One hundred and fifty years ago, in a small town in southern Pennsylvania, two armies began the battle that became a defining moment of the Civil War.
The Confederate forces were led by General Robert E. Lee. Flush with a crushing victory at Chancellorsville, Lee decided to lead his Army of Northern Virginia in an invasion of the North. Lee knew that the situation in the Confederacy was growing increasingly desperate. Hundreds of miles to the west, General Ulysses Grant and his Army of the Tennessee were continuing a methodical siege of Vicksburg, hoping to win the surrender of the starving Confederate Army encamped there — and, with its surrender, achieve control of the mighty Mississippi River and split the Confederacy in two. Union blockades of Confederate ports were choking off trade and supplies. Politically, the Confederacy was splintering. Lee concluded that an invasion of the North, if successful, might bring the Union to the negotiating table and save the Confederacy from the inexorable forces that were strangling it.
The Army of the Potomac was led by a new commander — the goggle-eyed, waspish George Meade. President Lincoln picked Meade to be the latest in a long line of Union Army generals to lead the North’s principal army. All of Meade’s predecessors had had been outfought, outmaneuvered, whipped and humiliated by Lee and his supremely confident army. Only a few days before the battle of Gettysburg began, Meade replaced General Joseph Hooker, who had lost the battle of Chancellorsville. As Lee marched north, Meade pursued him, always striving to keep his army between Lee’s forces and Washington, D.C. Meade feared that, if Lee somehow took the Nation’s Capital, a Union tired of years of bloody war might decide to sue for peace.
On June 30, as the two enormous armies moved through the quiet Pennsylvania countryside, ill-clad Confederate troops heard that shoes might be found in Gettysburg. Rebels skirmishers visited the town, found some Union troops there, and told their commanders — who decided to press the issue. On July 1, lead elements of the Army of Northern Virginia moved into Gettysburg. clashing with Union cavalry. The Confederates drove the Union Army through town, leaving the Army of the Potomac clinging desperately to two hills south of town — Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill. In the meantime, the main armies were wheeling slowly into position, and Meade decided that Gettysburg might be the ideal place for a pitched battle.
Most of the soldiers in the two armies were farm boys who hailed from towns much like Gettysburg, which at that time was home to about two thousand people. They had seen their fellow soldiers killed by the score in battles that were appallingly bloody by modern standards, with brave men ordered into ill-fated charges in which they would be torn to shreds by minie balls and cannon shot — but they were determined to do their duty, no matter what the cost.
As night fell, the Union forces dug in, hoping to hold the high ground, and the Confederate generals planned their attack. As the armies gathered around their crackling campfires, both sides suspected, correctly, that the big battle lay ahead.