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Robert E. Lee counted on Union mistakes to help his gambit at Gettysburg succeed. But this time, the Yankees wouldn’t play along.

When Robert E. Lee assumed command of the Army of Northern Virginia in June 1862, the difficulties he would face a year later at Gettysburg were already apparent—thanks to the ease with which Union troops under George B. McClellan advanced up the Virginia Peninsula following the capture of Yorktown on May 4.

Exploiting superiority in manpower, artillery, engineering and logistics, the Federals had moved methodically through Virginia’s Tidewater to the outskirts of Richmond by late May, where only a risky change in Rebel strategy saved the Confederate capital.

“We are engaged in a species of warfare at which we can never win,” General Joseph Johnston advised Lee at the outset of the Peninsula Campaign. “It is plain that General McClellan will…depend for success upon artillery and engineering. We can compete with him in neither. We must therefore change our course, take the offensive, collect all the troops we have in the East and cross the Potomac.…We can have no success while McClellan is allowed, as he is by our defensive, to choose his mode of warfare.”

Lee, then serving as President Jefferson Davis’ military adviser, concurred.

Johnston’s Army of Northern Virginia had fought a mostly defensive campaign as McClellan rolled toward Richmond, but when the Confederate general was seriously wounded May 31 at the Battle of Seven Pines (Fair Oaks), Davis turned to Lee to reverse the army’s fortunes. Lee quickly abandoned the Confederates’ defensive posture and concentrated his force for attack, realizing the larger Union army lacked the agility and flexibility to win a campaign of maneuver. His lighter force, on the other hand, could move faster and respond more quickly to changing situations, thereby gaining the advantage.

During the subsequent Seven Days’ Battles and the Second Manassas Campaign later that summer, Lee forced the Federals to engage in fluid, mobile operations and achieved impressive results. But in the process he learned two more costly lessons: Even in defeat the Federals could inflict tremendous damage on the Confederates, and Lee would often have to depend on Union mistakes in order to win.

Bungling by officials in Washington, such as the decision to withhold needed reinforcements from McClellan, allowed Lee to maneuver effectively in front of Richmond—and even then McClellan managed to exact a brutal cost, especially at Malvern Hill, where the armies fought just the sort of engagement Lee desperately hoped to avoid. At the Second Battle of Manassas, the Confederates succeeded when the Union Army of Virginia’s bombastic commander John Pope misjudged the location of James Longstreet’s corps and was routed.

The fighting in Maryland following Second Manassas reinforced these lessons for Lee. Using the same methodical style he had displayed on the Peninsula, McClellan punished the Army of Northern Virginia at South Mountain on September 14 and at Antietam three days later. But McClellan’s inability to deliver Lee a fatal blow at Antietam cost him his job, and Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside replaced him in November. Burnside’s subsequent failure to quickly get his army across the Rappahannock River was key to Lee’s easy victory at Fredericksburg on December 13, but the Confederate commander realized that without similar help from the Yanks, such an improbable win would not likely be repeated. Abraham Lincoln mused after the battle that if Fredericksburg “were to be fought over again, every day, through a week of days, with the same relative results, the army under Lee would be wiped out to its last man, the Army of the Potomac would still be a mighty host.”

In January 1863, Lincoln replaced Burnside with “Fighting Joe” Hooker, an aggressive general known for making war not with spade and shovel, but with bold maneuvers and hard fighting. Hooker talked a good game in the coming months but met misfortune at Chancellorsville in early May, when Lee’s mobility against a larger but stagnant opponent produced another stunning victory. Lee, of course, won with help from the Federals, particularly when XI Corps commander Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard allegedly ignored Hooker’s warnings to prepare for an attack, and “Stonewall” Jackson’s famous flank march succeeded.

But Confederate success at Chancellorsville was another Pyrrhic victory. Lee observed that though the battle made “our people…wild with delight, I, on the contrary, was more depressed than after Fredericksburg.”

By then, the contrast between declining Confederate fortunes in the Western Theater and Rebel success in Virginia led some to conclude the South’s military resources and talent should be spread more widely. But Lee resisted calls to disperse his army, doubting that detaching troops to the West would help much. He lobbied instead for the offensive that carried the fighting into Pennsylvania.

He faced an army superior in number and sure to attack Virginia again. Hooker was smart enough to avoid another Fredericksburg, and Lee could ill afford another Chancellorsville, where the costs of victory nearly canceled whatever benefits had been gained. Lee believed he would be better off with the initiative in his own hands.

