On the heels of decisive victories at Fredericksburg (1862)
and Chancellorsville (1863), Lee sought to mount an offensive into
Pennsylvania. He had several objectives. An offensive would upset Union plans for
a summer campaign, relieve a Virginia countryside exhausted by war, and allow the
Army of Northern Virginia to live off the land in Pennsylvania. While in the area,
Confederates also might temporarily capture Harrisburg, the state capital, thereby
embarrassing the administration of U.S. president Abraham Lincoln. Finally—and
this was perhaps Lee's main objective—an invasion would draw the Army of the
Potomac out of Virginia so the Confederates could defeat it on Northern soil. Even
in his role as general, Lee was playing politics. He understood that a victory in
Pennsylvania would encourage the Northern peace movement, damage Republican
interests, increase the possibility of foreign recognition, and perhaps even lead
to a negotiated peace and Confederate independence.
In preparation for the campaign—as well as in response to the death of the
much-celebrated Thomas J.
"Stonewall" Jackson in May—Lee reorganized his army, from two army corps into three. James
Longstreet, known as "Old Pete," was stubborn and opinionated and now Lee's most
trusted lieutenant. He would keep the First Corps. One-legged Richard S. Ewell, "Old Bald
Head," would take Jackson's old Second Corps. And A. P. Hill, known for his headlong charges, sudden bouts
with illness, and notorious fights with Longstreet and Jackson, would lead the
Third Corps. On June 3, the army, numbering approximately 75,000 confident,
veteran soldiers, slowly began to shift west from positions around
The dashing and glory-hungry J. E. B. Stuart, meanwhile, massed
his Confederate cavalry near Culpeper, even staging a review and battle
reenactment for local women, some of whom were reported to have fainted from
excitement. Suspecting that Confederates were preparing to raid his communications
and supply lines, the Potomac army's commander, Joseph Hooker, ordered Alfred Pleasonton to cross
the Rappahannock River with his cavalry on June 9 and attack. Stuart was
thoroughly surprised and humiliated at
[Brandy Station], the largest cavalry
engagement of the war. He was not, however, beaten, and by day's end he had pushed
the Union troopers back. Casualties totaled 907 for the Union and 523 for the
Confederates. And while Hooker managed to learn nothing of Lee's intentions, the
battle did wonders for the morale of Union horsemen.
Lee continued west, marching through the Blue Ridge Mountains into the Shenandoah Valley.
Ewell's Second Corps led the advance and, on June 12, approached Winchester, Virginia,
garrisoned by 6,900 Union troops under Robert H. Milroy. By June 14, Ewell had
nearly surrounded Milroy. The Union general attempted a nighttime escape only to
be smashed by Ewell's forces on June 15 at the cost of 4,443 casualties, most of
whom were prisoners, and the capture of twenty-three pieces of artillery.
Ewell's flashy victory in the Shenandoah
Valley, where Stonewall Jackson had made newspaper headlines and become something
of a legend just a year earlier, eased many people's fears that he was not ready
to fill his predecessor's boots. The way was now open to Pennsylvania, and the
first elements of Lee's army reached the supply-rich Cumberland Valley town of
Chambersburg on June 15. From there, Lee dispatched Ewell east of South Mountain,
troops under Jubal A. Early
made it as far into Pennsylvania as York and Wrightsville, and Ewell himself led
columns north to Carlisle and to the outskirts of the capital at Harrisburg.
Longstreet and Hill, meanwhile, brought up the rear in Cashtown, about thirty
miles west of Gettysburg.
Little did Lee know that Hooker was in hot pursuit. The Union general moved his
army north so quickly that Stuart's cavalry—seeking, perhaps, to redeem itself
after Brandy Station by riding around the Army of the Potomac—was cut off from Lee
and unable to warn him. By June 28, Union forces were massed around Frederick,
Maryland. That same day, after losing a long battle of wills with Lincoln and
Union general-in-chief Henry W. Halleck, Hooker was replaced by George G. Meade.
Irascible and uncharismatic, Meade resolved to take the fight to Lee. The
Confederate commander, meanwhile, only learned of Meade's location from one of
Longstreet's spies and immediately ordered his dangerously scattered army to
concentrate near Cashtown.
On June 30, Confederates in Henry Heth's division set off for
Gettysburg in search of
shoes and other supplies, only to discover Union cavalry instead. Unsure
whether these were home guard troops or more seasoned Union army regulars, A. P.
Hill sent two divisions into Gettysburg on July 1 to investigate. What they found,
just west of town, was the stiff back of Union general John Buford, whose horsemen
were determined to hold the town until the nearby First Corps could arrive.
