Civil War Profiles: ‘Here come the Rebels! — The march to Gettysburg begins

Date Published: 
June 13, 2014

The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia fought and won the battle of Chancellorsville in early May 1863. Gen. Robert E. Lee’s outnumbered army defeated its Union opponent; however, it sustained nearly 13,000 casualties in the process.

Realizing he could not afford substantial losses like those much longer, Lee received the blessing of President Jefferson Davis to transfer the war to the North. Perhaps a successful invasion would compel the federal government to negotiate peace and independence for the Confederacy.

Lee also desired to relieve Virginia from warfare that had laid waste to the landscape and brought hardship to the population. Because the South was increasingly incapable of feeding his army, Lee eyed the lush farms of Pennsylvania as a potential commissary.

To be successful, Lee knew, secrecy was essential. He ordered Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry to screen his army from the eyes of the enemy as it moved toward the Blue Ridge Mountains into the Shenandoah Valley, then north toward Maryland and Pennsylvania.

The Army of Northern Virginia began its march from the Fredericksburg area on June 3 and concentrated to the northwest, near Culpeper Court House. Before Lee’s army could continue its trek to the mountains, however, a massive cavalry battle erupted on June 9 near Brandy Station, a stop on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad.

Union Army of the Potomac commander Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, believing a raid into the North by Stuart’s cavalry was imminent, precipitated this battle by sending his 8,000-strong cavalry corps, reinforced by 3,000 infantry, across the Rappahannock River in the early morning, against Stuart’s scattered force of some 10,000.

Taken by surprise, Stuart desperately regrouped and fought off the attack in a day-long struggle that claimed 800 Yankee and 500 Rebel casualties. Although Stuart eventually forced the enemy under Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton to withdraw from the field, his reputation took a beating in the Southern press for being caught off guard.

Brandy Station would gain fame as the largest cavalry battle of the Civil War. It was a sanguinary beginning to the invasion and a foreshadowing of the unprecedented loss of life that would occur during the campaign.

Hooker learned from his scouts, as well as Rebel deserters and escaped slaves, that the enemy had begun marching to the west and north. By June 12, he repositioned a part of his army in that same direction, on the opposite side of the Rappahannock River.

Lee wisely had left one of his infantry corps behind at Fredericksburg, under command of Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill, to confuse the enemy. As a result, Hooker kept his men in readiness to move northward at a moment’s notice.

The Union commander feared Lee’s forces could double back through the mountain gaps and attack Washington. Upon taking command, his instructions were to defend the capital while engaging Lee in battle — objectives that were not always compatible.

Once convinced the enemy was moving northward, Hooker ordered his forces to follow on the east side of the mountains, as a buffer between Lee’s army and the capital. Lee, however, was successful in keeping his opponents guessing while hidden behind the Blue Ridge.

The history of these events is documented in the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, and narrated in Wilbur Sturtevant Nye’s “Here Come the Rebels!” and “Lee’s Invasion of the North, 1863” by Bradley M. Gottfried. The latter publication provides a day-by-day tracking of the opposing units, pinpointing their progress.

Although Lee was moving into unfamiliar territory, he benefited from a detailed map that topographer Jedediah Hotchkiss produced under orders to keep it “a profound secret.” It covered “The Valley of [Virginia] extended to Harrisburg, Pa., and then on to Philadelphia.”

Hotchkiss, a Northerner by birth, noted in his diary (edited and published by Archie P. McDonald) that he became familiar with Pennsylvania through extensive travels before moving South and later joining the Confederate war effort.

Nye points out that, by June 13, Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell’s corps, the vanguard of Lee’s army, had successfully passed through Chester Gap in the Blue Ridge. It was preparing to launch an attack on the unsuspecting Union outpost at Winchester in the Shenandoah Valley under command of Maj. Gen. Robert H. Milroy.

Once the Confederates were able to dispatch this one remaining obstacle, the road to Maryland and Pennsylvania would be essentially open and undefended. The question remained whether Hooker could counter this threat.

Bethany Beach resident Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War: A Political, Military and Social Perspective” (available at Bethany Beach Books or from his website at
www.tomryan-civilwar.com). Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com.