America’s Civil War: Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet at Odds at Gettysburg

6/12/2006 • 20th Maine, A.P. Hill, Antebellum Period, Battle Of Antietam, Cemetery Hill, Cemetery Ridge, Civil War 1862, Civil War 1863, Civil War Soldiers, Confederate Generals, Confederate Soldiers, Culp's Hill, Daniel Sickles, Day Two, Devils Den, George Meade, John Hood, Little Round Top, Military History, Porter Alexander, Richard Ewell, Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson

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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