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General Lee and the battle of Gettysburg. [from the Richmond Dispatch, December 8, 1895.]

He planned to fight there.

The concentration of his Forces—One mind directed All—Closing scenes of first Manassas—He kept his word.

There is a popular impression throughout the country that the meeting of the two armies at Gettysburg was in large measure an accidental collision. Jefferson Davis, in his ‘Short History of the Confederate States,’ says the position was not the choice of either side for a battle-field. The very general belief prevails, also, especially at the South, that the concentration of the Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg was brought about by mere chance, and was not part of a deliberate plan of the Confederate commander predicated upon his enemy's movements. This is a strange error concerning a very important matter, and all the more remarkable because such a view must inevitably lead to the conclusion that the Southern invading force was aimlessly drifting about in the heart of the enemy's country without guidance or definite purpose, and to that extent reflects upon General Lee's capacity as a commander. This aspect of the manner and its bearing upon General Lee's reputation as a soldier, of course, has not been considered by those of his admirers who pertinaciously cling to the fallacious accident theory.

As a matter of fact, there was not the remotest element of chance in Lee's march on Gettysburg, as I will presently show. The error had its origin, I believe, in a circumstantial and interesting story connected with the advance of General Harry Heth's Division, which story has gone the rounds of the clubs and the public prints of the [254] country for years, and finally lodged in various pretentious historical works, as the simple yet authentic explanation of how the entire Confederate army was by an unlucky accident drawn down to Gettysburg to meet the Federals, who were also there by accident.

General Heth's story.

The story, as told me by General Heth himself, is that his division, the advance of General A. P. Hill's Corps, moving from Chambersburg, along the Cashtown pike, bivouacked in the vicinity of Cashtown on the 30th of June. Having learned that a much-needed supply of shoes could be obtained in the town of Gettysburg, a few miles further down the pike, General Pettigrew, one of Heth's brigade commanders, asked permission to march into the village and secure the shoes, which he was ordered to do, there being no suspicion that the Federals were anywhere in the vicinity. But when General Pettigrew arrived before Gettysburg he unexpectedly found himself confronted by considerable Federal force, with artillery. This was General John Buford's Cavalry Division, but Pettigrew appears to have mistaken it for an infantry force. Not desiring to assume the responsibility of precipitating an engagement without orders, Pettigrew quickly fell back on the main force near Cashtown.

Thereupon, with the approval of General Hill, Heth concluded to lead his entire division to Gettysburg the next morning, and thus make sure of securing the shoes for his barefooted soldiers, still under the impression that the town was probably defended by no more than a small militia force. Accordingly the movement of Heth's Division was initiated early on the morning of the 1st; but instead of meeting irregular militia, Heth at once came in contact with Buford's Cavalry, deployed in front of Gettysburg, and covering the road from Cashtown, which he stubbornly defended, compelling the Confederates to deploy into line and advance with caution. Buford was soon relieved by the Union First corps of infantry, under General John F. Reynolds, and a murderous battle ensued, in which both sides lost several thousand men killed and wounded. Reynolds was killed and Heth wounded very early in this terrific combat. General Hill ordered forward Pender's Division to the support of Heth, who had been roughly handled, and later Rodes's and Early's Divisions came up, while the Union force was augmented by the timely arrival of Howard's Eleventh Corps. And thus the Battle of Gettysburg began.


Earnest in his conviction.

This is General Heth's version of the concentration. In short, that General Lee was compelled by his fight to send forward first one division, then another, until, finally, the entire army was brought to the vicinity of Gettysburg by nightfall of the 1st. General Heth is very earnest in his conviction that his chance effort to capture some shoes for his troops resulted in bringing on the greatest collision of the civil war. Other ex-Confederates, of equally high rank and intelligence, implicitly accept this version. That so trivial an affair, involving so unimportant a segment of the invading force, should result in such a tremendous, far-reaching catastrophe must naturally have strong fascination for a sentimental people, and by process of evolution the Heth episode has fastened upon the popular fancy as the accidental cause of the Confederate concentration at Gettysburg.

Understand me; there is no doubt whatever about the details of General Heth's story; so far as events go, he tells the literal truth. He is only mistaken in his conclusions. We know that Pettigrew did go down after the shoes, and returned empty-handed; we know that Heth advanced the next morning with his whole division for the same purpose, and, as he supposed, with no other object than the pursuit of that purpose; and we know that Heth precipitated the battle. But he and all others are egregiously mistaken in supposing that this simple shoe-raid caused the whole Confederate army to converge on Gettysburg.

A man of General Lee's consummate knowledge of the science of war was not one to march and countermarch in the presence of an enemy's army without aim or object other than the support of mere outpost affairs. It is not only proper, but highly important, that this peculiar fiction should be corrected, lest it crystallize into so-called history. It is clearly demonstrable that the concentration of General Lee's army on the 1st of July, 1863, was no more the result of chance or accident than the original invasion.

Distribution of troops.

In the first place, the distribution of the various divisions of the Confederate army previous to the battle is totally inconsistent with this theory of accident in the concentration at Gettysburg. On the 28th of June General Early's Division of Ewell's Corps was in the vicinity of York, some thirty miles east of Gettysburg; the divisions [256] of Generals Edward Johnson and Rodes were at or near Carlisle, about thirty miles directly north of that town, while Heth's and Pender's and the other divisions of the army were in and about Chambersburg, nearly thirty miles to the westward. Thus Early and Heth were fully sixty miles apart, on an almost direct line east and west, with Gettysburg midway between, but somewhat to the southward. A study of the situation will make it clear to the merest tyro in logistics that if their march was the result of mere chance it was a most singular circumstance, indeed, that the four converging divisions—Heth and Pender, from the west; Early from the east, and Rodes from the north—should all arrive opportunely on the field of Gettysburg between the hours of 9 A. M. and 12 noon, in time to successfully support each other in a contest with the Union First and Eleventh corps. There can be no other conclusion than that they and the rest of the Confederate army had been moving toward one common centre, under the impulse of a single mind previously given.

