An Analysis of Lee’s Report on Gettysburg

[Note: this is a full section of Lee’s report from the Official Records as noted below.  That report is available in full in the pages section listed in the right hand column of this site.  This excerpt begins with the actual battle and ends at the close of the Battle.  Our commentary is in red.]

Lee’s Gettysburg Battle Report

[excerpted from Official Report in OR]

The leading division of Hill met the enemy in advance of Gettysburg on the morning of July 1. Driving back these troops to within a short distance of the town, he there encountered a larger force, with which two of his divisions became engaged. Ewell, coming up with two of his divisions by the Heidlersburg road, joined in the engagement. The enemy was driven through Gettysburg with heavy loss, including about 5,000 prisoners and several pieces of artillery. He retired to a high range of hills south and east of the town. The attack was not pressed that afternoon, the enemy’s force being unknown, and it being considered advisable to await the arrival of the rest of our troops.

Hill, and his subordinate Harry Heth, managed to disobey Lee’s strict admonition not to bring on a general engagement.

Orders were sent back to hasten their march, and, <ar44_308> in the meantime, every effort was made to ascertain the numbers and position of the enemy, and find the most favorable point of attack. 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.

Really?  They didn’t seem to be a problem on the way up to Pennsylvania.  Is Lee trying to cover his decision to stay? 

At the same time, the country was unfavorable for collecting supplies while in the presence of the enemy’s main body, as he was enabled to restrain our foraging parties by occupying the passes of the mountains with regular and local troops.

This is pure malarkey.  Lee’s men freely helped themselves of all the fruits of the local farmers, their kitchens, their smokehouses, their cold cellars and their orchards.  In fact so many men swept the cherry trees of their almost ripened fruit that many were periodically disabled by severe diarrhea.  Indeed, cherries might have affected Lee as well. 

 This, then, leaves open the question “Did the Army of Northern Virginia not bring enough food and provender?” 

Finally, Lee’s army controlled the mountain passes.  In other words, he is trying to justify his decision to stay and fight when he should have pulled back and invited attack by the Army of the Potomac…which is what he told Longstreet he wanted to accomplish. 

A battle thus became, in a measure, unavoidable.

Nonsense!  He was free to pull back at any time.  The only thing holding him in place was the fact that while he surrounded the enemy on three sides, he was also keeping open a route back to the main body for the wayward J.E.B. Stuart and his 5,000 men and horses and the food, provender and other supplies Stuart had captured.

Encouraged by the successful issue of the engagement of the first day, and in view of the valuable results that would ensue from the defeat of the army of General Meade, it was thought advisable to renew the attack.

For a man who made his chops as a scout and topographical engineer for Winfield Scott in Mexico, he had certainly lost his edge if he thought for one second that attacking Meade on the high ground was a risk worth taking when Meade enjoyed the advantage not just of elevation, but also of interior lines of communication. Longstreet knew instinctively that to attempt such an assault was a forlorn hope, the advantages held by Meade being too great even for the vaunted Army of Northern Virginia to overcome.  [Most historians say this was the cause of the tension between Lee and Longstreet on the second day.  Indeed, it was, at least in part…but that is for another discussion.]  Suffice it to say that Longstreet was depressed and angry at the thought of deliberately throwing away so very many good men on that forlorn hope. 

The remainder of Ewell’s and Hill’s corps having arrived, and two divisions of Longstreet’s, our preparations were made accordingly. During the afternoon, intelligence was received of the arrival of General Stuart at Carlisle, and he was ordered to march to Gettysburg and take position on our left.

And thus the last legitimate impediment to Lee’s withdrawal is gone…and yet he stays. 

A full account of these engagements cannot be given until the reports of the several commanding officers shall have been received, and I shall only offer a general description.

The preparations for attack were not completed until the afternoon of the 2d.

