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by Stephen W. Sears

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A masterful, single-volume history of the Civil War's greatest campaign.

Drawing on original source material, from soldiers' letters to official military records of the war, Stephen W. Sears's Gettysburg is a remarkable and dramatic account of the legendary campaign. He takes particular care in his study of the battle's leaders and offers


A masterful, single-volume history of the Civil War's greatest campaign.

Drawing on original source material, from soldiers' letters to official military records of the war, Stephen W. Sears's Gettysburg is a remarkable and dramatic account of the legendary campaign. He takes particular care in his study of the battle's leaders and offers detailed analyses of their strategies and tactics, depicting both General Meade's heroic performance in his first week of army command and General Lee's role in the agonizing failure of the Confederate army. With characteristic style and insight, Sears brings the epic tale of the battle in Pennsylvania vividly to life.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"A first-class writer and splendid historian--a combination to be cherished--gives us the best book on America's most famous battle." The Wall Street Journal
The Washington Post
Published to mark the 140th anniversary of the battle, Stephen Sears's Gettysburg aims to synthesize the mountains of scholarship occasioned by what is generally considered the turning point of the Civil War. — Dennis Drabelle
The Los Angeles Times
Sears offers the first definitive overview of the campaign in 35 years. — John Rhodehamel
The New York Times
What accounts for this remarkable Union victory and catastrophic Confederate defeat? It remains one of the vexing, if not unanswerable, debates of the Civil War. Sears forcefully echoes recent scholarship, asserting that Meade ''thoroughly outgeneraled Robert E. Lee.'' Whereas Meade inspected his lines, fine-tuned his plans and developed contingencies, Lee made a long list of mistakes: his ambiguous commands, his embrace of faulty intelligence, the command structure breakdown, a flawed artillery barrage and, finally, his inability to ''manage his generals.'' Moreover, Lee is portrayed by Sears as ''not his usual self,'' as ''exasperated,'' as ''anxious and ruffled,'' descriptions that cry out for more explanation. But perhaps the ultimate answer is far less complicated -- overconfidence. — John Winik
Publishers Weekly
An outstanding battle study by the author of Chancellorsville, this comprehensive narrative will lend extra impact to the 140th anniversary this July of the climactic battle of the Civil War. Sears casts his net wide, beginning with Lee's meeting with Davis in May 1863, where he argued in favor of marching north, to take pressure off both Vicksburg and Confederate logistics. It ends with the battered Army of Northern Virginia re-crossing the Potomac some two months later, a near-run on both sides as Meade was finally unwilling to drive his equally battered Army of the Potomac into a desperate pursuit. In between is the balanced, clear and detailed story of how 60,000 men became casualties, and how the winning of Confederate independence on the battlefield was put forever out of reach. The author generally is spare with scapegoating, although he has little use for Union men Dan Sickles (who advanced against orders on the second day) or Oliver Howard (whose Corps broke and was routed on the first day), or Richard Ewell of the Confederacy, who decided not to take Culp's Hill on the first night, when that might have been decisive. Sears also strongly urges the view that Lee was not fully in control of his army on the march or in the battle, a view borne out in his gripping narrative of Pickett's Charge, which makes many aspects of that nightmare much clearer than they have been before. This book is not the place to start a study of the campaign, but it is absolutely indispensable for the well-versed. (June 30) Forecast: A summer display in time for the battle's 140th anniversary on July 4, 5 and 6 could draw on James McPherson's Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg (Forecasts, date TK) and Robert Clasby's illustrated Gettysburg: You Are There (Forecasts, Mar. 3), along with this book from former American Heritage editor Sears. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Civil War scholar Sears follows up Chancellorsville and other war studies with a deliberate, perceptive assessment of the battle of Gettysburg and the events leading up to it. The book's strength is the consistent and striking characterizations of the many generals and commanding officers involved in the battle. Sears cohesively takes stock of their infighting and ambitions as well as their dedication and risk taking, clearly showing how the varied personalities shaped decisions made by both armies, for better or for worse. Drawn from dispatches and diaries, colorful quotes from the officers contrast vividly with meticulous details of the battle's terrain and statistics. Sears examines several turning points during the battle's buildup and three-day duration. The resulting insights add to the excellent and dramatic narrative flow. Though similar in style and format to Noah Andre Trudeau's Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, this work is ultimately more focused on the high command and includes artwork and photographs of the battle as well as portraits of the key players. For all Civil War collections and academic libraries.