The Battle of Gettysburg

During the summer of 1863, Lee decided to follow up a smashing May victory at Chancellorsville, Virginia, with an invasion of the North. The Confederate general hoped that by bringing the war into the Northern states, he could capture badly needed provisions (food and supplies) and create a surge of antiwar sentiment in the North. Lee knew that President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865; see entry) would not be able to continue the war against the South if he did not have the support of the Northern people.

Lee moved his Army of Northern Virginia into Pennsylvania. His army of seventy-five thousand troops was a dangerous one. But the extended absence of Lee's cavalry on a raid made it hard for him to obtain accurate information about enemy troop movements. As a result, the Confederate force nearly walked right into the Union's Army of the Potomac, a ninety thousand-man force led by General George Meade (1815-1872; see entry).

On July 1, the two armies finally came together in the vicinity of a village called Gettysburg. Neither side gained a big advantage during the afternoon. Instead, leaders of both armies maneuvered for the best possible strategic position. When the day's fighting was over, Lee gathered Longstreet and his other officers together to discuss their next move. Longstreet believed that the Union Army had managed to secure superior positions. Concerned that the rebels would be unable to push the Yankees (Northerners) from those positions, he urged Lee to leave the area and establish a strong defensive position elsewhere. "[Longstreet] reasoned that be-

cause a Confederate army was in Union territory, Meade . . . would be forced by political pressures to take the offensive to drive the enemy out of Pennsylvania," stated historian James M. McPherson in Civil War Journal. "So he recommended to Lee that they find a strong position, wait for the inevitable [unavoidable] Union attack, and then break it to pieces."

But Lee was confident that his army could win, and he disregarded Longstreet's advice. When it became clear that Lee intended to order a large-scale offensive on the Union defensive positions, Longstreet sulked and muttered his doubts about the plan to other officers.

On the following day, Lee ordered his troops forward in a large-scale assault on the Yankee enemy. Longstreet's performance during this attack has been a source of bitter debate ever since. Some historians contend that Longstreet was so mad at Lee that he deliberately did a poor job of leading his troops. But other historians believe that while Longstreet strongly disagreed with Lee's strategy, he did his best to fulfill his commander's wishes.

In any event, Lee's frontal assault of July 2 failed. But after retreating for the evening, Lee decided to attempt another offensive against the Union defenses the following day. Targeting a center of Union defenses called Cemetery Ridge, he told Longstreet to prepare his troops to lead the assault the next morning.

On the morning of July 3, Longstreet once again expressed deep reservations about Lee's plan. Noting that the open terrain in front of Cemetery Ridge offered no protection for his soldiers, he flatly predicted catastrophe. But when Lee refused to change his mind, Longstreet prepared his men for the assault. "Never was I so depressed as upon that day," he later wrote. "I thought that my men were to be sacrificed and that I should have to order them to make a hopeless charge."

As Longstreet had predicted, the attack on Cemetery Ridge ended in disaster for the Confederates. Led by a division of soldiers under the command of George Pickett— Longstreet's old comrade from the Mexican War— Longstreet's corps (a military division) made a heroic but doomed effort to break through the Union defenses. The Union cannons and rifles lined up along Cemetery Ridge cut

A military bridge near Knoxville, Tennessee. James Longstreet's attempt to overtake Union-occupied Knoxville failed. (Photograph by George N. Barnard. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

the advancing rebel force to pieces and brought Lee's dreams of Northern invasion to an end. "That day at Gettysburg was one of the saddest of my life," Longstreet later said.

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