Prelude to Gettysburg: The Armies Move North
Author: Michael J. Swogger
Published on: December 26, 2000
The two commanding generals soon to face one another were similar in demeanor, much different in style. The 47 year-old former commander of the Union V Corps was reliable, deliberate, short-tempered, and well-experienced in direct combat. He had fought on the Peninsula (where he was wounded), Second Manassas, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville. Though not thought of as the most brilliant of commanders, Major General George Gordon Meade had established a strong reputation as a hard fighter and a soldier highly dedicated to the Union cause. Replacing Joseph Hooker as commander of the Army of the Potomac on June 27, 1863, his resolve and military skill would surely be tested by his formidable adversary.
His foe had been the Army of Northern Virginia's commander since the Spring 1862. He quickly established his reputation for being a strategic genius during the Seven Days battles. He and his men racked up victory after victory in the face of an enemy superior in numbers and munitions. He embarrassed Union generals without discrimination -- McClellan, Pope, McClellan again, Burnside, Hooker. General Robert E. Lee, believed by many to be the best commander on either side, once attempted to invade the North in the Fall 1862 but was forced to withdraw after the bloodiest day of the war at Antietam Creek. But he had since mounted stunning and impressive victories at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville in the Winter 1862 and Spring 1863, respectively. The time had again arrived to invade the enemy's homeland.
Lee returned from Richmond to the Army of Northern Virginia in late May 1863 after laying out his invasion plans for Secretary of War James Seddon and President Jefferson Davis. Several elements prompted two separate meetings between the three men. The first was Lee's ideas for a northern invasion. The second was Grant's continued pressing of Vicksburg and what, if anything, Lee could do to alleviate the pressure on General Pemberton in Mississippi. Though Davis himself, upon hearing the precarious position in which Grant had placed Pemberton, thought that elements of Lee's force should be dispatched to Pemberton's aid. However, he would soon acquiesce and endorse Lee's strategy, if for no other reason that to perhaps compel Grant to abandon his Vicksburg assault to help rid Pennsylvania of Lee (Coddington, 1968).
That is, of course, provided Lee would be successful in implementing his strategy. His objectives were formed early in May and remained quite clear in his eyes through his late May meeting with Davis. First, he wanted to eradicate a Federal threat in Virginia. The war in the eastern theater had primarily been fought in Virginia and the carnage had taken its toll on the land. The farmers and townspeople indeed needed the kind of relief an northern invasion would provide. Second, an invasion of Maryland and Pennsylvania would re-employ an offensive strategy that Stonewall Jackson had always favored. Included in the objectives of an invasion were the cities of Harrisburg and Philadelphia. In Lee's mind, the capture of one or both of these important Pennsylvanian cities would force Lincoln to finally recognize the legitimacy of the Confederate effort and broach a peace settlement (Hassler, 1970).
Invading the North, Lee surmised, would force Hooker (still in command of Union forces) to pull his troops out and shadow Lee's movements, remaining between Lee and Washington, DC. This would afford Lee the opportunity to fight on ground of his own choosing, positioning himself in such a way as to force Hooker to attack him and, thus, engaging in an offensive-defensive campaign -- that is, taking the offensive while invading enemy territory but taking the defensive in actual battle on that ground (Gallagher, 1992). And on the tenth of June Lee's Second Corps now under commander of General Richard Ewell, moved into the Shenandoah Valley and attacked the Federal garrison at Winchester in what became known as the Second Battle of Winchester. Ewell forced Milroy to abandon his position in the forts to the west and norht of Winchester. The Federals tried a night retreat but were cut off norht of town near Stephenson's Depot.
Lee's entire army was on the move, heading north from west of Winchester, Virginia to the Potomac River. General J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry, riding to the east of the army's main body, was serving as a buffer between the two armies and as a scouting unit, reporting enemy movements directly to Lee. Unfortunately for Stuart, his love for adventure and fame, not to mention good positioning by Federal cavalry, brought him into a somewhat embarrassing large-scale engagement at Brandy Station against Alfred Pleasonton's troopers. The Federal cavalry did not wipe out Stuart's force, of course, but they did manage to put a dent in Stuart's ego. As Lee's forces were moving north, Stuart had to rest and refit his men. Once ready, Stuart then began a series of run-around maneuvers in eastern Virginia and Maryland, thus leaving the Federal army between him and Lee. This would cut him off from Lee's main body and would not be reunited with the Confederate force until after the Battle of Gettysburg had begun (Coddington, 1968).
