By June 1863, fighting that was supposed to be over in less than 90 days stretched into its third year. Nearly 200,000 men had been killed. That January, the Emancipation Proclamation had changed the meaning of the war. Abraham Lincoln, seeking an outcome worthy to justify the long casualty lists, had made the war about ending slavery once and for all.
The North was winning most of its strategic objectives. The border slave-owning states had been prevented from joining the Confederacy. The Union naval blockade of southern ports had begun to have an economic effect on the Confederate war machine. European powers had decided not to intervene. Yet Lincoln was in political trouble because the war dragged on after every Union army defeat. With every Confederate victory, an end to the bloody fighting seemed further away.
West of the Appalachian Mountains, the war was progressing well for the Union side. The big Confederate cities of New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville had been captured, so had the important railroad junction at Corinth. Most of the strategically important Tennessee, Cumberland and Mississippi Rivers had come under Union control, except for a 100-mile stretch of the Mississippi at Vicksburg. There, Ulysses S. Grant’s forces had surrounded the Confederate army defending the town. A Union victory at Vicksburg and control of the entire Mississippi River would reopen that economically vital avenue of Northern commerce and split the Confederacy in two.
But to win the war, the Union army in the east charged with defending Washington D.C. and capturing Richmond must be victorious over their opponent facing them across the Rappahannock River.
In the east, the tide of war favored the Confederates. Robert E. Lee had run up a series of victories against four different Union army commanders. Lee’s most recent and greatest victory came at Chancellorsville in early May, where he defeated a Union force twice the size of his own under Joseph Hooker. It was an expensive win, however. The death of Lee’s capable and trusted subordinate, Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, and the loss of many other experienced officers forced Lee to reorganize his entire army. Many young officers were promoted to new commands and assumed greater responsibilities.
After Jackson’s death, there were meetings in Richmond about Confederate strategy for the spring. There were basically four options. First; Lee could maintain a defensive position in Virginia and await another advance on Richmond by the Army of the Potomac, as would almost certainly occur. On the downside, the initiative would be lost and the high morale of the soldiers might be squashed by shifting to the defensive. Second; Lee could move against Hooker’s army across the Rappahannock River. An attack, however, without Jackson, against Hooker’s larger, well-supplied, well-entrenched army would be problematic at best. Third; part of the Army of Northern Virginia could be sent west to relieve the pressure on Vicksburg. A native of Mississippi, Davis certainly understood the importance of the river there, and Lee’s hard-fighting subordinate James Longstreet favored another offensive through Tennessee and Kentucky. Fourth; Lee could disengage from Hooker and advance again into Union territory. Lee, who embraced the strategic offensive and whose reputation had never been higher, favored this strategy. With their recent victories, soldiers in the Army of Northern Virginia had momentum and high morale. As he had the previous autumn, Lee saw an opportunity in the spring of 1863 to take the war into the north. Ultimately Davis and the Confederate cabinet approved Lee’s plan.
Lee’s stated objective was to draw Hooker’s army away from the Rappahannock and “transfer the scene of hostilities beyond the Potomac.” He believed a movement north would disrupt Union army offensive plans for the summer and relieve, if only temporarily, the presence of both armies on Virginia’s war-torn soil. Lee was aware of the disparity between the strength of his army versus his opponent. He wished if possible to “give occupation to [the enemy] at points of our selection.” While drawing both armies northward, Lee intended to find a favorable time and place to engage his superior adversary in battle.
Lee and Davis also read Northern newspapers, many of which that spring were not friendly to the Lincoln administration, mostly due to the increasing cost of the war. Also, many in the North did not like the Emancipation Proclamation. A Confederate victory in a northern state might capitalize on political opposition to Lincoln and perhaps permit negotiations to begin to end the fighting with the Confederacy intact. The Confederacy could win independence three ways: militarily, economically, or politically. With the ever-growing strength of Union armies and war materiel, and with the Confederate economy in shambles, the first two were practically impossible in mid-1863; Lee was looking for a decisive victory on Union soil that could achieve the third.
On June 3, Lee’s army of about 75,000 men began to move west and then north from Fredericksburg. Lee used the Shenandoah Valley to hide the movement of his infantry, while Confederate cavalry guarded the mountain passes and river fords between Lee’s men and the Federal army. Richard Ewell, “Stonewall” Jackson’s key subordinate in the valley and a new corps commander, took the lead, followed by Longstreet and A. P. Hill, another new corps commander. Ewell’s victories at Winchester on June 13-15 cleared the valley of Union opposition. On June 22nd, Lee allowed three brigades of cavalry under Jeb Stuart to sweep out to the east on a wide movement to damage Federal communications, gather provisions, and to maintain contact with Ewell’s infantry. Stuart succeeded in the first two objectives but failed in the third.
