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When he led Confederate forces into Maryland in September 1862, in the operation climaxing at Antietam, he intended to press through the border state into Pennsylvania. Once again, circumstances forced him to divert. Following the battle of Chancellorsville (May 1–3, 1863), Lee found himself in an administrative tug-of-war with Richmond over the control of his army. Certain powerful officials wanted to detach pieces of it to prevent the loss of Vicksburg in Mississippi.

Lee argued that allowing him to march north would accomplish the same thing, by capturing the enemy’s attention and diverting Federal reinforcements that otherwise would be sent west. Besides, as he would later state, an “invasion of the enemy’s country breaks up all of his preconceived plans, relieves our country of his presence, and we subsist while there on his resources.” In the end, President Jefferson Davis backed the only general who could deliver him victories. Granted permission to mount his operation, Lee assured Davis that any advance would be carried out “cautiously, watching the result, and not to get beyond recall until I find it safe.”

Despite his promise, Lee never seriously considered halting the campaign once he commenced disengaging from the Union Army of the Potomac near Fredericksburg, Virginia. Even a wholehearted Federal strike at his cavalry force camped around Brandy Station, Virginia, on June 9, did not deter him. By June 16, the entire Army of Northern Virginia (70,000 men, comprising three infantry corps plus cavalry and artillery) was stretched out in a long column whose tail was just departing Fredericksburg even as its head was approaching the Pennsylvania border. Six days later his advance commander—Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell, in charge of the Second Corps—was handed instructions sanctioning the capture of Harrisburg should the situation become favorable.

On June 28, headquartered outside Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, Lee was poised to commit his force to a broad sweep to the east as far as the Susquehanna River. His goal was not to take northern territory, but to hurry the Army of the Potomac into a showdown. As he explained to one of his senior commanders, he fully expected to “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.” Only then, Lee believed, could the Confederacy expect to talk peace with the North on advantageous terms.

But several days earlier he had made a fateful decision that would afterward be seen as critical to the outcome of this operation, and a significant factor in the intelligence failures at Gettysburg. His cavalry, under Maj. Gen. James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart, had been tied down in northern Virginia protecting the right flank of his infantry columns tramping north through the Shenandoah Valley. Lee needed his horsemen with Ewell’s Corps in the advance and listened as Stuart proposed to get to the head of the line by riding east and then north, behind the Union columns thought to be scattered in a disorganized pursuit. Stuart’s ingenious work at Chancellorsville made Lee comfortable granting broad discretion to his cavalry chief, even though senior subordinates like Lt. Gen. James Longstreet felt that Stuart required “an older head to instruct and regulate him.” Lee agreed to Stuart’s plan, estimating it would take three days before his cavalry chief would be back in contact. Stuart departed with most of his riders early on the morning of June 25.

Three days later, there was no word from Stuart and no reliable information as to where he was. In the absence of intelligence, Lee assumed that all was going according to plan and that his opponent was spread thin in a protective arc shielding the immediate approaches to Washington, leaving the way clear for his advance to the Susquehanna River. His mental image of an enemy disorganized and hesitating to intervene seemed borne out. But it was on this very night of June 28 that he learned from an irregular scout employed by Longstreet, his First Corps commander, that the Union army was much closer and more concentrated than he had imagined.

Very suddenly, the risk to the long Confederate column had increased exponentially.

Lee had no recourse but to dramatically alter plans. A phalanx of couriers hurried out from headquarters with fresh instructions for the army to draw together. It was Lee’s intention to regroup his potent force just east of the Catoctin Mountains around the village of Cashtown, Pennsylvania. Confident he would have his army well in hand before the Federals began arriving in strength, he still anticipated attacking and defeating them a piece at a time as they scrambled to confront him.

When Lee entered the western end of the Cashtown Pass on the morning of July 1, everything was going according to the new plan. Ewell’s Corps was falling back from its advance positions along the Susquehanna River (two divisions marching southward, the third on a roundabout route that brought it traveling east through the pass later that morning), Lt. Gen. Ambrose Powell Hill’s Third Corps was already on the eastern side of the pass, and Longstreet’s First Corps was due to complete its passage by day’s end. Union cavalry had been reported in the area, so when Lee reached the midpoint and heard distant gunfire toward the east he was not alarmed. But by the time he had nearly cleared the pass, the faraway musketry had been joined by the deeper rumble of cannon fire, indicating something more than a light skirmish was taking place.

Arriving in Cashtown, Lee checked with General Hill, who was suffering from one of his periodic bouts of illness and clearly out of touch with events. Hill had no idea what all the firing was about, but one of his three divisions (that commanded by Maj. Gen. Henry Heth) was supposed to be investigating reports of Federal horsemen in the town of Gettysburg. He left to find out what was happening, while Lee slowly followed.

Approaching the outskirts of Gettysburg it became apparent that a fight of some magnitude had taken place earlier this day. When Hill appeared with Heth in tow, Lee heard a confused tale of a small scrap against cavalry that had suddenly escalated into a full-blown battle when the Yankee horsemen had been reinforced by veteran infantry. Writing a decade after the war about his handling of the morning fight, Heth, who had a lot to answer for regarding his poor deployments and combat management, chose to put all the blame on Stuart’s absence. “Train a giant for an encounter and he can be whipped by a pigmy—if you put out his eyes,” he declared.

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