But it is hardly necessary to argue the point to dispose of this question. There can be no dispute about it; it is settled by General Lee himself beyond all controversy, and it is surprising that his statements have been so long overlooked. In the last days of June a scout of General Longstreet's, who had passed through Washington, and subsequently the Union army, arrived at General Lee's headquarters, in Chambersburg, with the information that Hooker's entire force had crossed the Potomac, and was moving northward, imperilling the Confederate communications with the South. This made necessary the immediate drawing in of the widely-sundered Confederate divisions.

Changed his mind.

It is evident, on receiving this disturbing information that General Lee's first impulse was to bring Ewell back and concentrate at Chambersburg, west of the mountains, but, after studying the situation twelve hours, and, perhaps, upon better information, he changed his mind, and concluded to cross to the east side of the South mountain range and take position at Gettysburg—a strategic position of great importance because of the many excellent turnpike roads which radiate therefrom. At Gettysburg he would not only occupy an excellent position from which to fall back toward the Potomac, if found necessary to deliver or receive battle; one safely covering his line of communications, but one threatening both Washington and Baltimore, [257] as well. He thereupon sent to General Ewell, at Carlisle, the following order, found on page 943, Part 3, Volume XXVII, of the War Records.

headquarters army of Northern Virginia, Chambersburg, June 28, 1863.
Lieutenant-General R. S. Ewell, Commanding Corps.
General,—I wrote you last night, stating that General Hooker was reported to have crossed the Potomac, and is advancing by way of Middletown, the head of his column being at that point, in Frederick county. I directed you in that letter to move your forces to this point. If you have not already progressed on the road, and if you have no good reason against it, I desire you to move in the direction of Gettysburg via Heidlersburg, where you will have a turnpike most of the way, and you can thus join your divisions to Early's, which is east of the mountains. I think it preferable to keep on the east side of the mountains. * * * *

R. E. Lee, General.

I do not think this feature—the first order mentioned in the above for Ewell to retire from Carlisle on Chambersburg—has ever been noticed by historians. General Ewell, ‘having no good reason against it,’ on receipt of this order at once headed the divisions of Rodes and Johnson towards Gettysburg. General Early, at page 467, Part 2, Volume XXVII, War Records, notes the receipt at York, through General Ewell, of a copy of the foregoing order of General Lee, with verbal instructions to move back, and began his march toward Heidlersburg, to join the other divisions at daylight on the 30th. On the 28th Hill's Corps, from the vicinity of Chambersburg, had stretched out on the road to Gettysburg, and that evening was encamped near the town of Fayetteville, about eight miles east of Chambersburg. General Hill reports that he was directed to co-operate with Ewell, and, ‘accordingly, on the 29th, moved General Heth's Division to Cashtown, some eight miles from Gettysburg, following on the morning of the 30th with the division of General Pender.’ General Longstreet reports that he received orders at Chambersburg on the 29th to follow Hill and encamp at Greenwood.

Meanwhile the advancing Federals, moving northward more rapidly under their new commander, General Meade, than anticipated by the Confederate chieftain, had occupied the town of Gettysburg, [258] and thus interposed—though unaware of the fact—to prevent the concentration of his armies at that point without a battle. And to accomplish his original design, and finding the enemy before him, General Lee elected to fight; his remaining divisions were hurried forward as rapidly as possible; the Federals, perceiving that the crisis was at hand, pushed forward to the conflict, and the great battle of Gettysburg followed, as naturally and certainly as powder will explode when the match is applied. It was in no wise the result of chance, at least, in respect of the Confederate preliminary movements.

Finally, in his various letters and reports concerning the Gettysburg campaign, General Lee several times alludes to his conclusion and the reason as well as the order for this concentration at Gettysburg. I make the following extract from his official report, found at page 305, Part 2, Volume XXVII, War Records.:

headquarters army of Northern Virginia, July 31, 1863.
General S. Cooper, Adjutant and Inspector-General, Richmond, Va.:
General,—* * * Preparations were now made to advance upon Harrisburg, but upon the night of the 28th information was received from a scout that the Federal army, having crossed the Potomac, was advancing northward, and that the head of the column had reached the South mountain. As our communications with the Potomac were thus menaced, it was resolved to prevent his further progress in that direction by concentrating our army on the east side of the mountains. Accordingly, Longstreet and Hill were directed to proceed from Chambersburg to Gettysburg, to which point General Ewell was also instructed to march from Carlisle. * * *

Respectfully submitted,

R. E. Lee, General.

Moving in unison.

This formal statement by General Lee made at the time, together with various orders and movements detailed in the foregoing, all compiled from official and perfectly reliable sources, determine conclusively that all the divisions of the Confederate army were moving in unison, like a huge machine, toward a common centre, and with [259] a common object, propelled by the comprehensive mind of its commanding general, who had and was following out a definite plan of operations, evolved as early as June 28th, when he first received information that the Union army had crossed the Potomac and was advancing, and were not set in motion by a temporary impulse growing out of a trivial raid for shoes at Gettysburg on the morning of July 1st. That was merely an incident in the concerted movement of a great army.

Leslie J. Perry. Washington, December 1, 1895.

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