Harrison, a Confederate spy, is overlooking the entire Union Army from a wooded hill in Pennsylvania. He estimates a total of 20,000 men and observes that the Army of the Potomac has never moved so fast. He begins riding north in hopes of reaching the Southern line by nightfall.
Harrison’s perspective on the rapidly advancing Northern army opens the story with a sense of tension and impending conflict. The fact that the Union army is moving uncharacteristically fast hints that the coming conflict will be different from past ones.
Harrison realizes he is probably the only person alive who knows the positions of both the Union and Confederate armies, and this fills him with pride. But now he must locate Lee’s headquarters in the middle of a lightning storm. He asks a farmer about the nearby town and learns that it is Gettysburg, “but the name meant nothing.”
The lightning storm brings with it the suggestion of impending violence. As Harrison tries to outrun the threatened rain, he learns by chance that the nearby town is Gettysburg. The fact that this name carries little significance is heavily ironic in light of the events about to unfold.
As he rides, Harrison wonders about the “strange” friendship between “grim and gambling” James Longstreet and “formal and pious” Robert E. Lee. He proceeds cautiously through the dark until he reaches a Southern picket line, where he is placed under guard and sent to Longstreet’s headquarters. Tiredly, he observes that the Confederates are “a fat and happy army … telling stories in the dark.”
Harrison’s perspective provides the outlines of Longstreet’s and Lee’s relationship, particularly the differences in their personalities, on which much of the story’s drama will hang. He further sees the Confederate army as a contented, even naïve lot, setting up an expectation that this happiness will be reversed.
Longstreet is lying awake in his tent, thinking of his dead children. When informed that Harrison has returned, he is surprised that the spy came back at all. Harrison reveals the position of the Union Army, surprising Longstreet further; he hadn’t known the Army was within two hundred miles. Longstreet is puzzled that he had heard nothing of Union movement until now.
From the first, Longstreet is presented as a grieving, haunted man. Longstreet’s surprise and puzzlement at Harrison’s information further heightens a sense that cataclysmic action is soon to unfold.
In light of this intelligence, Longstreet decides to wake General Lee. If Harrison is right that the Union is nearby and moving fast, he realizes, the Confederate Army is in danger. Lee, however, does not believe in spies, having placed his trust in Jeb Stuart. As he prepares to see the General, Longstreet reflects that he had never believed in the invasion of the North but had been overruled by Lee and Confederate president Jefferson Davis.
The contrast between Longstreet and Lee continues to be revealed—in this case, basic differences in strategy and outlook on the waging of war, as Lee distrusts spies and favors aggressive invasion, while Longstreet takes opposite positions. These contrasts create a sense of tension between the two that will erupt at some point, even if their friendship has overridden it so far.
As they go to meet Lee, Harrison tells Longstreet that Joseph Hooker has been replaced by George Meade as commander of the Army of the Potomac. By the time they arrive at Lee’s camp, Longstreet is convinced that the spy has been telling the truth about all the intelligence he has shared. Waiting for Lee, Longstreet thinks about the bad news of the defeat in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and reflects that the Confederates must win here, in Pennsylvania, if they are to win the war.
Leadership of the Union Army is in transition, raising questions about the effectiveness of the enemy’s actions in the coming conflict. The recent Confederate loss at Vicksburg raises the stakes for the coming battle in Pennsylvania.
Lee emerges from his tent, bareheaded and haggard-looking in the rain. He and Longstreet ignore Harrison’s obsequious behavior and examine the Union positions he has reported. After questioning the spy further and dismissing him, the generals discuss their next moves. Lee is reluctant to act on the intelligence of a paid spy and to believe that Stuart would have left the army blind.
From his first introduction, Lee conveys a certain frailty, and the rain touches his character with a subtle ominousness. He also reveals a stubbornness about trusting novel measures in war and a loyalty to the men and practices he knows.
Longstreet tells Lee that the army must turn and concentrate its position, so as not to be chopped up by the enemy. He is troubled by the sight of the “indomitable old man weak and hatless in the early morning, something soft in his eyes, pain in his face.” Lee agrees that with Meade newly in charge, there may be opportunity to move quickly and cut off the Union from Washington. He decides that the army should concentrate in the direction of Gettysburg, moving at first light. Longstreet is thrilled and thinks, “Trust the old man to move.”
The drama of Longstreet’s and Lee’s relationship is further established. Longstreet, in his foresight, presses for defensive action, troubled by Lee’s aged and fragile appearance. Yet his basic confidence in Lee is still unshaken, when Lee agrees with the need to concentrate the army’s position.
The two have an awkwardly affectionate parting, as “Lee was ever formal and Longstreet was inarticulate, so they stood for a long time side by side without speaking.” The silence is enough for them, and Lee says that he will miss their companionship after the war is over. Longstreet rides back to his camp in the darkness before dawn.
The two generals’ communication difficulties are apparent. While their friendship is solid enough to withstand silence, it is not clear how their relationship will be affected by their divergent visions of the great task before them, and their reticence to discuss that divergence. Their companionable silence foreshadows a more fraught silence to come.