The Gettysburg Campaign: Background

This entry is part 1 of 27 in the series The Gettysburg Campaign

After the Confederate success at Chancellorsville in early May of 1863, both armies paused to reorganize their forces. Lee was determined to once more move across the Potomac River into Maryland.

However, he did not plan to stop there but had decided to move further north into Pennsylvania in order to draw the Union Army into a decisive battle. He had no idea that his ultimate destination would be the small crossroads town of Gettysburg in Adams County.

The Union Army under the command of Major General Joseph Hooker numbered more than 90,000 men. It consisted of 7 infantry corps, a cavalry corps and an Artillery Reserve. Among the infantry corps, there were 19 divisions while the cavalry corps had 3 divisions. It should be noted that not all Union troops were engaged at Gettysburg, including portions of the Union IV Corps, the militia and state troops of the Map of the Gettysburg CampaignDepartment of the Susquehanna, and various garrisons, including that at Harpers Ferry.

Click Map to enlarge.

“Fighting Joe” Hooker was in charge of the Army of the Potomac until he was relieved on June 28th and replaced by Maj. Gen. George Meade. He was surprised by the change of command order, having previously expressed his lack of interest in the army command. In fact, when an officer from Washington woke him with the order, he assumed he was being arrested for some transgression. Despite having little knowledge of what Hooker’s plans had been or the exact locations of the three columns moving quickly to the northwest, Meade kept up the pace.

He telegraphed the General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck acceptance of the command and succinctly told him that he would “Move toward the Susquehanna, keeping Washington and Baltimore well covered, and if the enemy is checked in his attempt to cross the Susquehanna or if he turns toward Baltimore, to give him battle.”

The Confederate Army commanded by General Robert E. Lee number approximately 70,000 men. The Army of Northern Virginia was divided into 3 corps with Lt. Gens. James LongstreetRichard S. Ewell and A.P. Hill commanding them. There were a total of 9 divisions, 3 per corps. Ewell had succeeded the deceased “Stonewall” Jackson. Lee’s cavalry corps was commanded by Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, which was divided into 7 brigades.

Lee began his northward advance from Fredericksburg on June 3, 1863, slipping his army northwesterly. His objective was to move across the Blue Ridge Mountains and into the Shenandoah Highway. He could therefore use the Blue Ridge to screen his advance from Union view.

Lee ordered A.P. Hill’s Corps to remain in their fortifications at Fredericksburg to protect his army’s rear. They would follow behind as the rear guard. By June 5, Longstreet’s and Ewell’s corps were camped in and around Culpeper, and Hooker had received word of the Confederate movement.

Hooker ordered Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick to conduct a reconnaissance in force across the Rappahannock River to test the Fredericksburg defenses. When the two forces skirmished, Hooker assumed that Lee was still present at Fredericksburg. Lee halted Ewell’s Corps but when Hooker did not pursue he ordered Ewell to resume the advance.

Lee ordered Stuart to cross the Rappahannock to raid Union positions, screening his army from Union observation. Stuart bivouacked his troopers around Brandy Station where he conducted grand review of his cavalry corps on both June 5th and June 8th. The second review was necessitated because Lee was not available for the first one. The first combat action of the Gettysburg Campaign took place at Brandy Station on June 9th.

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