Longstreet at Gettysburg on Day 1, Disputing the Lost Cause

General James Longsreet (CSA). Image Source: Wikipedia.

General James Longstreet commanded Confederate troops at the Battle of Gettysburg from July 1 to July 3, 1863. In the years following the battle and the Confederate loss in the war, Longstreet was criticized by his fellow officer, Jubal Early, and others who supported the idea of the South’s “Lost Cause” — a controversial theory that Secession and the war took place primarily to preserve State’s Rights.

Jubal Early, General
General Jubal Early (CSA). Image Source: Virginia Historical Society.

As part of the Lost Cause, the failures of General Robert E. Lee on the field of battle were generally blamed on his officers, such as Longstreet. Longstreet took great care to defend his position and his actions in the war, including his role in the Battle of Gettysburg.

Lonstreet’s essay, “Lee in Pennsylvania” was published in 1879 as part of The Annals of the War Written by Leading Participants North and South by Alexander K. McClure. 

As part of his essay, Longstreet recalls the events of the fateful first day of the Battle of Gettysburg. He also addresses accusations from Early and William N. Pendleton that he failed to attack when he was supposed to on the morning of July 2, which contributed to the Union victory.

In order to help readers scan and understand this portion of the essay, section headings have been added and minor text corrections have been made.

The Battle of Gettysburg — The First Day

July 1 — The Battle of Gettysburg Begins

On the morning of the 1st, General Lee and myself left his headquarters together and had ridden three or four miles, when we heard heavy firing along Hill’s front. The firing became so heavy that General Lee left me and hurried forward to see what it meant.

After attending to some details of my march, I followed. The firing proceeded from the engagement between our advance and Reynolds’ Corps, in which the Federals were repulsed. This…was totally unexpected on both sides.

Robert E Lee, 1864, Portrait
General Robert E. Lee (CSA). Image Source: Wikipedia.

July 1 — Lee Wonders What Has Become of Stuart

As evidence of the doubt in which General Lee was enveloped and the anxiety that weighed him down during the afternoon, I quote from General R.H. Anderson the report of a conversation had with him during the engagement:

General Anderson was resting with his division at Cashtown, awaiting orders. About ten o’clock in the morning he received a message notifying him that General Lee desired to see him. He found General Lee intently listening to the fire of the guns, and very much disturbed and depressed. At length, he said, more to himself than to General Anderson:

“I cannot think what has become of Stuart; I ought to have heard from him long before now. He may have met with disaster, but I hope not. In the absence of reports from him, I am in ignorance as to what we have in front of us here. It may be the whole Federal army, or it may be only a detachment. If it is the whole Federal force we must fight a battle here; if we do not gain a victory, those defiles and gorges through which we passed this morning will shelter us from disaster.”

JEB Stuart, Civil War General
General J.E.B. Stuart (CSA). Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Lee is Determined to Attack the Union Position on the High Ground

When I overtook General Lee, at five o’clock that afternoon, he paid, to my surprise, that he thought of attacking General Meade upon the heights the next day. 

I suggested that this course seemed to be at variance with the plan of the campaign that had been agreed upon before leaving Fredericksburg.

He said: “’If the enemy is there tomorrow, we must attack him.”

I replied: “If he is there, it will be because he is anxious that we should attack him — a good reason, in my judgment, for not doing so.”

Longstreet Recommends a Different Approach

I urged that we should move around by our right to the left of Meade, and put our army between him and Washington, threatening his left and rear, and thus force him to attack us in such position as we might select. 

I said that it seemed to me that if, during our council at Fredericksburg, we had described the position in which we desired to get the two armies, we could not have expected to get the enemy in a better position for us than that he then occupied; that he was in strong position and would be awaiting us, which was evidence that he desired that we should attack him.

I said, further, that his weak point seemed to be his left; hence, I thought that we should move around to his left, that we might threaten it if we intended to maneuver, or attack it if we determined upon a battle.

Battle of Fredericksburg, Union Soldiers Crossing the River
The Battle of Fredericksburg. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Longstreet Reminds Lee of Their Goal

I called his attention to the fact, that the country was admirably adapted for a defensive battle, and that we should surely repulse Meade with crushing loss if we would take position so as to force him to attack us, and suggested that, even if we carried the heights in front of us and drove Meade out, we should be so badly crippled that we could not reap the fruits of victory; and that the heights of Gettysburg were, in themselves, of no more importance to us than the ground we then occupied, and that the mere possession of the ground was not worth a hundred men to us. That Meade’s army, not its position, was our objective. 

General Lee was impressed with the idea that, by attacking the Federals, he could whip them in detail. I reminded him that if the Federals were there in the morning, it would be proof that they had their forces well in hand, and that with Pickett in Chambersburg, and Stuart out of reach, we should be somewhat in detail. 

George Meade, Civil War General
General George G. Meade (USA). Image Source: Library of Congress.

Lee Refuses to Abandon the Attack on the High Ground

He, however, did not seem to abandon the idea of an attack on the next day. He seemed under a subdued excitement, which occasionally took possession of him when “’the hunt was up” and threatened his superb equipoise. The sharp battle fought by Hill and Fwell on that day had given him a taste of victory.

From this point I quote General Fitzhugh Lee, who says, speaking of the attack on the 3rd: “…he was controlled too far by the great confidence he felt in the fighting qualities of his people, who begged simply to be ‘turned loose,’ and by the assurances of most of his higher officers.”

Lt William Henry Fitzhugh Lee, Civil War
General Fitzhugh Lee (CSA). Image Source: Library of Congress.

I left General Lee quite late on the night of the 1st.

Longstreet Says Lee Never Ordered Him to Attack at Sunrise

Speaking of the battle on the 2nd, General Lee says, in his official report: “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 difficulty to withdraw through the mountains with our large trains.”

When I left General Lee on the night of the 1st, I believed that he had made up his mind to attack, but was confident that he had not yet determined as to when the attack should be made. The assertion first made by General Pendleton, and echoed by his confederates, that I was ordered to open the attack at sunrise, is totally false.

Documentary testimony upon this point will be presented in the course of this article. Suffice it to say, at present, that General Lee never, in his life, gave me orders to open an attack at a specific hour. He was perfectly satisfied that, when I had my troops in position, and was ordered to attack, no time was ever lost.