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[52]

Gettysburg battle. [from the Richmond, Va., Dispatch, March 5, 1899 ]


Some literary facts connected Therewith. A question of great interest.

Discussed in the Light of some late Revelations—General Early's Theory—Many writers passed in Review—a myth.


By Henry Alexander White, Washington and Lee University.
At what hour on the morning of July 2, 1863, did General Longstreet's troops present themselves, in readiness for battle, on the Seminary Ridge in front of Gettysburg? Strange to relate, it has required a period of thirty-three years to question, and yet this question bears upon the point that is most essential, perhaps, in the entire discussion of Longstreet's part in that great struggle. The chief facts in the case are as follows:

So long as General R. E. Lee remained alive, no utterance in public fell from any Confederate officer's lips concerning the loss of the field of Gettysburg. On January 11, 1872, at the Washington and Lee University, General J. A. Early felt impelled to make reply to William Swinton's published criticism of General Lee's management of the battle. Swinton's strictures were based upon alleged private statements by Longstreet. Early's reply involved the charge that Longstreet himself was responsible for the repulse of the Confederate army at Gettysburg. In support of this charge, Early referred to a conference held by Lee, Ewell, Rodes and Early, late in the afternoon of July 1, 1863, and declared that Lee left that conference ‘for the purpose of ordering up Longstreet's corps in time to begin the attack at dawn next morning. That corps was not in readiness to make the attack until 4 o'clock in the afternoon of the next day.’ (Southern Historical Society Papers, December, 1877, page 284.) Early's statements were repeated in the Southern Magazinie, September-October, 1872. One year after Early's address— January 19, 1873—Dr. William N. Pendleton substantiated the charge against Longstreet by reciting Lee's personal statement, made in the [53] evening of July 1, 1863, that he had ordered Longstreet to attack ‘at sunrise the next morning.’ Dr. Pendleton's address was published in the Southern Magazine, December, 1874.

In November, 1877, Longstreet made answer by publishing in the Philadelphia Times a detailed account of the campaign and battle of Gettysburg. This article was reprinted in Southern Historical Society Papers (January-February, 1878). In this he denied that Lee gave him the order to attack at sunrise on July 2, 1863. To sustain his assertion, Longstreet published extracts from letters written by members of Lee's staff and members of his own staff, declaring that they had no knowledge of Lee's order. Among these extracts there was one from a letter written to Longstreet by Hood, who commanded the rear division in Longstreet's marching column as the First corps drew nigh to Gettysburg. As the quotation from Hood's letter plays an important part in the later stages of the discussion, we may pause here long enough to say that this letter itself, as cited by Longstreet, bore no date. The extract ran thus:

“I arrived with my staff in front of the heights of Gettysburg shortly after daybreak, as I have already stated, on the morning of the 2d of July. My division soon commenced filing into an open field near me, when the troops were allowed to stack arms and wait until further orders. A short distance in advance of this point, and during the early part of the same morning, we (Longstreet and Hood) were both engaged, in company with Generals A. P. Hill and Lee, in observing the position of the Federals. * * * General Lee was seemingly anxious that you should attack that morning. He remarked to me: ‘The enemy is here, and if we do not whip him he will whip us.’ You thought it better to await the arrival of Pickett's division, at that time still in the rear, in order to make the attack, and you said to me subsequently, while we were seated together near the trunk of a tree: ‘General Lee is a little nervous this morning. He wishes me to attack. I do not wish to do so without Pickett. I never like to go into a battle with one boot off.’ ” (Southern Historical Society Papers, January-February, 1878, page 79.)

Upon its face this note is rather indefinite as to the time of the conversation among the officers, the time proposed for the attack, and the time of the arrival of Hood's infantrymen. It is interesting to mark the significance attached to Hood's statement by Longstreet himself. He held that it completed his chain of evidence to disprove [54] the assertions in regard to the ‘rumored order for a sunrise attack.’ (Southern Historical Society Papers, January-February, 1878, page 79.)

