The South was outgunned from the beginning of the war. The victory at Bull Run in late summer of 1861 had given way to discouraging moments at Forts Donelson and Henry in February of 1862, and later that spring at Shiloh. However, by the summer of 1862, Stonewall Jackson had successfully given the Federal army a severe runaround in the Shenandoah Valley, and Richmond had survived a sustained attack by General George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. Also, as of June 1, the Confederate forces in Virginia had a new commander—Robert E. Lee.
Lee was a trained soldier, having graduated second in his class at West Point; he was also a golden child of Virginia, born into the family of an American Revolutionary War hero and wed to Martha Washington’s great granddaughter. The chronicler of Lee’s memoirs, A. L. Long, writes of Lee’s character:
In the year 1829, at the completion of his four years’ course, he graduated, bearing off the second highest honors of the institution. During his whole course he never received a demerit for any breach of rules or neglect of duty. He was highly esteemed by his comrades, and was noted for studious habits and commendable conduct. He avoided tobacco and intoxicating liquors, used no profane or immoral language, and throughout his whole student life performed no act which his pious mother could not have fully approved.
Lee was the archetypal southern gentleman, complete with the damning flaw of many southern gentlemen of his day—slave ownership. Entering the service of the United States, Lee served gallantly during the Mexican War and later would become superintendent of the United States Military Academy (1852–55). It was at the outbreak of hostilities between the North and the South that Lee made the decision to back Virginia and the Confederacy over the United States.
After he assumed command of the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee’s first task was to put down McClellan’s drive toward Richmond. And though ultimately McClellan failed, the casualties on the southern side were great. Still, as E. B. Long notes in his tome The Civil War Day by Day, by July 1861 “The war had changed sharply. . . . The string of Northern victories had ended. While the South was still in a sense at bay, there was more cause for hope.”
Indeed, the remainder of 1862 provided the Southern cause with major victories at Second Bull Run in late August and at Fredericksburg in mid-December. Lee’s major setback during this time was at Antietam in September, as he tried to take the fight onto Union soil by entering Maryland.
The victory at Fredericksburg provided Lee’s army with momentum as it entered 1863, and Lee would once again fight his way onto Union lands; however, if Fredericksburg was the zenith of Lee’s leadership and genius, what awaited him at Gettysburg in July of 1863 would prove to be his nadir.
—Warren Perry, Catalog of American Portraits
Robert E. Lee / Edward & Henry T. Anthony & Company / Albumen silver print, c. 1861 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
A. L. Long, Memoirs of Robert E. Lee (Secaucus, N.J.: The Blue and Grey Press, 1983).
E. B. Long, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, 1971).