Longstreet tells Lee, in Shaara’s version, that he has scouted the land and can still envision a southward approach. At this point, Lee abruptly interrupts him and authoritatively gestures to the east (Cemetery Hill), saying, “General, the enemy is there – and there’s where I’m going to strike him” (Shaara, 2004, p. 273). While something like this conversation was indeed reported in Longstreet’s post-war recollections, Longstreet’s previous dialogue and Lee’s previous experience that night was altered or omitted in Shaara’s rendition.
At 10 o’clock on the night of July 2, Longstreet received Lee’s orders for the next day. Longstreet had not met up with Lee after the battle, as he almost always did after a day’s action. This lack of personal communication highlights the unnatural tension that existed between these close friends and contributed in a large way to the miscarriage of orders and persistence by Lee of his ill-conceived assaults. Lee’s orders that night called for a renewal of the attacks of July 2, aided now by Pickett’s fresh division (Wert, 2006; Sears, 2003, p. 347). Pickett, Lee intended, would join McLaws’ men to the south and make the main attack from the Peach Orchard to roll up the Federal line (Sears, 2003, p. 358). Said Lee in his official report for that day:
The result of this day’s [July 2] 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 the assaulting columns, we should ultimately succeed, and it was accordingly determined to continue the attack. The general plan was unchanged. (Lee’s Report No. 426, January, OR 27.2)
Admittedly, this was a poorly-researched plan of action, as Lee still did not know the extent of Meade’s force. Lee then ordered Ewell to, at daylight, attack Culp’s Hill from the position of Johnson’s troops, which had climbed and captured part of Culp’s Hill on July 2. The newly-arrived J.E.B. Stuart would aid Ewell from his left and rear. (Sears, 2003, p. 347)
On the afternoon of July 2, Pickett finally joined Longstreet on the field and was watching the day’s attack when a message from Lee came: “Tell General Pickett I shall not want him this evening, to let his men rest, and I will send him word when I want him” (qtd. in Sears, 2003, p. 349). Yet Lee did not reveal to Pickett the timetable he had in mind for the next day’s assault; namely, the renewed attack at daylight. Says Stephen Sears, prominent Civil War historian:
Here was yet another failure of the Confederates’ high-command system, this one in so simple a thing as delivering orders. It appears that Longstreet, hearing Lee’s message to Pickett (“I will send him word when I want him”) – and remembering Lee earlier giving direct orders to another of Longstreet’s generals, Lafayette McLaws – assumed that Lee would order up Pickett when he wanted him. Lee, having sent Longstreet orders Thursday night for a Friday attack that included Pickett, assumed Longstreet would order his subordinate to the front. Longstreet, of course, ought to have followed up on the matter, but in view of his strained relationship with Lee it is perhaps not surprising that he failed to do so. (Sears, 2003, pp. 349-50)
When Lee met Longstreet at 4 AM on July 3, he expected Longstreet to have Pickett’s men ready for the dawn’s renewed assault. Instead, Pickett’s men had yet to be formed and there was, at Longstreet’s headquarters, painfully little activity and no preparation for an assault. From the north, artillery thunder signaled, to Lee’s mind, the start of Ewell’s daylight attack. In order to regain coordination, Pickett needed to move now, but Pickett was not even on the scene. With this frustration festering in Lee, Longstreet came up, telling Lee of his southern scouts and saying he was “just ordering his forces to move around Round Top and take a posting on the enemy’s flank” (Sears, 2003, p. 357).
At this point Longstreet records Lee pointing in exasperation towards Cemetery Hill, declaring he would fight the enemy there. All Lee’s vexation had erupted in a climax of wills with his friend and subordinate Longstreet.
