James Longstreet and the Events of July 2nd at Gettysburg
Gettysburg was a battle in which the time and location of arrival of troops on the battlefield ultimately determined the events more than the plans and strategies of its commanders. The controversies surrounding the events of that day persist, in large part because every minute wasted allowed more Union troops to arrive on the battlefield
A Defensive Battle?
Longstreet notes in his memoirs that he believed that he and Lee had agreed that the campaign despite being an invasion, its major battle would be fought as a defensive strategy. No one really knows if Lee did or did not make such a pledge, though I am skeptical because that wasn’t Lee’s personality, and it’s not like him to promise a subordinate anything. He was not defensive minded at that stage of the war in 1863. He needed to keep the initiative once the battle began, something he was a genius at doing. Most think he overstated whatever conversation occurred and didn’t cut Lee slack given the circumstances at the time.
The “Sunrise” Attack
On November 19, 1863, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, considered one of the best-known speeches in American history. A crowd of citizens and soldiers surround Lincoln (with a red arrow pointing to his location in photo).
One of the questions after the war that was raised by several of the Confederate commanders was why didn’t Longstreet attack the Union left at sunrise on July 2nd as he was ordered to by General Lee? Because if he had just followed Lee’s orders in a timely manner, the battle would have been won by the Confederates. And if there was a delay, was it’s cause Longstreet’s legendary “slowness”? Or pouting because a defensive posture wasn’t taken, as charged by Douglas Southall Freeman?
The myth of the “sunrise attack” became destroyed by Glenn Tucker in his two books in the 1960s. Longstreet’s memoirs are very clear on this matter:
“The only troops that could come under the order were McLaws’s division, part of Hood’s, and the artillery,–about ten thousand men. These, after a hurried all-night’s march, reached General Lee’s head-quarters about sunrise of the 2d, and by continued forced march could have reached the point of battle, about five miles away, by seven o’clock, where they would have encountered a division of the Third Corps (Birney’s); presently the Second and Fifth Corps under Hancock and Sykes; then the First, Eleventh, and Twelfth under Newton, Howard, and Slocum; then the balance of the Third coming in on our rear along the Emmitsburg road,–making sixty thousand men and more. There was reason to be proud of the prowess of the troops of the First Corps, but to credit a part of it with success under the circumstances was not reasonable.”
That the Confederate Second Corps did not have orders for the alleged sunrise battle is evidenced by the report of its commander, who, accounting for his work about Culp’s Hill during the night of the 1st and morning of the 2d, reported of the morning,
“It was now daylight, and too late,”
meaning that it was too late for him to attack and carry that hill, as General Lee had authorized and expected him to do during the night before. If he had been ordered to take part in the sunrise battle, he would have been in the nick of time. That the Third Corps was not to be in it is evidenced by the position of the greater part of it on Seminary Ridge until near noon of the 2d. So General Lee must have ordered a position carried, at sunrise, by ten thousand men, after it had gathered strength all night,–a position that he would not assault on the afternoon of the 1st with forty thousand men, lest they should encounter “overwhelming numbers.”
James Longstreet Memoirs
Chapter XXVII–Gettysburg–Second Day
If there was no such order, who claimed there was and why did they do it?
“The story begins on Jan. 19, 1872, when former Confederate Gen. Jubal Early gave an address at Washington and Lee University celebrating the life of Robert E. Lee, who was born on that date and who had died two years earlier. Early extolled Lee’s genius. In fact, Early claimed, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia would have won the Battle of Gettysburg, the turning point in the Civil War, if his orders had been obeyed. Early recounted the three-day battle, which raged from July 1 to July 3, 1863 noting that after soundly beating the Union Army on July 1, Lee planned to attack it again with Gen. James Longstreet’s units at sunrise the next day. But that sunrise attack, Early noted ominously, had never taken place.
Exactly one year later, Confederate Gen. William Pendleton repeated and then expanded on Early’s allegation.
https://web.archive.org/web/20071108033731/http://www.generalsandbrevets.com/sgp/pendleton.htm. Portrait of William Nelson Pendleton
Lee, according to Pendleton, had not only wanted to attack the Northern army at sunrise on July 2, but he’d given Longstreet explicit orders to do so. These orders, Pendleton said, were ignored. Pendleton then went on to argue that if Longstreet had not disobeyed Lee, the Battle of Gettysburg would have been won and, with it, Southern independence. If Longstreet had only followed orders, Pendleton added, Lee would not have been forced to attack the Union Army in their entrenchments with Pickett’s division on July 3, which, we all know, turned out to be a disaster for the South—forever memorialized as “the high-water mark of the Confederacy.”
