By Gary W. Gallagher, Ph.D., University of Virginia
In 1862-63, Ulysses Grant’s failure to take Vicksburg and disasters in Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville had sent the Union morale plunging to an all-time low. Let’s examine the strategic situation in May and June, and the Confederate planning that resulted in the invasion of Pennsylvania in mid-June.
A Background: Lincoln’s Many Problems
The Abraham Lincoln government faced both military and political problems in May and June in 1863. On the military side, the absence of victories was the clear problem—Chancellorsville being the most recent example of the failure of a major Union Army. But there were more serious problems on the northern political front. The failure of Union armies had encouraged anti-war sentiment in the North. The Copperheads—the part of the Democratic Party that argued for an end to the war—said that they had supported the war just for the Union, but they were not in the support for emancipation. They wanted first an end to the war and then negotiations with the Confederates.
The Union draft, which went into effect in the spring of 1863, worsened the situation, as it seemed to be a desperate move. And Lincoln was floundering in the east in the sense that he didn’t have a commander at the head of the army of the Potomac whom he would really trust. He didn’t think that Joseph Hooker was going to deliver the kind of victories that the North would need in the long run.
The Confederate Plan
On the Confederate side, it was a period of planning a strategy to use against the Union troops in Virginia and the west. Hooker’s army would still be opposite Robert Lee’s army in northern Virginia along the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg. Braxton Bragg and William Starke Rosecrans would still face each other in the Tennessee Theater where they had been, and, of course, Ulysses Grant’s operations continued against Vicksburg.
In each of these theaters, the Union Army was larger than its Confederate opponent, as was almost always the case, and there were other threats on the board as well for the Confederates. There would be a Union campaign against Port Hudson and Nathaniel Banks as May moved along, and the North was also planning a major naval action at Charleston. So the question for the Confederates was: How to use their resources to the best advantage?
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Was Virginia Not Important Enough?
Many of the Confederate leaders said that Virginia was not the most important place. They needed to either take troops from Lee’s army and reinforce Bragg or take troops from Lee’s army and reinforce John C. Pemberton, who was commanding at Vicksburg. In fact, a plan was put forward to that. It was supported by many, including Braxton Bragg, P.G.T. Beauregard, James Longstreet, and Jefferson Davis.
But Lee refused. He was of the opinion that he could do more good in Virginia by invading the North than anything that their commanders in the West could do. He thought that if he would go north, then the enemy will have to follow him. This would allow them to gather the logistical bounty from the farmers in the summer. It would have taken the pressure off Virginia, and they could have gathered supplies north of the Potomac River.
Learn more about the time the Confederates came close to winning the War.
Robert Lee’s Plans for the Confederates
Lee also believed that he could strengthen the Copperheads in the North. He was aware that they were a problem for Lincoln. He also had a slim hope that a really successful campaign north of the Potomac might actually rekindle chances that either England or France would decide to help the Confederacy.
As a sop to those who argued that he should send troops west, Lee said that if he were really successful then maybe Grant and Rosecrans would have to weaken their armies to strengthen Union armies in the east. Lee has been heavily criticized for this action. He’s been called a man who had Virginia blinders on. He didn’t understand the big picture of the war. He always was just thinking of his own army.
But, the fact was he realized better than any of his critics that the east was more important in terms of morale. Lee knew that his army, by that point, had become the most important national institution in the Confederacy and that anything he did would likely resonate more powerfully both in a positive sense with the Confederates and a negative sense with the North.
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Lee’s Plans: Second Invasion of the North
In the end, Jefferson Davis decided not to go against Lee’s wishes. He went along with his best commander, and the result would be the second invasion of the North by Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia.
The campaign initially went well; Lee’s army was back up to 75,000 men and James Longstreet had rejoined the army after the Battle of Chancellorsville. The army was now divided into three: Longstreet commanding the First Corps, a man named Richard Ewell commanding most of Jackson’s old Second Corps, and A. P. Hill commanding the new Third Corps.
By early June the army was ready to move, but just before it went north on June 9, there was a huge cavalry battle near Culpepper, Virginia, where the army was staging for its invasion.
The Union cavalry, under Alfred Pleasanton, surprised Jeb Stuart and his Confederate cavalry and fought in this Battle of Brandy Station. Part of this action took place with troopers fighting on foot, but part of it was an old-fashioned swinging sabers and firing revolvers at each other kind of fight. It involved 10,000 men on each side.
But Stuart was probably the best cavalryman of the war in those classic cavalry functions. In the end, he was able to hold on and drive the Federals back, but it was a very close call for his command.
Still, Lee’s plans and the campaign began well for the Confederates.
Common Questions about Events in the Eastern Theater in 1863
The Copperheads were a part of the Democratic Party that argued for an end to the Civil War. They wanted first an end to the war and then negotiations with the Confederates.
Robert Lee was a commander of the Confederate Army during the Civil War. He was in charge of the invasion of the North in 1863.
Jeb Stuart was a commander of the Confederate Army during the Civil War. He was probably the best cavalryman during the war. During the invasion of the North, his cavalry met with a surprise attack in the Battle of Brandy Station; however, he was able to hold on and drive the Federals back.