Midpoint of the War: May to July 1863

Gettysburg: The First Day

What did Lee see? What did he decide?

As his field glasses swept the area, Lee saw his own men in ragged and disorganized fashion swarming over the northern and northwestern approaches to the town. He saw that the Federals were fighting with much greater determination than usual, and his perceptive eyes quickly took in the importance of the hills south of the town. Just for a moment—perhaps as long as two minutes—Lee considered breaking off the action. His men would take some convincing, he knew, but he could pull them back and fight on another day, when all his forces were “up.” At that very moment, however, Lee saw something else. His eyes took in that the federal defenders north of the town, those facing General Ewell, were on the verge of breaking and that the entire Union line might soon cave in. These were the moments he had always seized, and Gettysburg was no exception. Overriding his own concerns, Lee ordered an all-out assault by every unit on the field.


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