GEN Lee began his day at a small farmhouse just to the east of Cashtown and behind Hill’s Corps. He wasn’t feeling particularly well. His chest was tight and his left arm ached. He’d slept restlessly sitting upright in a rocking chair as he was want to do lately rather than lying down. He felt that he could breathe easier that way. His staff had also been allowing him to awaken when he was ready as opposed to at dawn that had been his custom. They had begun gathering the morning’s messages to be presented when he was ready.
This day should prove to be an easy one. He, and they, would likely spend the afternoon relaxing and they’d sleep in a hotel tonight. The first time in weeks that they’d see a real bed. The plan was to secure the main passage from the south as it entered Gettysburg and to wait there for the other two corps to fall in on the town. It would likely take MG Pickett another 36 hours or so to arrive.
Perhaps it was his angina, maybe just years or experience but Lee is said to have told his staff that he felt the cannon blasts in his chest before he heard them. He had left a standing order for his forces not to engage with any Union forces until the army was consolidated. So cannon fire on that morning was the last thing he expected. He quickly mounted Traveler and rode towards the sound. In accordance with his command philosophy, he made his way the short distance to LTG A.P. Hill’s HQ to get his report. Heth had sent a messenger with news that while en route to Gettysburg he had encountered a “substantial force”.
This concerned Lee greatly. He simply had no idea where Meade’s forces were. Questions raced through his head. Could they actually be at Gettysburg? How big a force had he run into? Why was he blind? Where was Stuart? His chest tightened even more. He had to see for himself what was happening.
A.P. Hill was not known for ‘leading from the front’. Lee dragged a somewhat reluctant Hill forward through his corps. The sound of musket fire rose up from beyond a dense woods. From within the protective cover of the shade and trees, Lee surveyed the battle that was raging in front of him. Serendipitously, he had arrived at the precise moment that BG Buford had sent the third of his pre-arranged flag signals to his troops. The first had initiated the attack with the cannon volley; the second told his forward line to open fire. This signal was for them to break contact and withdraw to the main defense line.
Lee watched as men mounted and rode east. Opposing fire diminished greatly. He turned his field glasses towards to high-point on the horizon and could clearly discern Buford’s 1st Cavalry command flag flying atop the Seminary. He instantly assessed what Heth had not; that the “substantial force” was a few thousand cavalrymen. Focusing closer, he saw that Heth’s officers had regained control of the men and formed them into an attack line. Some units were already on the move across the rolling fields and pastures. He felt confident that they could handle a few thousand lightly armed men. He turned and gave permission for Hill to commit Pender’s division but to hold Anderson’s in reserve. He’d eat and sleep in a hotel tonight as planned. All they had to do was sweep the cavalry out of the way. Satisfied that his men had things well in hand, he returned to his HQ where he was expecting LTG Longstreet.
In the ALT Hx Section 28, I’ll discuss how the simply decision to hold Anderson in reserve may have cost Lee the battle AND the war effort!