Longstreet sits on the rail fence, his mind a “bloody vacancy, like a room in which there has been a butchering.” He watches the “nightmare” unfold, the lines coming apart, a few men stumbling up the slope before disappearing into smoke. Men begin to retreat, the one erect flag, near the center of the Union line, going down in the smoke. The men stream past Longstreet. One of Pickett’s men screams for support, but Longstreet patiently explains that there is no support left to give; all the brigades have gone in. He sees Garnett’s horse. He instructs Pickett’s men to fall back and sends word for a battery of artillery fire to protect their retreat.
Though he has expected a bloodbath, Longstreet struggles to take in the full horror of the situation as his men fail to capture the hill. As the battered men begin straggling back, he calls for a retreat.
Fremantle, who moments before had been cheering wildly, grasps the reality of the situation and offers Longstreet a flask, which he refuses. He is filled with weariness, helpless rage, and disgust. He thinks that “they had all died for nothing and he had sent them. A man is asked to bear too much.” He plans to walk forward into the battle, with the expectation of being killed. But as he stoops to pick up a rifle, he sees Lee.
Fremantle belatedly gets a clue about what is happening. Meanwhile, Longstreet is so filled with despair about the outcome, and his role in bringing it about, that he hopes to enter the fray and die quickly. Only the sight of Lee stops him short.
Lee is riding slowly along the first line of dead men. He sits motionless and talks to the men around him. Longstreet watches, knowing he will never forgive Lee. Tears run down his cheeks. Lee begins to ride toward him. Longstreet hears him saying, “It is all my fault,” while the men around him shake their heads and argue with him. Lee tells them that they will rest and try again another day; they must show good order and never let the Yankees see them run.
Longstreet can’t forgive his beloved father figure for sending his men into such a hopeless and deadly situation. Yet even as Lee takes responsibility, most of the men around him continue to idealize him, to the point of refusing to see reality. Lee, similarly short-sighted, still thinks another try is possible. He is still concerned that the men conduct themselves honorably, even in retreat.
Some men are crying, even asking Lee to let them attack again. Lee emerges from the crowd and smoke with a “stiff, set look” and empty eyes. He points out to Longstreet in a “soft, feathery” voice that the North appears to be forming for attack in the east. Longstreet can barely hear his voice. Suddenly Pickett appears—hatless, pale, and bloodstained. Longstreet is amazed that he is alive. His face is oddly wrinkled. Lee tells Pickett to re-form his division. Pickett starts to cry, saying in bewilderment, “General Lee, I have no division … Good God, sir, what about my men?” All of Pickett’s officers have been killed.
Far from blaming Lee, some want to attempt another charge for his sake. Lee appears to be shaken, but Pickett’s appearance is most shocking. Last seen whooping with the excitement of battle, he is now grief-stricken and completely disillusioned.
Longstreet turns away. He tells his gathering staff that he intends to go and meet the Union skirmishers. He cries as he rides down the hill, his horse shying among the dead bodies. Goree rides alongside him, asking for orders, his eyes filled with sorrow and pity in a look that Longstreet knows he will never forget. Longstreet directs fire, waiting for the Union soldiers to come, but they finally pull back without attacking.
Longstreet is too grieved to watch Pickett’s pained appeal to Lee and rides off to counter a Northern attack that doesn’t materialize. His faithful captain Goree stays by his side, sensing his mood.
Goree tells Longstreet that it is no good trying to get himself killed; the Lord will come for Longstreet in his own time. Longstreet hears a few heartbroken men firing in the distance, unwilling to give up, but finally they, too, fall still. Silence falls over the field with the sunset, and a wordless knowledge passes among them, that it’s over. Longstreet turns away as he hears the Union men cheering at the sight of a captured Virginia battle flag.
Goree discourages Longstreet from doing anything suicidal. Longstreet’s heartbreak seems to come from what he actually sees happening on the field, not from a misguided sense of needing to uphold honor. The battle finally drifts to a disheartening end; they have decisively lost.
Clouds gather in the west, and as evening advances, they see lightning in the distance. Longstreet automatically places his men in a defensive line and then sits by the fire drinking coffee. Sorrel brings the figures from the day: Armistead and Garnett are dead; Kemper is dying. Seven of Pickett’s thirteen colonels are dead and six are wounded. Longstreet can listen to no more, sending Sorrel away. But the facts “rise up like shattered fenceposts in the mist.” He knows the army can’t recover from a day like this, as a doctor knows when he bends over a beloved patient for the last time. He doesn’t know what he will do now. He looks at the campfires coming to light “like clusters of carrion fireflies.” Nothing, he thinks, has been accomplished.