Hood's statement, however, in Early's mind, was given a different interpretation. Early re-entered the lists, in the pages of the Southern Historical Society Papers, and cited Hood's letter as the last link in his chain of evidence to prove that Longstreet was ordered to make an attack in the early morning of July 2d. Hood's letter, said Early, indicated the partial execution of Lee's order in the actual arrival of Longstreet's troops upon Seminary Ridge between dawn and sunrise. ‘If there had before remained any doubt,’ wrote Early, ‘as to who was responsible for the failure to strike the blow at the proper time, the very clear and explicit statement by General Hood, which is a most valuable contribution to the history of the battle, would settle that doubt beyond dispute, I think. General Hood's statement furnishes information not before given in regard to the time of the arrival on the ground of Longstreet's troops, and renders it very certain that the orders for the attack to begin, were given very early in the morning, if not the night before.’ (Southern Historical Society Papers, December, 1877, page 269.) ‘Hood got up before sunrise, and he gives several circumstances tending to show that General Lee was anxious to make the attack at once.’ (Idem, June, 1878, page 280.) At the same time, Early set forth a detailed statement of the conference held after the close of the battle of July 1st; he expressed the opinion that Stuart and Ewell were not responsible for the loss of the field, and reiterated, as his final conclusion, the charge that Longstreet was responsible for the failure, because he was ‘so persistently averse to the attack and so 10th to take the steps necessary to begin it.’ (Idemn, December, 1877, page 291.) Early's conclusion is based apparently upon the following interpretation of Hood's note: That Hood's division, bringing up the rear of Longstreet's marching column, in obedience to Lee's previous command, actually arrived at Lee's headquarters in readiness for battle before sunrise; that Lee wished to make the attack upon the instant; that Longstreet's opposition to the plan of attack was made while the troops were thus at hand and ready for orders, and that in view of this opposition by Longstreet, General Lee delayed, and did not give peremptory orders to advance into battle until a much later hour—about 11 o'clock. (Idem, December, 1877, pages 291-292.)

At this point in his line of reasoning the thought evidently arose [55] in Early's mind that his conclusions were calculated to place General Lee's reputation in great jeopardy. If the reason for a disastrous delay of several hours duration was merely General Lee's deference to Longstreet's opposing opinion, what shall be said of Lee's capacity to carry out his own carefully-arranged plan of battle? Early's mind was too clear not to see this issue, and he faced it as follows:

“There is one thing very certain, and that is that either General Lee or General Longstreet was responsible for the remarkable delay that took place in making the attack. I choose to believe that it was not General Lee, for if any one knew the value of promptness and celerity in military movements, he did. It is equally certain that the delay which occurred in making the attack lost us the victory.” (Idem, December, 1877, page 293.)

This statement shows us that in the last analysis the gallant old soldier, General Early, was compelled to fall back upon his personal loyalty to General Lee and his personal knowledge of Lee's conduct upon other battle-fields to find vindication for Lee's management of the Confederate troops at Gettysburg.

The central truth, however, of the whole matter is that Early misinterpreted the fragment of Hood's letter. Early's chief premise was wrong and his conclusion was, therefore, entirely wrong. Early set forth his views in 1877-‘88. Since that time additional facts have come to the light to show that Longstreet's troops did not arrive on Seminary Ridge until long after sunrise on the morning of July 2d; that the difference of opinion between Lee and Longstreet was not matter for discussion one moment after the coming of the infantry of the First corps, and that Longstreet's subsequent delay on the right was perpetrated during Lee's tour of observation to the Confederate left wing.

The first instalment of fresh evidence concerning the time of the arrival of Longstreet's troops was published in the Southern Historical Society Papers for February, 1879, in the form of an address by General Lafayette McLaws. He had delivered a similar address as early as 1873. McLaws was in command of the advance division of Longstreet's men as they approached Gettysburg. By Longstreet's order McLaws went into camp on the western side of Willoughby Run after 12 o'clock in the night that followed July 1st. The head of his column was more than two miles from Lee's headquarters, on Seminary Ridge. McLaws wrote these words: ‘Some time after my arrival I received orders from General Longstreet to continue the march at 4 A. M., but the order was afterwards countermanded, [56] with directions not to leave until sunrise. The march was continued at a very early hour, and my command reached the hill overlooking Gettysburg early in the morning. Just after I arrived General Lee sent for me, as the head of my column was halted within a hundred yards of where he was, and I went at once and reported. General Lee was sitting on a fallen tree with a map beside him. After the usual salutation, General Lee remarked: “General, I wish you to place your division across this road,” pointing on the map to about the place I afterward went to’ (the Peach Orchard).

