Though the first shots of the battle were not fired until 1 July, the story of Gettysburg begins several months earlier in May of the year 1863. Here we find two opposing armies sitting on either side of the Rappahannock River: the Federal Army of the Potomac commanded by Joseph Hooker and Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. These armies had just recovered from a tremendous battle, known as the Battle of Chancellorsville, and each now licked its wounds. The battle had been costly; the Army of the Potomac suffering some seventeen thousand casualties and casualties in the Confederate army were also high. Yet in the Army of Northern Virginia, morale soared high. Lee’s dilapidated army had executed an incredible flanking maneuver, led by the famed Stonewall Jackson, which drove the advancing Federal army back across the Rappahannock River in yet another stupendous victory.
Yet despite this marvelous victory for the Confederacy, an atmosphere of deep melancholy marked the strained Confederate high command. Though Lee’s army had suffered fewer casualties than the Hooker, he could ill afford the loss of the thirteen thousand men numbered as killed, wounded, or missing, over twenty percent of his force in the campaign. Worst of all, the victory at Chancellorsville had cost Lee his most aggressive corps commander, Stonewall Jackson. The battle was truly a Pyrrhic victory. In addition, the Confederate high command found itself faced in this late spring of 1863 with the dangerous problem of Vicksburg. The situation was now desperate, the Federal army under Ulysses S. Grant having made a successful crossing of the Mississippi River below Vicksburg. Meanwhile, in Tennessee, Confederate General Braxton Bragg faced trouble from the advancing army of General Rosecrans.
These factors brought General Robert Edward Lee to Richmond, Virginia to confer with the Confederate president and his cabinet on 14 May, just over a week following his tremendous victory at Chancellorsville. On 15 May, Lee met secretly with Secretary of War James A. Seddon and President Jefferson Davis in an attempt to discover some solution to these problems besetting the Confederacy.
Because of the precarious condition of the Confederacy in the west, many influential politicians, among them the Secretary of War, held that Lee should send troops from his theatre to reinforce the rapidly deteriorating armies in the West. Their plan was for certain elements of Lee’s army, perhaps led by Lee himself, to join either Bragg in Tennessee, General Joseph Johnston in Jackson, Mississippi, or General Pemberton’s defense of the Vicksburg fort itself.
Lee, however, viewed events in a different light, urging instead an invasion of the North. Though there is no record of the conference that took place in Richmond over those three days in May, we can guess Lee’s thoughts and reasoning, as well as the outcome of these meetings, through letters later exchanged between Lee and the Confederate President.
The ideas of Seddon clearly did not appeal to Lee, who recognized the logistical problems of such a maneuver. The Confederate railroad system was terrifically deficient, suffering from an extreme lack of railroads, with those that did exist lacking in any kind of efficiency or strategic location. Thus, to plan the movement of a large body of troops from one side of the nation to the other was one thing. The carrying out of such a plan could only be described as a logician’s worst nightmare. Lee voiced his apprehensions in a letter to Secretary Seddon, written in early April of that year, “The most natural way to re-enforce General Johnston would seem to be to transfer a portion of the troops [of] this department to oppose those sent west, but it is not so easy for us to change troops from one department to another as it is for the enemy, and if we rely upon that method we may be always too late.”1
However, the argument that probably had greater affect with President Davis was simply that troops could not be spared from Virginia any more than they could from Mississippi. Responding to a letter from Secretary Seddon, Lee wrote on 10 May, “The adoption of your proposition is hazardous, and it becomes a question between Virginia and the Mississippi.”2 Lee recognized that the fundamental quandary facing the Confederacy was simply a lack of troops. The Union possessed vastly superior numbers and now, these numbers began to tell. In confiding to the Confederate Adjutant and Inspector General S. Cooper, Lee wrote in mid-April, “I have reflected with great anxiety upon the condition of affairs in that region [Mississippi], but can arrive at no satisfactory conclusion with regard to re-enforcing the troops in that department. I believe the enemy in every department outnumbers us, and it is difficult to say from which troops can with safety be spared. If it is determined to be best that the army here should remain inactive, I doubt whether General Hooker will be quiescent.”3
In Lee’s mind, there were in essence two choices: either lose Vicksburg, or else lose Richmond. When faced with these two choices, there could be little doubt in the mind of the President. He could not let the capital fall. Yet it was a difficult choice, for both led to inevitable defeat.
