The afternoon of July 3, 1863, near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, promised to be hot. A town resident with a scientific bent would record a high temperature of 87 degrees for this day. At his headquarters just west of town, alongside the Chambersburg Pike, Gen. Robert E. Lee was feeling a heat that had little to do with the sun. Everywhere he looked men, animals, and weapons were moving with a sense of purpose instilled by orders he had given just a short time before. A climax to two days of battle was coming, announced by an action sure to be bloody, and certain, he fervently hoped, to be decisive.
To anyone passing by the modest headquarters tent, the 56-year-old commander of the Confederacy’s finest army appeared, as one soldier recalled, “calm and serene.” There is no reason to believe otherwise. “I think and work with all my power to bring the troops to the right place at the right time; then I have done my duty,” Lee said. “As soon as I order them into battle, I leave my army in the hands of God.”
Over the course of the morning, an unnatural peacefulness had spread across the battlefield save for the occasional pop of a distant rifle firing. Then, at seven minutes past one o’clock, Lee heard a signal cannon shot followed, after a short pause, by a second. No one needed to tell him what it meant. The attack that was to decide the battle, and perhaps the war, was beginning.