So it was that “the sunrise attack order” of July 2, 1863, entered American history as a fact, and was treated as such for the next 100 years. In 1934, Lee biographer Douglas Southall Freeman, who had grown up near Early’s home in Lynchburg, Virginia, published his celebrated four-volume biography of Lee, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. In it, Freeman backed Early’s claim and speculated that Longstreet had disobeyed the sunrise attack order because his own “long cherished” plan for fighting the battle had been rejected. Instead of following Lee’s orders, wrote Freeman, Longstreet was stewing in his tent, “eating his heart away in sullen resentment.”
Very dramatic. Of course, there is a glaring problem with all of this, which is that no one has ever found a copy of the order and no one who was present with Lee and Longstreet when Lee allegedly gave the order remembers him doing so. Lee almost certainly never actually gave it.
Why Couldn’t Longstreet have Organized his Attack by 11 AM?
Was there an 11 am order? Lee is described to be impatient about an attack at that time. He knew that the Union army was arriving and his numerical superiority disappearing. He clearly had wanted a coordinated attack with Early on Culp’s Hill. But no written order exists and no eye witness ever confirmed an order at that time. Longstreet’s corps was last in the line of march, had been delayed by traffic jams caused by the long train, and couldn’t get to the battlefield by then. By choosing an invasion screened by South Mountain, Lee had deliberately eschewed rail or river travel. By selecting road travel, in which a long wagon train of supplies co-exists with infantry and artillery, then every one has to march to get there over the same roads as the supply line. Traffic jams and logistics problems were rampant.
Longstreet obviously knew what his role was going to be on July 2nd and didn’t really hasten his divisions faster to the field. But it wasn’t his fault that his corps was placed last in the line of march. Meanwhile, time was slipping away. Was it intentional because he didn’t want to be on offense? I truly doubt it.
“[Lee] was as calm and cool as I ever saw him and evidenced nothing in his manner to make me think for a moment that he had been thwarted in any movement by any delay on the part of anyone or from any other cause…. General Longstreet, acting under the orders of General Lee, and guided as he was by General Lee’s staff officer, could not have attacked before 2 o’clock, on the 2nd, and it is yet to be shown that he could have attacked before 4, when he did make the assault.”
– Lafayette McLaws, from the Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume 7
Longstreet had permission from Lee to await the arrival of McLaws before moving out on the 2nd day. He arrived at noon.
The Afternoon Attack
There are a couple of good reasons why Longstreet wasn’t ready sooner. And by the time he was finally ready, at 4 pm, things had changed. His battle plan was a left wheel followed by an attack en echelon. It was immediately obvious at the moment his men were finally in position that that plan was obsolete.
Lee was concerned about “bringing on a general engagement” on July 1 because Longstreet was not up. But his staff and leadership failed to assure that they were ready to go on July 2nd. Alexander didn’t even arrive on the field with the artillery until 9 am.
Longstreet was not ready to attack as early as Lee envisioned. There are witness reports of Lee at 11 AM expressing his concern that the attack had not started. Lee’s decision that Longstreet’s two divisions on the field would launch the attack against the Union left flank required Longstreet’s troops to march south and attack without being seen. Longstreet’s attack was delayed initially because one of these brigades (Evander M. Law’s, Hood’s division) had not yet arrived. Longstreet received permission from Lee to wait for Law’s brigade to reach the field before advancing. Law marched his men quickly, covering 28 miles in eleven hours, but did not arrive until noon. Three of Longstreet’s brigades were still in march columns.
Perhaps Lee & Longstreet should have kept these men closer to the front, not at the tail end of the order of march, in retrospect.