Even so, his options were limited. A direct attack on the Federals was out of the question. Any attempt to cross the Rappahannock near Fredericksburg would likely result in a conventional engagement, with potentially disastrous consequences. Even if Lee prevailed, he couldn’t see how it would be worth the trouble. Crossing the Rappahannock a bit farther upstream from Fredericksburg—but still east of the Blue Ridge—would put the Army of Northern Virginia between Hooker’s troops and the Washington defenses. Federal forces would be logistically secure, while Lee would have trouble sustaining his own army.

Lee decided on a course of action that, for all its hazards and risks, was the only one that held any prospect of truly decisive success. He planned to march his men west toward the Blue Ridge and then, on entering the Shenandoah Valley, move north toward the Potomac River. The Confederates would then sweep away the relatively small Federal force in the lower Valley and push across the Potomac into the Cumberland Valley. The plan would at least provide a respite from major operations and let Lee feed his army in a rich and relatively unscathed agricultural region.

He knew there was no way the Lincoln administration could tolerate the presence of the Confederacy’s premier army north of the Potomac with Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial elections scheduled in October. Few governors were more critical to the Union war effort than Andrew Curtin, under whose direction the Keystone State had raised more than 100 regiments. Voters angry over a massive Confederate violation of Pennsylvania’s territorial integrity might replace Curtin with a governor less zealous in his support for Lincoln—with dire consequences for the Union war effort.

Lee surmised—correctly—that Washington would order Hooker to rush his command north across the Potomac and bring the Army of Northern Virginia to battle as soon as possible. Lee hoped that with the initiative in his own hands, the Federals would be off-balance, divided and unprepared. Victory would, at a minimum, force a battered Army of the Potomac to draw back to lick its wounds, buy some time for Virginia and Lee’s army, and depress morale in the North—and maybe produce a political revolution that could end the war.

In retrospect, of course, it’s clear Lee’s hopes were based on assumptions that pushed perilously close to the edge, if not beyond, the limits of the possible. But he was always willing to take the chance.

During the first week of June, the Army of Northern Virginia headed west. Major General Richard Ewell’s corps led the march and, after winning a crushing victory at Winchester, took advantage of the clear path across the Potomac to move up the Cumberland Valley toward the Susquehanna River. James Longstreet’s and Ambrose P. Hill’s corps followed, their progress hampered only marginally by a series of cavalry engagements in the Loudoun Valley.

By nightfall on June 27, Lee was confident his maneuvers were working. Ewell, en route to the Susquehanna, was giving Union authorities in Pennsylvania the willies while Hill and Longstreet made headway through the Cumberland Valley.

“Our army is in good spirits,” Lee remarked to Maj. Gen. Isaac R. Trimble, “not over fatigued, and can be concentrated on any point in twenty-four hours or less.” Although he lacked specific information about Federal movements, Lee believed he would have the upper hand when they finally met. “They will come up, probably through Frederick; broken down with hunger and hard marching, strung out on a long line and much demoralized, when they come into Pennsylvania,” he predicted. “I shall throw an overwhelming force on their advance, crush it, follow up the success, drive one corps back and another, and by successive repulses and surprises before they can concentrate, create a panic and virtually destroy the army.”

Much would depend, however, on the Yankees. Lee knew his previous campaigns had been high-risk affairs in which, with a bit more luck and prudence on the part of their commanders, the Federals could easily have prevailed. But this time, the men who commanded the Army of the Potomac seemed to know it, too.

While Joe Hooker had pledged to break with McClellan’s style of warfare, he demonstrated a firm appreciation for the virtues of caution, methodical management and creating conditions that would play to Federal advantages.

Rather than face Lee head-on, Hooker proposed an attack on Richmond. President Lincoln rejected that plan, however, insisting that the army go after Lee. So Hooker turned his army north and methodically pushed it across the Potomac— which Lee did not expect.

Hooker then placed a part of his command east of South Mountain, sent a corps to Harpers Ferry to cooperate with its garrison in the Cumberland Valley and positioned three corps in Maryland’s Middletown Valley to support the forces in the Monocacy or Cumberland valleys. Without seriously hurting his ability to concentrate his troops for a conventional engagement, Hooker secured Washington and Baltimore and menaced Lee’s potential route back to Virginia. Nothing suggested he would make the kinds of mistakes that had handed the Rebels their victory at Chancellorsville.

