Camp-Fires of General Lee, by Edward S. Ellis, Chapter 29

Camp-Fires of General Lee


THE struggle on the afternoon of July 1 had been severe, but it was only the prelude of what was to come.

On the night following this grand opening General Meade brought up the remainder of his army (excepting the Sixth Corps, which was on its way from Manchester) and posted it on Cemetery Ridge. The right, consisting of Slocum’s corps the (Twelfth) and Wadsworth’s division of the First Corps, held Gulp’s Hill; the centre, composed of Howard’s Eleventh Corps and Robinson’s and Doubleday’s division of the First Corps, were on Cemetery Hill; the left, including Hancock’s Second Corps and Sickles’s Third Corps, were posted along Cemetery Ridge; while Sykes’s Fifth Corps was in reserve on the right, and Sedgwick had not yet arrived. This line of battle, as will be perceived, following the line of the ridge, partook of the form of a horseshoe facing northward toward Gettysburg. It was a grand position, and was held by one hundred thousand men and two hundred guns.

On the same evening that the Federals assumed this line the Confederates occupied Gettysburg and the country to the east and west. Ewell was on the left, and held the town; Hill’s corps took possession of Seminary Ridge, thus confronting the centre and left of the Federal line on Cemetery Ridge; while Pickett’s division, which did not arrive until the morning of the 3d, were posted on the right of Hill, in front of Round Top.

Here, again, we reach a point where General Lee has been severely criticised for his course of action. It is plain to all that the Federal position was almost, if not quite, impregnable in its strength; it certainly was as strong as was Fredericksburg when Burnside launched the brave Army of the Potomac against it. Why, then, when Lee was far removed from his base of supplies, did he attack his powerful and strongly-entrenched adversary. Lee himself refers to the question as follows: “It had not been intended to fight a general battle at such a distance from our base unless attacked by the enemy, but, finding ourselves unexpectedly confronted by the Federal army, it became a matter of great difficulty to withdraw through the mountains with our large trains. At the same time, the country was unfavorable for collecting supplies while in the presence of the enemy’s main body, as he was occupying the passes of the mountains with regular and local troops. A battle thus became, in a measure, unavoidable. Encouraged by the successful issue of the engagement of the first day, and, in view of the valuable results that would ensue from the defeat of the army of General Meade, it was thought advisable to renew the attack.” There is more in the foregoing words than appears at first sight. A strong factor in the arguments which led Lee to renew the attack was the unbounded confidence of his soldiers. When they recalled Manassas, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and the Wilderness, they could not be blamed for their faith in their own superiority over their adversaries—a faith which doubtless amounted to a contempt for them; and it is not at all unlikely that Lee himself felt it to a less degree, though it cannot be said he despised his enemy. The courage and self-confidence of the Confederate army were so strong that battle could not be denied them.

The 2d of July dawned bright and clear and with the armies confronting each other in their new positions. Most of the day was spent in adjusting the troops, so that it was not until quarter to five in the afternoon that Lee opened the attack. The result of his careful reconnaissances was the decision that the left and left centre of the Federal line was the proper point of attack. This was held by Sickles’s corps, and was opposite Longstreet. It was at this point that General Sickles committed a serious indiscretion which threatened grave consequences. Directly in front of him the ridge was not clearly defined, but several hundred yards farther on the elevation becomes considerable. Fearing the consequences of the seizure of this ridge by the Confederates, he seized it himself. He meant well enough, but he was mistaken in judgment. “Though to a superficial examination the aspect of this advanced position seems advantageous, it is not really so, and, prolonged to the left, it is seen to be positively disadvantageous. It affords no resting-place for the left flank, which can be protected only by refusing that wing and throwing it back through low ground toward Round Top; but this, in turn, presents the danger of exposing a salient in a position which, if carried, would give the enemy the key-point to the whole advanced line.”*

General Lee was quick to detect the blunder of Sickles, and he directed Longstreet to attack at once; for he understood the value of the position in the main struggle to follow. It was a quarter to five, therefore, when Longstreet opened a heavy cannonade upon Sickles, in which Ewell, on the left, speedily joined. Under cover of this cannonade Hood’s division charged against Sickles’s left, which curved back from a peach-orchard along the Emmettsburg road toward Round Top. Attacking sharply, Hood swung around to the right, and, unperceived by Sickles, shoved his right wing in between his extreme left and Round Top. And there and then took place one of those incidents which no human prescience can foresee, and which, apparently unimportant in themselves, are the source of tremendous results.