And then he was forced to march on a long, circuitous route that could not be seen by Union Army Signal Corps observers on Little Round Top. Despite staff work, however, when the lead brigade arrived at a small ridge near Blackhorse Tavern, it was clear that crossing it would expose Longstreet’s march to a Union signal station on Little Round Top. No hidden path to its planned stepping off point was found until much later in the day. In retrospect, the time used in countermarching was not a wise use of time. The countermarch involved moving Longstreet’s troops from their initial position on the Confederate left to the Confederate right in preparation for an attack on the Union left.
Longstreet ordered his column to countermarch and find lower ground for the movement, as Lee had ordered. This critical decision created a traffic jam that extended the time required to reach the attack positions. That pushed the attack off until late afternoon, disrupted the coordination and readiness of the remainder of the army to join the attack, and provided additional time for reinforcements to arrive, especially V Corps. Whether the countermarch was necessary or not is a matter of interpretation. Longstreet believed that a flanking maneuver to attack the Union right would be more effective than a direct assault on the Union left, as ordered by General Robert E. Lee. He argued that attacking the Union left would require his troops to traverse difficult terrain and face strong defensive positions, which could result in heavy casualties.
In hindsight, some argue that Longstreet’s countermarch was unnecessary and that following Lee’s original orders for a direct assault on the Union left could have yielded different results.
Others believe that Longstreet’s objections and alternative strategy were valid, considering the terrain and defensive positions the Confederates would have faced.
After completing the countermarch, Longstreet’s units arrived on the southern extension of Seminary Ridge expecting to find themselves on the Union army’s left flank along the Emmitsburg Road. Instead, Longstreet found a Union force directly on his front, running from Devil’s Den through the Wheatfield to the Peach Orchard, and then along the Emmitsburg Road. It was 4 p.m. by the time his two divisions reached their jumping off points, and then he and his generals were astonished to find the Union III Corps planted directly in front of them on the Emmitsburg Road. General Sickles’s movement of III Corps impacted greatly subsequent events and decisions. With the Sickles III Corps movement out of position at 11 am, an attack at the Peach Orchard was guaranteed at that time to overwhelm the Union salient. By noon, General Birney knew that a fight was coming. Skirmishes were reported by 1 pm.
The Union was there, it wasn’t supposed to be there, and the orders Lee had given to attack up the Emmitsburg Road were already obsolete.
By moving up to the Emmitsburg Pike, Longstreet could not attack north up the road but had to attack east, across the road. This change in the direction of the attack toward the Wheatfield and Little Round Top created unexpected killing fields, but prevented a large attack on Cemetery Ridge. This maneuver diffused the Confederate assault tactic of left wheel. The convergence of units upon a point by successive units from right to left, until that point breaks. By creating a salient , the convergence upon a point did not occur. This was of course fortuitous on Sickles part. And would have been overwhelmed by numbers had Meade not recognized the evolved scenario and shunted V Corps to reinforce the battles in the Wheat Field and Peach Orchard.
It was General Hood who insisted that this new situation demanded a change in tactics; he wanted to swing around, below and behind, Round Top and hit the Union Army in the rear. He did not know that VI Corps was there. Longstreet launched an immediate attack on the Union position, led by Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws’ Division and supported by Maj. Gen. John Bell Hood’s Division, but he could have re-deployed his two divisions to flank the Union defenses. When Hood presented a plan to shift his division farther southeast, Longstreet rejected it and ordered the attack to commence to comply with Lee’s tactical intentions that day.
James Longstreet and the Events of July 2nd at Gettysburg
Civil War Historian Dr. Lloyd W Klein
Civil War Historian Dr. Lloyd W Klein Dr. Lloyd W. Klein is Clinical Professor of Medicine in the Cardiology Division of the University of California, San Francisco. In addition, Dr. Klein is an accomplished consultant, author, lecturer and investigator. In addition, with over thirty-five years’ experience and expertise in managing myocardial infarction and tailoring coronary revascularization strategies.
Moreover, Dr. Klein is a nationally recognized expert in individualizing coronary revascularization strategies. He has published extensively on analyzing operator quality and decision making.
Dr. Klein is also an amateur historian who has read extensively on the Civil War with a particular interest in political and military leadership and their economic ramifications. Furthermore, Dr. Klein has published numerous articles on the Civil War. Moreover, with a special concentration in why decisions were made and the people who made them. Lastly, using his professional experience in appraising leadership, he is especially insightful in evaluating the internal and external motivations which influenced decisions in battle and in the political hall.