In Shaara’s narrative, Lee states from the beginning that Pickett is to strike the middle of the Federal line, much to Longstreet’s consternation. Longstreet’s official records make this confirming statement:
On the following morning [July 3] our arrangements were made for renewing the attack by my right, with a view to pass around the hill occupied by the enemy on his left, and to gain it by flank and reverse attack. This would have been a slow process, probably, but I think not very difficult. A few moments after my orders for the execution of this plan were given, the commanding general joined me, and ordered a column of attack to be formed of Pickett’s, Heth’s, and part of Pender’s divisions, the assault to be made directly at the enemy’s main position, the Cemetery Hill. (Longstreet to Chilton, July 27, OR 27.2)
When Longstreet and Lee went eastward and inspected the Peach Orchard, taking near misses from sharpshooters and artillery shells, Longstreet pointed out that moving McLaws division forward would invite flanking Federal fire. Lee agreed. This new information demanded that Lee’s previous composition of assault had to be changed (Sears, 2003, p. 358).
Yet time was of the essence, and Lee still wanted to follow through with an offensive from the last day’s progress. Indeed, Lee felt he could not change the main thrust of his previous orders (a renewal of the attack), since “he could hardly back down from his issued orders at this late hour,” nor as commanding general recant his intended battle plan (Sears, 2003, p. 358). Had Longstreet met with Lee on the night of July 2, his first-hand, detailed account of the day’s fight (as opposed to the general one provided by a mere courier) would have earned more attention from Lee and perhaps convinced him to move Ewell’s troops to Longstreet’s desired location (Sears, 2003, pp. 257-58). But tension and hurt pride prevented the generals from meeting, and now at this late hour, little change that would not spark of incompetence could be enacted.
So Lee ordered Longstreet to prepare Pickett’s men for an attack, location as yet concluded. Personal observation of the Peach Orchard ousted his original plan: McLaws could not move forward. As daylight drew on, a move had to be made. “If General Lee wanted Pickett’s fresh division to spearhead the assault, and his best general, Longstreet, to lead it, and as there was no time to spare, the choice of targets was strictly limited” (Sears, 2003, p. 360). As it turned out, the choice made was “almost as badly chosen as it was possible to be,” as artillery chief Porter Alexander woefully remembered (qtd. in Sears, 2003, p. 360).
In Shaara’s narrative, we find Longstreet sparring with Lee one last time in the Peach Orchard: Lee tells Longstreet to attack the center; Longstreet contends that McLaws and Hood are weak to take the heights attempted the day before, that any forward movement would result in a flank attack, that while the Federals can bring up reinforcements within minutes, the Confederates’ support would come from miles away, with cannon seeing every move. Lee is confident the line would break, and then the sound of Ewell’s guns interrupt the scene. Shaara has Lee erupting in anger at Ewell’s apparent disobedience of orders. Yet, historically, at this point, an attack by Ewell is exactly what Lee intended (Longstreet’s refrain from attacking at this moment was the frustrating factor for Lee).
According to Shaara, Lee returns from a quick visit with Ewell to say that it was the Federals who attacked. Now this is true: Union General Slocum and his corps had indeed initiated the attack to regain the breastworks they had lost to the Confederates the night before. But Lee himself did not ride over to check the attack. In fact, he had sent a courier to Ewell in a vain attempt to delay Confederate action until Longstreet could form his divisions into the hastily-created attack lines.
Back to Shaara’s narrative… Lee and Longstreet reach the Peach Orchard, which is blanketed with the dead and dying. A general named Wofford greets the commanders and admits that he cannot imagine taking the ridge again that day, not with the Union reinforced and with their heavy losses. It is actually unlikely that Brigadier General William T. Wofford would have felt this way, considering his previous attitude when Longstreet pulled him out of the fight near the Peach Orchard: On July 2, Wofford’s one brigade pushed back Union brigades under General Ayers, sending their members flying, devoid of order or direction as far back as the Taneytown Road (Sears, 2003, p. 302). By dusk on July 2, Longstreet felt the strength of the Federals and realized he lacked reinforcements to support the gains he had taken that day. He pulled out Wofford, who, having not been attacked at his stand on the Millerstown Road and feeling generally confident in his position, “ ‘shook his pistol’ at Longstreet in protest” (Sears, 2003, p. 322).