-Elizabeth Morris, formerly with Otsego Dist. P.L., MI Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An accomplished historian of the Civil War (Controversies and Commanders, 1999, etc.) offers a blow-by-blow account of the three-day Battle of Gettysburg and its effects on the course of the conflict. Dwight Eisenhower once recalled that at West Point he and his classmates were made to memorize the order of battle at Gettysburg hour by hour and quizzed on which unit faced which at any given moment in the combat. "If this was military history," he wrote, "I wanted no part of it." Had he had this as a text, Ike might have enjoyed the exercise a little more, for though Sears gives that information in lashings, he does so with a storyteller’s skill and a strategist’s appreciation for the changing tides of battle. He takes time getting to the first shot at Seminary Ridge, recapping the events that led to Robert E. Lee’s decision to bring his troops into northern territory (with the idea, Sears writes, of drawing the Union army away from Richmond) and that led Lee to disregard James Longstreet’s warning that the topography favored the Yankee enemy. Once at Gettysburg, however, Sears’s account is full of grapeshot and canister, blending a sometimes near-documentary account of minute portions of the battle with broader-ranging discussion of its conduct overall. This mix yields particularly satisfying results when it is applied to set pieces such as the Union defense of Little Round Top and George Pickett’s ill-fated Grand Charge, to which Sears brings sophisticated observations that well-versed students of warfare will appreciate but that may well be lost on less knowledgeable readers; among these is his account of Joshua Chamberlain’s famed right-wheel maneuver on Little Round Top and hisanalysis of Johnson Pettigrew’s arrangement of his brigades on the Confederate battle line in a compact deployment by which "colonels could keep better control of their men in the din of battle, and could reinforce the front line with their own second line rather than having to depend on some other commander for support." A fine study, detailed and challenging, that complements such popular accounts of the battle as Bruce Catton’s Glory Road and Shelby Foote’s The Stars in Their Courses.

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Read an Excerpt

1 We Should Assume the Aggressive

John Beauchamp Jones, the observant, gossipy clerk in the War Department
in Richmond, took note in his diary under date of May 15, 1863, that General
Lee had come down from his headquarters on the Rappahannock and was
conferring at the Department. "Lee looked thinner, and a little pale," Jones
wrote. "Subsequently he and the Secretary of War were long closeted with
the President." (That same day another Richmond insider, President Davis's
aide William Preston Johnston, was writing more optimistically, "Genl Lee
is here and looking splendidly & hopeful.")

However he may have looked to these observers, it was certainly
a time of strain for Robert E. Lee. For some weeks during the spring he had
been troubled by ill health (the first signs of angina, as it proved), and hardly
a week had passed since he directed the brutal slugging match with the
Yankees around Chancellorsville. Although in the end the enemy had
retreated back across the Rappahannock, it had to be accounted the
costliest of victories. Lee first estimated his casualties at 10,000, but in fact
the final toll would come to nearly 13,500, with the count of Confederate
killed actually exceeding that of the enemy. This was the next thing to a
Pyrrhic victory. Chancellorsville's costliest single casualty, of course, was
Stonewall Jackson. "It is a terrible loss," Lee confessed to his son Custis. "I
do not know how to replace him." On May 12 Richmond had paid its last
respects to "this great and good soldier," and this very day Stonewallwas
being laid to rest in Lexington. Yet the tides of war do not wait, and General
Lee had come to the capital to try and shape their future course.
For the Southern Confederacy these were days of rapidly
accelerating crisis, and seen in retrospect this Richmond strategy
conference of May 15, 1863, easily qualifies as a pivotal moment in
Confederate history. Yet the record of what was discussed and decided that
day by General Lee, President Davis, and Secretary of War James A.
Seddon is entirely blank. No minutes or notes have survived. Only in clerk
Jones's brief diary entry 1 are the participants even identified. Nevertheless,
from recollections and from correspondence of the three men before and
after the conference, it is possible to infer their probable agenda and to piece
together what must have been the gist of their arguments and their
agreements — and their decisions. Their decisions were major ones.
