After Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, General Lee rode out to the edge of the battlefield and watched his shattered forces returning. “It’s my fault” he was reported to say, “It is I who have lost this fight, it’s all my fault.”
To General Pickett he said, “You must look after your division.” And Pickett replied, “General Lee, I have no division.” The pain of such a conversation surely rode back to Virginia with Lee.
Although Lee took no one into his confidence, the necessity of withdrawing his army must have been evident from the moment he watched the fragments of brigades retire in disorder from the point of their assault. To ensure the army’s safe withdrawal, he had been forced first to restore its order and prepare against a counterattack. The success of Lee’s first emergency measures was indicated by General Meade’s later testimony that he observed “no demoralization” in the enemy forces following the repulse of the charge at his center.
But even while Lee was stabilizing his line and presenting a bold front, the decision to retreat had been formed. This decision did not entail a balancing of alternatives open to the army. With enough ammunition for only one action and food almost gone, his problems were reduced to the logistics of moving his men, his wounded, and his trains away from the front of a powerful enemy in a hostile country.
No would-be collaborators such as Longstreet sought to share these unheroic chores with him. In his headquarters tent, with his gloomy staff officers resting outside, the general worked alone over the same maps he had studied so diligently while waiting for word from Jeb Stuart only six days before on that Sunday at Chambersburg. Now he knew where the enemy was. Under the candlelight, he was tracing courses to where the enemy would not be.
First, routes were selected for the miles of canvas-topped, springless ambulances that would carry the thousands of wounded judged capable of making the trip. (The torture of those men riding over muddy roads became a prolonged ordeal that surpassed any action of the three days.) Hundreds of the more critically wounded, along with hundreds of the enemy’s wounded, were left in houses and barns to be cared for by Federal doctors and sent to prisons.
The ambulances, intermingled with supply and ordnance wagons, were strung out on the side of the Chambersburg pike westward from Gettysburg almost to Cashtown, eight miles away. On the return trip, the ambulance train would not retrace the way through Chambersburg. Angling south-westward, the train would go through less hostile Hagerstown and on to the Potomac at Williamsport. The passes behind it would be guarded by Stuart. To guard the helpless men who were to make the trip, Lee selected Brigadier General John Imboden. His 2,000 troopers were the freshest of the cavalry—and the least dependable for regular work. General Lee dispatched a courier with orders for Imboden to come to his tent to receive written instructions.
Then Lee dictated written instructions to Longstreet for preparing to retire his corps the next day. After the divisions of Hood and McLaws were withdrawn to a line farther west of the enemy, the troops were to wait in line of battle, alert for enemy action, and move out in marching columns when ordered. First Corps ordnance and supply wagons would move with the troops. Possibly not trusting Longstreet to move out with celerity, Lee assigned him the middle place in the march, following A. P. Hill. Ewell, the farthest away, would form the rear guard with his wagons.
To spare Pickett’s shattered brigades further fighting, Lee appointed the 1,000-odd survivors to walk as provost guard. In addition to enemy prisoners paroled at Gettysburg, there were some 5,000 captured Federals to be marched southward with the army. They would maintain a balance in later exchange for the Confederates captured at Gettysburg. Some of Pickett’s men wrongly felt that Lee intended a slight in assigning them to a police patrol. When the commanding general heard of their complaints, he published an order of explanation and congratulations to the division.
The proud division was never the same. Gradually, the belated return of Corse’s brigade and of recuperated wounded, exchanged prisoners, and conscripts filled its complement to about 5,000. This process was slow, and for months the units were scattered among Davis’s defense projects in southeastern Virginia and North Carolina. When returned to the Army of Northern Virginia the following year, the division acted as a sort of detached reserve and was not again incorporated in a corps. The loss of the leaders of its regiments—really the basic unit in the Confederate army—had destroyed the potential material for field command, and there were no colonels of comparable quality to replace them.
Pickett himself never recovered. He married Sallie and found solace for his wounded spirit, but he remained haunted by the vision of his men breaking backward out of the smoke and down the hill.
All that was in the future when Lee thoughtfully assigned the survivors to provost guard for the retreat and sent a staff officer with the orders to Longstreet. It was now late in the night, and Lee gave no more work to his exhausted staff. He left his tent alone, mounted his saddled gray horse, and rode through the quiet bivouac to Powell Hill’s headquarters.
Instead of giving written instructions to Hill, the commanding general traced on his maps the line of march for the Third Corps—a course parallel to the ambulance train’s. They talked over the details until Lee, in a blur of fatigue, was convinced that General Hill was clear on every item.
