Summary and Analysis
Friday, July 3, 1863
Longstreet sits watching the battle unable to think, his mind "like a room in which there has been a butchering." He tries to pray, but can't. He sits silent and immobile as men stream by him in retreat. Pickett's aide screams for help that isn't there. Garnett's horse returns, the saddle empty. Longstreet orders Pickett to retreat.
Longstreet feels horror from the loss, weariness, and monstrous disgust. It is done, he sent them, and now he would get a gun and take a walk forward. But then he sees Lee, who is riding hatless among returning men, gently consoling them, accepting blame, urging them to show good order and not let the enemy see them run.
Longstreet has had enough. He gets a horse and his aide, Sorrel, tries to stop him, but Longstreet is savage and growls at Sorrel to let go. Heading off to where the Union is forming for attack, Longstreet sees that Goree is following him and asking for orders. Longstreet's staff is there now, grabbing the horse's bridle. The battle is ending, and blue troops are pulling back.
The men begin to realize that the battle is over. Longstreet sees the Union men cheering a general, sees them raise the blue flag of Virginia — a captured battle flag — and Longstreet turns away. He heads back to camp knowing he can't even quit.
There is a new stillness tonight — no music.
Longstreet is black, thinking of all the men who died that day. Lee arrives accompanied by the still loyal men. He speaks privately to Longstreet, who is silent. Lee shows vulnerability and weakness, something Longstreet cannot resist, and Longstreet responds to Lee's request for help with the retreat. Lee recovers his strength and speaks of doing better another day.
Choking on so much death, Longstreet cannot be silent. He tells Lee he doesn't agree and feels he cannot go on leading men to die for nothing. Lee speculates on why men die, and that they die for their own reasons. Lee indicates he will go on if the men go on. After Lee goes, Longstreet walks out to the field "to say goodbye" and then orders the retreat.
As if defeat itself isn't bad enough, seeing the Union Army cheerfully waving the battle flag of Virginia is the ultimate humiliation. That flag represented them, their pride, and their honor.
During the battle, Longstress tries to pray but cannot. There is no one there, just like when his children died. Longstreet's men are the only children and family he has left. And now they have died. So Longstreet tries to kill himself by riding into the battle.
Lee guides his men gently. When Lee comes into Longstreet's camp, it is almost a biblical scene with the dark sky, and the men surrounding him, pleading with him. Lee has a presence that they all respond to and need, and they make him larger than life. Even in defeat, he has a majesty that continues to inspire the men.
Longstreet doesn't want to forgive Lee. Yet Lee can still get to Longstreet's emotions. Lee's fatigue, his vulnerability, his shielding of his eyes to hide his emotions from view — all these things melt Longstreet in spite of his rage. When Lee tries to say something, Longstreet just tells Lee, "Never mind." Longstreet agrees to take care of things. When Lee is assured of Longstreet's help, he recovers his strength.
Why do men die? Longstreet says he cannot go on leading men to die for nothing. Lee reflects that each man dies for his own reasons, not for their commanders. Lee doubts that the outcome of the war itself ever really mattered and that God will not ask about that in the end. Lee tells Longstreet that while commanders may have no cause, soldiers do. It is the only way they ever stand a chance of winning. It is like life itself: In the end, the challenges and the outcomes are irrelevant. It is the response chosen and the quality of its execution that matters. There is nothing else.