2d) A Gambler’s Chance

robert e leeAfter three long hours, the fighting on the Federal left on the second day of battle sputtered out about seven o’clock. Each of three Confederate divisions had come close to making a critical breakthrough: Hood on Little Round Top, McLaws in the Wheat Field and the Peach Orchard, and Anderson against Cemetery Ridge. Each attack had been beaten back by determined fighting on the part of the Yankee soldiery and by the cool and capable leadership of their officers at every level. There had been no lack of skill or valor on the part of the attackers. They suffered 7,000 casualties of the 22,000 engaged, and inflicted casualties in equal numbers on the defenders. What they had gained, however, may not have been a great deal: a jumble of boulders beneath Little Round Top, a wheat field and a peach orchard, and a bit of a shallow run. In truth, it had not been a good day for the Southern command at any level, and it is a little difficult to understand why. This army was after all virtually the same one that struck Joe Hooker with savage swiftness in the Wilderness, turned on its heel to beat back a threat in its rear, then turned once more to push an army twice its size across the Rappahannock. This it had achieved without Longstreet and the two divisions with him. Of course, one irreplaceable man was gone now: Stonewall Jackson, who, it may be, would have seized that high ground that Ewell balked at on the first day. Attrition throughout the officer corps was no doubt a factor in the army’s performance this day. Great-bearded John B. Hood was out of the fight with a mangled arm; Heth with a shell fragment in his hand. Dorsey Pender, whose division was in position to attack in support of Anderson and exploit the penetration on the ridge, was down with a leg wound that would shortly kill him. Semmes and Barksdale had been shot leading their brigades.

But the army’s sluggish performance was more than a problem of attrition. Longstreet had not believed in the plan and did not drive the attack on his end of the field personally or forcefully. Hill, in ill health to start with, contributed to the confusion by not making clear to Longstreet who exactly was responsible for directing Anderson. (In fact, there was little love lost between Hill and Longstreet.) Anderson, left to himself, showed little energy or initiative. Posey and Mahone had simply refused to budge. “The whole affair,” one of Lee’s staff officers recognized, “was disjointed. There was an utter absence of accord in the movements of the several commands.” Perhaps it was not a good plan in the first place, for which Robert E. Lee was responsible. Suffering with diarrhea and the heart disease that would eventually kill him, as well as troubled by Stuart’s continuing absence, he was perhaps not himself this day. After giving his orders for the assaults left and right, Lee had left the direction of the battle entirely to his subordinates. Across the way, however, the Federal officer corps had fought a highly skillful fight, responding swiftly and with agility at each moment of crisis. They had the advantage of being able to reinforce quickly on interior lines, which both Meade and Hancock used to good effect. Although Sickles’ blunder had smashed up his corps, Meade got signal service from his subordinates at every level. There was Chamberlain refusing his left and leading a wild bayonet charge to save his position. There was Warren, who as a staff officer was technically in command of no body of troops, seeing the danger and accepting responsibility for leading the first men he found to it himself. Finally, there was Hancock who was not less than superb this day. The fighting on July 2nd, however, was not quite over. Now the initiative would fall to Richard S. Ewell on the Confederate left.

Lee’s instructions to Ewell were twofold: he was, first, to make a “vigorous demonstration” against the Union right on Culp’s and Cemetery Hill to prevent Meade from shifting strength to Longstreet’s front, and, second, if occasion offered, he had permission to make an all-out attack and seize the high ground. Lee had twice pointedly mentioned Ewell’s failure “to pursue our advantage yesterday,” and Ewell hoped that today might present a second opportunity. His first responsibility–preventing Meade from reinforcing his left and center from his right–Old Bald Head had already conspicuously failed at, for Meade had sent all but one brigade of four divisions of reinforcements to the left in the course of the three hours of fighting. What Ewell had done thus far to prevent that movement was to send Edward Johnson’s artillery chief, Major Joseph Latimer, just twenty years old but full of promise, to Benner’s Hill with six batteries. Benner’s Hill was only a half-mile northeast of Culp’s, but it was fifty feet lower and bare. By five o’clock or so, not quite an hour after Hood’s attack jumped off, Latimer was in place and began to shell the Union positions across the way, and of course the Union guns answered back immediately, from both Culp’s and Cemetery Hill a mile away. Just as immediately, it was apparent that this artillery duel was going to be a decidedly unequal contest. With his two dozen guns in the open taking fire from Federal guns well dug-in on two higher crests, guns, men, horses, and caissons suffered a fearful pounding. After an hour of destruction, he sent to Ewell to say that this was one hill he could not hold. Ewell gave him permission to break off the barrage that was accomplishing little but breaking up Rebel batteries. Latimer was to leave one battery–four guns–to support the attack Ewell now intended and get the rest of his guns down the slope again. It was the young man’s last fight; he was mortally wounded in the withdrawal.

