The story of the Battle of Gettysburg began not in July 1863 in Pennsylvania, but really two months earlier and 130 miles farther south in Virginia. It began at a grand estate called Chancellorsville, situated in a clearing hacked out of the nearly impenetrable region of forest below the Rappahannock River known as “The Wilderness.”
On May 2nd, in a maneuver that now looms as a military classic, Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia counter-attacked the much larger federal Army of the Potomac, then under the command of Maj. General Joseph Hooker. Flying in the face of all convention, Lee divided his already numerically inferior force and hit the Yankee army hard on its exposed flank in a surprise dusk attack that sent his enemy reeling. The man in charge of the assault was the gifted Rebel Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, who was the fiercest of Lee’s two corps commanders. (A large portion of his other corps, commanded by Lt. Genl. James Longstreet, was in the southern part of the state on a supply gathering mission and would not get back in time to participate in the battle).
Chancellorsville was Lee’s most astonishing victory to date in a string of astonishing victories. But it was also one of his costliest. Not only did his army suffer 13,000 casualties out of 60,000 he put in the field, but Jackson was wounded, shot by his own men in the confusion of battle, and suffered the amputation of his left arm. “He has lost his left arm, but I have lost my right,” Lee lamented. Jackson died a week later from pneumonia exacerbated by his weakened condition. His death was a terrible blow to the Southern cause that clouded the victory and would have a profound impact on the decisive campaign to come.
For Lee, Chancellorsville, though brilliant in its tactical daring and execution, was a strategically inconclusive battle that did nothing more than repel yet another Union thrust at the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia while draining his ranks of invaluable veterans, especially infantry. It resolved nothing. Lee knew he needed to win decisively. And so he gathered all his strength, re-organized his army after Jackson’s death into three more manageable corps of roughly 23,000 men each (the three corps were neatly subdivided into three divisions of 3-5 brigades each) and a combined artillery with 280 guns, plus 12,500 cavalry.
On June 3, 1863, he disengaged from Hooker’s recuperating army on the opposite bank of the Rappahannock and set off to invade the North.
Lee hoped that by threatening Washington, D.C. he could lure the Union forces away from Virginia and, on ground of his choosing, inflict a crushing blow on the North’s principal army, compel foreign recognition of the Confederacy, and force Lincoln to sue for peace. He was looking for a Southern version of the 1777 Battle of Saratoga that brought France to the side of the American Colonists in their own struggle for independence a mere eighty-six years before…a battle that would turn the tide and end the war.
Lee had actually tried moving up into enemy territory the previous summer after his smashing victory at 2nd Bull Run. But then his army was only half the size, depleted by battle losses and straggling, exhausted from two months of constant marching and combat in the heat of summer and malnourished. His expedition only got as far as western Maryland before being confronted by a Union Army of the Potomac two and a half times larger than his own.
On September 17, 1862, Lee made a defiant stand on Antietam creek. Once again he fought a brilliant action against a completely out-classed Union General McClellan (the third in a string of five commanding generals Lincoln tried out as head of his largest army). But Lee’s vastly outnumbered force was not strong enough to achieve anything but a tactical stalemate. The chaotic 12-hour slaughter produced the bloodiest day in American history, and ended Lee’s first invasion of the North. Lee returned to Virginia determined to try again when the time was ripe.
In June 1863 the moment had come. The Army of Northern Virginia was double the size it was at Antietam and flush with victory. Momentum favored bold action. Lee was determined to strike at the heart of the enemy’s country again; this time he would be victorious. This would be the final battle.
And so began the second Rebel invasion of the North. So began a campaign that would result in the climactic battle of the Civil War. . .the after-effects of which are still with us today.