It was the Vicksburg conundrum that triggered this May 15
conference. The Federals had been nibbling away at the Mississippi citadel
since winter, and by mid-April Mississippi's governor, John J. Pettus, was
telling Richmond, "the crisis in our affairs in my opinion is now upon us." As
April turned to May, dispatches from the Confederate generals in the West
became ever more ominous in tone. In a sudden and startling move, the
Yankee general there, U. S. Grant, had landed his army on the east bank of
the Mississippi below Vicksburg and was reported marching inland, straight
toward the state capital of Jackson. On May 12 John C. Pemberton,
commanding the Vicksburg garrison, telegraphed President Davis, "with my
limited force I will do all I can to meet him. . . . The enemy largely
outnumbers me. . . ." Pemberton offered little comfort the next day: "My
forces are very inadequate. . . . Enemy continues to re-enforce heavily."
Grant's march toward Jackson threatened to drive a wedge
between Pemberton in Vicksburg and the force that Joseph E. Johnston
was cobbling together to go to Pemberton's support. On May 9 Johnston had
been put in overall charge of operations against the Federal invaders of
Mississippi, and by the 13th Johnston had grim news to report. He had
hurried ahead to Jackson, he said, but the enemy moved too fast and had
already cut off his communication with Vicksburg. "I am too late" was his
terse verdict.
Thus the highly unsettling state of the war in Mississippi as it was
known to President Davis and Secretary Seddon as they prepared to sit
down with General Lee to try and find some resolution to the crisis. To be
sure, the Vicksburg question had been agitating Confederate war councils
since December, when the Yankees opened their campaign there to clear
the Mississippi and cut off the westernmost states of the Confederacy. At the
same time, a second Federal army, under William Rosecrans, threatened
Chattanooga and central Tennessee. For the moment, Braxton Bragg's
Army of Tennessee had achieved a standoff with Rosecrans. Bragg, however,
could scarcely afford to send much help to threatened Vicksburg. The
defenders of the western Confederacy were stretched very close to the
breaking point.
Early in 1863, a "western concentration bloc" within the high
councils of command had posed the argument for restoring the military
balance in the West by dispatching reinforcements from the East. Most in-
fluential in this bloc were Secretary of War Seddon, Senator Louis T.
Wigfall of Texas, and Generals Joe Johnston, P.G.T. Beauregard, and one of
Lee's own lieutenants, James Longstreet. It was Longstreet, in fact, who had
been the first to offer a specific plan to rejuvenate affairs in the West.
In February, responding to a Federal threat, Lee had detached
Longstreet from the Army of Northern Virginia and sent him with two of his
four First Corps divisions to operate in southeastern Virginia. Taking fresh
perspective from his new assignment, casting his eye across the strategic
landscape, Longstreet proposed that the First Corps, or at the very least
those two divisions he had with him, be sent west. It was his thought to
combine these troops, plus others from Joe Johnston's western command,
with Bragg's army in central Tennessee for an offensive against Rosecrans.
Once Rosecrans was disposed of, the victorious Army of Tennessee would
march west and erase Grant's threat to Vicksburg. All the while, explained
Longstreet rather airily, Lee would assume a defensive posture and hold the
Rappahannock line with just Jackson's Second Corps.
General Lee was unimpressed by this reasoning. He thought it
likely that come spring the Federal Army of the Potomac would open an
offensive on the Rappahannock, and he had no illusions about trying to hold
that front with only half his army. Should the enemy not move against him,
he said, he intended to seize the initiative himself and maneuver to the
north — in which event he would of course need all his troops. In any case,
Lee believed that shifting troops all across the Confederacy would achieve
nothing but a logistical nightmare. As he expressed it to Secretary
Seddon, "it is not so easy for us to change troops from one department to
another as it is for the enemy, and if we rely upon that method we may
always be too late."
Longstreet was not discouraged by rejection. After
Chancellorsville — from which battle he was absent, there having not been
time enough to bring up his two divisions to join Lee in repelling the
Federals — he stopped off in Richmond on his way back to the army to talk
strategy with Secretary Seddon. In view of the abruptly worsening prospects
at Vicksburg, Longstreet modified his earlier western proposal somewhat.
As before, the best course would be to send one or both of the divisions with
him — commanded by George Pickett and John Bell Hood — to trigger an
offensive against Rosecrans in Tennessee. But after victory there, he said,
a march northward through Kentucky to threaten the Northern heartland
would be the quickest way to pull Grant away from Vicksburg.
