Prelude to Battle
UNITED STATES IN THE 1850's
The United States of the 1850's was one of great contrast. Between 1850
and 1860, more than 2.8 million immigrants poured into coastal cities of the
North. The population of New York soared from 515,000 to 814,000 during
the 1850's. This population influx spurred along the Northern
industrialization at an incredible pace. By the end of the decade, the
Northern states contained four fifths of all American factories and two thirds
of the railroad mileage. The South on the other hand, experienced an
agricultural revolution during the same period, fueled chiefly by slave
labor. Annual cotton yield grew from 2 million bales in 1849 to 5.7
million bales in 1859. Although other Southern crops included rice and
tobacco, United States cotton production amounted to seven eighths of all the
world's cotton produced and totaled more than of all its exports.
PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION, 1860
On November 6, 1860, Abraham Lincoln carried every free state except New
Jersey, and was elected President while carrying no Southern state. The
South had chosen Kentucky Senator John C. Breckinridge, but without the
electoral votes, Lincoln became President-elect. Following the election,
the Southern secessionist movement grew with passionate fervor, fueled
especially by Southern newspapers. The South believed it had no other
option but to secede from the United States and on February 8, 1861,
secessionist delegates met in Montgomery, Alabama to adopt the Provisional
Constitution of the Confederate States. Subsequently, Jefferson Davis, a
Senator from Mississippi, was chosen as President and took the oath of office
on February 18. In his inaugural address, he told the North that all
Southerners wanted was to be left alone.
FORT SUMTER, APRIL 1861
On March 4, 1861,
Abraham Lincoln took the oath of office as the 16th President of the United
States. He had been in office only one day when he received word from
Major Robert Anderson, the Federal Commander of the Fort Sumter, requesting
reinforcing troops. Lincoln, attempting to avoid a direct conflict with
the South, authorized only supplies to be delivered. On April 12th, after
negotiations for a peaceful surrender ended, CSA Brigadier General P.G.T.
Beauregard (ex-commandant of the cadets at West Point) gave the order to open
fire on Fort Sumter. At 7 PM, on April 13, 1861, after 33 hours of
bombardment, Fort Sumter surrendered. Two days later, on April 15,
Lincoln issued an executive order calling for 75,000 volunteers for three
months' service. War had erupted.
By the Spring of 1863, the North and the South had been at war for
over two years and the end of the war was nowhere in sight. Several
Confederate victories were scored during the early years of the war and the
North failed to achieve any marked successes. The Confederate victory at the
Second Battle of Bull Run (Lee vs. Pope) was a decisive victory for the South
and had cost the Union dearly. Later, Antietam (Lee vs. McClellan), a tactical
stalemate (Union strategic victory), had given the Union a small victory and
prompted President Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.
Unfortunately for the North, this was soon followed by another Confederate
victory at Fredericksburg (Lee vs. Burnside).
But, the South had failed to establish international recognition (especially
from Great Britain) and floundered in ending the conflict. Though Virginia was
adequately defended by the Confederacy throughout most of the war, the Union
had achieved large successes in the West (especially Tennessee and Kentucky).
General Lee reasoned that a decisive victory by his army on the eastern front
would lead to possible international recognition and/or Union capitulation. As
Lee reasoned, two options were available: an invasion of the North or defeat by
Fresh from the Confederate victory at Chancellorsville, Lee was aching to take
this war to the North. This would relieve the offensives against Richmond (from
which originated the battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville), and press
the war to the North. Lee could never take Washington as his force was too
weak, but he could force their army away from Richmond and focus their
attention away from Virginia.
Looking at the timeline above, one can see that the war lasted until 1865 even
though the decisive Battle of Gettysburg was fought in mid-1863. The South
scored several major victories before and after the battle and showed no
immediate inclination to surrender at that time. Even after the splitting of
the South by Sherman, the South was not yet ready to lay down its arms.