McLaws said further that ‘if the corps had moved boldly in position by 8 or 9 o'clock in the morning, as it could have done,’ the attack would probably have succeeded. (Southern Historical Society Papers, February, 1879, pages 68 and 76.)

Another fragment of testimony was added in the following year— 1880—when Hood's volume, entitled ‘Advance and Retreat,’ was issued from the press. This volume contained the entire letter from Hood, of which Longstreet had printed only an extract, and it now appeared that Hood made his statement concerning the time of the arrival of his troops ‘from memory,’ on June 28, 1875, twelve years after the morning of July 2, 1863. It may, at this point, be noted further that Hood's phrase concerning the time of the conversation held by Lee, Longstreet, Hill and Hood is this: ‘During the early part of the same morning;’ presumably before the arrival of Hood's troops.

In 1883 the Century Magazine began to publish an extended series of articles written by both Federal and Confederate actors in the great tragedy of Gettysburg. E. P. Alexander set forth the movements of the Confederate artillery on July 2d and July 3d, in such complete detail that all subsequent writers from that time forward could do nothing else than adopt his statements. Kershaw likewise told how he led a brigade of McLaw's division at the very head of Longstreet's column on the morning of July 2, 1863. (Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Vol. III, page 331.) These articles in the Century anticipated by a few years the publication of the official reports of the participants in the battle, in Volume XXVII of the official records.

Kershaw's report concerning the movements of his brigade on July 1st and afterwards, was thus set forth: ‘We marched to a point on the Gettysburg road, some two miles from that place, going into camp at 12 P. M. The command was ordered to move at 4 o'clock on the morning of the 2d, but did not leave camp until about sunrise. [57] We reached the hill overlooking Gettysburg with only a slight detention from trains in the way, and moved to the right of the Third corps, and were halted until about noon.’ (Official Records, Volume XXVII, Part II, page 366.)

E. P. Alexander's report states that his battalion of artillery ‘marched with the First corps, and accompanied it * * * to Gettysburg, Pa., where we arrived at 9 A. M. on July 2d.’ (Official Records, XXVII, Part II, page 429.) Captain O. B. Taylor, commanding a battery in Alexander's battalion, reports thus: ‘We arrived there (Gettysburg) about 10 A. M. July 2d.’ Idem, page 432.) It may be remarked in explanation that Alexander's battalion marched at the rear of Longstreet's column, and that it took a leading part in the battle of the 2d day of July. The Washington Artillery marched with Longstreet's troops. In 1885 appeared W. M. Owens's volume, entitled ‘In Camp and Battle with the Washington Artillery.’ On pages 243-4 we find this statement concerning the journey made on the morning of July 2, 1863: ‘After waiting until 2:30 A. M. for a clear road, began our march, and at 8 A. M. reported, ready for action, to General Longstreet on the field.’

An important word remained even yet unspoken. This came at last from the lips of General McLaws on April 27, 1896. He revised his former Gettysburg address-and read it before the Confederate Veterans' Association of Savannah on the date named. From that address I quote: ‘My division arrived at Willoughby Run, about four miles from Gettysburg, at 12 o'clock at night and camped there. During the night I received orders to march on at 4 A. M., but this was countermanded, and I was directed to be ready to move early in the morning. The sun rises about half-past 4 in the first days of July. * * * Not long after sunrise I moved forward, and before 8 A. M. the head of my division reached Seminary Ridge, where General Lee was in person. I was notified that General Lee wished to see me, and my command was halted and I reported to the General. * * * General Longstreet was walking up and down a little way off, apparently in an impatient humor. * * * General Longstreet joined us and said, pointing to the map and speaking to me, “General, I want you to place your division there,” drawing his finger along a line parallel to the Emmitsburg road. “No, General,” said General Lee, “I want his division perpendicular to the Emmitsburg road.” ’ (Addresses Savannah Veterans' Association, 1896, pages 68, 69.) [58]

Further light is thrown upon the matter by the reports of Wilcox. and Anderson, of Hill's corps. It was part of Lee's plan that this corps should occupy the Confederate centre on July 2d, and that Longstreet should bring his divisions upon the field immediately to the right of Hill. Anderson's division, however, was a mile and a half west of Gettysburg on the morning of July 2d (O. R., XXVII, Part II, page 613.) The brigade of Wilcox, Anderson's division, did not begin the advance movement until 7 A. M., and it was 9 A. M. when the brigade took its position in line of battle on Seminary Ridge. (Idem, page 617.)

