During July of 1863 General Robert E. Lee and his 75,000 man Army of Northern Virginia were deep in Pennsylvania conducting the Confederacy’s second invasion of the Union. Like the previous year’s invasion the goal was to draw the fighting out of the Confederacy, allowing the ravaged farmers a chance to harvest and stockpile ever increasingly scarce food, feed his army off of the bountiful Pennsylvania farms, and to force a climactic, strategic defeat on Yankee soil; hopefully gaining English and French recognition and assistance for the fledgling Southern nation and forcing President Lincoln to the negotiating table. Gen. Lee knew that the Confederacy could not support the war for long, and that Federal factories were churning out materiel at a pace the Rebels could never match. As he put it, “The Yankees grow stronger every day and Richmond has nothing left to send.”
Lee’s glorious victory at Chancellorsville had achieved little more than a delay until the Federal forces would again force his outnumbered and ragtag army into a defense of Richmond, and it had cost him his stalwart General “Stonewall” Jackson, a loss the entire Confederacy was still reeling from. It was imperative that they seize the offensive.
That offensive had begun on June 10th and did not get off to an auspicious start. As the infantry struck camp and moved north, the Federal cavalry corps under General Alfred Pleasonton had attacked the Confederate cavalry of General J.E.B. Stuart at Brandy Station on June 9th. A tactical draw which left the Rebels in command of the field and failed to shatter the formidable force which had literally ridden rings around the Yankee horsemen for the whole war, the Federals had fought hard and acquitted themselves well against the legendary Stuart, and carried away from Brandy Station an élan that would carry them through the remainder of the war, and more importantly give them the confidence to stand against Confederate infantry and hold favorable ground on the plains outside of a small Pennsylvania town a little more than three weeks later.
The Army of Northern Virginia spent June of 1863 maneuvering through the Pennsylvania countryside seeking supplies and ground favorable for a decisive engagement with General Hooker. Lee was deprived of his eyes and ears, Gen. Stuart’s cavalry, for the first week of the march due to the need to refit the battered squadrons after Brandy Station. When Stuart did finally take the field, he engaged in a series of cavalry battles in Loudon Valley Virginia, which served to bolster the Federal’s newly found confidence that they could beat the “invincible” Stuart. He then began a series of raids which led to the south and east, again literally riding a circle around the Army of the Potomac. While Stuart’s screening engagements of early June did prevent Pleasonton from locating Lee’s main army, his raids to the east failed to provide Gen. Lee with intelligence as to the whereabouts of Gen. Hooker, who was slowly sliding the Union army northwest from Fredrick Maryland, following Lee’s advance and threatening his lines of communication. As a result Lee was forced to blindly march through Maryland and thrust into Pennsylvania, unable to determine where he could draw the Federals into a fight on his terms. By June 28 the need to forage and the lack of intelligence as to the Yankee’s location had forced Lee to split his army into three columns, fanned out in an arch to the north of a crossroads town in Pennsylvania named Gettysburg. That night Lee finally received word as to the Yankee’s dispositions. A haggard looking agent named Harrison, a former actor, had ridden north from Frederick after spotting the Union army’s advance.
Initially inclined to discount anything from a “spy”, especially one who looked the worse for wear after a hard ride dodging Federal cavalry patrols, Lee finally accepted Harrison’s intelligence report after General Longstreet personally vouched for him. Lee ordered his dispersed corps’ to converge on Gettysburg. The Army of Northern Virginia was to concentrate for a battle.
Harrison also brought word that General Hooker had been replaced by General George Meade on June 28th.
General Meade had been incredulous that he was being promoted over other senior, and in his own words more qualified, Generals. He had at first tried to turn down the offer until he was informed that it was not a request, but an order. “Well” he said, “I I’ve been tried and condemned without a hearing, and I suppose I shall have to go to execution.”
His foreboding was not misplaced. The Army of the Potomac was scattered and Gen. Hooker was glad to be relieved of it, telling Meade he had “had enough of it and almost wished he had never been born”.
Meade immediately ordered his army to march north and northeast to place it between Lee and Baltimore and Washington. By nightfall of June 29th they had marched more than 25 miles and were arrayed between Emmitsburg and Westminster Maryland, about 25 miles to the south of Gettysburg. When he learned that A.P. Hill and Longstreet were east of Chambersburg on the road to Gettysburg, Meade ordered Gen. Sickles’ III Corps to reinforce Gen. Reynolds I Corps and Gen. Howard’s IX Corps at Emmitsburg. At 1100 on June 30th Gen Buford’s Federal cavalry entered Gettysburg and were met by exited townsfolk who told him that a Confederate infantry brigade had only minutes before approached from the west, only to abruptly withdraw.
That brigade was the men of General Pettigrew of Heath’s division. Ordered to forage for shoes but avoid a fight, he had withdrawn when he spotted the dust of Buford’s horsemen. That night he had told Gen. Heath and Gen. A.P. Hill that he had seen Union troops approaching Gettysburg. Hill discounted the account, telling Heath that the Yankees were still in Middleburg. With that Heath stated “If there is no objection General, tomorrow I shall take my division and get those shoes.” General Hill replied “None at all.”
That night one of Gen. Buford’s commanders stated that the Confederates seen earlier in the day would not return, and if they did he would easily drive them off.
Gen. Buford replied “No you won’t. They will attack you in the morning…You will have to fight like the devil until support arrives.”
(Note, Kent Hopkins, our dear Caveman, always told me how much he enjoyed my history posts. This series is dedicated to his memory.)