Battle of Chancellorsville: April 27 - May 3, 1863
For specific details of this
battle, see The Battle of Chancellorsville
Three months before the Battle of Chancellorsville (January 1863), President
Lincoln appointed Major General Joseph Hooker
to command the Army of the Potomac. Hooker was appointed to succeed Major
General Ambrose Burnside
after the Confederate victory at Fredericksburg (December 11 - 13, 1862); after
was transferred to command the Department of Ohio. Although,
Hooker was not considered the
most eligible replacement for Burnside,
he was chosen for his ability to "bring the fight to the Rebels". (The Union's
last major victory up to this time had been at Antietam in mid-September,
Lincoln, who was eager to restart a Spring offensive, ordered
Hooker to attack Lee's
army as soon as the Spring showers ceased. Lee's army, at this time, consisted
of the First Corps (4 Divisions) commanded by Longstreet, the Second
Corps commanded by Jackson, and the Cavalry under Stuart. Lee's
army was located around Fredericksburg, along the south bank of the
Rappahannock River in a very formidable position. Earlier, Lee had sent Longstreet
with two divisions to forage for food to the south. This left Longstreet's
Corps (who was now commanded by Lee) with only 2 divisions (1/2 normal
size). The total Confederate force numbered about 59,000 men compared to
he could not directly attack Lee's defenses around Fredericksburg so he
decided to send five of his seven corps upstream to cross behind Lee's
left flank. Two Corps were to remain south of Fredericksburg to feint an attack
across the Rappahannock. (Howard,
were to cross approximately 20 miles upstream while
Sykes would cross about 10 miles
By April 30, the Union had crossed the Rappahannock and began to arrive in
Chancellorsville. At the same time, Sedgwick's
Corps had crossed downstream, but was inactive to the east of Lee. At
first, Lee only sent Richard Anderson's Division to meet the
approaching five Union Corps. But, realizing a much larger force lay to the
west, he sent Jackson's Corps to reinforce the western flank.
Fortunately for Lee, Hooker
decided to stop at Chancellorsville and for some reason to form a defensive
On May 2, both Lee and Jackson realized that they were heavily
outnumbered. Conventional tactics dictated that when outnumbered, to
concentrate one's forces and avoid battle by attrition. Jackson and Lee
decided to do the exact tactically opposite - to go on the offensive instead.
The plan called for Jackson to move most of his Corps (3 Divisions) to
attack the Union's vulnerable right flank. Because Jackson
was directly facing Sickles'
Corps (the center of the Union force), it would call for the removal of 2/3 of
the defenders from the most critical place in the line. Fortunately, the
movement would take place in dense forest and would remain largely undetectable
unless the Union was on the offensive. Sickles'
men did detect some elements of Jackson's Corps transferring to the west
and attacked them. But, Sickles'
advance was halted by Posey's Brigade and supported by Archer and Thomas'
had received reports of the westward movement, but mistook the movement for a
retreat and therefore ignored the Confederate movements on his right flank.
Later that evening (5:00 PM), Brigadier General Robert Rodes' Division,
immediately followed by Colston and A.P. Hill
, hit the Union right flank (Howard's
Corps). Because of the absolute surprise, Howard's
Corps broke into a complete rout. But soon, darkness fell and the Confederates
were forced to halt the attack. In the confusion and darkness, Jackson (after
personally performing a recon of the Union lines) was accidentally shot fatally
by his own troops upon returning. JEB Stuart now assumed command of Jackson's
corps. Also, A.P. Hill was wounded and his division was now commanded by
Brigadier General Henry Heth. After the day's heavy fighting,
the night preparing defenses and recovering from the surprise attack.
The next morning, May 3, Heth's Division followed by Colston's and Rodes
' Divisions, resumed the attack on the Union's right flank. Archer's brigade
occupied a hill by the name of Hazel Grove (which
Sickles had previously been told
to abandon) and placed several artillery pieces upon it. The hill provided a
perfect location in which to bombard Sickles'
Corps. Realizing that his army's position could not be held, Hooker order a
retreat. At the same time, Hooker
(who had crossed the Rappahannock downstream earlier) to attack Lee from
the east. Sedgwick
obeyed, but as he approached Chancellorsville, he encountered McLaw's
Division which had been sent by Lee to intercept. Lee wished to
Corps altogether and planned to attack his Corps from three different
directions. But, after fierce battle and skillful delaying tactics,
Sedgwick was able to pull his
Corps safely back across the Rappahannock.
By May 6, the entire Army of the Potomac had withdrawn north of the
Rappahannock. On May 10, Stonewall Jackson
eventually died of his wounds received in the battle. Despite
Hooker's failure and indecision
at Chancellorsville, he remained in command of the Army until June 27 when he
was finally replaced by General George G. Meade.
Many consider the Battle of Chancellorsville as one the most brilliant battles
fought by Lee and Jackson. Although the Confederates were heavily
outnumbered, they forced the Union army to retreat and prevented a possible
siege of Richmond and the occupation of central Virginia. The Union suffered
approximately 17,000 casualties while the Confederates suffered 13,000.
Battle of Brandy Station: June 9, 1863
The Battle of Brandy
Station is mentioned because of the effect it had upon J.E.B. Stuart.
