2) The Fiery Trial Through Which We Pass

Gettysburg

 

The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.
–Abraham Lincoln

 

GEORGE meadeOn May 6, 1863, the Army of the Potomac was once again north of the Rappahannock in defeat, and as the news of Chancellorsville spread, a mood of grim despair spread throughout the Union. In the West, Grant had won five victories and was at the gates of Vicksburg, it was true, but his assaults on May 19 and 22 had been repulsed, and none could say how long it would take to outcamp the Confederates in their fortress. In middle Tennessee, Rosecrans had been virtually inert since the bloody stalemate at Stones River at the turn of the New Year. In South Carolina, an attempt by eight ironclad Monitors had been made to retake Fort Sumter on April 7, but these had been beaten back. The fort where all the trouble started was still a Confederate stronghold, and few in the North could see when or how the trouble might end. Developments on the political front were equally disturbing to the Lincoln government. Peace Democrats were increasingly vocal, and conscription under the Enrollment Act, in effect since March, was becoming increasingly unpopular. (Before the summer was through, vicious draft riots would break out, the worst of these in New York City.) Across the Atlantic in Great Britain and France sympathy for the Southern cause kept alive the Richmond government’s remote hope for foreign recognition despite the moral suasion of the Emancipation Proclamation.

In Richmond, just as in Washington, the occasion was, in Lincoln’s words, “piled high with difficulty.” Richmond’s chief difficulty was in the West. Grant had his stranglehold on Vicksburg, and if Rosecrans in Tennessee and Banks in Louisiana managed to do something effective, the Confederacy could lose the war there even while winning a string of stunning victories in Virginia. On May 6, the day Hooker was making good his escape from Chancellorsville, James Longstreet, returning from his foray south of the James, was back in Richmond to confer with Confederate Secretary of War, James Seddon. Longstreet, like Jefferson Davis, was anxious about the Federal threat in the West. What he proposed now was to take two divisions to join Bragg in Tennessee. There, bolstered by Joe Johnston’s force, they might together achieve one of Richmond’s dearest dreams, driving Rosecrans back to the Ohio River. Doing so would compel Grant to release his grip on Vicksburg, the Gibraltar that Jeff Davis, no less than Lincoln, believed to be the key to Southern independence. Seddon’s counter-proposal focused on Vicksburg also but was more direct. He wanted Longstreet to go not to Bragg but to Pemberton in embattled Vicksburg, and there with Johnston’s help pry Grant loose from the city.

In the end, however, the Confederacy would husband its limited resources to make its most earnest effort in the East. It did so chiefly because Robert Edward Lee wanted it so. The future of the Confederacy, Lee argued, had become “a question between Mississippi or Virginia,” and the answer must be Virginia. He had his reasons. First was a frank appreciation of the inadequacies of the Southern railroad system. When President Davis had gone to Tennessee to confer with Bragg the previous October, the trip had taken all of a week. In the time it would take Longstreet’s divisions to reach Pemberton, Lee hoped, disease and the Mississippi summer would themselves compel Grant to quit his siege. Meanwhile, Lee proposed to move north of the Potomac once more, taking Longstreet’s divisions and every man-jack he could assemble. This time, he believed, he would reach Pennsylvania and win on Northern soil. As he had argued late last summer, an invasion would take the war out of exhausted Virginia, encourage the Peace Democrats, and perhaps drive the North to the last degree of despair. If Lee could rout a Federal army on the banks of the Susquehanna as he had on the Rappahannock, the North might well sue for peace. At the back of Lee’s mind were two other considerations neither strategic nor tactical. One was deeply personal and perhaps not conscious at all: Virginia was his country, and now in the third cruel April of the war, it had been badly used. His own home at Arlington was Federal property, and war had put its hard hand down all over the state. The other was perhaps intuitive but clearly conscious, a profession of faith in the Army of Northern Virginia. “There never were such men in an army before,” said Lee of his gristly legion. “They will go anywhere and do anything if properly led.” Now, he decided, they would go to Pennsylvania and drive those people on their own ground. On May 15, Lee put his proposal before Jefferson Davis and the cabinet, and the fateful plan was approved. Only Postmaster-General John Reagan of Texas dissented. Even Pete Longstreet came reluctantly around to Lee’s way of thinking with this pointed proviso: “I… accepted [Lee’s] proposition to make a campaign into Pennsylvania, provided it be offensive in strategy but defensive in tactics, forcing the Federal army to give us battle when we were in strong position and ready to receive them.” As Old Peter well remembered, he had been in a strong position ready to receive Bull Sumner’s Grand Division at Fredericksburg. There his corps shot down nine thousand Yankees while suffering only two thousand casualties of their own.

Lee’s first move was to reorganize his army into three corps of three divisions each. Longstreet the warhorse was back now with his corps; Richard Ewell, who had fought with Jackson in the Valley and lost a leg at Second Bull Run, would take Jackson’s corps; A. P. Hill, whose Light Division had saved the day at Antietam, would command the third. In addition to the three corps of infantry, Lee had six brigades of cavalry as well, in all 75,000 men. They had had a good month’s rest after their struggle with Hooker in the Wilderness. Their morale was high: they believed in their commander as he believed in them. Further, they were as well-fed, armed, and equipped as they would ever be again. On June 3, Lee got them in motion. With Hill’s corps at Fredericksburg temporarily holding Hooker’s front, Longstreet and Ewell marched northwest behind the Rappahannock River headed for the Shenandoah Valley. As they had the summer before, Jackson’s corps marched down the Valley as if they held title to it. While Longstreet paused at Culpeper, Ewell, a brand-new lieutenant general as well as bridegroom, pushed on to gobble up Federal garrisons at Winchester and Martinsburg, capturing more than 3,500 bluecoats, 23 guns, and 300 wagons. By the middle of June Lee’s campaign and Ewell’s tenure as corps commander were off to a promising start.

