Gettysburg Campaign

The Gettysburg Campaign, which culminated in the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1–3, 1863), was the most ambitious offensive attempted by the Confederacy during the American Civil War (1861–1865). In June 1863, Confederate general Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia invaded the North in hopes of relieving pressure on war-torn Virginia, defeating the Union Army of the Potomac on Northern soil, and striking a decisive blow to Northern morale. George G. Meade had commanded the Union army only three days when his advance columns collided unexpectedly with Confederates at the small town of Gettysburg in southeastern Pennsylvania. Fighting raged for three days, inflicted a combined 51,000 casualties, and climaxed on July 3 with the doomed Confederate frontal assault known as Pickett's Charge. After retreating across the Potomac, the Army of Northern Virginia was never again an offensive force, and Lee's aura of invincibility was shattered. Historians have long argued that this, along with the capture of Vicksburg, Mississippi, on July 4, was the war's turning point. It was also a turning point for how the war would be perceived by generations to come. In the immediate postwar years, Virginians in particular began a debate over generalship during the battle, often seeking to prop up heroes like Lee and to destroy supposed villains, such as Lee's South Carolina–born lieutenant, James Longstreet. These arguments formed the basis of the Lost Cause view of the war. MORE...

 

Background

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 Fredericksburg.

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.

The Battle

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 battle."

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, including Douglas 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 afternoon.

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.

Aftermath

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 callous stupidity."

Time Line

  • June 3, 1863 - Confederate general Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, numbering approximately 75,000 confident, veteran soldiers, begins to slowly shift west from its positions around Fredericksburg, Virginia. So begins the Gettysburg Campaign, Lee's second invasion of the North in less than a year.
  • June 9, 1863 - Union cavalry under Alfred Pleasonton cross the Rappahannock River and surprise, even humiliate, J. E. B. Stuart and his famed Confederate horsemen. The Battle of Brandy Station is the largest cavalry engagement of the Civil War, and while Pleasanton's men are beaten back, the battle raises their morale.
  • June 12, 1863 - The Army of Northern Virginia's Second Corps, under the command of Richard S. Ewell, approaches the town of Winchester, Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley. The Union garrison there stands in the way of the Confederate march north into Pennsylvania.
  • June 13–14, 1863 - Confederate troops under Richard S. Ewell nearly surround the Union garrison at Winchester, Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley.
  • June 14–15, 1863 - Union general Robert Milroy attempts to lead his garrison of 6,900 troops out of Winchester, Virginia, by cover of night. Confederate troops under Richard S. Ewell hunt them down, inflicting 4,400 casualties, most of whom are prisoners. The Confederate march to Pennsylvania can now continue.
  • June 15, 1863 - Advance elements of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia reach the supply-rich Cumberland Valley town of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. From here, Confederate general Robert E. Lee will send his army north and east with the goals of seizing supplies and inflicting political embarrassment on the administration of U.S. president Abraham Lincoln.
  • June 28, 1863 - General Joseph Hooker, commander of the Union Army of the Potomac, resigns after a dispute with Union general-in-chief Henry W. Halleck. U.S. President Abraham Lincoln hands the job of defending Pennsylvania from Confederate invasion to General George G. Meade. His troops are massed near Frederick, Maryland.
  • June 30, 1863 - Confederates in Henry Heth's division of A. P. Hill's Third Corps set off for the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in search of shoes and supplies. They discover Union cavalry instead.
  • July 1, 1863 - Confederate general A. P. Hill sends two divisions into Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to investigate reports of cavalry there. The fighting that ensues turns into a major battle. By nightfall, Union troops have rallied on Cemetery Hill, south of town. Confederate general Robert E. Lee decides to wait until morning to attack.
  • July 2, 1863 - Union general George G. Meade arranges his forces along a fishhook-shaped line of hills south of Gettysburg. Robert E. Lee's army attacks him first on his left—at Round Top, Little Round Top, and Cemetery Ridge—and then on his right—at Cemetery Hill and Culp's Hill. Confederate attacks are uncoordinated and yet, still, nearly successful.
  • July 3, 1863, morning - For two days, the Union and Confederate armies have fought to a standstill in and around Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. On the morning of the third day, Confederate general Robert E. Lee resumes his attack on the Union right, but the assault fails.
  • July 3, 1863, 1 p.m. - After a failed attack on the Union right in the morning, Confederate general Robert E. Lee orders a massive frontal assault on the center of the Union line south of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. It begins with a ninety-minute artillery bombardment of Union troops taking cover on Cemetery Ridge.
  • July 3, 1863, 3 p.m. - The Confederate frontal assault begins on the Union center, south of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Pickett's Charge is led by divisions commanded by George E. Pickett, J. Johnston Pettigrew, and Isaac R. Trimble. In just under an hour, approximately 5,600 men are lost.
  • July 4, 1863 - After three days of fighting in and around Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the exhausted Union and Confederate armies warily hold their positions. Late in the day, Confederate general Robert E. Lee orders his army to retreat south to Virginia.
  • July 13, 1863 - Union general George G. Meade considers a full-scale assault against Robert E. Lee's retreating Army of Northern Virginia, which is trapped against a rain-swelled Potomac River. Meade cancels the attack when his subordinates advise against it giving Lee the opportunity to escape. He slips his army across the river during the night.
  • July 14, 1863 - Union cavalrymen attack the rear guard of the Army of Northern Virginia, causing substantial casualties, including mortally wounding General J. Johnston Pettigrew. They disrupt but ultimately cannot stop the Confederate retreat into Virginia.
Further Reading
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 Mifflin, 2003.
Trudeau, Noah. Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.
Cite This Entry
APA Citation:
Hartwig, D. S. Gettysburg Campaign. (2012, November 29). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Gettysburg_Campaign.

MLA Citation:
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 War.