The Pesky Files of History: Lee vs. Longstreet, July 2, 1863

There was conflict between Longstreet and Lee on the 2nd. Most historians put this down to Longstreet’s attitude that this was not the place to conduct an attack as he is certain the Army of the Potomac will defeat them, while Lee suddenly got his blood up and decided to attack!

Maybe. Here is another idea about that.

The morning scout that was ordered by Lee for the early morning of July 2, 1863 was carried out by Captain Samuel R. Johnston, Lee’s Topographical Engineer, accompanied by Longstreet’s Topographical Engineer Major John J. Graham Clarke.  They were escorted by two cavalry, or more likely mounted infantry.

They traveled down the valley west of Seminary Ridge and its lower extremity Warfield Ridge, to a location where they could safely cross the Emmitsburg Road heading east toward their objective: Round Top Mountain. [It was thusly noted so in the Confederate letters written years after the war: Round Top Mountain].

They entered a farm, lane most likely to the Slyder Farm.  The Bushman Farm would have afforded them easier access to the water in Plum Run, and easier access to the trails at the south end of Big Round Top which led out to the Taneytown Road, but the Slyder farm field on the west flank of Big Round top offered them a view, which was what they were after.  Additionally the Slyder Farm lane presented a trail up the mountain to the field farmed by the Slyder Family and was a simpler, more direct way to get up onto the mountain. Because of the harvesting of timber in the area this field on the west flank of Big Round Top would have been visible from Emmitsburg Road, or the ridge-slope on the road’s west side.

When he returned to Seminary Ridge to report to General Robert E. Lee, he found Lee sitting on a log at the Seminary.

Here is where it gets interesting. Captain Johnston wrote at least four accounts of his morning scout in various letters after the war. Two were written around 1878 during the era of conflict between Jubal Early and James Longstreet, by seeking to find reason to excoriate Longstreet. [This open public conflict was the so called “Lost Cause Mythology” created by Jubal Early, Armistead L. Long, and others that blamed non-Virginian Longstreet for losing the war by losing the Battle of Gettysburg because — as they put it — he “had a case of the slows.”] Another was written in 1892. The remaining one has no date. We can say it was written in 1878 or later because it is written to Bishop Peterkin, who was consecrated a Bishop that year.

Johnston was consistent in his letters to various folks, most notably General Lafayette McLaws, who developed an animosity toward Longstreet during the war despite being a fellow Georgian, and William Peterkin who served in the 21st Virginia Infantry during the war, later serving as an Aide to General Pendleton.  Shortly after the war, Peterkin went to seminary and in 1877 was consecrated as a bishop effective in 1878. The connections are simple: Pendleton was an artillerist and Johnston conducted an evening scout with him on July 1st seeking advantageous artillery locations along Seminary Ridge and perhaps as far south as Warfield Ridge; Peterkin would have gone along as Pendleton’s aide; the next day Johnston [after making his early morning scout in the area of the Round Tops] led McLaws’ and Hood’s Divisions on the infamous march and countermarch by Longstreet’s two Divisions on the way to Warfield Ridge from which they launched their attack.

Johnston apparently took a lot of criticism for leading Longstreet’s men first up a road where they could easily be seen by the Union Signal Station on Little Round Top. Longstreet ordered a counter march to bring the men closer to Seminary Ridge before turning south after crossing Willoughby Run again. The result of the countermarch was leading McLaws’ Division up Millerstown Road from Willoughby Run only to have McLaws disgustedly exclaim “Aww <expletive deleted>” when he saw he was facing the bulk of Daniel Sickles Third Corps of the Army of the Potomac.

Johnston’s letters mostly dealt with explaining that he had been ordered by Lee to guide the head of Longstreet’s two divisions [McLaws and Hood], but had never gone over the ground, hence the first movement up a road where they could be discovered. After explaining this in great detail, he added a paragraph or two describing the morning scout on the 2nd, and how he returned to Lee at the Seminary where he found Lee sitting on the log with Ambrose Powell Hill on one side of Lee and Longstreet on the other – the three were sharing a map. He reported to Lee, Longstreet and A. P. Hill about his scout, and when asked where he had gone he pointed to the map that Lee is holding in his lap and puts his finger on Little Round Top. Lee asks him what he saw there, and Johnston reports he saw no sign of the enemy.  [We find out later that there was a Division of the Union Army camped on and around Little Round Top. Obviously, Johnston was not there. Hence the alternative of his being in the Slyder family field up on a ridge along the west side of Big Round Top becomes more likely. It is the only other place on either elevation that would allow him a view of the surrounding area.]

In three of his letters, he writes what the above narrative describes. In the fourth [the undated letter to Bishop Peterkin] there appears an anomaly: when he gives his report to Lee on his return from the scout, he follows that by writing, “Major Clarke I suppose reported to General Longstreet.”

Why the anomaly? It may be a minor point but it puts us on the horns of a dilemma:

If Captain Johnston reported to Lee by pointing to a map indicating he was on Little Round Top, and at the same time Major Clarke was reporting to General Longstreet some distance away, then another possibility arises. Remember there were two escorts on that scout. If they were indeed in that Slyder Family field on Big Round Top, then those escorts could have gone out to Taneytown Road to see what was out there as there were trails leading around the south base of Big Round Top. Perhaps they saw a Union artillery park, or men in blue marching or having breakfast along the road.

Could it be that while Johnston actually pointed to Little Round Top on the map, Clarke was telling Longstreet what his escort saw out along Taneytown Road?  If so, then with Lee and Longstreet believing they both got the same report when in fact they got different reports it could be an additional reason for them to have been at loggerheads all day on the 2nd beside Longstreet not wanting to fight at Gettysburg.

Finally, Hood wrote a letter to Longstreet in the 1870s saying he sent scouts out to confirm the path around the south side of Big Round Top was clear BEFORE reaching Warfield Ridge; until then, Hood had no opportunity to see and gauge the ground or have any idea what it was like. His knowledge that allowed him to know about Taneytown Road and an artillery unit along it could only have come from the morning scout by Captain Johnston and Major Clarke and the two escorts.


Information extracted from the letters of Samuel R. Johnston collection at the Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, Virginia.

W. G. Davis

About wgdavis

Mr. Davis is an historical researcher and NPS Volunteer living in the Gettysburg area.
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2 Responses to The Pesky Files of History: Lee vs. Longstreet, July 2, 1863

  1. Ralph Siegel says:

    Any chance of obtaining a copy of those exact Johnston letters?

  2. wgdavis says:

    Thanks for inquiring, Ralph. I would suggest you contact the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond. That’s where I got my copies during a visit there. There might be a minor fee.

    W. G. Davis

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