Three Days at Gettysburg: Essays on Confederate and Union Leadership

By Gary W. Gallagher | Go to book overview

"If the Enemy Is There,
We Must Attack Him"

R. E. Lee and the Second Day
at Gettysburg

Gary W. Gallagher

NO ASPECT OF R. E. LEE'S MILITARY CAREER HAS SPARKED more controversy than his decision to pursue the tactical offensive at Gettysburg. Lee's contemporaries and subsequent writers produced a literature on the subject notable for its size and discordancy. Unwary students can fall victim to the hyperbole, dissembling, and self-interest characteristic of many accounts by participants. The massive printed legacy of the "Gettysburg Controversy," with its blistering critiques of James Longstreet and "Old Pete's" clumsy rejoinders, demands special care. Even many modern writers unfurl partisan banners when they approach the topic. Despite the size of the existing literature, Lee's decision to resume offensive combat on July 2 remains a topic worthy of study. Before passing judgment on his actions, however, it is necessary to assess the merits of earlier works—an exercise that underscores the contradictory nature of the evidence and the lack of interpretive consensus among previous writers.

The Army of Northern Virginia went into Pennsylvania at its physical apogee, supremely confident that under Lee's direction it could triumph on any battlefield. LeRoy Summerfield Edwards of the I2th Virginia Infantry struck a common note in a letter written near Shepherdstown on June 23: "[T]he health of the troops was never better and above all the morale of the army was never more favorable for offensive or defensive operations ... victory will inevitably attend our arms in any collision with the enemy."

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