IT WAS SEPTEMBER OF 1862 and the tides of war had changed. This was the biggest turn-around in military history.
The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia under the command of Joseph E. Johnston had been pursued by McClellan to the brink of defeat on the Virginia Peninsula, and everything was going wrong for the Confederates. George McClellan’s seemingly unstoppable Union army was inching closer and closer to Richmond. But then, one bullet changed the course of the war. Joseph Johnston was struck down by a sharpshooter’s bullet. And who was his replacement? Granny Lee, the “King of Spades.” He was unpopular with the army, which mourned the loss of their beloved general Johnston. And even with Lee in command, no one believed the capital safe. Even he was being pushed back until they came almost to the gates of Richmond. But then Stonewall Jackson arrived back from his Valley Campaign, and, with the full strength of the Army of Northern Virginia, they initiated the Seven Days Battles and eventually sent McClellan scurrying back to Washington.
Lee then turned north, to face the new danger of John Pope’s Army of Virginia, which stretched all the way from Harper’s Ferry to the other side of Fredericksburg, and which was supposed to strike Lee at the same time as McClellan. But of course, poor coordination made that impossible. So Lee sent Jackson with three divisions – Ewell, Winder, and Hill – to go north and keep Pope at bay, while Longstreet kept an eye on McClellan. As the last of the Army of the Potomac’s divisions withdrew from the peninsula, Longstreet, along with Lee, got the rest of the army and came to Jackson’s assistance. Meanwhile, Jackson was engaged in a hot fight near the battlefield of Manassas which they had fought on a year earlier, and he was defending an unfinished railroad cut near Groveton against Pope’s army. Longstreet and Lee ran up into some resistance – James Ricketts’s Union division, along with a cavalry division under John Buford. But soon their vastly superior numbers came into realization and they drove Ricketts and Buford back.
Soon, the Army of Northern Virginia was reunited. This was the perfect trap – Jackson and Longstreet were more or less in an inverted “V”, with Lee’s headquarters in the intersection the lines. Pope was launching attack after attack on Jackson, but Jackson held firm. Longstreet and his five divisions were just about unknown to Pope, which was much to Lee’s advantage. Longstreet finally launched an attack, pushing the surprised Federals back. Only a desperate rear-guard action at Chantilly saved the Union army from complete and utter disaster and a replay of the last year’s rout from the field.
Now Lee contemplated an invasion of Maryland. He figured that the farmers could not sustain the war much longer in Virginia, and it was harvest season. If he took his army north, they could be replenished with fresh food from untouched land, and it could let the Virginia farmers gather up their few crops left from foraging by troops. Also, if they took the war to the north, they could certainly add more pressure on Lincoln to prod whoever would be the new commander of the Army of the Potomac to defend Washington. In fact, Lee was not at all aiming for Washington – the defenses and fortifications were to strong, and by now two massive armies were sitting in the city. Lee’s real objective was the Susquehanna River, and he would draw the Union army to him. Or, if they didn’t come, he could move into Pennsylvania, Baltimore, or Washington to his discretion. And lastly, and probably most important, he could get foreign recognition from countries like England or France – if not only politically, then also with actual military support just like during the Revolution.
So now you have it. This was the biggest military turn-around in history. Lee had been on the brink of defeat at the gates of Richmond, took over command of the Army of Northern Virginia, defeated one army which outnumbered him two to one, defeated another army, and was now ready to launch a full-scale invasion of the North. He was at the gates of Richmond, and now he was at the gates of Washington.