Armies gather for battle Confederacy seeks a decisive victory on Northern soil; Perspective on Gettysburg; GETTYSBURG RE-ENACTMENT


As thousands of Civil War re-enactors meet in Gettysburg, Pa., next month to commemorate a crucial battle of that war, the outcome of that struggle is well known to history: The Confederate army was defeated with such devastating losses that it was never again capable of winning the war. But in June 1863, as the two armies started toward the battlefield, there was no such certainty about the verdict.

After Gen. Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, had defeated the Union army at Chancellorsville, Va., May 2-4, 1863, Southerners' hopes soared to the possibility that Lee's army would march north to New York or Philadelphia and dictate the terms of peace and Southern independence at the Capitol in Washington.

Confederate leaders met in Richmond, Va., to plan strategy; one of their key goals was to relieve Vicksburg, Miss., where Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had besieged Gen. John Clifford Pemberton and 33,000 men, threatening to divide the Confederacy by gaining control of the Mississippi River.

At this meeting, according to Gen. William C. Oates, "Lee favored the invasion of Pennsylvania, to let the people of that state feel the scourge of war, and imperil the capital at Washington, which he believed would cause such a withdrawal of troops from Grant's army to send against his and protect Washington as to raise the siege and protect Vicksburg."

Lee also hoped to secure recognition of the Confederacy by France and England through a decisive victory on Northern soil. Historian John Formby, writing in 1910, said, "The South was elated, thinking that the war could now be finished by another victory, this time on Northern soil. The reports of its agents, both abroad and in the Northern states, all spoke of a favorable change of opinion, that France was becoming very civil, and England only waiting for some such event to recognize or even join them."

Lee's strategic thinking is conveyed in Lt. Gen. James Longstreet's 1884 account of Confederate planning before the Gettysburg campaign. Longstreet was commander of the Confederate 1st Corps and a confidant of Lee:

"I proposed ... to march against Cincinnati. That, I thought, was the only way we had to relieve Vicksburg. General Lee admitted the force of my proposition, but finally stated that he preferred to organize a campaign into Maryland and Pennsylvania, hoping thereby to draw the Federal troops from the southern points they occupied. After discussing the matter with him for several days, I found his mind made up not to allow any of his troops to go west. I then accepted his proposition to make a campaign into Pennsylvania, provided it should be offensive in strategy but defensive in tactics, forcing the Federal army to give us battle when we were in a strong position to receive them. ...

"Our purpose should have been to impair the morale of the Federal army and shake Northern confidence in the Federal leaders. We talked on that line from day to day, and General Lee, accepting it as a good military view, adopted it as the key-note of the campaign."

Lee's tactical thinking before the battle of Gettysburg is probably best captured by a conversation he had with Maj. Gen. Isaac Ridgeway Trimble.

Trimble, a Baltimore resident who graduated from West Point in 1822, had been chief engineer of the Baltimore and Susquehanna Railroad and other area railroads before the war. He was seriously wounded at the battle of Second Bull Run and was accompanying Lee's army north while convalescing. His conversation with Lee is reported by Oates in his book, "The War Between the Union and the Confederacy," published in 1907:

"Major General Trimble told the writer after the war that Lee told ++ him on the 28th that his plan of operation was to fall upon the bTC advance of the Union army, when and wherever he found it, crush and hurl it back on the main body, press forward and beat that before its commander could have time to concentrate his whole force, and that in the event of his success, he intended to march on Philadelphia."

Lee also realized that supplies for his army were exhausted in war-torn Northern Virginia but available in Maryland and Pennsylvania. "The question of food gives me more trouble and uneasiness than everything else combined," he said.

Accordingly, Lee left Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill's 3rd Corps spread thin at Fredericksburg to disguise his movement from Union eyes and on June 3 started his army north through the Shenandoah and Cumberland valleys, driving Union Maj. Gen. Robert H. Milroy's division from Winchester, Va., June 12-15 and crossing the Potomac at Shepherdstown and Williamsport June 22-25.

Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, the Union commander, soon learned that Lee had moved north, and he proposed to attack Richmond or to follow Lee's army and attack it from behind while it was on the march, but President Abraham Lincoln and Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, his chief military adviser, insisted that Hooker move north, keeping the Army of the Potomac between Lee and Washington.

Pub Date: 6/07/98

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