Yet in coming to this Richmond conference of early May, Lee, never a pessimist, carried with him a plan which he felt might have a slight chance in bringing victory to the Confederacy. It was high time, in Lee’s mind, to seize once again the strategic initiative and embark his army on an invasion of the North. Lee had clearly entertained the idea of invasion as a possible solution to the situation in the west for quite some time, writing in early April to the Secretary of War, “Should General Hooker's army assume the defensive, the readiest method of relieving the pressure upon General Johnston and General Beauregard would be for this army to cross into Maryland.”4
Lee, knowing the U.S. Government’s tendency towards paranoia at the slightest threat to Washington, felt that an invasion of the North would, at the very least, prevent the deployment of any further reinforcements to Grant, and might, if met with great success, even induce Washington to withdraw troops from Vicksburg.
However, more pressing needs urged this plan of invasion. The Southern economy was wavering and Lee found it harder than ever to supply his army with much needed food and clothing. Indeed, it had become a common saying among the troops that “one of the principal objects in killing a Yankee was to get his boots.”5 The situation was certainly not aided by the inefficient railroad system of the Confederacy, running through war-ravaged country. To put it simply, the Confederacy suffered from the effects of war and could not long support her armies. In a conversation with Major General Henry Heth, Lee told Heth, “The question of food for this army gives me more trouble and uneasiness than everything else combined.”6
The fundamental reason behind Lee’s invasion plan, however, was one of necessity. As Lee saw it, invasion was his only option. It had already been established that he could not abandon Virginia. Yet at the same time, he could not remain behind the Rappahannock forever. Though the Union attempt at Chancellorsville had ended in failure, it was certainly an improvement from Fredericksburg. It was only a matter of time before the Army of the Potomac found a weakness and exploited it. And even if Lee could drive back the marauding Federals once again, they could simply pull back across the river as they had before and prepare for yet another try. In essence, the overwhelming victory needed by the Confederacy would never come by remaining on the Rappahannock line. Later in life, Lee would express the quandary he faced: “It would be folly to have divided my army,” he said, “the armies of the enemy were too far apart for me to attempt to fall upon them in detail. I considered the problem in every possible phase, and to my mind, it resolved itself into a choice of one of two things — either to retire to Richmond and stand a siege, which must ultimately have ended in surrender, or to invade Pennsylvania.”7
Clearly, invasion was the only option left to him. Yet it was not out of necessity alone that Lee arrived at this conclusion, for the potential gains from such an invasion were numerous. First, it would regain the strategic initiative Lee so needed to gain a meaningful victory. Second, movement into northern territory would provide Lee’s hungry army with a vast food-source, namely, the full barns of wealthy Pennsylvanian farmers, giving the ravaged fields of the South a chance to recover.
Yet even higher were the political hopes of the invasion. If met with success, such an invasion of the North would greatly impair Lincoln’s chances for reelection, producing greater support for the Peace Democrats in the North. The North was already war-weary, depressed by the constant flow of defeats. A major victory on Northern soil might serve to bring the Republican Party to the ground. With Peace Democrats in power, the war could be ended under favorable terms for the Confederacy. In addition, such a victory might gain the ever-elusive recognition and intervention the Confederacy sought from Britain and France.
Armed with these compelling arguments, Lee presented his invasion plan before the President and Secretary of War. Though initially met with unease, Lee’s authoritative presence was such that, by the end of the three-day conference, both Davis and Seddon had become converts to Lee’s point of view. The Army of Northern Virginia would march north.
1. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Volume XXV, Part I, pg. 713 2. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Volume XXV, Part I, pg. 790 3. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Volume XXV, Part I, pg. 725 4. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Volume XXV, Part I, pg. 713 5. Fremantle, Arthur James Lyon, Sir, Three Months in the Southern States: April, June, 1863, pg. 87 6. Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume IV, pg. 153 7. Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume IV, pg. 154