More or less the same plan was already familiar to Seddon as the
work of General Beauregard, who from his post defending Charleston
enjoyed exercising his fondness for Napoleonic grand designs. Emboldened
by these two prominent supporters of a western strategy, and anxious to do
something — anything — about the rapidly deteriorating situation in
Mississippi, Secretary Seddon telegraphed Lee on May 9 with a specific
proposal of his own. Pickett's First Corps division was just then in the
vicinity of Richmond; would General Lee approve of its being sent with all
speed to join Pemberton in the defense of Vicksburg?
Lee's response was prompt, sharply to the point, and (for him)
even blunt. He telegraphed Seddon that the proposition "is hazardous, and
it becomes a question between Virginia and the Mississippi." He added,
revealing a certain mistrust of Pemberton's abilities, "The distance and the
uncertainty of the employment of the troops are unfavorable." Lee followed
his telegram with a letter elaborating his arguments. He pointed out that it
would be several weeks before Pickett's division could even reach Vicksburg,
by which time either the contest there would already be settled or "the
climate in June will force the enemy to retire." (This belief — misguided, as it
turned out — that Grant's Yankees could not tolerate the lower Mississippi
Valley in summer was widespread in the South.) Lee then repeated his
tactful but pointed prediction that Pickett's division, if it ever did get there,
would be misused by General Pemberton: "The uncertainty of its arrival and
the uncertainty of its application cause me to doubt the policy of sending it."
But Lee's most telling argument was framed as a virtual
ultimatum. Should any troops be detached from his army — indeed, if he
did not actually receive reinforcements — "we may be obliged to withdraw
into the defenses around Richmond." He pointed to an intelligence nugget he
had mined from a careless Washington newspaper correspondent to the
effect that the Army of the Potomac, on the eve of Chancellorsville, had
counted an "aggregate force" of more than 159,000 men. "You can, therefore,
see the odds against us and decide whether the line of Virginia is more in
danger than the line of the Mississippi." When Mr. Davis was shown Lee's
response, he endorsed it, "The answer of Gen. Lee was such as I should
have anticipated, and in which I concur." Pickett's division was not going to

Yet that hardly marked the end of the debate. On the contrary, Secretary
Seddon's proposition for Pickett initiated a week-long series of strategy
discussions climaxed by Lee's summons to the high-level conference in
Richmond on May 15. To prepare for the Richmond conference, Lee called
Longstreet to the army's Rappahannock headquarters at Fredericksburg,
and over three days (May 11–13) the two of them intensely examined grand
strategy and the future course of the Army of Northern Virginia.
With the death of Stonewall Jackson, Lieutenant General James
Longstreet was not only Lee's senior lieutenant but by default his senior
adviser. The nature of their relationship in this period would be much
obscured and badly distorted by Longstreet's self-serving postwar
recollections. The truth of the matter, once those writings by "Old Pete" are
taken with the proper discount — and once the fulminations of Longstreet's
enemies who inspired those writings are discounted as well — is that on
these May days the two generals reached full and cordial agreement about
what the Army of Northern Virginia should do next. The evidence of their
agreement comes from Old Pete himself.
On May 13, at the conclusion of these discussions, Longstreet
wrote his ally Senator Wigfall to explain the strategic questions of the
moment and what he and Lee had agreed upon in the way of answers. A
second Longstreet letter, written in 1873 to General Lafayette McLaws,
covers the same ground with a candor and a scrupulousness too often
absent in the recollections dating from Longstreet's later years.
In their discussions the two generals pondered the army's past
record and future prospects. In nearly a full year commanding the Army of
Northern Virginia, Lee had fought five major battles or campaigns. By any
measure, his record was dazzling. Still, in the context of the Confederacy's
eventual survival, it was a record (as Longstreet phrased it) of "fruitless
victories; . . . even victories such as these were consuming us, and would
eventually destroy us. . . ."
On the Virginia Peninsula, in the summer of 1862, Lee had driven
George McClellan away from the gates of Richmond, only to see the
Federals reach a safe haven at Harrison's Landing on the James. At
Second Manassas in August John Pope became Lee's victim, but Pope's
beaten army managed to escape without further damage into the defenses of
Washington. Sharpsburg, on September 17, could perhaps be claimed by
Lee as a narrow tactical victory, but his army was too weakened, and
McClellan's Federals too numerous, to continue the fighting to a showdown.
