Depending where you sit on the subject of James Longstreet and his contributions (or lack thereof) during the Battle of Gettysburg, the time it took him to get the First Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia into battle on July 2nd is sure to provoke discussion. Was there a “sunrise attack order?” Why did Robert E. Lee agree to delay his attack until the last of Hood’s brigades arrived on the field? Did “Old Pete” drag his feet, intentionally or unintentionally, while getting his troops into place? And, perhaps most vexing, when the flanking maneuver appeared to come under observation from Federal signalmen on Little Round Top, why did Longstreet conduct a time-wasting countermarch?
These questions and more were the subject of the season-ending “Joe’s Jaunts” as 16 First Defenders followed Licensed Gettysburg Battlefield Guide Jim Hessler through the roads and fields west of Seminary Ridge in areas lost to time and seldom visited by even the most devoted students of the battle. Specific documentation of Longstreet’s route to the southern end of the field is lacking, but 14,000 men wound their way along and behind Herr Ridge in an effort to get on the Union flank. Perhaps a mile short of their objective, the head of the column crested a small hill where their view fell on the Round Tops in the distance straight ahead. The flags of the U.S. Signal Corps could clearly be seen wig-wagging, and the element of surprise was suddenly in jeopardy.
It could have been Longstreet’s pique at having to make an attack he opposed in the first place, or it could have been the “Southern honor” of division commander Lafayette McLaws who had been tapped to lead the assault, but instead of just turning around in place and finding a concealed approach to their jump-off point, McLaws executed a “countermarch” that caused the column to double back on itself and cost the Confederates an hour or more they could ill afford to squander.
Students of the battle know the fighting on the lower end of the field was a close thing on the afternoon of July 2nd, and finally came to an end as the sun dipped below the mountains to the west. It is impossible to know what the results would have been if the gray troops had advanced sooner, but under Hessler’s careful guidance, the First Defenders now know the First Corps engaged in a circuitous hike under a broiling sun, and have seen what Longstreet and McLaws saw as they crested that little ridge and came within view of the Round Tops.
(Map re-printed from Gettysburg Campaign Atlas by Philip Laino)