At the time Hood was assailing Sickles, Little Round Top was comparatively undefended, and yet it was the key-point to the whole Federal line. Had Hood suspected the truth, he would have taken possession of it with a rush. Still, seeing the importance of the position, he cautiously worked his way toward it with a part of his division, and was certain to secure it unless some extraordinary obstacle presented itself. That obstacle appeared at the most critical moment. At the time of the attack, General Warren, chief-engineer, and his officers were using Little Round Top for signalling-purposes, when, seeing that the quarters were likely to become very warm, they began gathering up their flags to leave; but Warren, understanding the imperative necessity of holding the hill, told them to make a show of occupancy by waving their flags while he cast about him for some force to bring to the spot. It happened just then that Barnes’s division was passing on ifs way to reinforce Sickles. Warren assumed the responsibility of detaching a brigade, with which he hurried back to position, dragging, with great labor, a battery up the hill. All this was done while Hood’s men were advancing, and they now charged gallantly. The fight was hand to hand and of the most desperate character, but the Texans were repulsed; they clung, however, to the rocky glen at the base of the hill, and, resolutely pushing their way up the ravine between the Round Tops, turned the left Federal flank, but only to be driven out by a fierce charge with the bayonet, Meanwhile, Hood had hurled his left against Sickles’s centre, and McLaws’s division was sent to his support. Sickles speedily found himself so hard pressed that he called for reinforcements, and three brigades were sent him; but even with their help he was unable to hold his position. Longstreet, concentrating upon his exact centre, near the peach-orchard, succeeded in breaking through, drove back the Federals and secured the key-pints to Sickles’s advanced line, thus proving the error committed by that officer in making the movement before the battle. The Federals tried again and again to regain the orchard, but Longstreet repulsed them each time with great slaughter. As Longstreet continued pushing forward, another division was brought up, and assailed him just as he reached a wheatfield and fringe of woods on the west side of Plum Run. The Federals, in turn, were gaining, when Hood, having carried Sickles’s left, appeared on the right of the peach-orchard. Ayres’s division of regulars was advanced to meet him, but he forced his way through an opening between Caldwell’s left and Ayres’s right, and doubled both divisions back on their main line, at Cemetery Ridge. Sickles’s left had fared ill, and his centre now became the target of the Confederates. A. P. Hill suddenly assailed Humphreys’s division (constituting Sickles’s right wing) with Anderson’s division. Humphreys was speedily driven back, and the whole advanced position of Sickles fell into the possession of the Confederates, Sickles himself being disabled and losing a leg. But, despite the brilliant work of the Confederates, the main line of the enemy had not been broken. There was scarcely any hope for Longstreet, though his exuberant men pushed on and soon reached Cemetery Ridge, where General Hancock repulsed their attack. Night was now close at hand, and Longstreet withdrew his men to the western verge of the wheatfield, where they remained till morning.

Ewell, as ordered by Lee, had made an assault on the Federal right centre, at Cemetery and Gulp’s Hill. The design was to prevent his enemy sending reinforcements to the left, where Longstreet was pounding with such vigor; but Ewell was so delayed that he did not attack until sunset. With Early’s division on his right and Johnson’s on his left, Ewell dashed forward in the face of a heavy artillery-fire, charged up the slope, and in a short fierce struggle drove out the Federal artillerists and infantry, whose works at nightfall remained in the hands of the Confederates. If he could retain his grip throughout the next day, it would enable General Lee to take Meade’s entire line in reverse.

Thus closed the second day with matters in an unsatisfactory shape for both sides. Lee had not succeeded, nor had he failed; he had gained some important advantages, but the Federal main line remained substantially intact Longstreet had not accomplished what was intended, though he occupied strong ground and had forced Sickles from his advanced position. Lee had sought to drive the Federals from Cemetery Ridge, but found himself unable to do so, though he had pushed back the right and left and gained considerable advantage. It was the hairbreadth mischance by which the Confederates failed to seize Round Top Hill which prevented the complete success of Lee’s movement in that direction.

The losses during the first two days in July were appalling, amounting to more than twenty thousand men on each side; among these were many of the best officers, either killed or wounded. General Barksdale was in the hands of the Federals, mortally wounded, while the tidings from the sanguinary field threw hundreds of homes in both North and South into mourning.

While this terrible fighting was going on, General Lee, it need scarcely be said, attentively watched every part of the field. “In company with General Hill, he occupied during the battle his former position on Seminary Ridge, near the centre of his line, quietly seated, for the greater portion of the time, upon the stump of a tree and looking thoughtfully toward the opposite heights, which Longstreet was endeavoring to storm. His demeanor was entirely calm and composed; an observer would not have concluded that he was the commander-in-chief. From time to time he raised his field-glass to his eyes, and, rising, said a few words to General Hill or General Long of his staff. After this brief colloquy he would return to his seat on the stump and continue to direct his glass toward the wooded heights held by the enemy. A notable circumstance, and one often observed on other occasions, was that during the entire action he scarcely sent an order. During the time Longstreet was engaged—from a little before five until night—he sent but one message and received but one report. Having given full directions to his able lieutenants and informed them of the objects which he wished to attain, he, on this occasion as upon others, left the execution of his orders to them, relying upon their judgment and ability.”*

On the night succeeding the second day’s battle Lee held a council of war with his leading officers; the great question discussed was whether the attack should be renewed on the morrow or whether they should fall back toward the Potomac. Weighty reasons could be adduced for either course. The Confederate supplies, including ammunition, were running low and the army had lost severely. All seemed to feel that the fate of the Southern Confederacy rested on the bayonets of the Army of Northern Virginia, and the defeat of one was the doom of the other. On the other hand, the success of Lee, while not decisive, was encouraging, and the splendid army of veterans was unshaken in spirit and determination. In the words of J. E. Cooke, “the issue of the second day had stirred up in Lee himself all the martial ardor of his nature, and there never lived a more thorough soldier, when he was fully aroused, than the Virginian. All this soldiership of the man revolted at the thought of retreating and abandoning his great enterprise. He looked, on the one hand, at his brave army, ready at the word to advance again upon the enemy—at that enemy, scarce able on the previous day to hold his position—and, weighing every circumstance in his comprehensive mind, which ‘looked before and after,’ Lee determined on the next morning to try a decisive assault upon the Federal troops, to storm, if possible, the Cemetery Ridge, and at one great blow terminate the campaign and the war.”


* Swinton.

* J. E. Cooke.

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