True. Longstreet was delaying, not because he was angry, but because he had an alternative to Lee’s wasteful frontal assaults on an enemy entrenched on high ground.  His scouts had found a way around the South side of Big Round top.  With his two divisions suddenly breaking out onto Taneytown Road, he could send McLaws north up Taneytown Road and Hood’s Division across the ground to Baltimore Street, sweeping in their path the artillery posted on Powers’ Hill from behind, and setting up a blocking force at the bridge over Rock Creek [with some help from the Powers Hill Artillery]. 

 [Note: The Union 6th Corps arrived about 6:00 in the evening of July 2nd.  That was just as the fight over Little Round Top was ending.  After their very rigorous march, the men stopped on Baltimore Street at the Rock Creek Bridge, removed their boots and bathed their aching feet in the creek.  They were of no use to anyone on July 2nd.  The  day-time fighting at Culps Hill was over, and whatever fighting any of Hill’s Corps did that day was long over.]

The enemy held a high and commanding ridge, along which he had massed a large amount of artillery. General Ewell occupied the left of our line, General Hill the center, and General Longstreet the right. In front of General Longstreet the enemy held a position from which, if he could be driven, it was thought our artillery could be used to advantage in assailing the more elevated ground beyond, and thus enable us to reach the crest of the ridge.

He is referring to the presence of Sickles Corps from the Peach Orchard on up the Emmitsburg Road. 

That officer was directed to endeavor to carry this position, while General Ewell attacked directly the high ground on the enemy’s right, which had already been partially fortified. General Hill was instructed to threaten the center of the Federal line, in order to prevent reinforcements being sent to either wing, and to avail himself of any opportunity that might present itself to attack. After a severe struggle, Longstreet succeeded in getting possession of and holding the desired ground.

One at a time here: 

  1. Ewell was unable to crack Culp’s Hill or Cemetery Hill.
  2. A. P. Hill’s effort to “threaten the center” is a post battle rewrite of events. Hill’s men failed miserably when Wilcox and Perry were defeated by the 1st Wisconsin, and some Artillery, and only Wright’s Georgia Brigade actually met with success – the only real success for the Army of Northern Virginia on July 2 – when he crested Cemetery Ridge, capturing several Artillery Batteries along the way, only to lose them when Alexander Webb’s Philadelphia Brigade sent Wright back to Seminary Ridge.
  3. The only thing Longstreet had any success with was McLaws’s Division’s assault on the Peach Orchard, the Rose Farm, and the Sherfy Farm, sending Sickles men running back to Cemetery Ridge.  So McLaws’ Division did gain some ground out along the Emmitsburg Road.

Ewell also carried some of the strong positions which he assailed, and the result was such as to lead to the belief that he would ultimately be able to dislodge the enemy. The battle ceased at dark.

No, it did not.  The only success Ewell had was when Meade pulled troops from the defenses on Culp’s Hill and sent them to the center of his line.  When Ewell’s men made a night assault, they found those Union positions on Culp’s Hill unoccupied, so they moved into them.  When the Union troops returned around 2 AM, there was a brisk fight –most of it hand-to-hand – to eject the Confederates from those Union positions, resulting in another failure for Ewell. 

These partial successes determined me to continue the assault next day.

Those partial successes were very slim pickings.  But Lee was now desperate for a victory to salvage the entire expedition into Pennsylvania.  He had no choice but to grasp at straws – or give in to Longstreet.  All he had left to fight with were Pickett’s Division, and most of A.P. Hill’s Corps. After their limited action on July 1st, Hill’s Corps had not really attempted much and accomplished far less than they should have.  [Was Hill’s Corps on Sick Leave like their Commander was?]  Of the 13 Brigades in his Corps, only three engaged the enemy on July 2nd.  The excuses of some were outrageous – tangled in an orchard?  How does a Brigade get tangled in an orchard?  Others simple turned around and went back to Seminary Ridge, but Fighting Billy Mahone was honest, at least.  He outright refused to comply with General Dick Anderson’s order to advance several times.

Pickett, with three of his brigades, joined Longstreet the following morning, and our batteries were moved forward to the positions gained by him the day before. The general plan of attack was unchanged, excepting that one division and two brigades of Hill’s corps were ordered to support Longstreet.