By June 23, advance elements of Lee's force was in Pennsylvania (Ewell's II Corps). General Robert Rodes' division had occupied first Chambersburg, then Carlisle. General Jubal Early's division, moving through Gettysburg on June 24, advanced on and occupied York (Battle of Gettysburg Homepage). Ewell, eager to take Harrisburg as his prize, prepared for an offensive against the town defended by some 15,000 militiamen and soldiers. Upon hearing of a Federal presence in Maryland that threatened Confederate communication lines, Lee ordered Ewell's corps south toward Cashtown, eight miles west of Gettsyburg (Hassler, 1970). Ewell began his corps movement the next day, as well as Hill's III Corps and Longstreet's I Corps, both coming from the direction of Chambersburg, about 20 miles west of Gettysburg. By June 30, Confederate troops were on the outskirts of Gettysburg.
This expedited concentration of force was prompted by Lee's reports that the Federals were dangerously close, especially considering the spread-out nature of Lee's forces. And it was General Meade, who had taken command on June 28 (just 3 days prior to Gettysburg), who was very much a part of causing problems for Lee. Meade, replacing General Joseph Hooker after an abrupt resignation, didn't have much time to learn the intricacies of high command. The urgency of the situation -- knowing that Lee's army had crossed the Potomac and was invading Pennsylvania -- prompted Meade to act quickly in reorganizing his army and concentrating it in a way as to stay between Lee and Washington.
Meade was under general orders from Lincoln and Halleck (overall Union commander) to maneuver and fight in such a manner as to cover the capital and also Baltimore, as far as circumstances will admit. Should General Lee move upon either of these places, it is expected that you will either anticipate him or arrive with him so as to give him battle (Coddington, 1968, p. 214).
Further, Meade was given the latitude to act as he deemed necessary within the parameters outlined by Halleck. He was granted full command over not only the Army of the Potomac but the Union forces at Harper's Ferry and Harrisburg as well. And one particularly useful power proffered him was that which allowed him to appoint anyone to a command regardless of seniority, a power of which he would take full advantage during the upcoming campaign (Coddington, 1968).
But the problem for Meade was not command, but logistics. His army was spread all throughout the Maryland countryside and was in a precarious situation if he was to be attacked by Lee. With the V Corps in Frederick, Maryland, Meade ordered the other six corps to begin movement toward the town. The Slocum's XII Corps was at Knoxville and had arrived in Frederick by noon on the 28th. General Sedgwick was ordered to direct his VI Corps along the main road from Baltimore from Poolesville to New Market, some seven miles east of Frederick. General John F. Reynolds, as commander of three corps comprising the Union advanced left wing, was ordered from Middletown to Frederick. Sickles' III Corps arrived 10 miles northeast of the town near Woodsborough, while the II Corps under Hancock arrived at Mococacy Junction, three miles to the south. The XI Corps under Howard was not far behind. All but the Union VI Corps had arrived in the general vicinity by the evening of the 28th (Coddington, 1968).
Meade's quick organization and alacritous response to Lee's northern presence no doubt was a monumental feat given his newness to command and rather ambiguous orders from Washington. But Meade recognized the import of the situation. He quickly devised a defense strategy And this certainly played havoc with Lee's strategy. The cavalry detachment assigned to guard Reynolds' movements had been scouting enemy movement for some time. Reports of Mississippi infantry were sent from General John Buford to Reynolds, who was in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Buford's troopers were riding northeast, under orders from Alfred Pleasonton, toward Gettysburg, and upon receiving orders from Meade, arrived there on 30 June.
And it was this cavalry presence that made Lee a little nervous and caused him to abandon any threat he posed for Harrisburg and York. He was afraid, and rightly so, that the enemy might be able to make battle on him before his army was fully concentrated, and therefore he ordered a concerted movement toward Cashtown. But making battle there was not necessarily Meade's plan. He issued a general circular to all corps commanders, saying:
The commanding general has received information that the enemy are advancing, probably in strong force, on Gettysburg. ...It is the intention to hold this army pretty nearly in the position it now occupies until the plans of the enemy shall have been more fully developed (Hassler, 1970). Meade contemplated occupying a position just south of the Pennsylvania border at Pipe Creek. It would be here that a line of defense would be set up in the event that Lee attacks Union forces in and around Gettysburg. To prepare for the possibility of both an offensive and defensive scenario, Meade gave Reynolds the order to follow Buford's two cavalry brigades into Gettysburg with the I and XI Corps. The III Corps was ordered to Emmitsburg (Hassler, 1970).
