- The Washington Times - Friday, November 5, 2004

Gen. Robert E. Lee observed the climactic third day of the Battle of Gettysburg from his command post on Seminary Ridge. As the broken remnants of Gen. George E. Pickett’s division streamed back to the Confederate lines, Lee rode out to meet them.

He went among the weary soldiers, re-forming some, encouraging others. “It is all my fault,” Lee told one brigadier. “It is I who have lost this fight.”

But what did Lee really think?

His acceptance of responsibility was hardly a considered reflection on what had gone wrong in the battle; rather, it was his way of saying that his soldiers had not let him down. Objective analysis would be years away.

Lee had to be careful in his communications with Richmond, for the substance of his dispatches became common knowledge in the Confederate capital.

He could hardly tell President Jefferson Davis that his army had suffered a disaster, if only because of the effect that such a report would have on Southern morale.

When Pickett submitted a report on Gettysburg that was harshly critical of the failure of other units to support his division, Lee ordered the report suppressed.

Not until January 1864 did Lee submit a final report on his operations of the previous year. In it, Lee attempted to explain why he had continued at Gettysburg a battle that had developed unexpectedly:

“I had not intended to deliver a general battle so far from our base unless attacked, but coming unexpectedly upon the whole Federal Army [sic], to withdraw through the mountains with our extensive trains would have been difficult and dangerous. At the same time we were unable to await an attack, as the country was unfavorable for collecting supplies in the presence of the enemy.”

Unlike many latter-day analysts, Lee did not criticize Gens. James Longstreet or Richard Ewell, two corps commanders whose actions during the three-day battle would later be subject to critical scrutiny.

Even his cavalry commander, the flamboyant Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, got off with a mention that Lee had been “greatly embarrassed” by the absence of his cavalry, which had been frolicking off to the east when it should have been gathering intelligence.

In conversation, however, Lee could be testy about Gettysburg.

During the winter of 1863-64, Gen. Henry Heth, who was on friendly terms with his chief, mentioned to Lee some mistakes in the Pennsylvania campaign. Lee had a pointed response: “After it is all over,” he told Heth, “as stupid a fellow as I am can see the mistakes that were made. I notice, however, that my mistakes are never told me until it is too late. … You and all my officers know that I am always ready and anxious to have their suggestions.”

Lee may have been badly served by Stuart, but Lee made more than his own share of errors. Throughout his first brilliant year as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee had given his corps commanders wide latitude in executing their orders.

This practice had worked splendidly as long as Lee had the services of Gen. “Stonewall” Jackson. At Gettysburg, however, he appeared to expect Gen. Richard Ewell, who had succeeded to leadership of Jackson’s corps, to perform like Jackson.

Lee had indicated to intimates that he recognized a certain indecisiveness in Ewell, yet he failed to give Ewell the close supervision he required.

Confederate casualties in Pennsylvania had totaled some 28,000 killed, wounded, or missing — more than a third of Lee’s army — but Lee believed that he had inflicted at least as many casualties on the enemy as he had suffered.

This belief would color many of his remarks about the Gettysburg campaign. A few days after the battle Lee told John Seddon, brother of the Confederate secretary of war, “We did whip [the Federals] at Gettysburg, and it will be seen for the next six months that that army will be as quiet as a sucking dove.”

All of Lee’s remarks cited thus far were delivered while the Confederacy was still at war, a period when Lee was unwilling to make any statement that might impair the effectiveness of his army or its commanders. This situation changed after Appomattox, although Lee still sought to avoid controversy and recriminations to the extent that he could.

Because he died in 1870, Lee was spared the war of words over whether Longstreet had “lost” the Battle of Gettysburg. But when asked in 1868 about a statement by Longstreet that Lee had promised not to fight a general battle in Pennsylvania, Lee characterized the statement as absurd, and suggested that Longstreet must have been misquoted.

Lee’s most candid discussion of Gettysburg may have been in a series of conversations with William Allan, a former ordnance officer in the Army of Northern Virginia who served on the faculty of Washington College after Lee became its president. In February 1868, Lee spoke of Gettysburg to the professor, and Allan took extensive notes:

“[Lee] did not intend to give general battle in Pa. if he could avoid it — the South was too weak to carry on a war of invasion, and his offensive movements against the North were never intended except as parts of a defensive system. He did not know the Federal army was at Gettysburg, could not believe it, as Stuart had been specially ordered to cover his (Lee’s) movement & Keep him informed of the position of the enemy, & he (Stuart) had sent no word.

“He found himself engaged with the Federal army therefore, unexpectedly, and had to fight. This being determined on, victory wd. have been won if he could have gotten one decided simultaneous attack on the whole line. This he tried his utmost to effect for three days, and failed.”

The circumstances of this interview — its timing, and the freedom with which the general appeared to speak — make it Lee’s definitive statement on the subject of Gettysburg.

Lee appears to have placed much of the responsibility for the onset of the battle on Stuart, because Lee’s lack of intelligence regarding enemy dispositions is the factor he cited most frequently in his explanations of Gettysburg.

Lee probably ordered Confederate attacks on July 2, the second day, in the belief that he could defeat the enemy “in detail” — that is, overwhelm one portion of the superior enemy force. If he had been facing the entire Army of the Potomac, would Stuart not have told him?

Curiously, although Lee was prepared to criticize Stuart by implication, he was remarkably circumspect with regard to Longstreet. Even in his frank conversation with William Allan, Lee had only mild, indirect criticism for his “War Horse.”

Perhaps Lee recognized, in retrospect, that he would have done well to heed Longstreet’s objections to what became Pickett’s Charge.

On one subject — the effect of Gettysburg on the enemy — Lee appears to have been in denial. If the Confederates had disrupted Federal campaign plans, as Lee told Allan, it was because Gen. George Meade ignored President Lincoln’s frantic pleas that he aggressively pursue Lee’s defeated army.

Similarly, Lee chose to ignore evidence that his army had suffered more casualties than it had inflicted on the enemy. This haunting reflection — that thousands of his boys had died in Pennsylvania to no good end — may have been more than even Robert E. Lee was prepared to acknowledge.

John M. Taylor lives in McLean. He is the author of several books on the Civil War period, including “Duty Faithfully Performed: Robert E. Lee and His Critics.”

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