After General Robert E. Lee’s success in defeating the Union Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Chancellorsville, Virginia, the commander continued his aggressive tactics by planning a second invasion of the North. Lee’s strategy was to upset the Union’s plans for their summer campaigns, relieve the besieged Confederate garrison at Vicksburg, Mississippi and supply his army from the rich Northern farms while giving war-ravaged Virginia a much-needed rest. He also hoped to threaten the major cities of Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Washington to encourage the growing peace movement in the North. His tactics in this campaign were virtually identical to those he had planned in his Maryland Campaign of the prior year.
On June 3, 1863, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia began to move from Fredericksburg, Virginia headed towards Pennsylvania. Major General Joseph Hooker moved his army in pursuit of Lee, but as both sides moved northward, President Abraham Lincoln replaced the Army Commander with General George Meade.
Hoping to reach Harrisburg, or better yet, Philadelphia, the Confederate forces were engaged in a number of battles before they reached Pennsylvania, including the battles at Brandy Station, Winchester, Aldie, Middleburg, and Upperville, Virginia.
In the meantime, the Pennsylvania Governor was scrambling to raise regiments of volunteer militia to repel the threatened invasion. Known as the Emergency of 1863, thousands of refugees from Pennsylvania and Maryland fled northward and eastward to avoid the oncoming Confederates.
When Lee heard from his scouts that Major General George Meade was planning to make a stand at Pipe Creek, Maryland, he decided to attack him before he reached his defensive positions. Both forces reached Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on July 1, 1863, in what would constitute the bloodiest battle in Civil War history with total losses equaling some 51,000 men. The Confederates were driven back and by the night of July 4th, Lee and his men were retreating south.
Both commanding generals were criticized for their conduct of the campaign — Lee for his unwarranted reliance on unseasoned commanders and his authorization of Pickett’s charge; and Meade for failing to organize his forces to counterattack and pursue the fleeing enemy. The campaign marked the high point of the Confederate activity during the war; thereafter the fortunes of the South went into a marked decline.
The Gettysburg Campaign included the following battles:
Brandy Station (June 9, 1863, Virginia)
Winchester II (June 13-15, 1863, Virginia)
Aldie (June 17, 1863, Virginia)
Middleburg (June 17-19, 1863, Virginia)
Upperville (June 21, 1863, Virginia)
Hanover (June 30, 1863, Pennsylvania)
Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863, Pennsylvania)
Williamsport (July 6-16, 1863, Maryland)
Boonsboro (July 8, 1863, Maryland)
Manassas Gap (July 23, 1863, Virginia)
Brandy Station (June 9, 1863, Virginia) – Sometimes called the Battle of Fleetwood Hill, this was the first of the Gettysburg Campaign battles. Occurring in Culpeper County, Virginia, the Union cavalry corps under Major General Alfred Pleasonton launched a surprise attack on Major General James Ewell Brown “J.E.B.” Stuart’s cavalry at Brandy Station at dawn on June 9, 1863. After an all-day fight in which fortunes changed repeatedly, the Federals retired without discovering Lee’s infantry camped near Culpeper.
The Battle of Brandy Station was the largest cavalry battle ever fought on the North American Continent. Of the 22,000 soldiers involved, about 17,000 were of the mounted branch. Some 1,090 soldiers lost their lives in the battle.
Winchester II (June 13-15, 1863, Virginia) – The Second Battle of Winchester, also referred to as the Frederick County or Winchester Battle, occurred in Frederick County, Virginia on June 13-15, 1863. After the Battle of Brandy Station several days earlier on June 9th, General Robert E. Lee ordered the II Corps, Army of Northern Virginia, under Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell, to clear the lower Shenandoah Valley of Union opposition.
Ewell’s columns converged on Winchester’s garrison commanded by Brigadier General Robert Milroy. After fighting on the afternoon of June 13 and the capture of West Fort by the Louisiana Brigade on June 14, Milroy abandoned his entrenchments after dark in an attempt to reach Charles Town. General Edward “Allegheny” Johnson’s division conducted a night flanking march and before daylight of the 15th cut off Milroy’s retreat just north of Winchester at Stephenson’s Depot. More than 2,400 Federals surrendered. This Confederate victory cleared the Valley of Union troops and opened the door for Lee’s second invasion of the North. Of the 19,500 troops involved, the total loss was 4,709, of which 4,443 were Union and just 266 Confederate.
Aldie (June 17, 1863, Virginia) – Taking place in Loudoun County, Virginia, Major General James Ewell Brown “J.E.B.” Stuart’s cavalry screened the Confederate infantry as it marched north behind the sheltering Blue Ridge. The pursuing Federals of Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrick’s brigade, in the advance of Brigadier General David M. Gregg’s division, encountered Confederate Colonel Thomas Munford’s troopers near the village of Aldie, resulting in four hours of stubborn fighting. Both sides made mounted assaults by regiments and squadrons. Kilpatrick was reinforced in the afternoon, and Munford withdrew toward Middleburg. Some 250 men lost their lives in the skirmish.
Middleburg (June 17-19, 1863, Virginia) – On the same date as the Battle of Aldie, another was also taking place in Loudoun County in Middleburg. Major General James Ewell Brown “J.E.B.” Stuart, screening Robert E. Lee’s invasion route, sparred with Major General Alfred Pleasonton’s Union cavalry. On June 17, Col. Alfred Duffié’s isolated 1st Rhode Island Cavalry Regiment was attacked by the brigades of Confederate Colonels Thomas Munford and Beverly Robertson. The 1st Rhode Island Cavalry was routed, taking about 250 casualties. On June 19, Colonel J. Irvin Gregg’s brigade advanced, driving Stuart’s cavalry one mile beyond the town. Both sides were reinforced, and both mounted and dismounted skirmishing continued. Stuart was gradually levered out of his position but fell back to a second ridge, still covering the approaches to the Blue Ridge gap. Some 390 soldiers lost their lives during the battle.