Civil War Series

Civil War Series Part 19: Road to Gettysburg

By Mary Wadland  Painting of General Lee at Cashton, June 30, 1863. Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art.

June 1863 saw a repetition of what had occurred earlier — President Lincoln involving himself in military matters in the field and trying to override his generals. In this case Lincoln wanted the Army of the Potomac to pursue the army of Robert E Lee who was seemingly fleeing Richmond. The Union’s General Joseph Hooker wanted to press home his attack against Richmond, much to the annoyance of Lincoln.

On June 2nd, General Lee decided to move north his Army of Northern Virginia. His hope was to draw General Hooker’s Army of the Potomac after him and away from Virginia. Lee did not want a battle with Hooker as his motives were entirely defensive but he also realized that a further defeat for the Army of the Potomac would be a serious blow to the Union. So while Lee wished to be defensive, he also prepared to be offensive.

The next day, The Army of Northern Virginia left Fredericksburg and moved north – 70,000 men with 300 artillery guns. Hooker’s Army of the Potomac was 120,000 strong. Hooker also had the advantage of intelligence as two Confederate deserters had given themselves up to Union forces and had told them about the planned movements of Lee’s army.

Union General Joseph Hooker was another of Lincoln’s disappointments. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

President Lincoln and General Hooker clashed over what to do with Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Lincoln wanted Hooker to pursue Lee (as Lee himself had hoped for) while Hooker wanted to take the opportunity to attack what was now a poorly defended Richmond. Not for the first time did the President, as Commander-in-Chief, clash with his generals. In this case, Hooker’s desire was warranted as Lee had already decided that if Richmond, at any time, was threatened he would call off his march north and return to the Confederate’s capital. This was the one opportunity when Hooker could have attacked Richmond when it was poorly defended. Lincoln wanted a more aggressive campaign.

Also in early June, the Union cavalry attacked General Stuart’s cavalry force near Brandy Station. Some 22,000 men fought there – the largest cavalry clash of the war. Both sides were evenly matched and the Union force, commanded by Pemberton, nearly defeated Stuart’s men but news of advancing Confederate infantry convinced Pemberton that withdrawal was his best option rather than continuing the fight. Stuart’s men had a high reputation among Pemberton’s men, so this near victory did a great deal to boost Union morale, especially among the cavalry.

Two 10-inch artillery guns arrived at Vicksburg for Grant’s army. They greatly boost the Union’s ability to destroy the defenses there. Citizens in Vicksburg took to living in caves to ensure their safety from the artillery bombardment. Soon rumors of an invasion by Lee’s men led to many fleeing their homes in Union areas near to the ‘border’ with the South. Few responded to a call by the Pennsylvania governor for volunteers for a state militia.

A Unionist force tried to end the siege at Port Hudson. While Northern troops were doing the besieging, they were suffering acute medical casualties as a result of the dire environment they were in. The attack was an attempt to end all this. It failed and the Confederate defenders held out. The Union lost 4000 men in the attack.  Then the Confederates captured Winchester. They took 4,500 men prisoner along with 200,000 rounds of ammunition, 300 wagons and 300 horses.

During the same month, the South lost one of its ironclads, ‘CSS Atlanta’. And the citizens of Baltimore started to build defenses around their city fearing an attack by Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Cavalry units from both Lee’s and Hooker’s armies clashed almost on a daily basis.

Much to Lincoln’s delight, Hooker resigned as commander of the Army of the Potomac on June 27, after one argument too many with his superior General Halleck. Hooker believed that Halleck was deliberately undermining his authority by refusing to allow him to do as he wished with the men under his command. Hooker’s resignation was accepted and General George Meade replaced him. “Studying the Art of War, Fairfax Court-House, [Virginia],” June 1863. Albumen silver print.
Photo by Alexander Gardner. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Meade immediately ordered the Army of the Potomac to hunt down the Army of Northern Virginia. Whereas Hooker wanted to wait and see what Lee intended, Meade wanted to engage him as soon as was feasible.

Lee’s scouts kept him well informed as to where the Army of the Potomac was. On June 30, he ordered his men to march on Cashtown. A unit of Confederate troops was sent to Gettysburg where it was believed a stash of military boots was kept. The men, from III Corps, came across Unionist troops from Brigadier-General Buford’s cavalry division and withdrew.

One day later, July 1, would begin the turning point with the Civil War’s largest battle with the most casualties on both sides – Gettysburg.

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