Gettysburg Seminar Papers

The Army of Northern Virginia in the Gettysburg Campaign


When the Army of Northern Virginia left its camps around Fredericksburg, Virginia in early June 1863, to embark upon what became the Gettysburg Campaign, it did so with great confidence that the campaign would end in victory. In one year's time the army had accomplished remarkable feats under the leadership of its commander, General Robert E. Lee. They had driven the Army of the Potomac back from the gates of Richmond in July 1862. Then, they marched north to meet the threat posed by the Army of Virginia in northern Virginia. In late August Lee defeated this army and elements of the Army of the Potomac that had reinforced it from the Virginia Peninsula, and drove the combined armies back into the fortifications of Washington D.C. On the heels of this victory Lee led his army into Maryland, with hopes that he could carry his campaign into Pennsylvania. Bad luck and heavy straggling dogged the army in Maryland and Lee was brought to battle at Sharpsburg, Maryland in the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest single day of the Civil War. The battle proved to be tactically indecisive, but Lee retreated to Virginia. President Abraham Lincoln seized this opportunity to issue his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, a document that dramatically altered the course of the war and raised its stakes immeasurably.

Following Antietam, Lee reorganized and rested his army. In December 1862 it administered a demoralizing and costly defeat to the Army of the Potomac at Fredericksburg, Virginia, ending yet another Union drive on Richmond. The Army of the Potomac reorganized and re-equipped and returned in late April 1863 under a new commander, Major General Joseph Hooker. Hooker's army numbered nearly 130,000 strong. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, weakened by the detachment of two divisions, counted oniy about 60,000. Hooker marched south with great confidence. "May God have mercy on Robert E. Lee's soul, for I shall have none," he reportedly quipped. In the ensuing Battle of Chancellorsville, fought between May 1-5, 1863, Lee divided his army in the face of Hooker's, took the offensive and defeated the Army of the Potomac.

Given this remarkable record, it is not surprising that one soldier of the Army of Northern Virginia would write that "the victories of 1862 and the great Battle of Chancellorsville this year had led us to believe scarcely anything impossible to Lee's Army." Yet, the Gettysburg Campaign would end in failure and defeat. What this defeat meant to the army and to the Confederacy, would not come into focus until after the war, when the veterans had the opportunity to reflect upon these things. No battle of the war would be as hotly debated or written about by Confederate veterans in the post-war era than was Gettysburg. As one veteran, who passed through nearly all the battles of the Army of Northern Virginia wrote, he considered Gettysburg to be "the great battle, the turning point of the war."

The papers of the Seventh Annual Gettysburg National Military Park Seminar examine this remarkable army and its experience at Gettysburg, and explore reasons why its string of victories came to an end on that bloody field. They are a testament also to the scholarship of the staff of Gettysburg National Military Park, who are responsible for six of the eight papers within.

This publication is the result of hard work by many people. D. Scott Hartwig did the editing and layout. John Heiser and Eric Campbell are responsible for most of the maps. I would also like to express my thanks to the Friends of the National Parks at Gettysburg, whose support and cooperation made this seminar possible.

Dr. John A Latschar
Gettysburg National Military Park
March 1999

Previous Top