Arguably the most important battle of the Civil War—the three-day battle between Union forces under General George Meade and Confederate forces under Robert E. Lee—began this week (July 1) in 1863 in Gettysburg, Pa.
Although Gettysburg was not necessarily Lee’s intended target, moving north into Pennsylvania was his intended objective. Having recently thrashed Union General Joe Hooker at Chancellorsville, Va., Lee was on a roll and thought that invading Union territory and defeating Union armies on their home turf would deal a mortal blow to Union morale, while boosting the morale of his men. Lee also believed—as did Confederate President Jefferson Davis—that winning battles in the North would stoke anti-war sentiments among the northern population, especially northern Democrats, whose support of the war had always been lukewarm.
As Davis saw it, whether or not an outright military victory in the Civil War was still possible by 1863, a negotiated settlement that allowed the Confederacy to preserve the institution of slavery remained entirely possible—especially if anti-war fever grew in the Union North. Indeed, while Lee was moving toward Pennsylvania, Davis was sending the Confederacy’s vice-president, Alexander Stephens, on a peace mission, ostensibly to discuss prisoner exchanges, but Stephens was empowered to discuss a settlement to end the war.
In addition, although the chances were slim, Davis hoped that if Lee won battles in Union territory it might convince Great Britain to recognize the Confederacy, with all the attendant economic and military aid that would result. Chief among Britain’s conditions for such recognition was that a government show it could maintain its independence, which winning battles on enemy turf would certainly help prove.
And finally, Lee wanted to move the fighting to Union territory both to relieve the besieged Virginia farmers whose ravaged and depleted lands had been the site of so many battles, and to allow his men to plunder the virtually untouched farmlands of the North.
For all of these reasons, Lee led his army into Pennsylvania. That the crucial battle occurred at Gettysburg was basically an accident. A Confederate brigade doing reconnaissance skirmished with some Union cavalrymen in downtown Gettysburg, and the conflict rapidly mushroomed as reinforcements from both sides quickly streamed into the area. Unfortunately for Lee, Union forces seized the high ground, which would prove decisive, especially on the third day when Confederate forces under General George Picket charged the well entrenched Union forces on Cemetery Ridge—and were thoroughly destroyed.
Thus did Lee retreat back to Virginia to regroup and fight again, but less than two years later—partly because of Gettysburg—the Civil War would end not with a negotiated settlement, but with his own unconditional surrender.