Battlefield victory may not have officially been part of the Confederate plan in Pennsylvania, but Robert E. Lee saw opportunity—and for him strategic and tactical initiative were always part of the plan.
General Robert E. Lee wrote two official reports on the Gettysburg Campaign: a preliminary after-action account on July 31, 1863, and a final report on January 20, 1864. In these documents he summarized the five main objectives of his invasion of Pennsylvania:
- To draw the Union Army of the Potomac away from the Rappahannock River line.
- To take the initiative away from the enemy and disrupt any defensive plan General Joseph Hooker might have had for the rest of the summer.
- To drive Union occupation forces out of Winchester and the lower Shenandoah Valley.
- To draw Union forces away from other theaters to reinforce Hooker.
- To take the armies out of war-ravaged Virginia and to provide the Army of Northern Virginia with food, forage, horses, and other supplies from the rich agricultural countryside of Pennsylvania.
If Lee’s goals were indeed limited to these five objectives, the Gettysburg campaign was a Confederate success. Lee did seize the initiative from Hooker; he did draw him away from the Rappahannock and disrupt any possible Union offensive in Virginia for the rest of the summer. The campaign did clear the lower Shenandoah Valley of enemy troops under General Robert Milroy and in fact captured 4,000 of them. During the three to four weeks the Army of Northern Virginia was in Pennsylvania it lived very well off the enemy’s country. And according to Kent Masterson Brown’s book Retreat from Gettysburg, the Confederates seized enough food, forage and animals in Pennsylvania to keep the army supplied for months to come. The fifth objective Lee mentioned was achieved with qualified success. The only Union forces drawn from elsewhere during the campaign were five brigades from the Washington defenses—although after the battle some Northern units were shifted from the southern Atlantic coast to reinforce the Army of the Potomac.
The implication in Lee’s reports that his goals in the Gettysburg campaign were limited, and largely achieved, is at least partly consistent with some modern studies of the campaign. They challenge the traditional view that Gettysburg was a disastrous Confederate defeat that shattered Lee’s hopes for a war-winning victory on Northern soil. They also reject the notion that Gettysburg was a crucial turning point toward ultimate Union victory in the war. According to historians who question these traditional interpretations, Lee’s incursion into Pennsylvania was a raid, not an invasion. A smashing victory over the Army of the Potomac would have been a nice bonus, but it was not the main goal of the raid. The Union victory at Gettysburg was merely defensive, and the Army of Northern Virginia got away with its spoils and lived to fight another day— indeed, many other days, as the war continued for almost two more years. It was only in retrospect and in memory that Gettysburg became the climactic battle and turning point of the war.
Some of these arguments are self-evidently correct. The war did go on for almost two more years, and the Confederacy still had a chance to win it as late as August 1864 by wearing out the Northern will to continue fighting. Rebel foraging parties did scour hundreds of square miles of south-central Pennsylvania for whatever they could find and take—including many African Americans carried back to Virginia into slavery.
But we might ask whether all these spoils were worth the 28,000 or more casualties suffered by Confederates in the campaign as a whole, including the nightmare retreat. Of this number at least 18,000 men were gone for good from the Army of Northern Virginia—dead, imprisoned, or so badly wounded that they could never fight again. And we might also ask whether, even though Gettysburg was not a decisive turning point toward imminent Union victory, it might have been a decisive turning point away from a Confederate victory that could have demoralized the Army of the Potomac and the Northern people and might also have neutralized the loss of Vicksburg.
But what about Lee’s official reports that set forth no such ambitious purpose for his invasion—or raid? To disagree with Lee is not to question his integrity. He told the truth in his reports. But he appears not to have told the whole truth. There is a considerable amount of evidence that he had more sweeping goals for his invasion of Pennsylvania than he described.
