I wish I had been standing atop Seminary Ridge at about 5:00 p.m. on 1 July, 1863, when Lieutenant General James Longstreet arrived with his small staff. He had come to tell his boss, General Robert E. Lee, that lead elements of his First Corps would be reaching the battlefield shortly after dark. And while Lee was issuing his "if practicable" orders to General Ewell, "Old Pete" took the opportunity to scan the Federal lines on Cemetery Hill through his binoculars. Longstreet expressed his pleasure that the Federals had revealed themselves, saying "All we have to do is...secure good ground between him and his capital." But Lee rejected the idea with anger. Jabbing his fist at Cemetery Hill he said, "If the enemy is there tomorrow, we must attack him." Longstreet said he was shaken by Lee's vehemence. And that was the moment when Lee lost the battle of Gettysburg.
At first glance the idea that Lee lost the 3 day battle of Gettysburg on the first day seems odd, since Lee won the first day at Gettysburg. Sort of. The federal troops had been swept from the field in panic and confusion, and had suffered almost 900 dead and more than 4,000 wounded. But so had Lee's army. The first day's success and its cost tempted Lee to stay and fight.
Over the next 2 days Lee would lose another 3,000 dead, 15,000 wounded, with 5,500 missing or captured. From Wednesday 1 July through Friday 3 July, more than a third of the army Lee took to Gettysburg would be lost. And over the next 2 years the 9 million citizens defending human slavery would suffer over 300,000 military dead. The defeat at Gettysburg was truly the turning point in the war.
We know Lee suffered from rheumatism, exacerbated by spending long hours in the saddle under hot suns and bone chilling rains, and sleeping outside night after night. He was also deeply worried about the whereabouts of Lieutenant General J.E.B. Stuart's 6,000 cavalrymen. But more than that, Lee seemed to be exhibiting the effects of "stable angina." - a reoccurring, short burst of pressure felt in the chest which mimics indigestion. Lee later told his doctors the condition began in 1863. The angina was caused by insufficient blood flow to the muscles of the heart. It could be triggered by emotional stress, exhaustion or temperature extremes - all of which Lee experienced during the Pennsylvania campaign. The only treatment available at the time was rest, and Lee got less of that as the battle went on.
The key position was Culp's Hill, the place Lee had just urged Lieutenant General Ewell to capture "if practicable". It dominated Cemetery Hill, the new center of the Federal line. But Ewell would decide that without support from A.P. Hill's bloodied exhausted men, it could not be taken. Shortly after dark Lee arrived at the II Corps headquarters to meet with Ewell and two of his division commanders - Brigadier Generals Robert Rodes and Jubal Early. Lee asked for a morning assault on Cemetery and Culp's Hill.
All of General Rodes' 5 brigades had suffered such heavy casualties, he felt unable to contribute. General Early was facing Culp's Hill, but had only one brigade in position to launch an assault. The rest were scattered between Barlow's Knoll to 2 miles out on the Hanover Pike, licking their substantial wounds and guarding the 3,000 Federal prisoners taken that first Day. Early told Lee the effort should be made against Cemetery Hill. Ewell (above), thinking of Cemetery Hill's 70 foot high slope, warned an assault, even if successful, “...would be at a very great cost.” Old Baldy again suggested A.P. Hill's Corps should do the heavy lifting, attacking the Federal right flank from Seminary Ridge, instead. And Lee did not press the issue. The best that Lee could get was a commitment for a morning display against Culp's Hill.
When faced with insubordination by his officers in the attack, Lee (above) had acquiesced - even though by bringing on a "general engagement" east of South Mountain, they violated his orders, and risked his army. This evening, when presented face to face with similar disobedience to continue the attack, Lee gave in again. It was true that it was late, that Lee was tired, that he was ill and that he still had no word from General Stuart. But Lee allowed his subordinates to control the battle. The only general in the Army of Northern Virginia who did not disobey Lee at Gettysburg, was Lieutenant General James Longstreet.
