I hereby declare upon my word of honor that I have neigther given nor received any unauthorized help on this work. – JT Newcomb
The Confederate Army was arguably winning two years into the American Civil War. A long sequence of Southern victories in major battles corresponded to a long sequence of command changes in the Northern army. General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army was especially strong in the early summer of 1863, following decisive victories at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson describes the state of the Union Army as being at a “low ebb” at that time.[i] Federal efforts in the Western theater were characterized by a continuing and costly lack of success at Vicksburg in addition to the major defeats in the east.
General Lee seized the opportunity in 1863 to take the fight into enemy territory. He saw that summer as a good time to gather resources on Northern soil, taking the war out of Virginia. He believed more importantly that a major victory in the North could provide a basis for peace talks with the United States. Peace Democrats, commonly referred to as “Copperheads”, were gaining strength in the United States government and might soon be in a position to end the war on terms favorable to the Confederacy, namely allowing for the independence of Southern states. A stunning victory on Union ground might also draw the recognition of European powers sought by the Confederacy.[ii] Foreign assistance would be incredibly helpful in breaking the naval blockade that had been restricting the resources of the Southern war effort, but even simple foreign recognition would effectively justify the existence of the Confederacy as an independent nation.
Confederate President Jefferson Davis had favored a generally defensive strategy until this point in the war. A course of attrition seemed most reliable for wearing down Northern resolve to continue fighting. A stalemate or truce would have been as good as outright victory for the South, since all it sought was independence. Lee was, however, able to convince Davis to approve his plan to campaign north of the Potomac River.[iii]
Lee then marched approximately 75,000 men north along the Shenandoah Valley out of Virginia. He endeavored to use the Blue Ridge Mountains as a screen to mask his troop movements. Military intelligence was primarily acquired at that time by means of cavalry patrols. An army might have been able to gain information from enemy newspapers, civilians, or prisoners, but cavalry reconnaissance was the reliable, “professional” means of gaining intelligence.[iv] Lee would therefore avoid detection moving behind the mountains, where it was much harder for federal cavalry to get to his army.
Lee’s own cavalry was separated from the main army during this movement. The cavalry, under the command of J.E.B. Stuart, moved behind the Federal army to conduct raids. Stuart sought Lee’s permission to do so after his recent embarrassment at the Battle of Brandy Station, where Federal cavalry surprised him and nearly defeated his own.[v] Stuart became cut off behind enemy lines on his raid and lost contact with Lee for nearly two weeks during the campaign northward.
The Confederate army was therefore operating with an incredible lack of information when it collided with Union troops outside of Gettysburg on July 1 of that summer. It was by pure chance that Confederate infantry and Union cavalry found each other on that day. The Union detachment was one of many sent in every direction away from the main body of the army on its own information gathering mission.
Lee found himself in an unfamiliar position as the fighting took shape at the Battle of Gettysburg. The Southerners had been advantaged until that time by fighting in their own territory. They had known the roads and terrain better, civilians had been much more cooperative with them, their spies were much more effective near home, and their cavalry had been far more helpful.[vi] All of these details reversed when the Confederate army marched into Pennsylvania. Lee faced completely new disadvantages.
The film Gettysburg accurately portrays the events of this battle in an impressively objective and unaltered style. It is is the cinematic story of the Civil War’s most famous battle, and perhaps one of the most helpful historic movies in American collections.
Please see “pages” to the right for additional information on the battle and film.
[i] James M. McPherson, “Commentary Track,” Gettysburg, DVD, directed by Ronald F. Maxwell (Warner Bros. Pictures, 1993).
[ii]Terry L. Jones, Cemetery Hill: The Struggle for the High Ground (Cambridge, MA: Da Capro Press, 2003), 9-14.
[iii] G. Moxley Sorrel, Recollections of a Confederate Staff Officer (Jackson, TN: McCowat-Mercer Press, 1958), 150-156.
[iv] Craig Symonds, “Commentary Track,” Gettysburg, DVD, directed by Ronald F. Maxwell (Warner Bros. Pictures, 1993).
[v] Jones, 15-21.