June 28, 1863 is the sort of date one could easily overlook. Although great armies were on the march, there was no significant fighting that day, nor even any really notable skirmish. Yet, in his comprehensive evaluation of the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania, Edwin Coddington marks the 28th as the turning point.
For the Army of the Potomac, the 28th was the day that George Meade became its fifth and final commander, a position he did not particularly desire, but one for which he was the only suitable candidate at the time. Hooker had failed at Chancellorsville, and his behavior in response to the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania had, fairly or not, been perceived as too reminiscent of McClellan, as he moved slowly and clamored for reinforcements. Meade had a hot temper and a talent for profanity, which he frequently indulged at the expense of his subordinates. He had been a bright spot in the two previous battles, however, and the other generals trusted him. Thus Lincoln made his choice, granting Meade control over all the forces in the region (authority Halleck had denied to Hooker) and also empowering him to promote to command whomever he thought best, regardless of seniority.
Taking command in the middle of a crisis, there was little that Meade could do to reorganize headquarters. Thus, he kept Hooker’s pet Dan Butterfield on as chief of staff, an act he likely regretted later. Examining the intelligence that he had on Lee’s movements and the disposition of his forces, Meade began to draw up a plan to defend a line at Pipe Creek. He concentrated the Army of the Potomac near Frederick and mapped out their advance towards Pennsylvania to meet Lee. He had moved rapidly, and planned to move even faster still, as his great anxiety was that Lee would outmaneuver him and force a battle on unfavorable ground.
To do that, however, Robert E. Lee would have to know where the Army of the Potomac was, and until June 28 he did not even know it had left Virginia. As the day dawned, he believed he had completely outpaced Hooker’s army, and he had an unshakable faith that J.E.B. Stuart, the ANV’s cavalry commander, would have let him know the Yankees were on the move. Thus far his army had operated in Pennsylvania with little resistance, and had not even faced much on the way. The Second Corps, now led by one-legged Dick Ewell, swept the Yankees out of Winchester, Virginia and then ambushed their retreating column, sending the men scampering north in a panic. Ewell had followed them across the Potomac on June 15, and spent the next two weeks accomplishing one of the key goals of the campaign.
The eastern portion of Virginia had been ruined by war, and the Army of Northern Virginia had suffered from poor provisioning. The invasion was meant to relieve some of the burden on the south by allowing the Rebels to live off the North. Ewell’s soldiers moved efficiently through Pennsylvania, gathering food, gold, guns, and livestock, typically paying for them with Confederate dollars (which were of course valueless in the North). They also captured any free blacks who had not fled fast enough and made them slaves — no doubt this was part of the South’s noble defense of State’s Rights.
As he shepherded his other divisions into Pennsylvania — A.P. Hill’s newly formed third division first, with James’ Longstreet’s first division taking up the rear — Lee assumed that Stuart would alert him to any major moves of the enemy. In fact, though, Stuart had taken his three best brigades on a ride around the Army of the Potomac, and could not have communicated with Lee no matter how badly either desired it. For some reason, probably because he expected Stuart to accomplish his primary mission of scouting the enemy, Lee used the two cavalry brigades that had remained with the army solely to screen passes in the mountains. As a result, the Army of Northern Virginia was operating blindly.
This is a strange period in the history of J.E.B. Stuart. An immensely talented cavalry officer, he had outperformed his Union opponents at every point during the war. But ever since his friend Stonewall Jackson’s death following Chancellorsville, Stuart had done poorly. Following two days of grand reviews at Brandy Station, he had been surprised by an attack of Yankee cavalry and if not for some lucky breaks he might have been swept from the field. Brandy Station was the largest “all-cavalry” battle of the war, although Stuart’s friend, artillerist Porter Alexander, dismissed it as “a great humbug”. Stuart pitched the result as a brave repulse of Yankee aggressors, but many officers held the opinion that he had narrowly escaped a reverse brought on by his own hubris.
Although it had little tactical significance, the Battle of Brandy Station emboldened the Army of the Potomac’s cavalry, which had been taken from the ineffectual George Stoneman and given to the self-aggrandizing Alfred Pleasonton. They continued to perform quite well in operations in the Loudon valley, but although they did not let Stuart’s men drive them from the field, they also were not able to penetrate to the Shenandoah valley to see what he was up to. It seemed that Stuart had lost his edge.
Perhaps this enticed him to take a subsequent chance. Lee, in the habit of trusting his subordinates’ judgment, had given Stuart wide latitude on his field operations. Lee’s orders were poorly written and somewhat contradictory, but it was clear that he expected Stuart to maintain contact with Ewell and advise him of Yankee movements. However, the Gray Ghost, John Mosby, had scouted out a gap between two Union Corps large enough that a cavalry force could slip between them. Stuart thus made his way through the Army of the Potomac with the aim of seizing plunder and cutting communications in its rear.
This goal was technically achieved. Some wagons were seized, some telgraph wires were cut, and the people in Washington and Baltimore were given a good fright, but the impact of Stuart’s ride on the operations of the Army of the Potomac was negligible. Given the amount of provisions seized by the main body of the rebel army, even the wagons were hardly of any account. The Union artillery chief Henry Hunt dismissed the episode bluntly: “It is a good lesson on cavalry raids around armies, a thing easily done but of no particular use.”
Stuart’s foolishness was compounded by Lee’s mishandling of the cavalry left to him, which he used to protect communication lines he hardly needed rather than scouting the enemy he had come to smash. That was, after all, the second goal of the invasion: to soundly defeat the Army of the Potomac as a way to balance the inevitable loss of Vicksburg, Mississippi. The alternative, argued for by Longstreet and other officers of the Confederate army, was to use the South’s better interior lines to move a large force east to hook up with Joe Johnston and drive Grant away from Vicksburg. Lee resisted the idea, however, and insisted on striking north. Years later, Alexander would lament the choice as greatest strategic mistake Lee ever made.
On June 28th, 1863, a Confederate spy named Harrison who had been enlisted by James Longstreet appeared at the Confederate camp with news that the Army of the Potomac was already in Maryland. Though upset by the means through which he had to receive this information, Lee moved promptly, ordering his forces to concentrate towards the Yankees. The natural point to hook up lay east of South Mountain, in a town where 10 roads came together. From this junction, Lee would be able to strike out in any direction, to hit the Army of the Potomac piece by piece as it came up, or to flank it if it arrived in a single body.
The name of this town was Gettysburg.