The intransigence of Early left General Lee with no choice but to launch his main effort from Seminary Ridge, led by Johnson's division, and supported from 2 of Longstreet's I Corps divisions. Longstreet did not approve of the attack, but he did his best to execute it. These men were fresh, but it would take over half the day to move them into position. And the delay meant any demonstration against Culp's Hill would be over long before Longstreet's men threw themselves against Little Round Top and Cemetery Ridge, on the Federal left. Which meant that Federal commander George Gordon Meade could deal with the crises on his flanks one at a time.
As the 1959 "West Point Atlas of American Wars" explained, "Undoubtedly, Gettysburg was the lowest point of Lee's generalship. He was careless; his orders were vague; he suggested when he should have commanded...(he) had become enmeshed in a trap of his own making. He had invaded the North in the hope of winning a decisive battle, yet he had scattered his infantry across south-central Pennsylvania and had lost control of his cavalry. Now, with his army half concentrated, aggressive subordinates had plunged him into a major battle. He had won a partial success against a weaker enemy, but he did not know where the rest of the Union army might be."
Meanwhile, Meade had also turned the battle over to his subordinates, because he was 13 miles to the south at Tanytown, Maryland, still learning details of his army not shared by the bitter outgoing General Hooker. Upon learning the brilliant John Reynolds had been killed, and that the puritanical Howard had taken command of the battle, Meade immediately dispatched 40 year old Major General Winfield Scott Hancock to take charge at Gettysburg.
He was not next in line for command. But he was "Hancock the Superb" (above), "The Thunderbolt of the Army of the Potomac," and Meade trusted him to make the decision whether to stay at Gettysburg or withdraw to the Pipe Creek line. Hancock's presence stabilized the situation until after nightfall, when Major General Henry Warner Slocum arrived on Cemetery Hill, with his XII Corps camping 3 miles south.
Slocum outranked Hancock, and with his arrival at about 8:00 p.m., Hancock road back to Tanytown to report. Two hours earlier, with only the knowledge that two infantry corps had been defeated and badly injured, Meade had telegraphed General of the Army Halleck at the War Department, " I see no other course than to hazard a general battle". Unlike Lee, Meade (above, center) had inherited a large staff (above), some 6 General and 5 line officers. And he used them - most significantly Chief of Staff Major General Daniel Butterfield, Chief of Engineers Brigadier General Gouverneur Warren, Quartermaster Brigadier General Rufus Ingalls.
As Major Christian B. Meisel expressed in his 1995 paper for the USMC staff college, Meade's staff "...proved decisive in re-positioning supplies for the Army of the Potomac." Specifically, "...Rufus Ingalls (abve) worked closely with the commanding general to gain an understanding of his intent. He then...developed as simple a plan as possible with corps moving along different routes nearly simultaneously..." There would be no road blocks such as Johnson's rebel division encountered blocking the Cashtown Gap. Meade's Army of the Potomac arrived at the battle having wasted less effort to get there, with new supply depots established within reach of Gettysburg. All that had been arraigned by Ingalls and the other members of Meade's staff before Hancock got back to Tanytown.
Hancock arrived at about 10:00 p.m. and found Meade already packing up his headquarters staff for the move to Gettysburg. They left an hour later for Cemetery Hill, the logistics of a fight at Gettysburg already established. Lieutenant General George Gordon Meade walked into the little farmhouse back of Cemetery Hill (above) at about 2:00 a.m. on now 2 July, 1863
His lack of sleep over the previous 48 hours was obvious. General Schurz noted his "long-bearded, haggard face, his careworn and tired look." When assured by Generals Slocum, Howard, Doubleday and Dan Sickles that the position was strong, the grumpy google eyed Meade responded that he was glad to hear it, "since it was too late to leave."
In the light of the full moon, Meade (above) examined the Federal positions, and ordered modifications to strengthen the line. He took the time to reassure General Howard that he would suffer no discipline for the defeat that day. And he replaced General Doubleday with General Newton in command of I Corps - it was housekeeping for a General. And then he got a couple of hours sleep, to be ready for the Second Day at Gettysburg.
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