The first in a three-part series on the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.
One army was the Army of the Potomac while the other was the Army of Northern Virginia, but they were not going to fight along the Potomac River or in the fields of northern Virginia. Instead, they were going to combat in a quiet town in south-central Pennsylvania—a place called Gettysburg, the home of a Lutheran seminary and some small industry. Except for the largest collection of battlefield monuments in the world and a few fast food franchises, it is much the same today.
Since the beginning of the Civil War, the fight in the east was primarily in Virginia. Virginia’s soil absorbed more blood in the war than any other state, with such major battles as First and Second Bull Run, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville all taking place within a score of miles of each other. Also, in the spring of 1862, George McClellan had conducted a campaign in the Tidewater area of Virginia, and in the spring and early summer of that year Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson had skirmished up and down the Shenandoah Valley.
Robert E. Lee had previously determined to alleviate some of the burden of the war on Virginia. In September 1862, Lee marched his army into Maryland, only to be pushed back at Antietam. After the two significant victories at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville in December 1862 and May 1863, respectively, Lee felt the moment had once again arrived to take the fight to the North. There were many motives at work in this strategy, but paramount among them was to take the fight off the utterly abused lands of Virginia.
On the march north in the late spring, Lee’s troops encountered Union resistance and fought two large battles before the Battle of Gettysburg. The first was a cavalry engagement at Brandy Station, Virginia, on June 9, 1863. The Union cavalry, led by Major General Alfred Pleasonton, failed to stop the Confederate horsemen under J.E.B. Stuart, and the Confederate cavalry advanced unchecked into the northern Shenandoah Valley.
Less than one week later, Union General Robert Milroy failed to defend tiny Winchester, Virginia—a town that would change hands more than seventy times during the war—and Confederate Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell would secure the path that Lee would take into Pennsylvania.
Though Gettysburg was by no means the location intended for a large fight, the town hosted a confluence of roads, and Union Major General George G. Meade perceived the hills as advantageous toward establishing a Union position. As David Petruzzi and Steven Stanley note in The New Gettysburg Campaign Handbook, “The battle was not an accident. . . . Gettysburg was an important hub for many important roads and holding it offered either army the ability to move quickly in any direction.”
George G. Meade, Union Major General
By the end of June 1863, with 75,000 men in gray accompanying him, Robert E. Lee would make his boldest move to date. George Meade would be in place with 95,000 men in blue of his own to stop Lee. What prevailed would become the most famous battle in American history and the pivotal moment in the Civil War.
—Warren Perry, Catalog of American Portraits, National Portrait Gallery
Robert Milroy / Mathew Brady Studio / Glass plate collodian negative, undated / Frederick Hill Meserve Collection / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Richard Ewell / Unidentified Artist, Copy after: Julian Vannerson / Albumen silver print, c. 1867 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
George Meade,/ Unidentified Artist / Albumen silver print, c. 1863 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
David J. Petruzzi and Steven Stanley, The New Gettysburg Handbook (New York: Savas Beatie, 2011).