These quotations furnish us a full explanation of Hood's indefinite letter, and show that Longstreet was delinquent in not hastening up his troops to Seminary Ridge as Lee had ordered; that those troops set forth from camp only after sunrise, were detained to some extent by Ewell's wagon train, and the head of the column reached Seminary Ridge when the sun was three or three and a half hours above the horizon. We learn, further, that the quasi-debate between Lee and Longstreet, as described in Hood's letter, took place before the troops stood in Lee's presence; that when the First corps arrived, about 8 A. M., Lee at once gave specific orders to the leading division commander, over Longstreet's head, as it were, and bade Mc-Laws lead his men into battle along the Emmittsburg road, from the Peach Orchard towards Gettysburg.

There is further evidence from Long, Venable and others, to show that Lee then rode away through the town of Gettysburg to consult with Ewell about the co-operation of the left wing with the right wing, which he had just ordered forward to the attack. At Ewell's headquarters Lee waited to hear Longstreet's guns. At noon he rode from beyond Gettysburg to Seminary Ridge to seek Longstreet, only to find that the latter had assumed authority to await the arrival of Law's brigade. This brigade came up about half-past 12 or 1 o'clock. Three hours were then consumed in finding a covered route to the Peach Orchard, where Longstreet's guns opened the battle about 4 P. M.

The above are the actual facts. On the other hand, however, General Early's untenable theory, set forth twenty years ago, has become the basis of a modern myth. Early's narrative with reference to that which he heard and saw on the evening of July 1st is of course accurate beyond all question. But when Early took the fragments of Hood's letter and fastened an erroneous interpretation upon it, due to his own lack of information, he laid the foundation of the [59] myth which many recent writers have asked us to accept. General Longstreet himself seems to have adopted the myth, for in his Memoir of the War, published in 1896, he asserts that the troops of McLaws and Hood reached Lee's headquarters at sunrise on the morning of July 2d (page 362). Newspaper and magazine articles have invited us to consider a supposed dramatic spectacle, alleged to have taken place on the morning of July 2d. The time contemplated by those who have developed this view is the hour between dawn and sunrise; the place, Seminary Ridge, with Cemetary Hill in full view. The mythical spectators, the troops of McLaws and Hood, stained with mud of an alleged night march. The chief actors, Lee and Longstreet. Lee's alleged opinion is that the troops ought to deliver battle at once; Longstreet remonstrates against the attack, and his argumentative opposition, we are told, leads to delay and consequently disaster. So runs this erroneous theory.

Reference must here be made to one writer, who published his views before Hood's letter became a part of the discussion. The Comte de Paris, as long ago as 1875, gathered into his bulky volumes all obtainable facts bearing upon the most minute movements of the Federal and Confederate troops in this entire campaign and battle. Some of his statements are wide of the truth, but upon the point here under discussion he bore this testimony: ‘Longstreet virtually disobeyed General Lee's wishes in not bringing his corps to Seminary Ridge until 8 o'clock on the morning of July 2d.’

The whole myth vanishes in the light of the statements made by McLaws, Kershaw, and the rest. The alleged spectacle of Lee's vacillation did not take place. The supposed spectators, the troops, were not present. In fact, they were just breaking camp beyond Willoughby Run after the hour of sunrise. The discussion between Lee and Longstreet was only a brief exchange of views, and it took place while those riflemen were still at a distance. Lee did not vacillate. He did not yield his judgment to Longstreet. The latter's fault was not argumentative opposition, but practical disobedience of orders. There were two separate acts in this disobedience. Neither of these was committed in Lee's presence. Both were perpetrated when Lee and Longstreet were far apart. Longstreet countermanded the order for the early march before he reached Lee's headquarters; later in the day he bade his divisions pause and wait for Laws' brigade, after Lee's departure to another post upon the field. In both cases Longstreet could advance the nominal excuse that he was only exercising the discretion usually accorded [60] to a corps commander in the absence of the general-in-chief. His use of that alleged discretion, together with the improvident use of the same prerogative on the part of Stuart, A. P. Hill and Ewell, combined together to inscribe Gettysburg in the annals of the Southern Confederacy as a lost field.

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