Longstreet is considering the Union position on Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill when he is summoned by Lee, whom he finds pacing back and forth by the seminary. Lee tells Longstreet that he likes to go into battle with the agreement of his commanders, as far as possible. He further explains that both Ewell and Early disagree with Longstreet’s argument for a defensive move, believing it would be bad for morale and dangerous.
Lee hasn’t given up trying to win Longstreet to his view and, perhaps more insecure in his decisions than he appears, hopes for the affirmation of his second-in-command. He still holds that troop morale is paramount for success.
Lee looks questioningly at Longstreet, who says nothing, having resigned himself to an offensive attack. Lee reiterates his argument for attack: the enemy will use any delay to reinforce himself; the Confederates cannot support themselves as easily in enemy territory; they must not risk being cut off from home. Longstreet feels impatient, knowing that Lee is waiting for him to agree, but that he cannot. Finally, Lee breaks the silence, telling Longstreet to attack on the right with his First Corps.
Longstreet can’t bring himself to fight with Lee. Lee’s arguments are beside the point for him; their fundamental views on the conduct of the war are too far apart.
Lee orders Longstreet to attack en echelon, taking Cemetery Hill in reverse with the support of Hill, Pender, and Anderson. The objective will be to get to the rear of the Union Army.
Attacking en echelon—from a French term referring to the rungs of a ladder—means to attack with units lined up in a diagonal formation, with the object of enveloping and overrunning the enemy. The disadvantage of such a formation is that it risks becoming disorganized before reaching its objective.
The men begin to prepare for battle. Longstreet talks with Lee’s engineer, Johnston, explaining that the attack on the Union flank must be a surprise, or else the Union will have time to swing their artillery around and slaughter them. Johnston admits that he doesn’t know much about the approach, thanks to the lack of intelligence from Stuart. Longstreet encourages him to do his best and broods about Stuart, thinking he ought to be court-martialed. The march begins around noon. Longstreet wonders how much generalship really matters in the long run, compared to smaller factors, like availability of water.
The failure of Stuart is still having ramifications, now limiting the Confederates’ ability to achieve surprise. Longstreet is angrier about this fact than Lee is. He continues to instinctively question conventional wisdom about warfare, wondering if the matters traditionally seen as decisive are really as important as they seem.
Lee rides up to join Longstreet on the march. Longstreet gets “the mulish foolish hungry feeling” of anticipating an assault and feels affectionate toward Lee. Memories of the Mexican War flood back to him. For a moment, he pictures them all as a single army again. Despite his better judgment, he tells Lee, “They’re never quite the enemy, those boys in blue.”
The men have spent their careers fighting battles together, and the sense of camaraderie persists even in the midst of misgivings. Even the Union soldiers don’t seem like enemies in light of these memories.
Longstreet goes on to admit that sometimes he feels troubled about breaking his oath to defend the United States. He says, “Couldn’t fight against home. Not against your own family. And yet … we broke the vow.” Lee cautions, “Let’s not think on this today.” But a short time later, he says, “There was a higher duty to Virginia … The issue is in God’s hands. We will live with His decision.” The two agree that they pray it will all be over soon.
Ever brooding, Longstreet can’t dodge the reality that he and his fellow Confederates broke their vow to defend the United States. But Lee, despite his initial reluctance to speak of it, feels that loyalty to home and family surpasses duty to nation. It is another instance of competing ideals.
After riding in silence for a while, Lee speaks up in a strange, soft tone of voice. He tells Longstreet that “soldiering has one great trap.” While a good soldier must love the army, a good officer must be willing to order the death of the thing he loves. It is a rare lecture from Lee, and Longstreet waits for his point. Lee goes on to say that an officer is never prepared for as many deaths as are required of him. “But … that is the trap,” he concludes. “You can hold nothing back when you attack … And yet, if they all die, a man must ask himself, will it have been worth it?”
Lee argues that an officer must be prepared to essentially view his soldiers as dispensable for the sake of the cause—even being willing to order them all to their deaths. Lee apparently never speaks like this usually, startling Longstreet.
Longstreet feels a chill down his spine. He realizes that Lee thinks Longstreet’s talk of defense comes from loving his men too much. He realizes there is not enough time to talk Lee out of this notion.
