A LIFE OF GEN. ROBERT E. LEE.
BY JOHN ESTEN COOKE.
"Duty is the sublimest word in our language."
"Human virtue should be equal to human calamity." LEE. 1876
CHANCELLORSVILLE AND GETTYSBURG.
XVI. The Two Armies in Position
The morning of the 2d of July had arrived, and the two armies were in presence of each other and ready for battle. The question was, which of the great adversaries would make the attack.
General Meade was as averse to assuming the offensive as his opponent. Lee's statement on this subject has been given, but is here repeated: "It had not been intended to fight a general battle," he wrote, "at such a distance from our base, _unless attacked by the enemy_." General Meade said before the war committee afterward, "It was my desire to fight a defensive rather than an offensive battle," and he adds the obvious explanation, that he was "satisfied his chances of success were greater in a defensive battle than an offensive one." There was this great advantage, however, on the Federal side, that the troops were on their own soil, with their communications uninterrupted, and could wait, while General Lee was in hostile territory, a considerable distance from his base of supplies, and must, for that reason, either attack his adversary or retreat.
He decided to attack. To this decision he seems to have been impelled, in large measure, by the extraordinary spirit of his troops, whose demeanor in the subsequent struggle was said by a Federal officer to resemble that of men "drunk on champagne." General Longstreet described the army at this moment as able, from the singular afflatus which bore it up, to undertake "any thing," and this sanguine spirit was the natural result of a nearly unbroken series of victories. At Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and in the preliminary struggle of Gettysburg, they had driven the enemy before them in disorder, and, on the night succeeding this last victory, both officers and men spoke of the coming battle "as a certainty, and the universal feeling in the army was one of profound contempt for an enemy whom they had beaten so constantly, and under so many disadvantages."
[Footnote 1: Colonel Freemantle. He was present, and speaks from observation.] Contempt of an adversary is dangerous, and pride goes before a fall. The truth of these pithy adages was now about to be shown.
General Lee, it is said, shared the general confidence of his troops, and was carried away by it. He says in his report "Finding ourselves unexpectedly confronted by the Federal army, it became a matter of difficulty to withdraw through the mountain with our large trains; 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. A battle thus became in a measure unavoidable." But, even after the battle, when the Southern army was much weaker, it was found possible, without much difficulty, to "withdraw through the mountains" with the trains. A stronger motive than this is stated in the next sentence of General Lee's report:" _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." The meaning of the writer of these words is plain. The Federal troops had been defeated with little difficulty in the first day's fight; it seemed probable that a more serious conflict would have similar results; and a decisive victory promised to end the war.
General Meade, it seems, scarcely expected to be attacked. He anticipated a movement on Lee's part, over the Emmetsburg road southward. [Footnote: Testimony of General Meade before the war committee.] By giving that direction to his army, General Lee would have forced his adversary to retire from his strong position on Cemetery Hill, or come out and attack him; whether, however, it was desirable on General Lee's part to run the risk of such an attack on the Southern column _in transitu_, it is left to others better able than the present writer to determine.
This unskilled comment must pass for what it is worth. It is easy, after the event, for the smallest to criticise the greatest. Under whatever influences, General Lee determined not to retreat, either through the South Mountain or toward Emmetsburg, but marshalled his army for an attack on the position held by General Meade.
The Southern lines were drawn up on Seminary Ridge, and on the ground near Gettysburg. Longstreet's corps was posted on the right, opposite the Federal left, near the southern end of Cemetery Ridge. Next came Hill's corps, extending along the crest nearly to Gettysburg. There it was joined by Ewell's line, which, passing through the town, bent round, adapting itself to the position of the Federal right which held the high ground, curving round in the shape of a hook, at the north end of the ridge.
The Federal lines thus occupied the whole Cemetery Range--which, being higher, commanded Seminary Ridge--and consisted, counting from right to left, of the troops of Generals
Hancock, Sickles, Sykes, and Sedgwick; the two latter forming a strong reserve to guard the Federal left. The position was powerful, as both flanks rested upon high ground, which gave every advantage to the assailed party; but on the Federal left an accidental error, it seems, had been committed by General Sickles. He had advanced his line to a ridge in front of the main range, which appeared to afford him a better position; but this made it necessary to retire the left wing of his corps, to cover the opening in that direction. The result was, an angle--the effect of which is to expose troops to serious danger--and this faulty disposition of the Federal left seems to have induced General Lee to direct his main attack at the point in question, with the view of breaking the Federal line, and seizing upon the main ridge in rear. "In front of General Longstreet," he says, "the enemy held a position from which, if he could be driven, it was thought that our army could be used to advantage in assailing the more elevated ground beyond." In order to cooeperate in this, the main attack, Ewell was ordered at the same time to assail the Federal right toward Gettysburg, and Hill directed to threaten their centre, and, if there were an opening, make a real attack. These demonstrations against the enemy's right and centre, Lee anticipated, would prevent him from reenforcing his left. Longstreet would thus, he hoped, be "enabled to reach the west of the ridge" in rear of the Federal line; and General Meade afterward said, "If they had succeeded in occupying that, it would have prevented me from holding any of the ground which I subsequently held at the last"--that is to say, that he would have been driven from the entire Cemetery Range.
Such was the position of the two adversaries, and such the design of Lee, on the 2d of July, when the real struggle was about to begin.