We need first to provide a context for this evidence. A fundamental assumption underlay Lee’s military strategy, not only in the Gettysburg campaign but also in the war as a whole. Lee believed that the North’s greater population and resources would make Union victory inevitable in a prolonged war of attrition, so long as the Northern people had the will to employ those superior resources. The only way the Confederacy could achieve its independence, Lee thought, was to win battlefield victories while the South had the strength to do so, victories that would if possible cripple the enemy’s main army and demoralize the Northern people to the point they became convinced that continuing to fight was not worth the cost in lives and resources. Lee believed that these battlefield victories could not be won by sitting back and waiting for the enemy to take the initiative. The only time he did that, before 1864 at least, was at Fredericksburg in December 1862, a defensive Confederate victory that Lee found frustrating because the defeated enemy was able to pull back over the Rappahannock without further harm. Even at Antietam, where the Confederates fought a tactically defensive battle except for localized counterattacks, the battle itself was the culmination of Lee’s strategic offensive. During the battle—indeed, the day after it as well—Lee looked for ways to take the tactical offensive even with his exhausted and depleted army. And following his retreat across the Potomac after Antietam, Lee still wanted to recross into Maryland farther upriver to continue his offensive, and expressed frustration over the army’s inability to do so.
From the moment he took command of the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee had sought openings for a knockout blow. After driving McClellan back to the James River at the cost of 20,000 Confederate casualties in the Seven Days battles, Lee did not bask in his victory but instead lamented that “our success has not been as great or as complete as I could have desired….Under ordinary circumstances the Federal Army should have been destroyed.”
Destroyed!! This Napoleonic vision continued to be Lee’s guiding star for the next year. Just as Napoleon had destroyed enemy armies at Austerlitz and Jena-Auerstadt, forcing Austria, Russia, and Prussia to sue for peace on his terms, Lee hoped for similar if perhaps less spectacular results from the Seven Days, from the invasion of Maryland in 1862— and from the invasion of Pennsylvania in 1863.
In the Antietam and Gettysburg campaigns Lee linked his military initiatives to proposals for parallel political initiatives to achieve the goal of Confederate independence. After his victory at Second Manassas, Lee believed the enemy army was “much weakened and demoralized,” he wrote to Jefferson Davis. Now was the time to give them the knockout blow. Braxton Bragg’s and Edmund Kirby Smith’s armies were invading Kentucky at the same time that Lee’s men crossed the Potomac into Maryland. In a Napoleonic proclamation to his troops on September 6, 1862, Lee declared: “Soldiers, press onward! Let the armies of the East and West vie with each other in discipline, bravery, and activity, and our brethren of our sister States Maryland and Kentucky will soon be released from tyranny, and our independence be established on a sure and abiding basis.”
Lee was an avid reader of Northern newspapers smuggled across the lines. From them he gleaned not only bits of military intelligence but also—and more important in this case—information about Northern politics and the growing disillusionment with the war among Democrats and despair among Republicans. One of Lee’s purposes in the Maryland invasion was to intensify this Northern demoralization in advance of the congressional elections in the fall of 1862. He hoped that Confederate military success would encourage antiwar candidates. If Democrats could gain control of the House, it might cripple the Lincoln administration’s ability to carry on the war. On September 8 Lee outlined his ideas on this matter in a letter to Davis. “The present posture of affairs,” Lee wrote, “places it in our power…to propose to the Union government…the recognition of our independence.” Such a proposal, coming when “it is in our power to inflict injury on our adversary…would enable the people of the United States to determine at their coming elections whether they will support those who favor a prolongation of the war, or those who wish to bring it to a termination.”
This desire to influence the Northern elections was one reason Lee gave serious thought to resuming the campaign in Maryland even after Antietam. That was not to be. Democrats did make significant gains in the 1862 congressional elections, although Republicans managed to retain control of Congress. But morale in the Army of the Potomac and among the Northern public plunged to rock bottom in the early months of 1863 after the disaster at Fredericksburg, the fiasco of the Mud March, and the failure of Grant’s initial efforts to accomplish anything at Vicksburg. Antiwar Democrats in the North—self-described as Peace Democrats but branded by Republicans as treasonable Copperheads—became more outspoken and politically powerful than ever. Lee followed these developments closely. In February he secretly ordered Stonewall Jackson’s skilled topographical engineer, Jedediah Hotchkiss, to draw detailed maps of south-central Pennsylvania from the Cumberland Valley to Harrisburg and all the way east to Philadelphia. Lee did not give Hotchkiss such an assignment just because he liked to read maps.
