Fateful Decision – Lee and Longstreet on July 3
In reporting the operations of the Army of Northern Virginia on July 3, General Robert E. Lee wrote that “The general plan was unchanged. Longstreet, reinforced by Pickett’s three brigades, which arrived near the battle-field during the afternoon of the 2d, was ordered to attack the next morning and General Ewell was ordered to attack the enemy’s right at the same time.” In short, Lee anticipated that his two corps commanders, Longstreet and Ewell, who respectively faced the left and right of the Union Army of the Potomac, would follow up the success they had won on July 2 and renew their attacks at daylight.
“This is disingenuous,” wrote General Longstreet in his 1896 memoir From Manassas to Appomattox. Longstreet claimed that Lee “did not give or send me orders for the morning of the third day, nor did he reinforce me by Pickett’s brigades for morning attack.” This statement has subjected Longstreet to great criticism over the years. First, it was not Lee’s responsibility to order up Pickett, it was Longstreet’s, and second, Colonel Edward P. Alexander, who commanded the reserve artillery in Longstreet’s First Corps (and would command all the artillery of the corps later that day), distinctly recalled visiting Longstreet’s headquarters on the night of July 2 and “was told that we would renew the attack in the morning . . . That Pickett’s division would arrive and would assault the enemy’s line. My impression is the exact point for it was not designated, but I was told it would be to our left of the Peach Orchard.” [Gary Gallagher, ed., Fighting for the Confederacy (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1989), 244]
It seems clear from Alexander’s testimony that Longstreet had orders but they were not to his liking. He had lost 4,000 men on July 2, and although they had inflicted heavy losses on the Federals and driven the Union left flank in nearly one half mile, they had failed to capture any of the key terrain held by the Army of the Potomac. During the night his scouts could hear Union soldiers stacking rocks for breastworks. Success in a renewed attack on this front seemed doubtful to Longstreet. So he cast about for a less expensive way to assail the Union left and later claimed that his scouts had discovered a “way by which we might strike the enemy’s left, and push it down towards his centre.” But the consequence of this was when daylight arrived Pickett’s division was not up and Longstreet was not prepared to attack. Yet, on Culp’s Hill the battle raged in full fury. [Longstreet, Manassas to Appomattox, 385]
At an early hour – no one recorded the time precisely but it was probably before 6 a.m. – General Lee mounted and rode with his staff to visit Longstreet, where he discovered – one thinks to his astonishment – that Longstreet was not only unprepared to attack but had developed a plan at odds with what Lee intended. The two generals and their staffs made their way forward, we think to the vicinity of the Peach Orchard, which provided them an excellent view of the Union center and left. The possible fate of the Confederacy rode on the outcome of this battle. Lee was determined to strike. Longstreet, impressed by the strength of the Union position, opposed a renewed attack. The plan that would emerge from this early morning meeting would decide the battle.
Now, 150 years later, at 6 a.m. (bring coffee!) on July 3 you can join rangers Matt Atkinson and Bill Hewitt in the Peach Orchard as they discuss the meeting of these two generals and how Lee arrived at his fateful decision to modify his July 3 plans and make a massive frontal assault upon the Union center, now known as Pickett’s Charge.
Parking – Park along North/South Sickles Avenue and United States Avenue. Do not park on Wheatfield Road. See the maps in the Commemorative Events Guide for these locations. http://www.nps.gov/gett/planyourvisit/150th-anniversary-index.htm. Field parking may be available weather dependent. The program will last one hour.
Pickett’s Charge Commemorative March
Did you have an ancestor who fought in Pickett’s Charge for the Union or Confederate army? Are you from one of the states represented in this climatic moment of the battle? Or, have you always wanted to walk the route the Confederate soldiers did, or stand on Cemetery Ridge where Union troops waited to receive the attack, at the same hour the attack took place. This summer, on the 150th anniversary of the attack, you can walk in the footsteps of those that lived this terrible and tragic event.
National Park Rangers assisted by volunteers and living historians, will lead groups representing each of the nine assaulting Confederate brigades in the mile long march. The rangers, volunteers and living historians will help each group form up in line of battle at approximately the same location the real brigade formed 150 years earlier. At the same time NPS rangers will assemble groups where men of Alexander Hays’, John Gibbon’s and Abner Doubleday’s Union divisions waited to receive the attack. The idea is there is somewhere for everyone to participate in this program. The Confederate march will entail a one mile walk, but the Union part of the program will have minimal walking
and should be fully accessible. On Cemetery Ridge, Rangers will conduct short programs about the Union defense. For the Confederate groups the interpretive experience will be the march itself; moving in line of battle, seeing the other groups moving about you, and walking in the footsteps of the men who made this march under the fire of shell, shrapnel and bullets.
At 3 p.m. we will have the artillery at our Living History camps fire as the signal for the march to commence. When the Confederate brigade groups reach Cemetery Ridge the march will stop for the playing of echo Taps which will conclude the event. It should last no longer than one hour.
Getting There: To join one of the Confederate groups we strongly encourage you to leave your car near the park Museum and Visitor Center, or at the National Cemetery North and South lots, or, if weather permits, at temporary grass lots we may open, and walk across the fields to the North Carolina or Virginia Memorial. This is a one mile walk. We will have clearly marked volunteers posted to direct you to whatever brigade group you wish to join. Each brigade will be marked by a flag. Pickett’s brigades will have blue flags with the name of the brigade on each. Pettigrew’s brigades will have red flags with the brigade name, and Trimble’s two brigades will have green flags with the brigade name. Students of the battle may wonder why we don’t have groups for Wilcox’s and Lang’s brigades. Although these brigades definitely participated in the attack they were support brigades and not part of the initial assault group. We only have rangers available to cover those nine brigades.
On the Union side there will be three ranger information tents on Cemetery Ridge where Hays’, Gibbon’s and Doubleday’s divisions were located. This is also where the programs on the Union defense will assemble.
Parking & Transportation – At 1 p.m. the park will begin running free shuttle buses that will make a limited number of runs from the Museum and Visitor Center to West Confederate Avenue; however, it is expected that these shuttles will only be able to carry a small percentage of those looking to participate in the walk. To access the shuttle, park at the Museum and Visitors Center complex and catch the shuttle bus at Visitor Center parking lot 3. The shuttle will also stop to pick up visitors at the National Cemetery North Lot. The shuttles will then take visitors to West Confederate Avenue and make shuttle stops at the North Carolina Monument and Virginia Memorial on Seminary Ridge. Shuttles will operate every 15-20 minutes until 2:45 p.m. There will be no transport of visitors back to West Confederate Avenue once the commemorative march is over. West Confederate Avenue will be open to only shuttle bus traffic after 1 p.m. No vehicles will be allowed south on West Confederate Avenue from Middle Street after 1 p.m.
Remember, for maps and details about our other 150th programs, you can download our Commemorative Events Guide on the 150th page on the park website at http://www.nps.gov/gett/planyourvisit/150th-anniversary-index.htm. Hard copies of the guide will be available upon request after June 1 at the ranger information desk in the Visitor Center.
We hope you can join us on July 3. It should be a memorable day.
D. Scott Hartwig