Longstreet realizes that the divergence between himself and Lee is more fundamental than he had thought. Lee completely misunderstands Longstreet’s motives for advocating defensive warfare.
Lee then says that he hopes this will be the last battle, since he is not well and may not have long to live. Longstreet is surprised by Lee’s uncharacteristic admission. Soon Lee reluctantly takes his leave. As they shake hands, Longstreet notices that “the grip no longer [seemed] quite so firm, the hand no longer quite so large.”
Longstreet’s disillusionment regarding his father figure continues. Lee’s fallibility and mortality are beginning to seem more obvious to Longstreet.
After Lee rides off, Longstreet feels depressed. Soon the army draws to a halt, and Longstreet rides ahead to discover that, as Johnston had predicted, their current road takes them within sight of the Union army. Longstreet takes over scouting, becoming increasingly angry at Stuart as he goes. By the time he finds a new position and begins to place the divisions, it is late afternoon, and what’s more, the enemy appears to have moved forward off the ridge. Longstreet doesn’t think Lee’s plan will ever work, but he wants to get the battle over with. He has never been afraid of death or war, but “of blind stupid human frailty, of blind proud foolishness that could lose it all.”
Stuart’s failure continues to yield dangerous outcomes for the army, as they nearly give away their position prematurely. By the time a new position is secured, Longstreet feels more pessimistic than ever, but he sees no alternative but to press forward. Though he doesn’t attribute blindness, stupidity, and pride directly to Lee, it is obvious who he has in mind.
Some of Hood’s scouts report that nothing stands between them and the Union army, and that it will make more sense to move around the ridge and attack from the rear. “Sonny boy,” Longstreet tells the messenger in disgust, “I been telling General Lee that same damn thing for two days … and there ain’t no point in bringing it up again. Tell [Hood] to attack as ordered.”
Hood sees a common-sense alternative to Lee’s plan, but Longstreet can do nothing, he thinks, but order Hood to do as Lee says. His bitter resignation makes any other course of action seem out of reach.
Longstreet receives a further report from Hood that the Yankees have uncovered the ridge and are undefended in the rear. However, there is not enough time to reach Lee with the report or to change orders. Longstreet thus tells Hood to attack as ordered. The present ground is not much good for mounting artillery, and Longstreet knows that daylight is running out. He thinks how clear it all is when one studies war, yet how different things are when one is on the battlefield.
The present position is not a good one for attacking; Longstreet, ever attentive to the advantage of choosing one’s own ground, sees this clearly. He ruefully acknowledges the difference between theories of war and the reality of the battlefield.
Longstreet finds Hood, who explains that the ground is strewn with large boulders that make it impossible to mount cannons. Furthermore, there are Union guns in the rocks above, and every move his men make is observed. If his men attack as ordered, Hood will lose half of them; the only alternative is to move to the right. Longstreet knows Hood is right, but he thinks that he cannot go against Lee. He reminds Hood that he has been arguing the same thing to Lee all along. They have their orders, and Hood must attack. Longstreet feels an overwhelming sadness and knows the men are going to die.
Longstreet is convinced that Lee wouldn’t be receptive to further argument at this point, despite how problematic the ground is. Something—perhaps the vestiges of his own stubborn pride in Lee—keeps Longstreet from trying again to stop the attack. He knows what’s about to happen and grieves.
Hood tells Longstreet that he will lead the attack under protest. Longstreet understands, mutely bidding the general goodbye. He has never felt so rattled in war before. Yet, at the same time, he enjoys a certain savage power in holding them all back. Longstreet finally sends Barksdale’s Mississippi brigade to attack a battery of Union guns. He follows them into the open, waving his hat and screaming them forward.
Longstreet is filled with mixed emotions in the heat of war. Despite this combination of dread and fierce enjoyment, he sends the first brigade into the field. The point of attacking the enemy en echelon is to press from various points, leaving the enemy confused as to where to focus his defense. This leads to the enemy bunching up in one place, thus giving the Confederates the ability to break through the enemy’s line at a weaker spot (or spots). In the meantime, Longstreet can only hope the Confederates aren’t too badly damaged and scattered as they make their way to the Union line.