Hooker, however, was locked in a dispute with Union General in Chief Henry Halleck, and when he offered his resignation in protest, Lincoln jumped at the chance to replace him. Major General George Meade assumed command of the Army of the Potomac on June 28, and by June 30 had pulled his entire command east to better concentrate it around Frederick. He also moved part of his army north toward Gettysburg, and by nightfall Meade was developing plans to concentrate the entire army in a line roughly along Maryland’s Big Pipe Creek. From this position, Meade hoped to avoid just the scenario Lee had optimistically imagined a few days earlier. Events on July 1, however, conspired against Meade. Before he could put Union forces behind Pipe Creek, Maj. Gen. John Reynolds had already committed troops to battle under the exact circumstances Lee wanted.

As North and South unexpectedly engaged at Gettysburg, success depended on which side could get its men to the right place at the right time. There was a considerable element of luck in the events of that first day, but little surprise in the outcome. Lee’s army prevailed—and in spectacular fashion, although the ability of the Federals to regain their equilibrium on the hills south of Gettysburg prevented the Rebel triumph from being truly decisive.

The next day, the advantage began to shift to the Federals’ favor. Early on, both armies were still concentrating their forces, leaving Lee an opening. As at Chancellorsville, Lee attempted to move a portion of his army into a position from which it could roll up a Union flank. He would then exploit whatever opportunities developed.

Fortune smiled—for a while. Daniel Sickles’ poor handling of his Union corps allowed elements from Longstreet’s and A.P. Hill’s commands to make a successful afternoon attack on the southern end of the field. The Federals responded by diminishing their forces elsewhere to the point that Confederate attacks on Culp’s Hill and East Cemetery Hill came close to decisive tactical triumph.

But close wasn’t nearly good enough. Meade managed to mass his forces to contain whatever gains the Confederates made. The Rebels had earned a draw, but couldn’t truly carry the day.

Then came July 3 and the futile frontal assault on Cemetery Ridge against Union troops who were fighting “with a determination unusual to them,” as Hill had noted during the first day of battle. Lee had few other options. Leaving Gettysburg was out of the question—it would concede defeat, which seemed unnecessary after the effective blows his army had delivered the past two days. Longstreet wanted to go around the Union left to find a good position to compel the Federals to attack, but Lee correctly recognized that Meade was too prudent not to counter such a move.

Nor did holding his position and hoping the Federals could be drawn into an attack offer much promise. The light logistical tail that supported the Army of Northern Virginia in Pennsylvania limited Lee’s ability to stay in one place for long. And it was too much to hope that Meade would do anything to contradict Lee’s assessment that he was a prudent general who would “commit no blunder in my front”—that is, unless Meade or his subordinates could be induced to do so.

Lee drew on previous experience as he weighed his options. He was not fighting blue chess pieces, but fallible human beings. History suggests it would have been the height of folly not to count on Federal mistakes in making his plans. Perhaps in yesterday’s confusion Meade had shifted his forces around, leaving parts of his line vulnerable. Maybe the strain of waiting for the Confederates to make a move would prompt one of Meade’s subordinates to lose his head and do something rash.

To be sure, absent this sort of luck, the odds against successfully assaulting the Federal position were long. But Lee had no choice. He could neither induce the Federals to make a major mistake nor put his army in a position to exploit one unless he went on the offensive.

Meade, however, recognized that the Federal army could win simply by not losing. His lack of boldness and dash would make him, like McClellan, the target of scorn from shallow and superficial military analysts. But Meade’s stolid qualities were poison for Lee.

And so on July 3, the Army of the Potomac’s prudently managed fire – power crushed Lee’s hopes for victory.

Just as few familiar with the course of the war to that point would be surprised by the outcome of the first day’s fighting at Gettysburg, few would be surprised by the conclusion of the last.

The road from that point to Appomattox was to a great extent paved by the fact that commanders of the main Union army in the East understood the war much as Lee did. Union commanders no longer gave Lee the opportunities to achieve decisive victories—and in the process managed to get the war back on track.


Historian Ethan S. Rafuse is a professor at the U.S. Army Command General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and is the author of Robert E. Lee and the Fall of the Confederacy, 1863-1865.

Originally published in the July 2010 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.