Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Gettysburg Campaign begins: Lee Turns North

By 1st Lt. William Carraway
Public Affairs Office, Georgia Dept. of Defense

Cavalry forces clashed at Brandy Station June 9, 1863.
The opening engagement of the Gettysburg campaign,
Brandy Station was the largest cavalry battle of the Civil War.
In June, 1863, the Army of Northern Virginia, in high spirits following their improbable victory at Chancellorsville was marching north from Fredericksburg, Va. General Robert E. Lee’s intended to take the war to the north in an effort to gain foreign recognition of the Confederacy. If Lee could win a battle on northern soil, the Confederate States might gain that foreign recognition or else weaken northern resolve to continue the war.

Lee shared a supreme confidence with his 72,000 men. The Army of Northern Virginia had gained incredible victories at long odds. But those victories had often been the result of the superb leadership of Lt. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Jackson’s death at Chancellorsville sent shockwaves through the South. He was irreplaceable and indeed, Lee chose not to replace him. Instead, Lee divided Jackson’s 2nd Corps in two. Maj. Gen. Richard Ewell was given command of the 2nd Corps while Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill received command of the newly-created 3rd Corps. Maj. Gen. James Longstreet of Georgia retained command of 1st Corps and Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart commanded Lee’s cavalry division.

Less than a week after initiating movement north, Stuart’s 9,500 cavalry were surprised by a combined force of 11,000 Union Soldiers near Brandy Station. The ensuing battle was the largest cavalry engagement of the Civil War. Cobb’s Legion and its Georgia Cavalrymen were swept up in the engagement and Pierce Young, the legion’s colonel, was wounded. Cobb’s cavalry companies were from Fulton, DeKalb, Cobb, Richmond, Burke Morgan, and Clarke Counties. They would fight in the bloodiest battles of the eastern and western theater.

Despite their failure to defeat the Confederates or to detect Lee’s Army encampment at nearby Culpepper, Va., for the first time, Union cavalry had fought well against Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s Confederate cavalry. The battle was a turning point for Union cavalry morale and effectiveness. The era of Confederate cavalry dominance was coming to an end.

Still smarting from his rebuke at Chancellorsville, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker was initially slow to respond. Prompted by telegraphs from President Lincoln, Hooker’s 95,000-man Army of the Potomac began pursuit of Lee on June 11, 1863 – eight days after Lee began his march north.

Map courtesy of the Civil War Trust.
Lee’s order of march led with Ewell’s Corps followed by Hill and Longstreet. On June 14, Ewell’s forces crushed federal forces at Winchester, Va. In a double-envelopment attack led by the Georgia Brigade of Brig. Gen. John Gordon. Ewell took more than 4,000 Union prisoners before crossing the Potomac River into Maryland the following day. Hill and Longstreet crossed the Potomac 10 days later. In the meantime, Ewell’s men ranged north into Pennsylvania scattering militia units as they went.

Despite the precarious situation in Maryland and Pennsylvania, Hooker halted his army for six days on June 19 allowing Lee even more time to effect his strategy. By that time, Confederates had captured Chambersburg, Pa. and begun funneling supplies south to strengthen their advancing forces. Panic erupted in Philadelphia and Harrisburg at the thought of Ewell’s 22,000 Soldiers marching on the lightly defended city.

At a critical time, Lee was about to lose his cavalry advantage. Granting Stuart permission to conduct a daring raid behind Union lines to disrupt communications and supply lines, Lee was deprived of his best source of intelligence on enemy movements. Unfortunately for Stuart, as Union army movements paralleled Longstreet’s; Stuart was separated from the Army of Northern Virginia and unable to rejoin Lee. The decision to dispatch Stuart would prove to be a significant misstep.

Frustrated with the speed of Hooker’s pursuit, Lincoln relieved him on June 27, 1863 and appointed Pennsylvanian Maj. Gen. George Meade as the new commander of the Potomac. Stern, balding and possessing the temper of a snapping turtle, Meade was a safe choice for command. He had led at the regimental, brigade, division and corps level with distinction and, despite not being the most senior general had the confidence of many Union generals. Upon learning of Meade’s appointment, Lee ordered a concentration of his forces west of Gettysburg. Ewell’s corps would move south from Carlise while Hill maneuvered along the Cashtown Pike to Cashtown with Longstreet trailing.

On June 30, a brigade of North Carolinians under Brig. Gen. Johnston Pettigrew advanced to the outskirts of Gettysburg where they spied Union cavalry under Brig. Gen. John Buford. Assuming the forces were local militia, Pettigrew withdrew and reported the intelligence. Major Gen. Henry Heth, Pettigrew’s division commander, resolved to move forward in a reconnaissance in force to sweep away resistance and secure supplies for the concentrating army.

An experienced cavalry commander, Buford analyzed the terrain near Gettysburg and determined to preserve the high ground for Union control. On the morning of July 1, 1863 his cavalry division was positioned along ridges west of town with the intent of fighting a delaying action to allow Union reinforcements to secure the key terrain. His 2,700 men were met by more than 7,500 infantry as Heth arrived on the field. Though heavily outnumbered, Buford’s cavalrymen held good terrain and were armed with breach loading carbines that could be loaded and fired three times as fast as the standard infantry rifled-musket.

Union monument to the 8th N.Y. Cavalry marks the position
of Union lines during Buford's delaying action. Buford
observed the battle from the cupola of the Lutheran Seminary
Buford viewed the onrushing gray lines of battle from the cupola of a Lutheran Seminary. Occasionally he would cast an anxious look south for the approach of Maj. Gen. John Reynolds and his first Army Corps which contained some of the best units in the Union Army.

Heth’s men gradually drove Buford’s forces from the ridges and advanced southeast along the Chambersburg Pike. Having taken Herr Ridge, the Confederates were advancing on McPherson Ridge when the lead elements of 1st Corps arrived to strengthen Buford’s position. Advancing with his lead division Reynolds was shot in the head and killed instantly. Despite the loss of one if their best generals, the Union stood their ground. Fighting swirled around the ridge as units arrived on the field and were funneled into the fray. For the moment, the Confederate attack had stalled. Regiments of the Union 1st and 11th Corps held the ground west and north of Gettysburg, but that position was soon to be challenged with by the Georgia Brigades of Brig. Gen. John Gordon and George Doles and Ewell’s entire corps.

Next month: The largest battle fought on American soil continues

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