About this time Lee also read in Northern newspapers of General George B. McClellan’s testimony to the congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War about the finding of Lee’s Special Orders No. 191 in the Antietam campaign. This solved the mystery of why McClellan had moved more quickly and aggressively than Lee had anticipated. Stephen Sears suggests that this eye-opening revelation may have convinced Lee that only an unlucky accident had frustrated his ambitious goals for the first invasion of the North. With better luck and tighter security he might succeed on a second try.
By April 1863 Lee was beginning to plan that second invasion. Not only would it sweep Milroy out of the Shenandoah Valley and force Hooker out of Virginia, Lee informed Davis; it would also compel the Federals threatening the coast of the Carolinas and General William S. Rosecrans’ Union Army of the Cumberland to divert reinforcements to Hooker. The Army of the Potomac would soon become weaker as the terms of 30,000 of its two-year men who had enlisted in 1861 and nine-month men who had enlisted in 1862 began to expire. Now was the time, said Lee, to strike again with an invasion to force Hooker’s reduced army into the open for another blow to discourage Northern opinion. “If successful this year,” Lee wrote his wife on April 19, “Next fall there will be a great change in public opinion at the North. The Republicans will be destroyed & I think the friends of peace will become so strong that the next administration will go in on that basis.” Here indeed was a bold strategic vision. It was not limited to a mere raid to take the armies out of Virginia and obtain supplies.
Before Lee could begin to implement this vision, however, Hooker struck first on the Rappahannock. Lee countered, sent Jackson on his famous flank march, mesmerized Hooker, and forced him to hunker down in his entrenchments north of Chancellorsville by May 5. Intending to throw his knockout punch right there before Hooker could get back over the river, as Burnside had done the previous December, Lee was bitterly disappointed when Hooker slipped away on the night of May 5-6.
Even as they mourned Stonewall Jackson’s death, Southerners nevertheless celebrated Chancellorsville as a great victory. But to Lee it was another empty triumph that left the enemy to fight another day and also left the two armies once again confronting each other across the Rappahannock as the sand in the Confederacy’s hourglass dropped inexorably grain by grain. If the war was ever to be won, Lee believed 1863 was the year; the South would only get weaker and the North stronger if the conflict went on much longer. The men and horses of the Army of Northern Virginia were on half rations as the Confederacy’s economy and rail network continued to deteriorate. Food and forage as well as the opportunity to maneuver the enemy into a position where Lee could fight him to advantage beckoned from Pennsylvania.
But by the time General James Longstreet and his two divisions under Generals John Bell Hood and George Pickett rejoined the Army of Northern Virginia after their sojourn south of the James gathering supplies and threatening the Union lines at Suffolk, Lee had to overcome competing visions of what Confederate strategy should be. Grant was closing in on Vicksburg; Rosecrans threatened General Braxton Bragg’s position in middle Tennessee; a Union army/navy task force threatened General P.G.T. Beauregard at Charleston. Longstreet suggested that he take Hood’s and Pickett’s divisions to reinforce Bragg for an offensive against Rosecrans, which might also force Grant to release his tightening grip on Vicksburg. Secretary of War James Seddon and Postmaster-General John Reagan gained a hearing from Jefferson Davis for their proposal that Longstreet’s two divisions go directly to General John C. Pemberton’s support at Vicksburg.
In conversations and correspondence during the second and third weeks of May, however, Lee strongly opposed these proposals. It would take too long for Longstreet’s men to get to Vicksburg for them to do any good, he said, and it was not clear that Pemberton and Joseph Johnston would know what to do with them if they did get there. Besides, the heat and diseases of a Deep South summer would loosen Grant’s grip. Even if Vicksburg fell, a successful invasion of Pennsylvania would more than compensate for that loss. If Longstreet’s two divisions went west, Lee warned, he might have to retreat into the Richmond defenses.