Actually, though it was late in the day and the positions Ewell had to attack were formidable, an assault just now had a good chance of success–precisely because most of the troops that held the place at the time Meade had first seen Sickles’ predicament were gone. On Cemetery Hill remained Howard’s three divisions of much-abused Dutchmen; on Culp’s was Wadsworth’s division, or rather, yesterday’s survivors, plus one brigade of Slocum’s. To make the attack, Ewell had Edward Johnson’s division opposite Culp’s Hill, Early’s opposite Cemetery Hill, and Rodes’ to the northwest of that place. Rodes’ men had had hard fighting yesterday, but Early had had things pretty much his own way, and Johnson had done no fighting at all. Though the Yankees had the high ground, Rebels had the weight in numbers on this front. The effort on Culp’s Hill would be made by Johnson’s four brigades, and Johnson got them in motion at 7:00 p.m. Leaving the famous Stonewall Brigade in reserve behind Rock Creek, Johnson sent the remaining three up the northeast face of the hill in the twilight. They hadn’t climbed far when they discovered that there was plenty of fight left in Wadsworth’s men (among them the survivors of the Iron Brigade who had taken on a division the day before), and they could make no headway there. Johnson’s left-most brigade–it was George Steuart’s–struck the south slope in the dark and found there the trenches Slocum’s men abandoned when they were ordered to the left. It looked for a moment as if they might take the hill neatly in flank without much of a fight. One of Slocum’s brigades, however, had been left behind, five regiments from upstate New York. Their brigadier was a sixty-two-year-old West Pointer, George S. “Old Man” Greene. In civil life, Greene had been a highly accomplished engineer, one of his achievements being New York’s Central Park reservoir. Seeing that his brigade could not hold a front formerly occupied by two divisions, he laid out a new line at right angles to the old, facing south and buttressed by a high bank of earth and logs. Steuart’s men struck these works in four determined attacks in the twilight, banging away for two hours, but there was no budging Greene’s men. When the fighting on Wadsworth’s front died down, he sent two regiments over to help out, and Johnson was forced to break off the fight and withdraw to the empty trenches he’d taken earlier.

Jubal Early’s attack against Cemetery Hill went forward just as he heard the first guns of Johnson’s advance on Culp’s Hill. He made his attack with just two of his four brigades, Harry Hays’ and Issac Avery’s, and they had a surprisingly easy time of it. Or perhaps not so surprising, for they struck poor Howard’s Dutchmen who had been routed yesterday. In any case, though Avery fell with a mortal wound, up the steep northeast slope his brigade went, breaking three successive Federal lines like an irresistible force. In fairness to Howard’s men, in the gathering darkness and battle smoke, it was hard to see what they were shooting at. Still, it wasn’t much of a fight. As Howard admitted, “Almost before I could tell where the assault was made, our men and the Confederates came tumbling back together.” The hapless XI Corps now added Cemetery Hill to the long list of places they’d been driven out of. For the fate of Meade’s army, however, the situation was now critical. The Federal line had broken on high ground at the bend of their long fishhook. If the Rebels could be reinforced now, quickly and in strength, Meade’s army was in mortal danger.

