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Ask MHQ: What Caused Longstreet’s Delay?

By Harry W. Pfanz
8/6/2018 • MHQ Magazine

Q: Did the “delayed start” of Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s attack at the Battle of Gettysburg on the afternoon of July 2, 1863, result from General Robert E. Lee’s command style or from Longstreet responding too slowly to Lee’s command?

John Looby

Manchester, England

A: Probably both. After reaching Gettysburg on July 1 and viewing the Union position on Cem – etery Ridge, Lee determined to strike it head on. However, Long street believed that such a direct attack would result in heavy casualties and probably would fail. Instead, he urged Lee to shift the Army of Northern Virginia to a defensive position between Gettysburg and Washington and invite an attack. When Lee refused, Longstreet became miffed. His irritation continued through July 2.

Lee’s command style was to determine strategy for his army and then rely on his ranking officers to execute it. However, Lee was on the field at Gettysburg and sometimes became involved in tactical matters. His plan for July 2 called for Long – street to move his two divisions present—Hood’s and McLaw’s— south, to the right of Anderson’s division of Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps, and ex – tend the Confederate line south along Seminary Ridge. From there they would attack northward up the Emmitsburg Road and seize the high ground at the Peach Orchard, where Lee believed the Union left was posted. Anderson’s division would support them, and all would then attack Cemetery Ridge.

Although Lee did not give a specific time for the attack, it is believed that he wanted it made in the morning. This did not happen, partially because Lee did not insist that Hill and Long – street move to the assault positions in a timely fashion. In this Lee and his corps commanders seemed at fault.

When ordered to move, Long street insisted on awaiting the expected arrival of Law’s brigade from beyond South Mountain. He did so but did not take advantage of the wait to reconnoiter a route to his positions or move his seven brigades present to their vicinity.

One of Lee’s engineers was to have guided the “flank march.” This, too, seems to have displeased Longstreet. The general did not assert himself until he ordered the column to retrace its route, to avoid being seen by the enemy, and take a longer one. That approach march consumed even more time.

Thus actions and inactions by both Lee and Longstreet likely contributed to what delays there may have been in the attack. We cannot know the extent of these delays. We do know that Anderson’s division did not settle into its position until about noon, and Long street’s two divisions weren’t in theirs until about 4 P.M. We do not know the starting times of their movements and the other delays that slowed them.

 

Originally published in the Spring 2008 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here

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