This time the impending storm signals ultimate disaster for the Confederate army, not just disaster in this battle. The symbol is confirmed by the facts of the battle; much of the leadership has been wiped out within hours. Longstreet can see only pointless suffering and hopelessness as he surveys what remains.
Lee comes along after a while, distant lightning blazing beyond his head. Men are still walking alongside him, pleadingly; Longstreet sees “something oddly biblical about it.” Even in this air of defeat, Lee conveys strength and majesty to those around him. Longstreet does not want to speak to him, and he knows he will never quite forgive him; nevertheless, he rises to meet the General.
Longstreet looks into Lee’s stony face and drops his eyes. Lee requests a few moments alone with Longstreet. They sit in silence by the fire as lightning flares and the wind picks up. Finally, Lee says, in a husky voice, that they will withdraw tonight, under cover of the approaching weather. Longstreet knows he is expected to say something, but his mind feels vacant. When he looks up, Lee looks vaguely different. Lee finally says, “Peter, I’m going to need your help.”
Lee finally does what has seemed impossible throughout the story, deciding to withdraw altogether. He seems completely defeated. The change in Lee’s demeanor is matched by the vulnerability and humility of addressing Longstreet by his first name.
Lee sits with his hand over his eyes. He tells Longstreet that he is very tired. Longstreet asks what he can do. Longstreet feels “a shudder of enormous pity.” Finally, Lee looks at him and makes a gesture of surrender, shaking his head. Longstreet promises he will take care of the withdrawal that night. “I thought…” Lee begins. Longstreet says, “Never mind.” They sit in silence for a while. Lee says that morale is still good, and they will do better another time. Longstreet says, “I don’t think so.”
Even though he is angry at Lee, Longstreet still loves him and will do whatever he can for him. When Lee begins to try to articulate his miscalculation, Longstreet cuts him off, seemingly still wanting to let his friend save face—and perhaps salvage a vestige of his friend and hero in his own eyes, despite his loss of illusion. Still, he quashes the lingering hope of recovery that Lee apparently clings to.
Longstreet thinks that there has been too much death, and that it is time for reality; he must speak plainly. He tells Lee that he does not think they can win it now. Lee nods, as if it is not really important. Longstreet continues, “I don’t know if I can go on leading them. To die. For nothing.” Eventually, Lee replies, “They do not die for us … That at least is a blessing.”
After so much loss, stating the obvious—that losing the war is likely—no longer seems like an unutterable heresy. Lee takes comfort in the belief that the men have died for something bigger than himself, but this kind of idealism is what has led to so much death in the first place.
Lee continues, “Each man has his own reason to die.” If the men will go on, he says, then he will go on—what else can they do? “And does it matter after all who wins?” he asks. “Was that ever really the question? Will God ask that question, in the end?” As Longstreet helps the tired man rise, Lee looks into his eyes and says, “You were right. And I was wrong. And now you must … help us to see. I become … very tired.”
The difference between Lee’s idealism—that winning is less important than faithfulness to ideals—and Longstreet’s pragmatism is again made clear. Lee finally acknowledges that he was wrong about Gettysburg, however; he, and the rest of the Confederates, need Longstreet's vision in order to go forward. His acknowledgment of his fault and weakness is a tacit acknowledgement that Longstreet’s outlook on the future of war is, after all, correct. He has been disillusioned himself.
A cold, heavy wind, smelling of rain, is beginning to blow over the trees. Lee refers to his lecture on the previous day. He explains that he had been trying to warn Longstreet. Unlike their men, he says, they have no Cause; they have only the army. But if a soldier fights only for soldiers, he explains, they cannot ever win—it’s only the soldiers who die. With that, Lee mounts his horse and rides off into the dark. Longstreet watches him ride out of sight, then goes out into the field to say goodbye. Then he gives the order to retreat.
Lee’s parting words are ambivalent. He seems to be saying that without a higher cause, a general can never truly win. But devotion to a cause, with all its deadly consequences, is just what Longstreet rejects. In any case, the two have finally spoken their minds to one another, though it has come too late for either them or their men.