Robert E. Lee was certainly too exhausted and saddened after the charge to have determined consciously that he must abandon his system of working through channels from a general headquarters. But there must have been in his reaction an unarticulated awareness that the old method of operating by suggestion and allowing discretion had failed. His assumption of immediate personal command from before four o’clock in the afternoon until after midnight was different from the nervous concentration on details with which any shocked person may busy himself. It was an unconscious admission that he no longer trusted the delegation of authority to others. Later he necessarily gave limited responsibility to subordinates, but on his last night at Gettysburg Lee revealed in actions—as he never did in words—a knowledge that he had been failed. In the task of saving his army, he trusted no one with any discretion at all.
A. P. Hill, relieved of the inner division caused by discretionary orders, on the way home performed his assignment with high competence. He showed again the initiative, aggression, and sound field control that had characterized his command of the old “Light Division.” The Light Division, divided after Chancellorsville to make a division each for Pender and Heth, on the retreat from Gettysburg was remerged into one division under Harry Heth, then recovered from his first day’s head wound. Later the division was reshuffled again. Pender’s four fine brigades went to Cadmus Wilcox, upped to major general, and new brigades were added to fill out Heth’s complement.
General Richard H. Anderson, who had not distinguished himself with the Third Corps, the following year was promoted to lieutenant general and given the First Corps after Longstreet was wounded at the Wilderness. Not Lee’s choice as corps commander, Anderson was given the assignment on personal consideration. Well liked by brother officers and men from his earlier association with the First Corps, he was their choice as Longstreet’s successor. Like Ewell, who had been chosen as Jackson’s successor for the same reasons, Anderson was promoted beyond his capacities. Never doing anything spectacularly wrong, by well-mannered and curiously listless performances he vindicated Lee’s judgment of him.
In Hill’s corps, Anderson’s division went to Billy Mahone, the self-confident bantam who had for personal reasons refused to act on the second day at Gettysburg. He performed capably and aggressively, and became one of the stalwarts toward the end. With Mahone, Heth, and Wilcox, Hill’s Third Corps retained more of its Gettysburg identity than the other two.
When General Lee completed the arrangements with Powell Hill, the time was nearing one o’clock in the morning. The night was now completely still, warm, and the moon was bright. He rode his spent horse at a walk among the clumps of sleeping figures and silent guns. Looking at what was to be the last bivouac of the invasion, the heartsick Old Man of the army must have been weighted with the knowledge that it was also the last invasion.
From the retreat, he would return to the defense of Virginia knowing that there was no more possibility of larger strategy. Never having believed that the Southern Confederacy could win its independence without defeating the armies of the states joined in union, Lee now looked into a future consisting of a long rear-guard action in which the Confederates could only hope for a weakening of the enemy’s will to conquer. It was a wan hope, and the nature of the resistance was foreign to Lee’s nature as a man and to his concepts of warfare. In his heart he must have known that the retreat home started him along a road that could have only one destination. With his training, no choice was left him save to do his duty to the end of that journey.
At his group of six headquarters tents, only two men were awake. The young staff officers had gone to sleep so tired that not even a sentry was posted. The two men watching Lee from the shadows of a tree, where they were lying on the grass, were General Imboden and an aide. Lee had asked the cavalryman to wait for him there to receive instructions for escorting the ambulance train.
Lee spoke to them and reined in his horse, which looked as “weary,” Imboden said, as its rider. When the general started to dismount, Imboden feared that in his “physical exhaustion” he would not make it. The young cavalry leader impulsively hurried forward to help him to the ground. Before Imboden reached him, the older man stepped down from the stirrups, then threw his arm across the saddle and leaned there to rest. With eyes on the ground, Lee stood motionless against the motionless horse.
As Imboden saw the tableau, “The moon shone full upon his massive features and revealed an expression of sadness that I had never before seen upon his face. Awed by his appearance, I waited for him to speak, until the silence became embarrassing. 𥀦 To break it and change the silent current of his thoughts, I ventured to speak, in a sympathetic tone, and in allusion to his great fatigue.”
The cavalryman said: “General, this has been a hard day for you.”
Lee raised his head and made no effort to disguise his grief. “Yes, it has been a sad, sad day to us.” He had also used the word “sad” to Fremantle.
The general remained silent for a while, his eyes glazed by inner images. Then one of the images excited him and suddenly he stood straight, “at his full height,” and when he spoke it was one of the few times that anyone heard his voice choked with emotion.
“I never saw troops behave more magnificently than Pickett’s division of Virginians did today in that grand charge upon the enemy. And if they had been supported as they were to have been—but, for some reason not yet explained to me, were not—we would have held the position and the day would have been ours.”
Then the glory of the lost moment faded and he returned to the reality of preparing a retreat. “Too bad,” he said in an anguished voice. “Too bad! Oh, too bad!”
Slowly the emotion passed, and he collected himself. With habitual courtesy he invited Imboden into his tent to examine the maps.
Lee said: “We must now return to Virginia.”