The absence of Stuart, and Lee’s mishandling of the cavalry brigades left to him, had caused the Army of Northern Virginia to blunder blindly into the Army of the Potomac on July 1, but the failure of the cavalry had its greatest effect on the second day of the battle. Lee still had little idea of the actual position of the Yankee Army. Before dawn, he had sent a small party to scout the right side of the Union position. Through bad luck or incompetence, this group reported that the flank of the Yankee army was in the air – according to them, no troops were posted at Little Round Top, the small hill that should have formed the anchor of the Union line. The hill held a Union signal tation, however, and troops had occupied the hill until around 5:30 in the morning, and reoccupied it soon after. The faulty report convinced Lee that a flank attack was not only practicable, but actually bound to succeed.
Worse, the absence of cavalry units to act as a rearguard compelled Lee to fill this function with infantry. Specifically, Evander Law’s brigade, and George Pickett’s whole division, both from James Longstreet’s First Corps, had been posted to the rear. Early in the morning on July 2 they received the order to move up, but Law would not reach the field until the afternoon and Pickett would not get on it at all. Longstreet, ordered to make a flanking attack on the Union position, expressed much displeasure at being forbidden to wait for Pickett, stating that he did not like to go into battle with one boot off. Perhaps he did not recall that he’d done precisely that at Sharpsburg.
Longstreet’s gripe about Pickett was one expression of a larger dissatisfaction with Lee’s plan. Longstreet did not want to assault the Union army where it stood, and preferred the idea of sidling around to the right, outflanking them on a strategic, rather than a tactical level. He felt the Yankee position was simply too strong to be successfully taken, which he expressed to Lee bluntly:
Lee: “If he is there tomorrow, we must attack him.”
Longstreet: “If he is there, it will be because he is anxious that we should attack him – a good reason, in my judgment, for not doing so.”
Lee must have been rather unhappy himself, as he was not getting the sort of help he was used to from his corps commanders. Ewell was even worse than Longstreet – not only did he not want to attack the men in front of him (although he did mount a modestly successful effective assault against unoccupied entrenchments late in the day), he was even reluctant to reposition his corps to a spot where it could attack fruitfully. As for Hill, his record in the battle is practically nonexistent. After allowing Heth to make his ill-considered push towards town on the first day he seems to have made no contribution at all. Stuart was still absent from the field.
History strongly suggests that Longstreet allowed his irritation with Lee to affect his battlefield performance, earning him his candidacy for The Man Who Lost Gettysburg. He insisted on waiting for Law to rejoin Hood’s division before he started moving the rest of his corps, which delayed the day’s planned attack. When he took his troops along the poorly-scouted route to the point of attack, he belatedly realized that part of the route was exposed to the signal station on Little Round Top and ended up taking a slow and inefficient countermarch to remain concealed.
Lee’s attack plan, predicated on his belief that the Army of the Potomac had entrenched along Cemetery Ridge without anchoring its line on Little Round Top, involved first taking the Peach Orchard in order to use it for the artillery, then rolling up the Union line with an advance parallel to the Emmitsburg road. When Longstreet finally reached his destination, however, the plan had to be changed, because the III Corps was suddenly positioned where nobody expected it to be.
Dan Sickles was a prime example of that now-extinct species, the political general. A well-connected Congressman, he had once murdered a man who was romancing his wife and employed the first successful temporary insanity defense to avoid conviction. By this point in the war he had command of the III Corps of the Union army, and on this day he had been told in no uncertain terms that the was to deploy his troops along Cemetery Ridge and anchor his flank at Little Round Top.
Sickles, no doubt remembering how the Confederate seizure of Hazel Grove had proven decisive at Chancellorsville, felt very uncomfortable staring at the elevated ground of the Peach Orchard just to his front. He decided to advance his men to form a large salient, pushing out from Cemetery Ridge to the Peach Orchard before angling back towards Little Round Top. This position had several problems. First, because of the way it protruded from the rest of the line, it was vulnerable to attack from two directions rather than one. Additionally, it pulled off the troops that had been guarding Little Round Top, leaving the hill undefended. Finally, Sickles had nowhere near enough men to actually hold the line he had occupied.
Sickles made his move around 4:00 PM. Meade recognized the danger as soon as he saw the troop positions, but by then it was too late. Longstreet was attacking.
Meade immediately sent Gouverneur K. Warren to see to the defense of Little Round Top, which Warren discovered to be unoccupied, with Rebels advancing on it. The V Corps was quickly ordered to defend the position, but the courier had trouble finding the intended divisional commander. Colonel Strong Vincent decided to occupy the hill on his own authority, and deployed his brigade just in time to meet the Alabamians of Law’s brigade. The fight was desperate, and the 20th Maine regiment, anchoring the defense, almost bent back on itself to avoid being outflanked by the assault. As their ammunition ran out, Joshua L. Chamberlain ordered a bayonet charge that finally swept away the attackers, preserving the far left of the Union line.
Meanwhile, Sickles’ division was being destroyed by the grinding attack of John Hood’s and Lafayette McLaws’ divisions. Rather than trying to belatedly organize a defense in depth with massed units, Sickles was committing his reserves and even units grabbed from other commands piecemeal, trying to plug the holes in the line one brigade or regiment at a time. Eventually a cannonball ruined his leg, requiring that it be amputated below the knee and removing him from command (a II Corps officer expressed the opinion that the general’s loss was thus the country’s gain). Meade deputized Hancock, once again, to take overall command of the Union line and began sending him every soldier that could be spared. Despite this reinforcement, the Union line was dangerously close to being penetrated.
They were saved by the poor alignment of Dick Anderson’s division of the Rebel Third Corps. In the absence of Pickett, Anderson’s men were expected to finish off the flanking attack. Unlike McLaws and Hood, who had concentrated their brigades, Anderson had strung his out, weakening the overall power of his assault and his ability to provide immediate support at breakthrough points. Worse, once his attack started, some of his brigades never actually attacked, or stopped before reaching the Yankee army. As a result, Hancock had enough time to save the Army of the Potomac. He accomplished this at great cost, at one point essentially sacrificing an entire regiment so he could cobble together a line, but the day ended without a Confederate breakthrough.
The second day of Gettysburg featured surprisingly poor showings from most of the Confederate high command, and a strong effort from many Union officers (Sickles excluded). Despite the inefficiency of their commanders, the Rebels had made some modest gains, but the actions of Warren and Hancock denied them the victory they might have had if proper cavalry dispositions had allowed Longstreet to go into battle with both boots on. By the end of July 2, Pickett’s division had arrived at last. Whatever attack took place the next day, his men – the only fresh ones the Confederates had – would almost certainly play the key role.