The Union Army of the Potomac, about 90,000 strong, followed Lee. Hooker’s seven infantry corps left their camps along the Rappahannock a few days after Lee had moved west. Hooker’s orders were to follow Lee and destroy his army while simultaneously protecting Washington DC. Union cavalry tangled with Jeb Stuart’s cavalry at Brandy Station on June 9, and again a week later at Aldie, Middleburg and Upperville. Hooker’s army filled the roads of northern Virginia in pursuit of Lee, trapping Stuart’s cavalry far to the east. In a dispute with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton over assignment of forces to his command, Hooker was relieved on June 28 and replaced by George G. Meade. Meade’s orders were the same as Hooker’s yet with new urgency: on the day Meade took command Ewell’s corps had reached the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania.
By the last days of June, most of Lee’s army had been in Pennsylvania for a week, gathering food and supplies. Elements of Ewell’s corps had reached the outskirts of the state capital at Harrisburg largely unmolested. Lee had not heard from Jeb Stuart, so he believed the Federal army pursuing him was still in Virginia. When Lee learned from a civilian scout that the Union army had crossed the Potomac, with Meade now in command, he issued orders on June 29 for his scattered troops to concentrate at Cashtown, six miles west of Gettysburg. Lee wanted to defend the mountain pass there to protect his communication and supply routes in the Cumberland Valley. Lee respected the greater size of Meade’s army, so he did not wish to confront the Yankees until his forces could concentrate.
George Meade assumed command of the Army of the Potomac with great caution. Meade was keenly sensitive of his orders to defend Washington DC from the invading Confederates. On June 30, he prepared a contingency plan for a defensive position in Maryland along Pipe Creek, just south of the Pennsylvania border and between Lee’s army and the national capital. Meade’s seven army corps were spread out as they moved into Pennsylvania. Meade knew the Confederates had stopped their movement north and east, and he believed they would concentrate somewhere in his front. The closest Union army corps to Lee’s army was John Reynolds’ First Corps at Emmitsburg, Maryland. A cavalry division under John Buford was near Reynolds, screening their infantry counterparts as they searched for the Confederates. On June 30, Buford moved north into Pennsylvania with Reynolds and his infantry close behind.
Despite Lee’s orders the day before to concentrate, Henry Heth, a new division commander in A. P. Hill’s corps, requested permission on June 30 to move into Gettysburg the next morning, allegedly to search for shoes in the town. Hill approved Heth’s request, not expecting him to meet elements of the Union army. However, Heth’s brigades under Joe Davis and James Archer confronted Union cavalry around 7:30 a.m. The greatest battle of the Civil War had begun.
After his defeat on July 3, Lee began his withdrawal from the battlefield through the Fairfield and Cashtown Gaps late on July 4. His 14-mile long train of ambulance wagons was escorted through the Cashtown Gap by John Imboden’s cavalry brigade. Instead of following Lee directly, most of Meade’s infantry moved south, shielding Lee’s army from the roads to Washington, D.C. Union cavalry led the vanguard in pursuit of the Confederates. Skirmishes at Monterey Pass, Smithsburg, Hagerstown, Boonsboro and Funkstown slowed the pursuing Yankees. By July 11, Lee had formed a strong defensive position in front of Williamsport with his back to the Potomac River. Meade found Lee in front of Williamsport on July 12 and held a council of war with his commanders. They urged caution and the men dug in. On the 14th, they discovered the Confederates had slipped away across the river back into Virginia.
After a year of success against Union armies, Lee suffered his greatest defeat at Gettysburg. His goal of a victory on northern soil again eluded his grasp. Never again would the Army of Northern Virginia be in the right place at the right time to defeat the Army of the Potomac. Because he was not aggressively pursued during his retreat, Lee was fortunate to have escaped Pennsylvania with his army intact. He offered his resignation to Jefferson Davis in August but was refused. Despite his defeat, Lee’s reputation as a fighter remained, and he was a factor to be reckoned with until the end of the war.
The experience and discipline of the Union’s battle-hardened veterans paid off for them at Gettysburg. Fighting on Pennsylvania soil instilled a determination in them that seemed elusive in Virginia. Meade was the first Union general to beat Lee, losing more men than any previous army commander in the process. The criticism of Meade during his pursuit of the Confederates, especially from Abraham Lincoln, overshadowed his sound decisions on the battlefield. Meade would continue to command the army for the rest of the war and would see it through to victory nearly two years later.