Lee won over Davis and Seddon. Most interesting of all he won over Longstreet, who now agreed with Lee that an invasion of Pennsylvania offered the best opportunity “either to destroy the Yankees or bring them to terms,” as Longstreet wrote to Senator Louis Wigfall of Texas on May 13. If the defensive-minded Longstreet could talk like this, it seems even more likely that the offensive-minded Lee went north looking for that Confederate Austerlitz or Jena-Auerstadt. Longstreet later claimed he had extracted a promise from Lee that he would maneuver in such a way as to fight only on the tactical defensive in Pennsylvania. As Stephen Sears comments, however, “that of course was nonsense.” Lee might have been willing to fight on the tactical defensive if he could do so on ground or under conditions that gave him the opportunity to win the kind of victory he felt had eluded him at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville—but he certainly could not have made such a binding promise to Longstreet. And almost everything Lee said or did in Pennsylvania indicated that he had always meant to keep the initiative by attacking.
In any event, plans for the invasion went forward. Davis scraped up some reinforcements for the Army of Northern Virginia, though not as many as Lee had hoped for. Nevertheless, he was confident as his army started north. His reading of Northern newspapers and other intelligence reports convinced him that the Northern people were demoralized. Regiment after regiment of two-year and nine-month men in the Army of the Potomac was being demobilized. On June 23 Confederate division commander Dorsey Pender wrote to his wife: “It is stated on all sides that Hooker has a small army and that it is very much demoralized. General Lee says he wants to meet him as soon as possible.” Lee had taken Hooker’s measure at Chancellorsville and now spoke of him with thinly veiled contempt as “Mr. F. J. Hooker” in a sarcastic reference to Hooker’s “Fighting Joe” nickname in the Northern press.
Lee believed his own army to be “invincible,” he told General Hood. “They will go anywhere and do anything if properly led.” Proper leadership after Jackson’s death and other Chancellorsville casualties was a problem, to be sure. Lee reorganized the army into three corps with Generals Richard Ewell and A.P. Hill as new corps commanders. Their record as division commanders under Jackson gave promise of vigorous, hard-hitting leadership in their new role. And that is precisely what Lee expected of them. Lee went into Pennsylvania as he had gone into Maryland the year before, not merely on a raid for supplies but looking for a fight—perhaps even a war-winning fight. In a conversation with General Isaac Trimble on June 27, when most of the Army of Northern Virginia was at Chambersburg, Pa., and when Lee believed the enemy was still south of the Potomac, he told Trimble: “When they hear where we are, they will make forced marches…probably through Frederick, 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.”
Trimble wrote these words 20 years later, and one might question their literal accuracy—even though Trimble said the conversation was vivid in his memory and he was confident that he quoted Lee almost verbatim. In any case, Trimble surely did not make up Lee’s words out of whole cloth. They were consistent with Lee’s tactical decisions at Gettysburg even though many of the assumptions underlying his conversation with Trimble turned out to have been wrong. The Army of the Potomac was north of the river, it was not strung out or demoralized, and it was no longer commanded by Mr. F.J. Hooker. Even so, at Gettysburg Lee ordered an attack—again an attack—and again attacks, almost as if to make his predictions to Trimble come true.
As he had done during the invasion of Maryland the previous September, Lee offered some political advice to Jefferson Davis. This advice also was consistent with his prediction to Trimble that a crushing military victory would enable Davis to extract a peace agreement from the United States government that would recognize Confederate independence. Lee’s reading of Northern newspapers had convinced him that “the rising peace party in the North,” as he described the Copperheads, offered the South a “means of dividing and weakening our enemies.” It was true, Lee acknowledged in a letter to Davis on June 10, that the Copperheads professed to favor reunion as the object of the peace negotiations they were clamoring for, while of course the Confederate goal in any such negotiations would be independence. But it would do no harm, Lee advised Davis, to play along with this reunion sentiment to weaken Northern support for the war, which “after all is what we are interested in bringing about. When peace is proposed to us it will be time enough to discuss its terms, and it is not the part of prudence to spurn the proposition in advance, merely because those who made it believe, or affect to believe, that it will result in bringing us back to the Union.”
