July 1-3, 2013 marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. Gettysburg is often referred to as the turning point of the war, the one battle that stopped Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s great tide of sweeping victories. In this battle, newly appointed Union General George G. Meade and the Army of the Potomac stubbornly defended the ridges beyond the town of Gettysburg against numerous assaults by Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, which caused Lee’s Northern invasion to come to end.
It was June 1863, and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia had just recently won an amazing victory in the Battle of Chancellorsville against 3-to-1 odds. In order to capitalize on his victory, Lee came up with a plan to launch a second invasion into the North (the first being the Maryland Campaign in the previous year). This would give Virginia farms a chance to rest after two years of war, it would let his army gather fresh food and supplies from the rich soil of Pennsylvania, it would hopefully draw Union forces away from the weary troops and citizens besieged in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and it would threaten Washington, Philadelphia and Baltimore which would hopefully lead to more peace sentiments in the North. After President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet had voted 7-1 to approve his plan, Lee’s army started moving northwest towards the Shenandoah Valley from its position near Fredericksburg, Virginia. Due to the loss of Lee’s best corps commander, Stonewall Jackson, at Chancellorsville, Lee reorganized his 72,000-man army into three corps – James Longstreet’s First Corps, Richard Ewell’s Second Corps, and A. P. Hill’s Third Corps, plus a cavalry division under the famed J.E.B. Stuart.
The first major battle of the Gettysburg campaign was at Brandy Station, Virginia on June 9. The 9,500 men in the Confederate cavalry division under Stuart were in bivouac near Culpeper, resting their tired horses after two Grand Reviews on June 5 and 8. Pleasanton and his Cavalry Corps launched a surprise attack on the Confederate horse troopers, driving them back from their camps. The two sides clashed all day, with the upper hand going to neither force, and finally Pleasanton withdrew his men across the Rappahannock river after an inconclusive fight. This was the largest mainly cavalry battle of the war, and it proved for the first time that the Federal cavalry was as competent as the famed troopers of J.E.B. Stuart’s division. So, Hooker ordered Pleasanton’s cavalry to try and break through Stuart’s brigades guarding the passes of the Blue Ridge Mountains to try and find the positions of the Rebel army. He failed in his three attempts over a week’s time to break Stuart’s screen, which caused the high command to be in the dark about the Army of Northern Virginia until reports came in that they had crossed the Potomac River. When that was discovered, Hooker ordered the army to concentrate in the vicinity of Frederick, Maryland. Over a dispute over the use of the Harper’s Ferry garrison, Hooker angrily offered his resignation to Lincoln and Halleck. Lincoln, who had been looking for the past month for an excuse to fire the general, immediately accepted Hooker’s resignation. In his place, the President ordered Major General George G. Meade to take command of the Army of the Potomac on June 28. Meade was a Pennsylvanian, previously commanding the V Corps, and he knew the terrain which he would be fighting in.
Lee, meanwhile, had no idea at this time that the Union army was north of the Potomac River. Lee had permitted Stuart to take his cavalry and conduct another one of his ‘raids’, riding around the Union army’s right flank. As a result, he was not present to report to Lee the positions and strength of the Union army, causing the Confederate army to be “blind” in enemy territory. Lee finally found out on June 29 that the Federal army was already in Maryland by way of Longstreet’s ‘scout’ named Harrison. He ordered his army to concentrate in the vicinity of Cashtown, a few miles west of Gettysburg. Ewell, who was on the outskirts of Harrisburg, was disappointed that he was not permitted to capture the state capital and instead had to counter-march back south. On June 30, J. Johnston Pettigrew’s Confederate brigade in Hill’s corps marched towards Gettysburg because they had heard that there was a shoe factory in town. Shoes were sorely needed in the Confederate army, and they were sent there to acquire some. When they arrived there, they noticed Union cavalrymen in town. Having been ordered by Lee to not start a general engagement until the army was concentrated, Pettigrew prudently withdrew his troops and reported the situation to Henry Heth, his division commander, and Hill. Neither of the latter generals believed what he had said, stating that it was only local militia armed with muskets. Hill therefore told Heth to send two brigades forward the next day to clear them out. The blue troopers in town were not at all militia, but the advance guard of the Army of the Potomac. Two brigades of cavalry, under John Buford, were sent ahead of the Left Wing (commanded by John Reynolds) to go into Gettysburg and scout the area. Seeing Pettigrew’s brigade coming into town and then leaving, Buford set up a defense on the outside of town and asked Reynolds to send him reinforcements as quickly as possible the next day. The Battle of Gettysburg was about to begin.
Please read the continuation of the story of the Battle of Gettysburg with my next post: Battle Spotlight 14: Gettysburg – Day 1, to learn about the first day’s battle.