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Fought during the first three days of July 1863, the third year of war, the Battle of Gettysburg was one of the most critical battles of the war and occurred at a time when the fate of the nation hung in the balance, the summer of 1863. Despite promising victories on the battlefield the year prior, the Union cause had suffered several reversals especially in the eastern theater.

 
 

The Confederacy's most victorious army, the Army of Northern Virginia, had successfully thwarted numerous Union threats against the Confederate capitol of Richmond. Often outnumbered and out gunned, this army, under the guidance of General Robert E. Lee, had won strategically important victories at Fredericksburg, Virginia in 1862, and Chancellorsville, Virginia in May 1863. By that June, Lee's army enjoyed a surge of confidence in itself having frustrated the much larger Union Army of the Potomac with constant reversals and high casualties. President Lincoln had appointed commander after commander to no avail- Lee defeated each and avery one. There was a bright spot for the Union cause that summer with the Union Army under General Ulysses S. Grant having encircled Vicksburg, Mississippi, the last great Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River. As critical as Vicksburg was, Lincoln, and his Confederate counterpart Jefferson Davis, knew all too well that events in Virginia were going to decide the outcome of the conflict.

General Robert E. Lee was not ready to sit idle and wait for the next Union thrust after Chancellorsville. He had communicated with Richmond for several months on his desire to make another invasion of the North and by late May saw an opportunity to take the initiative while Union forces appeared to be in disarray. Lee's objectives were quite simple: take the war out of Virginia so that the land could recover, a necessary measure to provide relief to farms and farmland devastated by battle and foraging armies, and to gather supplies for his hungry army. His army's movement north of the Potomac River would not only force the Union Army out of Virginia, but hopefully also draw Union troops away from the ongoing siege of Vicksburg. Once his army had raided northern territory, he could gather his troops for battle in an area to his liking where advantages of position could force the Union to attack and Lee counterattack as opportunities were presented. Politically, Lee reasoned a conclusive victory on northern soil would add weight to the growing Northern peace movement, apply pressure to the Lincoln administration to end the war and sue for peace, and provide sufficient reason for official recognition of the Confederacy by European powers. Only the political diplomacy of the Lincoln administration had kept England and France from recognizing the southern government as an independent nation. Lee's argument was reasonable to Jefferson Davis and though the Confederate president was nervous about Richmond not being fully protected by Lee's forces, he approved the plan.

While Lee's army made preparations to march, the Army of the Potomac rested in their old winter camps opposite Fredericksburg while its commander, Major General Joseph Hooker, wrestled with innumerable predicaments. Not only were Lee's intentions perplexing Hooker, his relationship with War Department officials in Washington had become almost hostile. The flamboyant Hooker had rebuilt morale and discipline in the army after the disastrous "Mud March" in the winter of 1863, and in late April brilliantly moved the bulk of his forces around Lee's army concentrated at Fredericksburg. Despite the Union advantage, Lee and his top general "Stonewall" Jackson, countered Hooker's strategy and soundly defeated him. Hooker's bluster and bravado before the campaign meant nothing after his miserable failure at the Battle of Chancellorsville. Many in the War Department had lost faith in the general's abilities, including President Lincoln who soon believed Hooker unsuited to contend with Lee.

Hooker approved a plan to probe Lee's defenses and on June 9, the army's cavalry under General Alfred Pleasanton made a surprise attack on General "JEB" Stuart's cavalry camps near Brandy Station, Virginia. Pleasanton's troopers surprised Stuart, but withdrew when Confederate infantry were sighted approaching the battlefield. From this information, Hooker realized that Lee's forces were no longer concentrated in front of him at Fredericksburg. Yet, indecision seemed to strike General Hooker again. He waited for nearly a week before ordering his troops to break camp and then marched cautiously northward, keeping his army between Washington and the suspected Confederate route of march. By this time, Lee's troops had already defeated a Union force at Winchester, Virginia, and crossed the Potomac River into Maryland.

Despite the loss of "Stonewall" Jackson, the Army of Northern Virginia was never stronger both in manpower and high morale than in the summer of 1863. "It was an army of veterans," recalled A.H. Belo, Colonel of the 55th North Carolina Infantry, "an army that had in two years' time made a record second to none for successful fighting and hard marching." In mid-June, Lee's soldiers crossed the Potomac River and stepped into a rich land barely touched by the war. Except for some persistent Union cavalry units, the southerners tramped along unopposed as militia units retreated from their path leaving the land and its residents to the mercy of the Confederates.

For Lee's men who had been living for months on reduced rations, Maryland and Pennsylvania were bursting with plenty. "I can hardly believe that a rebel army has actually left poor Virginia for a season," wrote Major Eugene Blackford of the 5th Alabama Infantry. "Of course there is no end of milk and butter which our soldiers enjoy hugely." Encounters with the civilian population of Maryland and Pennsylvania made for good subject matter in letters home such as that of Private William McClellan of the 9th Alabama Infantry, who described Pennsylvanians as, "the most ignorant beings of the world. They don't care how long the war lasts so they are not troubled." Like many of his comrades, McClellan especially detested the females who, "would not look at a Rebel, they would turn up their nose and toss their heads to one side as contemp(t)uously as if we were high way Robers."

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  Images and text courtesy of National Park Service.

 

 


 

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