Buford's men, armed with quick-firing carbines, fought dismounted and, from the
cover of Herr's Ridge and McPherson's Ridge, slowed the Confederate advance until
the First Corps arrived. Realizing now that they were facing the Army of the
Potomac, Hill's men reorganized and prepared to renew the battle as Rodes's and
Early's divisions of Ewell's corps approached serendipitously from the north. Lee
reached the field around noon and attempted to prevent the action from escalating
into a full-scale battle. His standing orders, in fact, had been not to fight a battle until the entire army was concentrated. After all,
he was unfamiliar with the terrain and with the enemy's strength. By early in the
afternoon, however, events had taken on a life of their own.
The Union First Corps commander, John F.
Reynolds, was killed, and when the Eleventh Corps arrived, Oliver O. Howard took
command of the field. His force, which contained a large number of Germans, had
infamously run from Jackson's men at Chancellorsville, and here they did the same
again. Hill from the west and Early from the north set Howard's men to flight
through the streets of Gettysburg with a loss of nearly 3,500 prisoners. They
rallied to the south on Cemetery Hill, an eminence commanding the town and its
road network; as darkness fell, Lee decided against further attack. The battle's
first day had cost approximately 6,800 Confederate and 9,000 Union casualties.
Lee's decision not to attack Cemetery Hill has been a source of controversy ever
since. Some historians have suggested that Ewell was not nearly as aggressive as
Stonewall Jackson would have been. Others have blamed Lee for issuing orders that
were vague, contradictory, and overly discretionary. Ewell was to attack Cemetery
Hill, according to Lee, "if he found it practicable, but to avoid a general
engagement." As historian Stephen W. Sears has written, "The decision was left
entirely in Ewell's hands, and he was urged to start a fight but not to start a
During the night both armies received
substantial reinforcements. By the morning of July 2, Meade had six of his seven
corps on hand, and he arranged them in a fishhook-shaped line that took advantage
of the hilly terrain south of Gettysburg. Lee, who had eight of his nine divisions
on the field, held the initiative. He planned an offensive to roll up Meade's left
flank with Longstreet's corps and part of Hill's, while Ewell mounted a
demonstration against the Union right. Longstreet vigorously objected to the plan,
however, leading to awkward moments on the battlefield and more postwar
controversy. He preferred to maneuver to the south, around the Union left, arguing
in his 1896 memoir that the enemy's positions were too strong. Lee rejected the
advice, and the day's attack, scheduled to begin as early in the day as possible,
did not commence until three thirty in the afternoon.
Long the villain in this drama, Longstreet was targeted by Lost Cause
historians—especially Jubal Early—because of his wartime ambition, his criticisms
of Lee, and his postwar defection to the Republican Party. Some modern historians,
Southall Freeman, however, also have held Longstreet partly accountable
for holding up the day's assault by more than three hours. In Lee's Lieutenants (1942–1944), Freeman charged that the general "sulked"
as much as he fought, "the dissent of Longstreet's mind [acting as] a brake on his
energies." Freeman's negative opinion of Longstreet, however, has been challenged
by more recent scholarship that acknowledges while Longstreet was guilty of some
delay he also managed his corps with considerable skill in its attack that
And that attack was very nearly
successful. Fierce fighting raged in places soon to be burned into the American
lexicon: Little Round Top, Devil's Den, the Wheatfield, the Peach Orchard,
Cemetery Ridge, and Cemetery Hill. When his left risked collapse, Meade skillfully
shifted reinforcements to threatened areas and by nightfall had stopped Lee's main
attack. Lee's management of the battle, meanwhile, was curiously hands-off; as a
result, Confederate attacks were piecemeal and not nearly as effective as they
might have been. That evening Ewell hit Meade's right on East Cemetery Hill and
Culp's Hill, but he, too, was
stopped. Both armies suffered heavy losses, but the Army of the Potomac still held
the high ground.
Sensing that victory was still within his grasp, Lee ordered the offensive renewed
on July 3. The plan remained the same. Longstreet, reinforced by George E. Pickett's division
of fresh infantry, would assail the Union left while Ewell attacked the right.
Stuart had finally rejoined the army, and Lee ordered him east of Gettysburg to
threaten the Union rear. By early morning, however, the plan had collapsed when
the fighting on the Union right commenced earlier than anticipated and Longstreet
was unready to attack on the left. When Longstreet again argued, but with more
justification this time, that the positions in his front were too formidable, Lee
instead ordered a massive attack against the Union center on Cemetery Ridge, then
occupied by Union general
[Winfield Scott Hancock]'s Second Corps. The plan called for a bombardment
by more than 150 cannon to weaken Union defenses, followed by an assault by approximately 12,500
infantry drawn from Pickett's division and Hill's corps. The battle on
Ewell's front, meanwhile, ended in defeat for the Confederates, and during the
afternoon Stuart was fought to a standstill three miles east of Gettysburg by
Union cavalry under David Gregg.
