Where were we? Oh yes. Day two of Gettysburg, fought 150 years ago on fields just to the north of Virginia. Having been chased by Confederates through town on July 1, Union forces took up positions in nearby hills. Those positions were famously in the shape of a fishhook and well reinforced. Robert E. Lee‘s plan was to have the one-legged Dick Ewell make some noise on the Union right while James Longstreet and some of A. P. Hill‘s men attacked the left in full force.
Again, because this is Gettysburg, there’s bound to be controversy. From our entry:
Long the villain in this drama, Longstreet was targeted by Lost Cause historians—especially Jubal Early—because of his wartime ambition, his criticisms of Lee, and his postwar defection to the Republican Party. Some modern historians, including Douglas Southall Freeman, however, also have held Longstreet partly accountable for holding up the day’s assault by more than three hours. In Lee’s Lieutenants (1942–1944), Freeman charged that the general “sulked” as much as he fought, “the dissent of Longstreet’s mind [acting as] a brake on his energies.” Freeman’s negative opinion of Longstreet, however, has been challenged by more recent scholarship that acknowledges while Longstreet was guilty of some delay he also managed his corps with considerable skill in its attack that afternoon.
So yesterday the battle was lost because of Ewell; today, it’s because of Longstreet. And yet … and yet … the battle was nearly won! Fierce fighting raged in places soon to be burned into the American lexicon: Little Round Top, Devil’s Den, the Wheatfield, the Peach Orchard, Cemetery Ridge, and Cemetery Hill. Longstreet nearly broke through, and while Confederate apologists hate to hear this, his failure may actually have had something to do with Union commander George G. Meade. He had smartly captured the high ground and just as smartly used it—reinforcing various spots quickly and efficiently.
Still, even as the curtain fell on Act Two, Lee felt victory was in his grasp …
IMAGE: A Harvest of Death; Union dead at Gettysburg, July 5, 1863, by Timothy O’Sullivan; the men were killed in fighting on the Rose farm, near the Peach Orchard, Devil’s Den, and Little Round Top, on July 2 (Library of Congress)