Against Ambrose Burnside at Fredericksburg in December, and then
against Joe Hooker at Chancellorsville in May, Lee won signal victories. But
both times a larger victory eluded him when the enemy escaped back across
the Rappahannock. Lee was heard to say that Chancellorsville depressed
him even more than Fredericksburg had: "Our loss was severe, and again we
had gained not an inch of ground and the enemy could not be pursued." What
he wanted in future was battle on his terms, on ground of his choosing, with
no barriers to a final outcome. For that he had formed a plan.
Longstreet brought up the matter of Vicksburg and the
dispatching of reinforcements to the western theater. Lee reiterated his
objection to putting any of his men directly into Vicksburg under Pemberton's
command. In writing of this to Senator Wigfall, Longstreet was surely re-
flecting Lee's blunt opinion when he remarked, "Grant seems to be a fighting
man and seems to be determined to fight. Pemberton seems not to be a
fighting man." Should Pemberton fail to take the battle to Grant but instead
allow himself and his garrison to be penned up in Vicksburg, Longstreet went
on, "the fewer the troops he has the better." Should Richmond decide to order
Lee to send troops from Virginia, however, the proper course would be to give
them to Bragg or Joe Johnston for an invasion of Kentucky. Only in that event
was Grant likely to be drawn away from Vicksburg.
This latter western strategy was of course what Longstreet had
recently been advocating with such fervor, but now Old Pete underwent an
abrupt change of heart. This seems to have been entirely by Lee's
persuasion. "When I agreed with the Secy & yourself about sending troops
west," Longstreet confessed to Wigfall, "I was under the impression that we
would be obliged to remain on the defensive here." Now, he continued,
there "is a fair prospect of forward movement. That being the case we can
spare nothing from this army to re-enforce in the West." Indeed, he called
on Wigfall to support the sending of any available reinforcements directly to
General Lee.
James Longstreet, in short, was made a convert to a new faith.
What Lee confided to him was a plan to march north through Maryland and
into Pennsylvania, and Old Pete declared himself enthusiastically in favor of
the idea. "If we could cross the Potomac with one hundred & fifty thousand
men," he speculated to Senator Wigfall, it should at least bring Lincoln to
the bargaining table; "either destroy the Yankees or bring them to terms." He
closed his letter with the observation that in a day or two Lee would be in
Richmond "to settle matters. . . . I shall ask him to take a memorandum of
all points and settle upon something at once."
"We should assume the aggressive," Lee had written Mr. Davis
just a month earlier. He meant by that, in modern military terminology,
seizing the strategic initiative. This idea was at the very core of Robert E.
Lee's generalship. It became his watchword the moment he first took
command of the Army of Northern Virginia, back in June 1862. He
recognized then — and it was even more obvious now, a year later — the
stark reality that in the ever more straitened Confederacy his army would
never achieve parity with the enemy's army. On campaign he would always
be the underdog. Therefore he must assume the strategic aggressive
whenever he could, and by marching and maneuver disrupt the enemy's
plans, keep him off balance, offset his numbers by dominating the choice of
battlefield. It must be Lee's drum the enemy marched to.
Taking the strategic aggressive on campaign did not necessarily
imply an equal tactical aggressive when the chosen battlefield was reached.
Indeed, in the best execution of the idea, it would mean just the opposite —
marching and maneuvering so aggressively on campaign that Lee might
accept battle or not, as he chose, with his opponent forced to give battle —
to attack — at a time and in a place of Lee's choosing. According to
Longstreet, this was precisely his and Lee's "train of thought and mutual
understanding" for the proposed Pennsylvania campaign. "The ruling ideas
of the campaign may be briefly stated thus," Longstreet summed up. "Under
no circumstances were we to give battle, but exhaust our skill in trying to
force the enemy to do so in a position of our own choosing."
