Before and after speaking with Longstreet, Lee dispatched scouts to identify the Yankee deployments. While waiting to hear from them, he learned that Ewell’s men had not occupied Culp’s Hill. Rebel parties probing the position before dawn encountered Union soldiers in strength. It took Lee until mid-morning to collate his scouting reports. Some came from (presumably) reliable army engineers, others from officers just trying to help. Lee asked questions when the reports were given, but does not appear to have tagged any as questionable or requiring further verification. Time was his greatest enemy now.
Based on what he heard, he believed the Federal line stretched south along the Emmitsburg Road for a relatively short distance, terminating near or at a peach orchard. With Hill’s men still recovering from yesterday’s fighting, and Ewell’s snagged in rugged terrain unsuitable for large-scale offensive operations, Lee decided that his best chance for success was to employ Longstreet’s fresh troops (only two divisions, though; the third was still in transit) to roll up the enemy’s left flank.
On July 1, Lee had allowed less than half his army to become engaged without being able to control the fight or complete the victory. On July 2, he felt he had sufficient strength to do the job and had identified the enemy’s weak point. Unfortunately for Rebel arms, his conclusions stemmed from bad information and his own overoptimistic assumptions.
Lee believed that the Army of the Potomac was still in the process of reaching Gettysburg when, in fact, much of it (including its commander, Maj. Gen. George G. Meade) had arrived or was very close by. Six of the Union army’s seven corps were present—roughly 54,700 soldiers to Lee’s 42,000—though perhaps just four corps would have been immediately visible from the Confederate lines. He imagined that the Federals were dispirited and demoralized when in reality their fighting spirit was at a fever pitch. The enemy position sketched for him was wrong in several important ways. Instead of running along the course of the Emmitsburg Road, the Union forces followed the actual ridgeline, which diverged to the east before terminating at a low hill (Little Round Top), rather than hanging in the air at the Peach Orchard. The attack Lee planned for July 2 would have struck unoccupied ground but for an act of insubordination by one of Meade’s corps commanders who moved off Cemetery Ridge to occupy the Peach Orchard and nearby high ground without orders.
The army Lee was sending into battle at Gettysburg had been patched together in record time. In the short period between receiving permission for the operation and actually beginning it, he had reorganized it from top to bottom. A two-corps force had become a three-corps arrangement, with new officers put in charge at all levels. There had not been time to road test any of the parts and Lee chose to ignore that critical stage of army building. Greatly worried that bad news from Vicksburg would renew calls to disperse portions of his command, he had set off on his most critical campaign of the war with an army whose command-and-control elements had yet to jell. July 2 at Gettysburg would subject this construct to maximum stress.
Lee later described this day’s battle plan: “It was determined to make the principal attack upon the enemy’s left, and endeavor to gain a position [in the Peach Orchard] from which it was thought that our artillery could be brought to bear with effect. Longstreet was directed to place the divisions of McLaws and Hood on the right of Hill, partially enveloping the enemy’s left, which he was to drive in. General Hill was ordered to threaten the enemy’s center, to prevent re-enforcements being drawn to either wing, and co-operate with his right division in Longstreet’s attack. General Ewell was instructed to make a simultaneous demonstration upon the enemy’s right, to be converted into a real attack should opportunity offer.”
While any commander expects there will be differences between what is planned and what occurs, it is sobering to realize how much of Lee’s plan was either mistaken in its assumptions or misunderstood by its participants. Some six hours had passed from Lee’s receipt of the scouting report concerning the enemy’s left flank and until Longstreet actually reached it there had been no updates. It would seem that with Stuart still absent, there was no one other than Lee himself charged with gathering field intelligence. Longstreet emerged from a lengthy, circuitous route (chosen to avoid detection) to find the enemy not just in the Peach Orchard, but positioned farther back to enfilade the flank of any force moving north along the Emmitsburg Road. This required him to commit nearly a full division, 10,892 men, to neutralize the problem and spend precious hours dislodging the stubborn Yankees from the nearby Devil’s Den and the Wheatfield.
Once begun, the energy of Longstreet’s attack was to spread along the line held by Hill’s troops. It was here that clear, effective communication was vital, but Lee became a mere bystander as his orders passed down through Hill’s chain of command and were corrupted in the process. It took skill and experience to know when a demonstration should be converted into an attack. From subsequent events, it is evident that there was no common sense of purpose among Hill’s subordinates. Some brigades advanced in conjunction with a movement to their immediate right, others held back waiting to be called up to support the neighboring advance, while at least one refrained from moving at all. Any cumulative assault power was dissipated as a result, and countless acts of valor wasted. Even though Lee remained close to Hill throughout this day’s actions, there is no evidence he did anything to spur his lieutenant to better prosecute the action.
Communication was no better with the opposite flank. On the far left, Richard Ewell acted with little regard for what was taking place elsewhere on July 2. This despite a personal visit from Lee in the morning, as Longstreet was preparing for his flank march. When Lee departed, Ewell’s orders were unchanged and from appearances he did not display any sense of urgency. The clear inference is that Lee did not convey the importance of making “a simultaneous demonstration” on the Confederate right flank. According to a recent biography of Ewell, nothing is known of his activities this afternoon. The biographer’s best guess is that the general “probably slept.” His infantrymen maintained a desultory skirmishing on the town’s outskirts throughout the day, but otherwise posed no threat. His artillery provided some help. At the time that Longstreet’s cannons signaled the start of his attack on the far right, 16 of Ewell’s guns rolled onto the constricted crest of Benner’s Hill (northeast of Gettysburg) and targeted Cemetery Hill. For a short period the Rebel cannoneers gave as good as they got, but the heavier weight of the Federal counterbattery fire soon exacted a high price from the Rebel gunners.
By 6 p.m., nearly an hour before any of Hill’s brigades became engaged, the firing died down on Ewell’s front. Things became so quiet that George Meade began shifting 7,700 troops from Culp’s Hill to support his battered left. Then, around 9:30 p.m., with the fighting just about finished on Longstreet’s and Hill’s fronts, Ewell threw 7,600 men against Culp’s Hill and the eastern side of Cemetery Hill. The former effort grabbed some empty trenches on the lower slope, while the latter was hurled back after fierce fighting.
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