Gettysburg Campaign

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See also: Battle of Gettysburg

The Gettysburg Campaign of June-July 1863 was the turning point in the American Civil War that, combined with the simultaneous loss of the Mississippi River in the west pointed toward Confederate exhaustion and defeat. The Gettysburg campaign climaxed in a famous battle, July 1-3, 1863, on the outskirts of the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, that was an overwhelming Union victory: the Battle of Gettysburg. Confederate General Robert E. Lee led his Army of Northern Virginia on a raid into Pennsylvania designed to capture supplies and destroy the political will of the Union to continue the war. He unexpectedly encountered the main Union army under General George Meade. In an intensely fought three-day battle, Lee had advantages on the first two days but lost badly on the third. He was, at that point, trapped but Meade's dilatory pursuit allowed Lee to escape. The battle became a metaphor for the entire war, and a central icon of courage on both sides. It was used by President Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address to mark the birth of a new nation dedicated to equality and democracy.

Operations

Lee's plans

Confusing peace rhetoric in Copperhead newspapers for northern public opinion, assuming the Yankees must be just as war weary as southerners, and frightfully short of supplies for his army, Lee planned another full-scale raid into the North--Pennsylvania this time.[1] He figured:

If we can baffle them [Yankees] in their various designs this year & our people are true to our cause...our success will be certain.... [and] next year there will be a great change in public opinion at the North. The Republicans will be destroyed [in the 1864 presidential election] & I think the friends of peace will become so strong as that the next administration will go in on that basis. We have only therefore to resist manfully.

Lee was overconfident of the morale and equipment of his "invincible" veterans; he fantasized about a definitive war-winning triumph:

[The Yankees will be] broken down with hunger and hard marching, strung out on a long line and much demoralized when they come into Pennsylvania. I shall throw an overwhelming force on their advance, crush it, follow up the success, drive one corps back on another, and by successive repulses and surprises, before they can concentrate, create a panic and virtually destroy the army. [Then] the war will be over and we shall achieve the recognition of our independence. [2]

Lee's movement started on the first of June and within a short time was well on its way through Maryland, with General George Meade, the new Union commander, moving north along parallel lines. Lee's cavalry, under General Jeb Stuart had the primary mission of gathering intelligence on where the enemy was position, but Stuart failed and instead raided some supply trains. He did not rejoin Lee until the battle was underway. Stuart had taken all Lee's best cavalry, leaving the main army with two third-rate, ill-equipped, poorly led brigades that could not handle the reconnaissance challenge in hostile country. Lee's armies threatened Harrisburg, Washington, Baltimore and even Philadelphia. Local militia units hurriedly formed to oppose Lee, but they were inconsequential in the face of a large, battle-hardened attack force. Gettysburg was a crossroads junction in heavily wooded areas. Over three days, July 1-3, Confederate forces arrived piecemeal from the northwest, while Union forces arrived piecemeal from the east. By July 1 Meade was to the south of Lee--Lee's retreat was cut off and he had to fight, and had to win.


Union strategy

Joseph Hooker, commanding the Army of the Potomac, was, as Lee had calculated, indeed tardy and afraid to fight Lee. He wanted to attack Richmond, but Lincoln vetoed that idea as impossible of success and replaced Hooker with George Meade. The new commander brooked no delay in chasing the rebels north. Lee underestimated his new foe, expecting him to be a day late and a division short, like Hooker. Lee was blinded for a week by the failure of Jeb Stuart's cavalry to provide timely reconnaissance. "Where on earth is my cavalry?" he kept asking every day. In fact Stuart was miles away sacking a mule-drawn supply train. Stuart had trouble finding Lee; he solved his intelligence problem by swiping a Philadelphia newspaper that accurately reported Lee's location. The news was a day old, however, and Stuart, slowed down by booty, did not arrive at Gettysburg until July 2. The Confederates were often aided by uncensored newspaper reports of the movements of Union forces. Reporter Horace White was angry when his editor tried to censor his reports; he would not "sacrifice so many good things because they happen to be true." The Army temporarily shut down several newspapers for publishing false news which adversely affected public morale. Voluntary censorship by the media proved successful in later wars.

Meanwhile Meade was close behind Lee, and had cut off the line of retreat back to Virginia. Lee had to fight, but first he had to rush to reassemble his scattered forces at the crossroads town of Gettysburg before Meade defeated them piecemeal. Lee had 60,000 infantry and 10,200 cavalry (Meade's staff estimated Lee had 140,000). Would this be enough to challenge the United States on its home ground? This time it was Lee's turn to be fooled; he gullibly swallowed misinformation that suggested Meade had twice as many soldiers, when in fact he had 86,000.

Even though the main Confederate army was marching through Pennsylvania, Lincoln was unable to give Meade more firepower. The vast majority of the 700,000 Federal soldiers (except for Grant's 70,000 near Vicksburg) were noncombatants, held static defensive posts that Lincoln feared to uncover, or like Rosecrans at Nashville, they were afraid to move. Urgently the President called for 100,000 civilian militiamen to turn out for the emergency; being unorganized, untrained, unequipped and poorly led, they were more trouble than they were worth.

References

  1. See James M. McPherson, "To Conquer a Peace? Lee's Goals in the Gettysburg Campaign." Civil War Times (2007) 46(2): 26-33.
  2. Freeman, Lee 3:58 3:23