Today we’re going back in time to this period in 1863 —
In mid-May, 1863, the American Civil War was taking an ominous turn against the Confederacy. Despite a brilliant victory by General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia against General Joseph Hooker’s Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Chancellorsville during May 1-4 1863 – perhaps Lee’s finest hour – events elsewhere were not so fortuitous.
Union General Ulysses S. Grant was moving on the Confederacy’s last bastion on the Mississippi River, Vicksburg, Mississippi. If Vicksburg fell, the Union would control the length of the Mississippi River and the Confederacy would be cut in two.
Further, Lee’s victory at Chancellorsville had come at a high price. Lee’s able subordinate, General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, had been mortally wounded, shot by his own men while reconnoitering the Union lines on the evening of May 2nd.
What to do? Lee was at his best on defense, defending his beloved Virginia against thrust after thrust from the Union forces. But staying on the defensive mean simply waiting for the next Union invasion. With the North’s advantages in both resources and manpower, how many more attacks would Lee be able to turn away?
Going on the offensive – invading the North – had a number of advantages:
Probably the Confederacy’s best chance of winning the war was capturing the Union capital, Washington, D.C. Even if capture was not possible, at least another great Confederate victory, this time on Union soil, might cause a change in Northern public opinion and help force a move toward peace.
An invasion might cause President Abraham Lincoln to order troops from the West back to the Eastern theater of war to counter Lee, thus relieving the pressure on Vicksburg.
Less obvious but just as important was the state of Confederate supply. Northern Virginia was straining under the pressure of supporting Lee’s army. Moving north would allow the Army of Northern Virginia to live off Union land, thus both depriving Union forces of resources and allowing the overtaxed Confederate land some precious time to recover.
So both Lee and Confederate President Jefferson Davis agreed – a move north was the best course of action.
Now that everyone knows exactly what happened – Lee’s Army was defeated at the Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania on July 1-3 as Vicksburg surrendered to Grant on July 4th – history records Lee’s 1863 invasion of the North as the desperate gamble it actually was, for these reasons:
Despite the Army of the Potomac’s defeat at Chancellorsville, it was still a potent fighting force. Also, General Hooker had been replaced as commander by the steady and competent General George Meade. On top of that, the Union still had the decisive advantage in resources and manpower: at Gettysburg Meade had about 85,500 men and 370 cannon to Lee’s 75,000 men and 287 cannon.
Because of this advantage, Grant’s army could besiege Vicksburg intact. The invasion provided no relief to other Confederate battle fronts.
Lee’s invasion proved to be more of a rallying point for the Union population rather than cause an move for peace. It was actually a raid on the North. Lee had neither the manpower nor the time to really threaten the Union and bring a Confederate victory. And if anything went wrong, he could be trapped in enemy territory and lose the war for the Confederacy then and there.
And that’s what almost happened.