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The Army of Northern Virginia's Road to Destruction July 1863

BA University of Arkansas (Fayetteville) Geography & History

Northern Virgina 1863

In May 1863 Jefferson Davis sat restlessly in his office contemplating the future of his young Confederacy. Pressed on all sides by invading forces the situation in the Confederacy was critical; the Mississippi was all but lost with the fall of Vicksburg very near; badly needed European recognition had not come; the Union Navy's blockade of the south was tightening; finances were collapsing.

The only hope for the survival of the Confederacy was one decisive victory that would end the war once and for all. His chief military advisor, Robert E. Lee, offered up a plan to invade Pennsylvania to pressure the Army of the Potomac into a battle on the ground of his choice, and defeat it on Northern territory.

If Lee's plan was successful, it would leave Washington D.C. unprotected, and force President Lincoln to the peace table.

When Virginia joined the Confederacy in April of 1861, Robert E. Lee felt an overwhelming obligation from his family to resign his commission with the United States Army.

Though he deplored slavery. He still held slaves, rented slaves, and one occasion whipped them. Lee's family had lived in the Virginia since 1640. He was the fifth child of "Light-Horse" Harry Lee, and Ann Carter.

Lee's father was a revolutionary war hero, served as the governor of Virginia in 1790, and Congress from 1799 to 1801.

Despite pleas from Winfield Scott, and an offer of high command in the Union Army, Lee left the only professional world he had ever known. He was quickly commissioned as a brigadier general of the Virginia State volunteers and became Jefferson Davis's chief military adviser. His home in Arlington was immediately occupied by Federal troops, rendering him homeless and penniless at the same time.

Two years later, Lee and his rebel army still stood at the gates of Richmond determined to defend the Confederate capital.

If an army had ever felt invincible, the Army of Northern Virginia did the summer of 1863. Its leader at the age of fifty-five, Robert Edward Lee, was considered by most of his troops as the only general in the Confederacy capable of preserving their independence.

Lee's army of Northern Virginia had defeated the Army of the Potomac three times in the past twelve months against overwhelming odds. Confederate soldiers suffered from shortages of modern arms, ammunition, even the most basic items such as shoes. After his stunning victory at Chancellorsville, Lee's army was flush with victory and stood at the height of its strength.

The Road to Gettysburg

On June 3,1863, the Army of Northern Virginia began streaming steadily to the northwest, across the mountains of the Blue Ridge, and then northward through the Shenandoah Valley.

The two great armies of the east were on now the march, moving inexorably toward the climactic battle that everyone knew had to come for some time, both sides fervently prayed the battle would settle everything once and for all.

For three weeks Confederate soldiers were spread across miles of Pennsylvania countryside roaming virtually at will against only token resistance.

The Union army paralleled Lee's movements like a shadow, always careful to shield Washington and the other coastal cities from attack.

The rapid advance of General Meade was unexpected, a characteristic not previously displayed by previous Union commanders of the Army of the Potomac. Citizens in the state's capital of Harrisburg were in a state of panic as Lee approached.

The excitement in the capital increased when a train of army wagons came rumbling in accompanied by a squadron of cavalry. "The Rebels will be here tomorrow or the next day," said the teamsters.

The object of the coming campaign was the defense of the Confederate capital Richmond, Virginia. Lee had the choice of either to continue on the defensive and oppose the Federal advance as he had recently done or assume the offensive and take the war to the northern states to save Virginia from further destruction.

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Lee knew that defensive victories won on Virginia's soil would only end up wearing down Confederate resistance. Lee's belief was that shifting the fighting onto Northern soil could cause the collapse of Northern public confidence to the point of demanding a negotiated peace.

The rapid northward movement of the Union army surprised J.E.B. Stuart, and caused the commander of rebel cavalry, to initiate a lengthy ride around Mead's massive army forcing him to lose contact with Lee's army.

Thus, during a critical period of the campaign, Lee was deprived of his eyes and ears. Without proper intelligence from Stuart, Lee had no choice but to concentrate his forces. Reluctantly, Lee had to abandon his planned attack on Harrisburg.

Neither Lee nor Meade intended to fight at Gettysburg, which held virtually no strategic value. Some of Lee's troops had passed through Gettysburg on June 26,1863, as they moved on for the attack on Harrisburg. Their commander had informed Confederate generals that a cache of shoes might be found in the town.

In July 1863 Gettysburg had a population of 2,400. It was at the central point of a network of ten roads which branched out to all corners of Pennsylvania. The gently rolling terrain around the town was dominated by low north-south ridges and scattered granite hills, which provided defensive positions for the armies that would fight and die attacking or defending them.

The town was surrounded by small farms with cultivated fields, orchards, and woodlots that concealed out cropping of granite boulders.

Gettysburg held considerable importance to Lee, it was the only place large enough to concentrate his three corps which amounted to 89,000 men.

In addition, the undulating waves of ridgelines which carried on eastward created a series of strong defensible lines for infantry to seize and hold against any attacker coming from the west.

Invasion of Pennsylvania Summer 1863