Lee concluded his letter with a broad hint that Davis “will best know how to give effect” to Lee’s views. Davis did indeed think he knew a way to offer the olive branch of a victorious peace at the same time that Lee’s sword won that victory in the field. About the time he received Lee’s letter, Davis also opened one from Vice President Alexander H. Stephens suggesting a mission to Washington under flag of truce. The ostensible purpose would be a negotiation to renew the cartel for prisoner of war exchanges, which had broken down because of the Confederate threat to execute or reenslave captured officers and men of black regiments. But the real purpose would be negotiations of a peace on the basis of Confederate independence. Davis immediately summoned Stephens from Georgia to Richmond with the intention of sending him into Pennsylvania with the army as a sort of minister plenipotentiary to start negotiations after Lee won a military victory.
Stephens arrived too late to catch up with the troops, and he protested that the enemy would never receive him anyway if he accompanied the army. So Davis sent him under flag of truce to Fortress Monroe, where he arrived on July 2 and had word sent to Lincoln asking permission to come to Washington. The press in Richmond may have gotten wind of this affair. In any case the initial news from Lee’s invasion that filtered back from Pennsylvania was highly encouraging. An editorial in the Richmond Examiner reflected a widespread sentiment in the South in early July. “The present movement of General Lee will be of infinite value as disclosing the easy susceptibility of the North to invasion. Not even the Chinese are less prepared by previous habits of life and education for martial resistance than the Yankees. We can carry our armies far into the enemy’s country, exacting peace by blows leveled at his vitals.”
That was precisely what Lee hoped to do. But first, on June 28, he ordered Ewell with two divisions, supported by Longstreet, to move north against Harrisburg. Having already cut the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, Lee intended to destroy the Pennsylvania Railroad bridge and tracks at Harrisburg in order to cut all the links between the Midwest and Washington, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. Believing that the Army of the Potomac was still south of its namesake river, Lee thought he had time to carry out this demolition before concentrating to carry out a similar demolition of Hooker’s army.
But that very evening of June 28 Lee received word from Longstreet’s spy James (or Henry—his first name is uncertain) Harrison that the enemy was near the Maryland/Pennsylvania border, much closer and more concentrated than Lee— in the absence of any word from Jeb Stuart—had realized. Recall orders went off to Ewell’s divisions, including Jubal Early’s on the Susquehanna River east of York, to concentrate at Gettysburg or Cashtown, and Lee headed that way himself on June 29. Two days later the battle of Gettysburg began.
It began without Lee’s presence, and in a sense against his wishes and his orders to subordinates not to bring on a battle until the army was concentrated. But once he made the decision to go in with everything he had, about 3 o’clock on the afternoon of July 1, he did not deviate from his intention to seize and hold the initiative by repeatedly attacking in an attempt to win the kind of victory that would destroy the enemy that had eluded him since the Seven Days battles a year earlier. “The enemy is there,” Lee told Longstreet on the morning of July 2 and again the next morning, pointing to Cemetery Ridge, “and I am going to attack him there.”
As late as the morning of July 3—perhaps even as late as 3:30 that afternoon— Lee still hoped and planned for a Cannae victory. His orders for July 3 included not only the attack we now call Pickett’s Charge—or the Pickett-Pettigrew assault— but also an attack on Culp’s Hill and a coup-de-grace strike by Stuart’s 6,000 cavalry swooping down on the Union rear while Pickett and Ewell punched through the center and rolled up the right.
By 4 p.m. on July 3 these hopes had been shattered. A day later a telegram arrived in Washington from the Union naval commander at Hampton Roads (ironically named Samuel Phillips Lee) notifying President Lincoln of Alexander H. Stephens’ desire to meet with him. Having already heard the news from Gettysburg, Lincoln sent back a brusque refusal. And the war continued.
This essay is an exclusive excerpt from James M. McPherson’s upcoming book This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War, to be published by Oxford University Press, ©2007 by James M. McPherson.
Originally published in the April 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.