In Shaara’s vision, Lee and Longstreet continue to talk at the Peach Orchard. Officers stream by, in general awe of Lee and full of confidence. A messenger from Hood asks for help from Robertson’s brigade. Ewell reports that his General Johnson has to pull out from the positions he won the day before. Skirmishes form under Seminary Ridge. Lee confirms to Longstreet to attack the center, pointing to the clump of trees as their target for attack. He will give Longstreet massed artillery fire before the infantry’s assault. Lee indeed bombarded the Union line with the largest artillery barrage North America had ever seen up to that time: over 100 cannons would thunder for an hour, shaking the land like an earthquake. And the “little clump of trees” which was to be the goal of Pickett’s Charge, still exists today.
In Shaara’s story, we see Longstreet mention Hancock’s division and the hard time Armistead of Pickett’s division would have to fight against his old friend. Longstreet then mentions that perhaps Hill should lead the attack, since two of Hill’s divisions (Heth and Pender) are being assigned to the charge. But Lee wants Longstreet. Longstreet then pleads one last time to stop the attack – saying that no fifteen thousand men could take the position Lee wanted. Longstreet indeed had recorded this feeling in his post-war account.
After the rejection of his final argument, Longstreet succumbs to resignation and despair. Lee gives him the information: Porter Alexander’s artillery will precede the assault, Heth’s personal command will be replaced by Johnston Pettigrew, and Pender would be replaced by Isaac Trimble, since both Heth and Pender were ill and injured. Lee determines that the center of Meade’s line must be weak. When Longstreet is alone, he tries to talk himself into self control and confidence, lest the men feel his despair and fail all the more. Pickett is alive with excitement at the new command; Longstreet, sober, orders Alexander to his post. Longstreet meets Pettigrew and Trimble, tries to judge how good a commander each would be. In laying out the plan for the columns, Longstreet notices that each one is honored to take part in this great responsibility. Trimble, after the meeting, has tears in his eyes. Pickett is grinning. Alexander rides up, saying Hill’s artillery is wasting ammunition fighting over a barn.
Pickett begins to form his line. Lee arrives and walks the line with Longstreet and Pickett. Longstreet advises Pickett on how to shift sideways when he reaches the Emmittsburg Road. Longstreet has a vision of the doom: the emergence of the Confederate line, the enfilade fire from the Round Tops, the rifle fire pounding the march, the fence – if by chance they’d ever reach it – where the formation would flounder, the canister fire that would reach them by the road, the double canister that would eat the last of them. Hancock’s men would not run. It was all a grim finality.
Pickett sits down to write a letter to Sallie, to await his turn after the artillery barrage. Longstreet considers resigning now, to stop his part in the madness, yet he feels he cannot leave Lee to Hill, cannot leave his boys alone now.
Who knows what Longstreet thought in these hours before the dreaded Pickett’s Charge. During the war, he still much admired Lee, to the point of naming his son, born in October of 1863, after his commanding general (Wert, 2006). Yet there is no doubt that Longstreet opposed this move proposed by Lee now, and the latter, after the war, admitted that had Longstreet’s advice been heeded, the Confederacy may yet be alive.
Shaara, M. (2004). The killer angels. New York, NY: Modern Library. (Original work published 1974)
Sears, S.W. (2003). Gettysburg. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Wert, J. D. (2006, August). James Longstreet: Robert E. Lee’s most valuable soldier. The Civil War Times.Retrieved from http://www.historynet.com/james-longstreet-robert-e-lees-most-valuable-soldier.htm
U.S. War Dept. (1880-1901). War of the rebellion: A compilation of the official records of the Union and Confederate armies. Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office.
(Lee’s Report No. 426, retrieved from http://www.civilwarhome.com/leelastgettysburgor.htm; Longstreet to Chilton, retrieved from http://www.civilwarhome.com/longgett.htm)
Photo of the “little clump of trees” from http://www.hyperbear.com/acw/gettysburg/acw-gettysburg-cemetery-ridge.html
The previous entry is a part of a series of Gettysburg posts recounting Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels and the actual battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863. The complete list of entries can be found at the page The Killer Angels.