Lee frets and prays as he rides toward Gettysburg, worrying that they will be forced to make a devastating retreat. Setting up headquarters at a house outside of town, Lee begins to work on a withdrawal plan, feeling agitated about the lack of news from Stuart. He waits for news from General Harry Heth, hearing fighting ahead and unsure what Heth has gotten into.
The sounds of fighting immediately spark Lee’s insecurities about defensive tactics and the shame of retreat. He is so shaken by the uncertainty of the situation ahead that he can’t help planning for a likely withdrawal.
Heth finally rides up to Lee’s headquarters looking bewildered and ashamed. He reports that what he’d thought was only a few militia has turned out to be dismounted cavalry, Buford’s men. He thought the encounter would be a “minor scrap,” but it turned into a significant skirmish. Lee refrains from placing blame or issuing further orders until he has better information about enemy strength. Without Longstreet near, something feels off about the day.
Heth’s predicament is due in part to Stuart’s failure to report back to Lee; because they didn’t know what was ahead, the Confederates stumbled unprepared into a notable conflict. The skirmish adds to Lee’s anxiety.
As he rides forward, Lee learns that Generals Early and Rodes have arrived in Gettysburg and begun attacking the northern flank of the Union army. He begins to think that there is a greater plan at work— “it was possible to see Intention in it … He felt a sharpness in the air … it was all happening without him, without one decision; it was all in God’s hands.” He senses an opportunity and tells Generals Heth and Pender to attack as well.
As Lee learns more, his mood begins to shift. He feels that despite his ignorance, divine providence has been unfolding in a way favorable to the Confederates. He decides to act on this instinct and order a further attack. His faith reinforces his ideals and his sense of honor.
Lee waits in a grove of trees, listening to the chaos of battle in the distance. As he walks forward and moves among the wounded, trying to inspire men with his presence, he worries about the whereabouts of the various generals; perhaps Longstreet is right that command is too loose. He hears that Heth has been injured. Soon, however, men begin to cheer; the enemy has fallen back.
Lee’s very presence raises his men’s morale. Though he briefly entertains some of Longstreet’s concerns about the conduct of battle, the eruption of cheers overrides his momentary doubts.
Lee continues to ride forward, giving silent thanks and trying to control his emotions as cheering soldiers surround him. He sees Union artillery forming on a distant hill and knows that the fight isn’t over. He believes that the Confederates must continue the assault and keep the Union troops moving. He sends word that General Ewell should take the hill if possible. He thanks God for Longstreet’s spy, Harrison.
Lee’s own morale—hence his strategy decisions—is closely tied to the moods and achievements of his men. Seeing initial victory is enough to convince him that total victory is within reach, and that an assault is the best way to keep morale elevated.
Lee is pleased to see Longstreet riding up to join him, and together they savor this initial victory. Lee explains that he has ordered General Ewell to take Cemetery Hill. Longstreet agrees that this will be a good move, enabling the Confederates to get between the Union and Washington. Dug in on high ground, the Confederates will then force the Union to attack them. Lee is shocked by the latter point, asking, “You mean you want me to disengage?” He argues that the situation has changed; now that they have succeeded in pushing the Union back, they cannot move off in the face of the enemy. Furthermore, he is sure that Meade will not move quickly. He feels “only one urge: to press on and get it done.”
Lee’s newfound optimism clashes with Longstreet’s view of the overall situation. While Longstreet agrees that the outcome of the early engagements has been positive, he thinks the best response is to retreat to ground of their own choosing. This flies in the face of Lee’s logic. He sees retreat as dishonorable and antithetical to victory.
Longstreet looks as if he is suppressing his thoughts. Lee urges him to speak. Longstreet says that they should not have attacked here, as Heth had been ordered not to. Tomorrow, they will be outnumbered. Lee waves away this concern. Numbers, he thinks, are meaningless; anyway, the fight was here. Longstreet thinks it is more important to fight on ground of one’s own choosing.
The difference in the two generals’ tactical approaches becomes more apparent. Lee thinks it more important to meet the fight where it finds him, and that numbers are less critical than spirit. Longstreet feels that selection of ground is more important than Lee gives it credit for.
Lee persists in his view that, for now, today’s victory is the most important thing. He remarks to himself that docile men don’t make good soldiers. He thanks Longstreet for engaging Harrison’s services as a spy, but Longstreet doesn’t show pleasure at the compliment. Lee feels troubled, remembering the press’s mockery of him as “the King of Spades.” He is tired of defensive war and worried about what will happen if he becomes unable to lead the army. He waits for General Ewell to attack Cemetery Hill, but no attack begins.
Lee assumes that Longstreet’s defensive strategy is motivated by timidity. At the same time, his own strategy is motivated much more by shame over perceived failure, and the desire to vindicate his own sense of honor, than perhaps he admits to himself. He also worries about the possibility of impending death—implicitly doubting that anyone else can lead the army as effectively.