Some historians believe that there was another element to the assault as planned. There is evidence that provisional orders were issued to selected units holding the line for a follow-up advance once the enemy’s line had been breached. Taken in the aggregate, these units constituted a second wave intended to exploit the breakthrough. The responsibility for committing this group rested with Longstreet, who was already an unwilling participant in the attack. Why Lee did not reserve this decision for himself is another of the battle’s unanswered questions.
With the arrangements made, Lee briefly prowled the lines before returning to his headquarters to wait. If the bombardment did its work, if the flanks were protected, and if enough of the artillery advanced with the infantry, Lee felt that his superb soldiers would smash through the Yankee army. He expected that the Federal soldiers would lose their nerve, and he was utterly confident that his men would press the attack all the way to Cemetery Ridge. There was little more for him to do. It was all now in God’s hands.
That the subsequent assault, known as Pickett’s Charge, failed was a major setback to Lee. Afterward he seemed to blame the soldiers involved. In his second official Gettysburg report, he admitted that he might have asked more of his men “than they were able to perform.” To his wife, Lee wrote that his men “ought not to have been expected to have performed impossibilities.” What he seemed to miss in his analysis, then and after the war, were his own failures to ensure that his instructions were carried out.
He might have started with his artillery chief, Pendleton. While Longstreet’s artillery commander, Alexander, knew the game plan, it is clear that his equivalent in Hill’s Corps, Col. R. Lindsay Walker, did not. Numerous Third Corps batteries failed to participate in the bombardment, leaving most of the Federal guns on Cemetery Hill and Ridge free to pummel the infantry wave. Pendleton also neglected to keep the critical ordnance resupplies close at hand, so when the time came for Alexander’s batteries to move forward with the infantry, only a handful had sufficient ammunition to justify making the effort, not enough to make a difference. As Lee had feared, the tract from the Emmitsburg Road to Cemetery Ridge proved to be the killing ground that broke the back of the assault.
Lee refrained from any negative comments about Pendleton’s performance in his Gettysburg reports, while the artillery chief’s narrative makes it seem that every instruction was carried out. Lee appears to have had a soft spot for the West Pointer, who had forsaken the ministry for a military career, even though Pendleton informally acknowledged his inadequacies as artillery chief by granting tactical control of batteries on the battlefield to younger officers of lower rank. The cost for Lee’s personal kindness of carrying the weaker man along was dear.
It is also worth noting that while Lee waited at his headquarters for Longstreet’s attack to begin, he made no effort to coordinate with Ewell. By the time Pickett’s Charge began, Ewell had shot his bolt on Culp’s Hill and was no longer threatening that enemy flank. Lee recognized on the evening of July 1 that it would be a stiff challenge to effectively integrate his Second Corps operations with the rest of the army. Once he agreed to let Ewell remain on the north side of the town, it was incumbent on him to make certain Ewell knew his part. From the evidence in hand, Lee failed to do so.
Jeb Stuart’s role on July 3 is also the subject of much speculation. His instructions for July 3, as recollected by his adjutant, were to “protect the left of Ewell’s corps…observe the enemy rear and attack it in case the Confederate assault on the Federal lines were successful…[and] if opportunity offered, to make a diversion which might aid the Confederate infantry.” While accomplishing the first, Stuart was unable to do more. His efforts to advance were checked in fierce fighting over what is today known as the East Cavalry Battlefield. It should be stressed that his orders to attack the enemy rear were conditioned on a successful infantry breakthrough.
The failure of the assault against Cemetery Ridge marked an end to Lee’s offensive designs. After personally helping to rally the defeated men from Longstreet’s and Hill’s corps, he planned a withdrawal from Pennsylvania that began on the night of July 4. Even when blessed by a timid pursuit from Union forces, the march was staggered by bad weather and the burden of carrying so many casualties. A good estimate of Lee’s losses is 22,874 killed, wounded, or missing, more than a third of his force. Not until July 14 would the Army of Northern Virginia be safely across the Potomac River, ending the campaign.
Lee’s performance at Gettysburg was far from masterful. Time and again he failed to impress upon his key lieutenants the full intent of his orders, and at critical moments in the battle’s second and third days he crafted offensive plans based on misinformation. On July 1 he was reluctant to finish the fight and refrained from using a readily available reserve to assist Ewell in taking the high ground that would prove central to the Union success. He also permitted his Second Corps to remain in a position that greatly compounded the normal difficulties of command and control. On July 2 Lee based the day’s battle plan on faulty intelligence and then kept hands off once the action began. His position near the Confederate center put him at the critical boundary between Hill’s and Ewell’s corps, yet he took no proactive steps to ensure a maximum effort was mounted. On July 3, Lee’s determination to strike a blow led to a compromise plan that needed careful management to succeed, oversight that was tragically absent.
There is no evidence that Lee ever marked the irony that Vicksburg surrendered to Union forces on July 4. Even though he afterward insisted that the Gettysburg campaign had achieved most of its goals (resupply of his army and deterring Federal incursions into Northern Virginia for the harvest season), Lee submitted his resignation on August 8, citing health issues and public discontent over the battle results. President Davis promptly rejected the request, leaving Lee in command of the Army of Northern Virginia to the war’s end. In another note to Davis, Lee observed: “I still think if all things could have worked together [then victory] would have been accomplished. But with the knowledge I had then…I do not know what better course I could have pursued.”
In the few years left to him after the war, Lee rarely commented on his experiences in Confederate service. When he did talk about some of the battles he fought, Gettysburg figured high on the list. One gets the impression that he was still struggling to understand how that one got away from him. Speaking about it with Washington College faculty member and former Army of Northern Virginia officer William Allen, Lee once more voiced his disappointment with Jeb Stuart, who “failed to give him information, and this deceived him into a general battle.” Looking back, he told Allen he was certain that “victory would have been won if he could have gotten one decided simultaneous attack on the whole line.” The closest Lee would come to acknowledging the part his misconceptions and poor communication played in losing the battle was an admission to a confidant in 1868 that his defeat in Pennsylvania “was occasioned by a combination of circumstances.”
Perhaps the most unguarded expression of Lee’s feelings about the battle came at the end of July 4. It was late and he had been active all day organizing the withdrawal—heavy work for an older man—and was feeling the effort. When he met with the officer charged with escorting the train of the wounded, who was expecting orders, Lee instead made him audience to a rare monologue. With the anguish of a master designer who has seen one of his finest constructs fall, Lee let down his guard. “Too bad! Too bad!” he exclaimed. “Oh! Too bad!”