Meade's wait-and-see policy, however, would ultimately allow Lee's forces to move more quickly toward Cashtown or Gettysburg from Chambersburg, Carslisle, Harrisburg, and York. A.P. Hill's III Corps arrived in Cashtown on 30 June with the divisions of Hood and McClaws of Longstreet's I Corps following at a distance. Richard H. Anderson's division of Hill's corps was to move toward Gettysburg from Fayetteville on the 1st of July. This concerted Rebel movement in conjunction with Meade's general orders was a major engagement in the making. It was just a matter of where.
The "where" would ultimately be the small town of Gettysburg, a population of roughly 2,000 citizens. There was little foreseen strategic importance of the town. Neither commander had predetermined Gettysburg as a major objective. But the fact that a total of 10 roads converged on the town from all directions gave it a natural military importance. It was a practical place for any commander who was looking to concentrate his forces to order his troops. Meade had done so with three corps and Buford's cavalry. Lee, still unsure of Meade's whereabouts thanks to Stuart's absence, had narrowed the location of concentration down to Gettysburg or Cashtown depending on how circumstances dictated army movements. But because Buford was already present in the town, it made Lee's next decision clear. All corps were ordered in the general direction of Gettysburg.
Upon arrival, Buford was quick to order a reconnaissance of the areas west and north of Gettysburg, the two directions from which any Confederate force might approach the town. Buford was fully aware of the Confederate presence between Gettysburg and Cashtown, and he consequently prepared his troopers for a defense of the town from an attack he was sure would come in the morning. He positioned his troops on the elevation west of town know as McPherson's Ridge. Col. William Gamble's First Brigade was placed on the westernmost crest of the Ridge along Willoughby Run with its left on the Hagerstown Road and its right on the railroad cut just north of the Chambersburg Pike. Col. Thomas Devin's Second Brigade continued the line from the railroad cut north to Oak Hill, "the eastward, covering the approaches from Mummasburg, Carlisle, Harrisburg, and York" (Hassler, 1970, p. 28). Overall, Buford had roughly 3,000 men at his disposal. But because one out of every four troopers was charged with caring for the horses of the dismounted cavalrymen, his number of fighting effectives was closer to 2,000 (Hassler, 1970).
But Buford was confident, though not overly so. Admonishing Col. Devin for a wave of overconfidence on June 30, Buford opined:
They will attack you in the morning and they will ome 'booming' -- skirmishers three deep. You will have to fight like the devil to hold your own until supports arrive. The enemy must know the importance of this position, and will strain every nerve to secure it, and if we are able to hold it we will do well (Hassler, 1970, p. 19).
The position to which he refers is the highest ground west of the town. He knew that if he had any chance of holding off a Confederate force of superior numbers, it could only come from McPherson's Ridge and Oak Hill. His foresight was quite accurate, for on the other side near Cashtown General Henry Heth requested permission from his ailing corps commander, A.P. Hill, to lead his division into Gettysburg the next morning. Hill had heard of a Federal presence in the town and was aware that it was cavalry. But he was not sure of its size, and with the absence of Stuart, he might have never known unless he scouted it out himself. So when Heth asked whether his commander objected to his going to "get those shoes" that his men desperately needed (in all actuality, there were no shoes), Hill responded enthusiastically, "None in the world" (Hassler, 1970, p. 18).
As Warren Hassler (1970) points out, "Hill's laconic four-word reply touched off events that were to be momentous" (p. 18). Momentous indeed, and General Buford was ready.
Coddington, E. B. (1968). The Gettysburg campaign: A study in command. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.
Gallagher, G.W. (ed.). (1996). The first day at Gettysburg: Essays on Confederate and Union leadership. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press.
Hassler, Jr., W. W. (1970). Crisis at the crossroads: The first day at Gettysburg. Gettysburg: Stan Clark Military Books.
Nofi, A. A. (1986). The Gettysburg campaign (3rd ed.). Conshohocken, PA: Combined Books.
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