There was of course nothing unique or even novel about the "ruling
ideas" of this strategic and tactical plan. It was exactly what any field
general always hoped and dreamed of achieving — to maneuver the enemy
into attacking him in circumstances and on defensive ground of his own
selection. Already twice in this war Lee (with Longstreet's crucial
participation) had come close to achieving the ideal. Second Manassas was
fought defensively on ground chosen by the Confederates, and won by a
breakthrough counterattack against the enemy's flank. It was marred only by
the Federals' escape into the nearby Washington fortifications. At
Fredericksburg, allowed by the bumbling Ambrose Burnside to defend a
virtually impregnable position, Lee's army inflicted almost three times the
casualties it suffered. Yet the defeated Burnside was able to retreat back
across the Rappahannock without further harm. Next time, on the Federals'
home ground in Pennsylvania, there should be opportunity for maneuver and
for a greater and perhaps decisive victory.
In his later writings, flailing against the snares of those who would
label him scapegoat for the campaign, Longstreet implied that Lee promised
him he would fight tactically only a defensive battle in Pennsylvania. "Upon
this understanding my assent was given . . . ," said Old Pete loftily. That of
course was nonsense. No commanding general is obliged to promise a
subordinate any future action, particularly anything like this that would tie his
hands. Lee said as much when asked about it after the war. He "had never
made any such promise, and had never thought of doing any such thing,"
was his reply, and he termed the idea "absurd." So it was. A younger and
more rational Longstreet, in May 1863, was confident that General Lee had
heard him out and that they were in full agreement on the right and proper
course — to (ideally) maneuver the Yankees into committing another
Fredericksburg on any disputed ground in Pennsylvania. Longstreet even
volunteered his First Corps to handle the defense of that ground (as he had at
Fredericksburg), leaving Lee and the rest of the army free to fall upon the
Army of the Potomac and destroy it.

Whether or not General Lee took "a memorandum of all points" with him to
Richmond, as Longstreet suggested, he surely went well prepared to argue
his case. On May 14 he boarded the Richmond, Fredericksburg &
Potomac's afternoon train to the capital, and on Friday the 15th presented
himself at the War Department in the old Virginia Mechanics Institute building
on Franklin Street to confer on future strategy with President Davis and
Secretary of War Seddon.
Like General Lee, the president was suffering poor health that
spring, and for much of the past week he had been too ill to leave the
Confederate White House. It was a measure of the importance of the
meeting that he willed himself to attend at all. Davis looked pale and drawn,
and in the days following he would have to return to his sickbed. The strain of
the crisis marked Seddon as well. A few days earlier, clerk Jones had
described the war secretary as "gaunt and emaciated. . . . He looks like a
dead man galvanized into muscular animation."
Secretary Seddon, however, was both determined and dedicated,
and it may be assumed he came to this conference with Vicksburg still very
much on his mind. Even though the decision had already been made not to
add Pickett's division directly to Vicksburg's defenders, the situation in
Mississippi remained the Confederacy's overriding crisis of the moment.
James Seddon had not given up the thought of assistance of some sort to
try and save Vicksburg from the Yankees. Jefferson Davis would have been at
the least a sympathetic listener; Mississippi was his native state.
"Hour of trial is upon us" was the latest stark message from
Mississippi's Governor Pettus. "We look to you for assistance. Let it be
speedy." At the same time, the editors of the Jackson Mississippian
petitioned Richmond with the claim that "three-fourths in the army and out"
were doubtful of General Pemberton's abilities and even of his loyalty. (It
was widely noticed that Pemberton had been born and raised in
Pennsylvania.) However unjust it might seem, they said, they wanted the
general immediately replaced. "Send us a man we all can trust," pleaded the
editors, and they nominated either General Beauregard or General Longstreet
for the post. Mr. Davis had replied, "Your dispatch is the more painful
because there is no remedy. Time does not permit the changes you propose
if there was no other reason. . . ."
As for the immediate military situation in the West, no news had
reached Richmond more recent than Pemberton's complaints about being
outnumbered and Joe Johnston's admission that the enemy had cut off his
effort to reach Vicksburg with a relief column. The only reinforcements then
on their way from the East were three brigades — some 7,700 men — that
Secretary Seddon had wrangled out of General Beauregard in Charleston.