The enemy, in the meantime, had strengthened his lines with earthworks.

At this point, seeing all the Confederate artillery being lined up and aimed at the center of Meade’s line, it was quite obvious where the attack was aimed.  That gave Meade plenty of time to scrabble together extra help.

The morning was occupied in necessary preparations, and the battle recommenced in the afternoon of the 3d, and raged with great violence until sunset.

The battle at Cemetery Ridge was over by about 5 PM.  The Battle at East Cavalry Field was over by 6.  Sunset on July 3rd was well after 8 PM.  A minor detail, but significant alongside the other misstated claims.

Our troops succeeded in entering the advanced works of the enemy, and getting possession of some of his batteries,

“Some” meaning very few.  Perhaps two or three, and only for a short time, and the guns were not turned on the defenders, nor were they spiked.

but our artillery having nearly expended its ammunition, the attacking columns became exposed to the heavy fire of the numerous batteries near the summit of the ridge, and, after a most determined and gallant struggle, were compelled to relinquish their advantage, and fall back to their original positions with severe loss. <ar44_309>

Indeed it was a gallant struggle on both sides, and it was thousands of infantry that delivered the telling blow.  Shame on Lee for not crediting the enemy for anything.  But doing so would be an admission that his decision to stay was tactically incorrect.

The conduct of the troops was all that I could desire or expect, and they deserve success so far as it can be deserved by heroic valor and fortitude.

Except for Hill and his corps, who basically went against Lee’s strict admonishment not to bring on a general engagement [battle] on the first, and failed miserably at supporting Ewell and Hood by attacking the center of Meade’s line on the second.  On the 3rd, Hill’s men basically had no choice.

More may have been required of them than they were able to perform, but my admiration of their noble qualities and confidence in their ability to cope successfully with the enemy has suffered no abatement from the issue of this protracted and sanguinary conflict.

Indeed, far more was expected from them than they were able to perform. To Lee’s discredit, he failed to listen to his senior subordinate, General James Longstreet, who knew at the end of the first day that to stay and fight meant certain defeat; who knew that the only chance they had at victory was a slim one and depended on moving an attack force around the south end of Big Round Top to Taneytown road and Baltimore street to cut off any attempt at Union retreat; who knew how much of an advantage the ground gave the enemy, and how much of a disadvantage the ground gave the entire Army of Northern Virginia as Lee placed them.

Owing to the strength of the enemy’s position, and the reduction of our ammunition, a renewal of the engagement could not be hazarded, and the difficulty of procuring supplies rendered it impossible to continue longer where we were. Such of the wounded as were in condition to be removed, and part of the arms collected on the field, were ordered to Williamsport.


JUNE 3-AUGUST 1, 1863.–The Gettysburg Campaign.

No. 426.–Reports of General Robert E. Lee, C. S. Army, commanding Army of Northern Virginia.

Lee’s performance at Gettysburg was nothing like his performance at the Seven Days battles.  His treatment of Longstreet was reprehensible.  True, he had lost Jackson two months earlier and he could not rely on Ewell or Hill.  But Longstreet was a rock, steady, capable, and probably a better tactical judge of the ground than was Lee. [Lee’s success in Mexico as a topographical engineer for Winfield Scott was mostly comprised of finding a safe pathway to Mexico City from the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.]   This was a tactical appraisal by Longstreet, his senior commander.  Unfortunately, his trust of Longstreet vanished, while trust in Ewell was embodied by his lack of actually looking at the ground Ewell faced, doing so only once, and trust of Hill was voided by Hill’s illness.  Hill and Ewell were Virginians.

Longstreet was not a Virginian.  After Gettysburg, Lee sent Generals Iverson, and O’Neil, and their Brigades of non-Virginians, south to fight with Braxton Bragg, unworthy of a place in the Army of Northern Virginia.  Less than two months later, he sent Longstreet and his Corps to Bragg, minus Pickett’s Division of Virginians.

W. G. Davis

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About wgdavis

Mr. Davis is an historical researcher and NPS Volunteer living in the Gettysburg area.
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