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Prelude to Battle
Prelude to Battle 

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.

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.

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 attrition.

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 which Burnside 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, 1862).

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 Hooker's 135,000 men. Hooker knew 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, Slocum, and Meade were to cross approximately 20 miles upstream while Couch and Sykes would cross about 10 miles upstream).

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 position.

[April 29, 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville, VA]

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' Brigades. Hooker 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, Hooker spent the night preparing defenses and recovering from the surprise attack.

[April 29, 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville, VA]

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 by Hooker 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 ordered Sedgwick (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 eliminate Sedgwick's 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.

[May 3, 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville, VA]

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 and Duffie 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.
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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 Wyndham's (under Gregg) 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,
Pleasonton eventually 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 force.

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.

June 9

  • Shortly after beginning the march north, Stuart was surprised by Davis' brigade at Brandy Station.
  • 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.
June 13
  • Jubal A. Early's Division (under Ewell) headed north and attacked Union outposts at Winchester, VA.
  • The Union defenders (under Milroy) withdrew to three forts outside of Winchester.
  • After Early 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 loss.
June 23
  • 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 encountered Hancock's 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 surrender.
  • 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.

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Copyright © 2007 Brian Williams.

Last Modified: 02/10/2007.
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