Seddon, then, would probably have focused any such discussion at this
War Department conference on the earlier plan to reinforce Bragg's Army of
Tennessee with troops from Lee's army so as to take the offensive in
central Tennessee, and from there to strike through Kentucky. The hope
thereby was to force Grant to turn to meet this threat to the Northern
A month earlier, General Lee had addressed just this proposal
from the western concentration bloc, stating the basic difficulty with any
such reinforcement scheme. "I believe the enemy in every department
outnumbers us," he had written, "and it is difficult to say from which troops
can with safety be spared." He certainly did not see how the Army of
Northern Virginia could safely spare any troops. As he had been reporting
almost daily to Richmond ever since Chancellorsville, all his intelligence
evidence suggested that the Army of the Potomac was being reinforced. As
recently as May 11, Lee's count of these reinforcements had reached
48,000. This promised to make good the Federals' Chancellorsville losses
and then some. "It would seem, therefore," Lee had explained to Davis, "that
Virginia is to be the theater of action, and this army, if possible, ought to be
Thus the simple, convincing argument, presumably laid out in his
typically quiet, authoritative way by the Confederacy's most successful
general: Any attempt to turn back the tide at Vicksburg as Seddon was
proposing was bound to put Lee's army in Virginia at unacceptable risk.
Possibly Lee clinched his argument with some variation on what he had
said to Seddon back on May 10: "You can, therefore, see the odds against
us and decide whether the line of Virginia is more in danger than the line of
the Mississippi."
Robert E. Lee was not by nature a pessimist, however, and he
must surely have offered Davis and Seddon some words of counsel on the
Vicksburg dilemma. He had done so before. General Johnston, he had said
in April, should "concentrate the troops in his own department" and then
promptly "take the aggressive." As Lee saw it, it was essential in
Mississippi (just as it was in Virginia) to seize the strategic initiative and
thereby baffle the designs of the enemy. Act first, before the enemy could
act. Unfortunately, it appeared that Joe Johnston had not taken this advice
(or could not). Now it looked as if he and Pemberton, separately, would have
to play out their dangerous game with the cards each had been dealt.
Armchair critics would come to call Lee's position on Vicksburg
parochial. His strategic focus, it was said, bore solely on the Virginia
theater, at the expense of the failing Confederate war in the West. Yet at this
strategy conference in mid-May of 1863 Lee could scarcely have taken any
other stance. His intelligence sources told of his opponent, Joe Hooker,
being heavily reinforced. If that pointed to a renewed Federal campaign, as
seemed likely, it could be met with no better odds than before, which had
been bad enough. The return of Longstreet's two divisions to the
Rappahannock front did little more than make up the army's Chancellorsville
losses. Robert E. Lee was right. The choice for President Davis was Virginia
or Mississippi, and just then there were simply no troops to spare in Virginia.
It was in truth a Hobson's choice.
Turn to the Virginia front, however, and Lee believed there was a
meaningful choice to be made. In effect, he offered an antidote to the sickly
prognosis for the West. In laying out for Davis and Seddon his plan to
march north, Lee would not have been unveiling something new and
unexpected. Back in April, before Hooker launched his Chancellorsville
offensive, Lee had announced a May 1 deadline for an offensive of his own —
into Union territory. "The readiest method of relieving pressure upon Gen.
Johnston," he had pointed out to Seddon in a reference to the western
theater, ". . . would be for this army to cross into Maryland." As a preliminary,
he had ordered strong raiding parties into the Shenandoah Valley to disrupt
Federal communications and to stockpile supplies for the army's planned
advance. At the same time, substantial supplies to support the movement
were being gathered by Longstreet in southeastern Virginia. The operation
there took on the markings of a giant victualing expedition, and collected
enough bacon and corn to feed the army for two months. As it happened,
Hooker's attack had forestalled these preparations, but a foundation was laid.
Now Lee proposed to build on it.

If it is not possible to list the precise arguments Lee may have used that
day to gain approval for his Pennsylvania campaign, it is possible, through
his dispatches and recollections, to record his thinking on the subject.
It had become General Lee's basic premise that his army should
not — indeed could not — remain much longer on the Rappahannock. In
the first place, it was not a good setting for yet another battle. At
Chancellorsville, even in losing, Hooker had certainly improved on
Burnside's effort of the previous December, and Lee had to wonder if he could
fight off a third attempt. "To have lain at Fredericksburg," he would later
say, "would have allowed them time to collect force and initiate a new
campaign on the old plan." Even if he managed to repel a new effort, there
was no promise of a decisive outcome. The Yankees would simply pull back
across the river again and be out of reach.