The Battle itself was a major, but militarily inconclusive incident between the
two cavalry armies. But, its effect on Stuart felt was pronounced, as he
felt his force had been dealt a blow that must be vindicated.
The battle took place on June 9, 1863 near the town of Brandy Station, Culpeper
County, Virginia. It began early in the morning, when a Federal cavalry force
of 11,000 men under the command of Alfred Pleasonton
crossed the Rappahannock River. Pleasonton's
plan involved a frontal assualt by Buford
on the Confederate positions north of Brandy Station. In addition, another
Union force under the command of Gregg
would attack from the southeast, behind the Confederate's rear and right flank.
Unfortunately, during the night's staging of June 8,
Duffie's force got lost in the darkness.
Gregg's force was forced
to wait for Duffie
and therefore, both lost the opportunity of the carefully timed attack.
Nonetheless, J.E.B. Stuart was completely surprised by
the attack. Early in the morning Benjamin F. "Grimes"
Davis (under Buford)
attacked Wade Hampton's brigade but soon was forced to fall back. At
that point, the Confederates began to counterattack, but Stuart was made
aware of a column of dust signifying a large force to their southeast. Stuart
heard reports of this possible enemy activity to the southeast, but refused to
recognize that it was a serious threat. Eventually, after hearing the battle to
the southeast increase in intensity, Stuart sent 4 artillery pieces and
two cavalry Regiments (under William "Grumble" Jones) to secure
Fleetwood hill to the southeast. Jones charged directly into Percy
advancing horsemen. After heavy fighting, Wyndham
eventually gained the hill and overran several artillery pieces, but not before
new Confederate units drove his force back down the hill.
After several attacks and counterattacks,
decided to pull across the Rappahannock to form an orderly withdrawal. The
total loss for the battle was 866 Union casualties and 523 Confederate
casualties. The battle had been the largest cavalry engagement on American
soil, but more importantly, it gave the Union cavalry a much needed morale
boost. Even though the Union cavalry was forced from the field, they engaged Stuart's
legendary cavalry and held their own.
Stuart soon found himself heavily criticized for his
ill-preparedness and searching to rebuild his reputation. During the day of the
battle, Stuart was supposed to begin his march north with Lee,
but now he was forced to wait an extra week in order to refit and rest his
After resting, Stuart then takes his force northward,
running circles around several large Union forces in eastern Virginia and
central Maryland. All the while acting as a screening force for Lee's Northern
Army of Virginia.
Lee Marches North
Synopsis of events leading up to Gettysburg:
In early June, 1863, Lee headed north using the Shenandoah Valley and
J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry to mask his movements). Lee's Army
comprised of three Corps: Ewell in the front, followed by Longstreet
and A.P. Hill.
brigade at Brandy Station.
Shortly after beginning the march north, Stuart was surprised by
Though the Union cavalry suffered more casualties than Stuart, it gained
much needed confidence.
In the end, J.E.B. Stuart
held the field, but he perceived the battle as an embarrassment.
withdrew to three forts outside of Winchester.
Jubal A. Early's Division (under Ewell) headed north and attacked
Union outposts at Winchester, VA.
The Union defenders (under
took one of the forts, Milroy
attempted to evacuate his forces to Harpers Ferry, but was stopped by George H. Steuart's
and J.M. Walker's Brigades.
Milroy attempted several
times to break past the Confederates, but to no avail.
On June 15, most of the Union force was taken prisoner with little Confederate
Meanwhile, J.E.B. Stuart had been given permission to
harass the Union army and prevent its cavalry from probing Lee's
movements. Stuart, sensing an opportunity to regain lost honor, left two
Brigades to guard Lee's mountain passes and took the other three Brigades to
run circles around the Union forces for the next eight days. Unfortunately, Lee
counted on Stuart to provide vital information on the Union's movements.
At Salem, VA, Stuart
superior-numbered force and decided to bypass the threat entirely by riding to
the east. He then turned north and rode to Rockville, MD where he captured a
huge Union supply train. Unable to move the west (because of the large Union
force between him and Lee) Stuart continued north to link with Ewell's
troops at Carlisle, PA. In the process, he fought several skirmishes with the
Union cavalry and disrupted rail and telegraph lines. After arriving at
Carlisle on July 1, Stuart found the town held by Union general
Smith and demanded his
After several hours of Confederate shelling, a courier sent by Lee,
notified Stuart of the pressing engagement to the south at Gettysburg.
Later that night, Stuart departed for Gettysburg.
Copyright © 2007 Brian Williams.
Last Modified: 02/10/2007.