The bombardment commenced at one o'clock in
the afternoon and lasted nearly two hours. At around three, what became known as
Pickett's Charge began, with the infantrymen making their away across an open
field three-quarters of a mile long. Despite severe losses from Union artillery
and small arms, the Confederates managed to pierce the Union line at one point,
but Hancock's men crushed the breakthrough and repulsed the attack. The charge was
led by Pickett's Virginians (including generals Richard B. Garnett and Lewis A. Armistead, both of whom were killed),
as well as Alabamians, North Carolinians, Mississippians, and Tennesseans from
divisions commanded by Isaac Trimble and J. Johnston Pettigrew, many of whom were
bandaged up from hard fighting two days earlier. (Another Virginian stood opposite
these men on Cemetery Ridge: John
Newton, a native of
[Norfolk], was the new commander of the Union First Corps.) In just under
an hour, Lee lost approximately 5,600 men.
During the night Lee withdrew into a defensive position along Seminary Ridge, to
the west of town. He remained there all day on July 4, hoping Meade might attack
him. When he did not, Lee ordered a retreat to Virginia. In three days of
fighting, the Army of the Potomac had lost 23,000 men, the Army of Northern
Virginia upward of 28,000.
The retreat was difficult. There were
thousands of wounded soldiers to evacuate and it rained heavily on several days. A
small force of Union cavalry destroyed Lee's pontoon bridge over the Potomac at
Williamsport, Maryland, and when the Confederates reached the river, they found
that the rains had rendered it impassable. Eyeing Lee's vulnerable position, Meade
considered a full-scale assault on July 13, but after consulting with the
commanders he called it off. As a result, Lee had time to build a new bridge at
Falling Water and managed to slip his men across the Potomac that night. (Some
Confederates escaped with the help of the ferry upriver at Williamsport.) The next
morning, the Union cavalrymen did what they could to disrupt the Confederate
withdrawal, but they could not stop it. Once the last of Lee's soldiers had
splashed back ashore in Virginia, the Gettysburg Campaign was over.
Lee's army had managed to seize massive quantities of badly needed supplies in
Pennsylvania, but in all other respects, the campaign was a disaster. Nearly a
third of the army was killed, wounded, or taken prisoner, while horses and
equipment were worn out. Instead of damaging Union morale, it boosted it. Combined
with the surrender of Vicksburg, Mississippi, on July 4 to Union general Ulysses S. Grant, the outcome
at Gettysburg gave Northerners hope that the war might still be won.
Historians have suggested many reasons
behind the Battle of Gettysburg's outcome: Lee's overconfidence, Longstreet's
pride, Stuart's absence. Alternately, many have cited Meade's refusal to be
intimidated and the fierce initiative shown by a number of Union officers over the
three days' battle. Still, defeat came as a shock to the Army of Northern
Virginia, and scapegoats were quickly identified. For example, many Virginians
blamed the failure of Pickett's Charge on North Carolinians under J. Johnston
Pettigrew—a North Carolinian himself who was temporarily commanding Heth's
division. That the charge came to be known by Pickett's name and not Pettigrew's
suggests that Virginians held the upper hand in dictating collective memory of the
event and, as a result, many of the battle's harshest realities have been leavened
into myth. Despite a 50 percent casualty rate, the historian James M. McPherson
has written, "Pickett's charge has been celebrated in legend and history as the
ultimate act of Southern honor and courage against the Yankee Goliath, while
[Cold Harbor]"—which, a year
later, featured an equally doomed and bloody charge ordered by Grant—"symbolizes
Alexander, Edward Porter. Fighting for the Confederacy: The
Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander. Edited by Gary
W. Gallagher. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
Coddington, Edwin. The Gettysburg Campaign. New York:
Charles Scribner's Sons, 1984.
Hess, Earl J. Pickett's Charge: The Last Attack at
Gettysburg. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
Pfanz, Harry W. Gettysburg: Culp's Hill and Cemetery
Hill. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
Pfanz, Harry W. Gettysburg: The Second Day. Chapel Hill:
University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
Reardon, Carol. Pickett's Charge in History and Memory.
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.
Sears, Stephen W. Gettysburg. New York: Houghton
Trudeau, Noah. Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage. New
York: HarperCollins, 2002.
Cite This EntryAPA Citation:
Hartwig, D. S. Gettysburg Campaign. (2012, November 29). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Gettysburg_Campaign.
Hartwig, D. S. "Gettysburg Campaign." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities,
29 Nov. 2012. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: February 19, 2009 | Last modified: November 29, 2012
Contributed by D. Scott Hartwig, who is a twenty-eight-year veteran of the National Park Service and is
currently a supervisory historian at Gettysburg National Military Park. He is the
author of numerous articles and several books about the American Civil