This week in history: The Battle of Gettysburg a turning point in Civil War
Marc Levy, AP
From July 1 to July 3, 1863, 150 years ago this week, the bloodiest battle of the Civil War occurred in Gettysburg, Pa. The battle proved a significant turning point in the conflict, and the Union victory assured that the Confederacy would never again take the offensive.
By spring 1863, Confederate leaders understood just how precarious their position had become. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia had defeated Ambrose Burnside and the Army of the Potomac's attempt to cross the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg the previous December.
In May, the Army of the Potomac, now commanded by Joseph Hooker, had been repelled in its crossing at the Battle of Chancellorsville. That Confederate victory had been won at great cost, however. Lee's best corps commander, Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, had been wounded by friendly fire and later died.
Running low on supplies and manpower, Lee and Confederate President Jefferson Davis knew they could not keep repelling Union attacks in Virginia forever, and a potentially greater disaster was looming in Mississippi.
Union General Ulysses S. Grant was poised to take the city of Vicksburg, the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River. If Vicksburg fell, the Confederacy would be split in two. A decision desperately needed to be won in the East so that wouldn't happen.
Lee and Davis decided on a second grand offensive into Union territory designed to smash the Army of the Potomac once and for all. Lee's first invasion of the North had been initially successful, though the chance discovery of Lee's battle orders by Union troops had led to defeat in the Battle of Antietam in September 1862.
The Confederates hoped the new offensive could succeed in destroying the Union army and offer an open road to capturing Washington and other northern cities. They then could hold the cities hostage in exchange for a peace treaty recognizing Confederate independence.
In early June, the Army of Northern Virginia invaded the North with roughly 72,000 men and soon engaged in a game of cat and mouse with the Army of the Potomac, now numbering roughly 90,000 troops. Though Lee's strategy was offensive, he favored a tactical defense.
Lee's hope was to locate the Army of the Potomac, position himself on favorable ground and let the Union army come to him, where he could destroy it from prepared positions. Such had been his victorious tactics at Fredericksburg. Moving through Maryland and into Pennsylvania, the two armies danced and maneuvered for position. Interestingly, by late June the Confederate army sat much farther north in Pennsylvania, while the Army of the Potomac raced to meet it from the south.
All was not well in the Union camp, however. Lincoln, having perpetual bad luck with his Potomac Army commanders and fearing Hooker was repeating the mistakes of the bumbling George McClellan, fired the general on June 28.
Lincoln's first choice for a replacement was the able corps commander John F. Reynolds, who politely declined, citing his inexperience with the politics of army-level command. Lincoln then turned to another proven corps commander, George G. Meade.
In “Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era,” historian James M. McPherson wrote about this choice: “Although Meade had worked his way up from brigade to corps command with a good combat record, he was an unknown quantity to men outside his corps. By now, though, their training in the school of hard knocks under fumbling leaders had toughened the soldiers to a flinty self-reliance that left many of them indifferent to the identity of their commander.”
While on the move, armies were generally not concentrated to give battle. Instead, they lay strung out over many miles over different roads. Before the invention of the airplane in the 20th century, cavalry was the essential reconnaissance unit. Lee's cavalry commander, J.E.B. Stuart, had foolishly lost contact with Lee's headquarters, essentially leaving it blind to the opposing army's movements.
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