Harry Hays’ was in command of the two Rebel brigades on the hilltop and expected to be reinforced. John B. Gordon’s brigade was in reserve and Rodes’ whole division, five brigades strong, was just off to the northwest. In the darkness, Hays could now see columns of infantry on the march from the southwest. Coming from that direction, it was unlikely that these would be either Gordon or Rodes’ men, but they might well be help on its way from either Hill or Longstreet. While Hays held his fire, the dark shapes approaching fired a volley, then another. Still, he held his fire, unwilling to fire in confusion on the reinforcements who would help him keep his prize, (and perhaps remembering that Stonewall Jackson had been shot by his own men in the dark just two months ago.) Then a third volley ripped into his ranks at close range, fired, Hays now saw, by men in blue from the II Corps. Not long after Wright’s breach on the ridge had been closed, Hancock had heard the gunfire from Cemetery Hill and, as he had done all day, acted with dispatch, sending S. S. Carroll’s brigade in on the run. These men had come up through Howard’s fugitives and, while Hays’ men held their fire, closed to strike a hard blow. A sharp firefight ensued, but with no help forthcoming, Hays, much to his anger and dismay, was forced to withdraw his brigades down the slope. A brilliant opportunity had been squandered. Again, while the Federal command had acted swiftly and decisively, the Confederate command had hesitated–and lost. Rodes had been near at hand with five brigades, but by the time he resolved to get them moving, Cemetery Hill was already back in Union hands. It was full dark now as the second day of savage fighting finally sputtered out. Robert E. Lee had struck and shaken both left and right of the Federal line, but Meade had held. Each side added nine thousand casualties to its butcher’s bill. The soldiers in blue and grey and butternut-brown now turned to get such sleep as they could. Their commanders turned to consider what bloody business they would be put to in the morning.

Lee kept his own counsel that night. As far as he was concerned, the day’s fighting had gone well for his cause. Law (commanding in place of the wounded Hood) now pressed the eye of the Federal fishhook from Devil’s Den and Johnson’s lodgment on Culp’s Hill pressed its barb. Opposite its shank McLaws controlled high ground west of the Peach Orchard from which guns could be leveled at the Federal center. Furthermore, his army had to his mind very nearly succeeded twice today: Wright had pierced Hancock’s front in the center and Early had driven Howard’s men from Cemetery Hill. Only a lack of “proper concert of action” at critical moments, Lee believed, had denied him a victory. Now with Stuart’s horsemen at last at hand (they had come up during the day) and Pickett’s unbloodied division in bivouac behind Seminary Ridge, he would renew the fighting tomorrow. Having been struck so hard on either flank, Lee reasoned, Meade must have weakened his center. This line Lee intended to batter with artillery, then overwhelm with an infantry attack by three divisions. At the same time, Ewell would renew his assault on the Union right and Stuart would circle to strike the Union rear. The wisdom of this design has of course been debated down the years, but one thing is certain: it was quintessentially Robert E. Lee. The plan was bold, aggressive, and decisive, and it intended not simply the defeat but the destruction of the Army of the Potomac. It was true that Meade’s more compact line gave advantage to defense. If it could be pierced, however, Meade’s army would be a milling mob of fugitives on the Baltimore Pike and Taneytown Road.

At midnight while Lee was retiring, Meade was in council of war with his corps commanders in a little cottage on the Taneytown Road. He had been commander of the Army of the Potomac for just five days and felt the weight of command acutely. After all, he’d been forced to make a desperate march just to catch Lee. Now he had seen two corps routed the first day, one wrecked the second, and he counted more than 15,000 casualties. Although he had wired Halleck that he had beaten off determined Rebel attacks and intended to maintain his position, he wondered now if the wisest move was not to withdraw to the Pipe Creek line he had wanted to fight on in the first place. To his corps commanders now he posed three questions. Should the army remain or withdraw to a stronger line? If it were to remain, should it attack or await attack? If it were to await attack, how long should it wait? It is said that councils of war never vote for battle, but this one was unanimous: they would stay and fight it out tomorrow wherever and whenever Lee struck. Meade thought he knew where. As the conference broke up, he stopped John Gibbon, now in command of II Corps in the Union center: “If Lee attacks tomorrow, it will be in your front.”