From July 1 to 3, 1863, Union and Confederate forces waged the bloodiest battle of the Civil War at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Of the 160,000 troops involved, almost one-third were killed, wounded, captured or missing by the end of the third day. This battle was the end of a month-long campaign. Although both the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac had specific goals, only the latter was successful.
Change of Scenery
In 1863, General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army, was eager to move the war north out of Virginia, which had been devastated by fighting. Pennsylvania held the promise of fresh supplies. From mid-March to May, six major battles were fought on Virginia soil. The Confederates were victorious only in the major battle of the Chancellorsville campaign. This had been a solid victory, and Lee planned to use this momentum to lead his troops north, bringing the war to Union cities. A northern push would also take Union soldiers away from Vicksburg, which had been under relentless attack since the spring.
Help from Afar
Lee hoped a decisive victory at Gettysburg would legitimize the Confederacy in the eyes of Great Britain and France. Although the Union wanted other countries to stay out of this domestic dispute, southern leaders hoped for foreign aid. Great Britain in particular, imported 80 percent of its cotton from southern states. The Confederacy needed help, because it had far fewer resources than the North: a lower population, less than one-half the railroad mileage and far less industry. The Union also had more crops and more animals. The South only excelled in cotton production.
Give Peace a Chance
After the Confederate victory at Chancellorsville, Lee believed a big win at Gettysburg might demoralize Union supporters and invigorate the peace movement in the North. Some northerners opposed the war, especially the conservative Democrats known as “Copperheads.” Named after the poisonous snake by the Republicans, many of these Democrats held an inflexible view of the Constitution. They believed that President Lincoln was exceeding his authority by waging the war. As the long war stretched out, taking more lives and resources, Copperheads exerted more control within the Democratic Party. Most wanted to end the war by electing representatives who would cease hostilities.
Send Them Back
The goal of the Union Army was simple: stop the Confederate advancement. The previous September, Lee had made a northern push that culminated at the Battle of Antietam in Maryland. The horrific clash didn't end with a decisive victory for either side, though the Confederate troops retreated. The North didn't want the war moving into their territory again. The northern commander, General Joseph Hooker, seemed skittish after the major defeat in Chancellorsville. On June 28, Lincoln replaced Hooker with General George Meade, who promptly sent his troops after Lee’s army. While keeping track of the Confederates, Meade made sure to keep Lee away from the Union capital of Washington, D.C.
- Civil War Trust: Gettysburg
- Civil War Trust: Maps of Gettysburg Campaign
- Civil War Academy: Civil War Battles in Virginia 1863
- History.com: Battle of Gettysburg
- United States Department of State: Office of the Historian: The Civil War and International Diplomacy
- University of Michigan: Lincoln’s Critics: The Copperheads
- Civil War Trust: Antietam
Living in upstate New York, Susan Sherwood is a researcher who has been writing within educational settings for more than 10 years. She has co-authored papers for Horizons Research, Inc. and the Capital Region Science Education Partnership. Sherwood has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction from the University at Albany.