The Futile Efforts of Lieutenant General James Longstreet
3 July 1863
There has never been enough, if any evidence for the historian to ascertain General Robert E. Lee's battlefield management in Pennsylvania. One may look back and attempt a good theory, however, nothing that has come to light over the past four generations which can support historically what the army commander was thinking when he concocted the scheme of breaking the Federal Center on Cemetery Ridge.
Many on that fateful day had stepped forward to look about, before the soldiers dressed and the cannon roared, few did not develop a lump in their throat when they began to realize what their commander was asking of them.
One soldier who had worked his way up to command a fine body of troops also looked out onto that field with the hair standing up on the back of his neck and blood running cold from thoughts he could not dismiss from his mind. Lieutenant General James Longstreet was being ordered to throw twelve thousand to the wolves, a slaughter that could not be justified.
General Lee had insisted on this attack, and his First Corps Commander, being an obedient soldier protested its practicality up to the fine line of insubordination. General Lee wasn't listening to any counsel in Pennsylvania, he was running his own course and adamant about not being deterred.
The corps commander continued to anguish over how he could stop this murder before it began. He could not emphatically tell his superior he would not do it. Instead, feeling he could get a second to see the gravity of the endeavor, both would be successful.
A twenty eight year old colonel of artillery, Edward Porter Alexander was tasked with rendering gun fire support that day. Upon the success of his accuracy it would be his word to start General Pickett's division forward. Twice the lieutenant general attempted to communicate in writing something his enthusiastic artillery officer did not understand at the time. If in Alexander's opinion his artillery could not soften up the Federal position, he was to call off the charge, a discretionary order given to a field commander viewing his work through glasses. It was what Longstreet needed to save the lives of a doomed division and prevent his court martial on charges of insubordination.
The message required a second opinion thus passing it on to Brigadier General Ambrose "Rans" Wright, who clarified the charge was in hands of the artillery. Alexander penned off a communication to General Longstreet asking if what he just read is precisely what he was directing him to do. A second message came back similar to the first.
Colonel Edward Porter Alexander felt he was most certainly up to the task at hand, and made the na´ve decision of ensuring the success of his work. Looking back on it years later, his inexperience had caused him to err. Having not known at the age of twenty eight what his corps commander had been asking, the fate of twelve thousand rested in his decision to say: "Yes or No." Looking back on it, Alexander understood the countless lives being saved by exercising a little humility and simply saying, "No."
In the dangerous business the military is in, safety becomes the primary responsibility of a commander of troops in the field. Take the ground with as little casualties as possible. The blind man could see the suicide of the order and common sense did everything possible to stop it, however, only folly prevailed.
Editors Note: Mr.Moran is a new feature writer on the US-Civilwar.com writers staff. He may be contacted with your questions, ideas and requests at email@example.com