At Culpeper also was virtually the whole body of Confederate cavalry under Jeb Stuart, 10,000 troopers. They’d been there two weeks drilling and–to that cavalier’s immense satisfaction–staging reviews and mock battles for the ladies. On June 9, however, came battle for real. Alfred Pleasonton, a thirty-nine-year-old West Pointer, now the Federal cavalry chief, had ridden up the Rappahannock from Falmouth with six brigades and two infantry brigades in support. His mission was to uncover the movements of Lee’s army. Crossing the river in two columns near Rappahannock Station, Pleasonton found Stuart’s horsemen in and around Brandy Station–much to the surprise and chagrin of Stuart. A furious all-day fight ensued, as Stuart battled bluecoats front and rear, charge and countercharge. Stuart’s own headquarters on Fleetwood Hill changed hands four times. Late in the day, as Rebel infantry drew near, Pleasonton broke off the fight and withdrew in good order. The greatest cavalry battle on the continent was over. More than twenty thousand horsemen had been engaged. Pleasonton lost about a thousand men, nearly half of those prisoners; Stuart slightly more than five hundred, among them Rooney Lee, Robert E. Lee’s son, down with a leg wound. Also among the wounded was Stuart’s vanity. Although he had held the field and forced the Yankees to withdraw, he had been badly surprised and had to fight for his life with Yankee horsemen now ready to fight on equal terms. To restore what he believed his tarnished glory, he would reprise his great achievement. Having ridden entirely around McClellan’s army back on the Peninsula, he proposed now to ride a grand loop around Hooker’s. Lee let him go, but with this explicit warning: once Hooker’s army was north of the Potomac in pursuit, Stuart “must immediately cross himself and take his place on our right” to screen Lee’s movements and discover Hooker’s. On June 25, leaving two brigades to cover the Blue Ridge passes and one to ride with Ewell, Stuart rode off with his three best brigades. In the end he would be forced to swing farther east than he had expected in order to return to Lee. As a result, Lee would be in the enemy’s country for eight crucial days without cavalry, the eyes of an army on the march.

About the time Ewell’s men were gathering up prisoners in Winchester, Lee put the rest of his army in motion. On June 15 Longstreet’s corps pulled out of Culpeper and headed north toward the Blue Ridge. A. P. Hill’s corps, too, was likewise on the march from Fredericksburg now that Hooker had withdrawn from his Falmouth camps and shifted north to cover Washington. Hill was to follow Ewell down the Valley while Longstreet held open the Blue Ridge passes. Now in the third summer of the war, the Army of Northern Virginia knew something about marching. Some units boasted of “breakfast in Virginia, whiskey in Maryland, and supper in Pennsylvania.” By June 24 the head of Ewell’s column reached Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, and Longstreet and Hill were over the Potomac at Williamsport and Shepherdstown. Their discipline was good, and though they foraged freely on the rich lands of Maryland and Pennsylvania (leaving IOU’s in exchange!), there was little looting or destruction of private property. Lee, following his own Christian principles and looking for sympathy from the Peace Democrats, issued strict orders for his army to carry the war into Pennsylvania “without offending the sanctions of a high civilization and of Christianity.” One Southern practice, however, was sure to offend civilized opinion in much of the world. Free blacks along the way were seized and sent south into slavery. A Chambersburg woman remembered black women and children “driven… just like we would drive cattle.”

In the meantime, Hooker had not quite been sitting on his hands, but neither had he done much to regain his commander-in-chief’s confidence. When Hooker discovered Lee had swung northwest behind the Rappahannock, his first impulse was to cross the river behind him and strike at his rear. To Lincoln it seemed this plan would leave Hooker “entangled on the river, like an ox jumped half over a fence and liable to be torn by dogs front and rear without a fair chance to gore one way or kick the other.” Then, incredibly, Hooker proposed to turn south and march on Richmond, as if trading Washington for Richmond was a good way to win the war. “Lee’s Army, and not Richmond, is your true objective point,” Lincoln wired back. The way to beat Bobby Lee, Lincoln argued, was to follow on his flank on the inside track and to strike him as soon as an opportunity offered. If the head of Lee’s column was in the lower Valley and the tail still at Fredericksburg, “the animal must be very slim somewhere. Could you not break him?” To Lincoln, it seemed that Lee’s invasion was in fact an opportunity, a chance to defeat Lee in a decisive battle far from his base. We “cannot help beating them,” Lincoln thought, “if we have the man.” When Hooker eventually moved northward through Fairfax and Poolesville, shadowing Lee’s army and covering Washington, he moved briskly enough, but by then Lincoln was persuaded that Joe Hooker was not the man. On June 28, Lincoln relieved him of command of the army. (Hooker would later serve as a capable corps commander elsewhere.) He replaced him with George Gordon Meade, a forty-eight-year-old West Pointer with an abrasive temper and a solid combat record. A subordinate described him as a “damned old goggle-eyed snapping turtle.” Observing that Meade was a Pennsylvanian, Lincoln said with country coarseness: “He will fight well on his own dung-hill.”