In the second place, his men in their Rappahannock camps were
hungry. They had been hungry there since the first of the year, and it
appeared they were going to be hungry for some time to come if they
remained there. In the Army of Northern Virginia the only occasion for full
stomachs thus far in 1863 had been immediately after Chancellorsville,
when they feasted on the contents of thousands of captured or abandoned
Yankee knapsacks. Even now Lucius Northrop, the Confederacy's peevish
commissary-general of subsistence, was drafting yet another rationing
edict — a quarter of a pound of bacon daily for garrison troops, a third of a
pound for those in camp in the field, raised to half a pound only when on
active campaign. This was to be in force, Northrop said, "until the new
bacon comes in" in the fall.
For the Army of Northern Virginia, the paltry rationing imposed by
Richmond was made all the worse by a tenuous supply line. The decrepit
Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac was not up to the task of supplying
an army on the Rappahannock. This had nearly left Lee in dire straits at
Chancellorsville. He was forced to accept battle there short 20,000 men,
including Longstreet's two divisions absent on their victualing duty in
southeastern Virginia. It was not an experience he intended to repeat. The
most expedient way to solve this particular problem, he decided, was to live
off the enemy's country. Lee was going to requisition the burdened barns
and smokehouses of Pennsylvania to feed his army.
There were two additional, probable factors behind Lee's
determination to march north that he would not have mentioned to Davis
and Seddon that day. They were private thoughts pertaining to his own
soldierly judgments, thoughts he did not directly articulate but which surely
colored his thinking. One had to do with Lee's previous invasion of enemy
country, in September 1862. He had intended then, as he intended now, to
seek a favorable battleground in Pennsylvania. But McClellan had trumped
him, forcing a battle at Sharpsburg in Maryland before Lee was ready for it.
Lee had liked to think he understood his timid opponent, and this abrupt
resolution of McClellan's seemed totally out of character. Over the winter,
said his aide Charles Marshall, "Gen. Lee frequently expressed his inability
to understand the sudden change in McClellan's tactics."
Then, just this spring, Lee had finally learned the truth of the
matter. He read in Northern newspapers of McClellan testifying to a
congressional committee that "we found the original order issued to General
D. H. Hill by direction of General Lee, which gave the orders of march for
their whole army, and developed their intentions." To Lee's mind that must
have explained a great deal. He had not been wrong in his calculations for
that campaign after all. It was Fate or simply sheer misfortune, in the form of
the infamous Lost Order, that had checked his plans at Sharpsburg. He
might now march forth across the Potomac with renewed confidence in his
military judgment. That was essential. There was sure to be great risk in thus
marching into enemy country, and the general commanding would require a
full measure of self-confidence to carry it off.
The second factor was connected to the first. General Lee always
formed his designs with the opposing general very much in mind. In
September 1862 he had led his invading army into Maryland with the
failings of George McClellan in his thoughts. At Chancellorsville he had
beaten "Fighting Joe" Hooker, whom he privately referred to contemptuously
as "Mr. F. J. Hooker," and now was looking forward to beating him again.
Lee believed there was every chance that Hooker was demoralized by his
recent defeat and would not be at his best in a second meeting. Hooker's
army, too, would likely be suffering from demoralization. Nearly 6,000 Yankee
soldiers had surrendered at Chancellorsville, hardly a sign of high morale.
Lee's insight into the Army of the Potomac was sharpened by his
reading in the Northern papers of numerous regiments of two-year men and
thousands of nine-month short-termers being mustered out that spring. It
was said these losses would be made good by the newly instituted
conscription in the North. However that might be, Lee expected all this to
produce a good deal of confusion in the Federal ranks in the coming weeks,
and he wanted to take advantage of it. In short, the Army of the Potomac,
and its commander, looked just then to be fair game, another good reason for
assuming the aggressive.
To General Lee, then, the choice on this 15th of May was plain
and the case unequivocal. He could not properly subsist his army on the
Rappahannock line, and he had no wish to fight another battle there. The
army needed to move. He had already made it plain to Secretary Seddon,
in opposing sending Pickett to Vicksburg, that if his army was weakened —
indeed, if it was not strengthened — he would probably have to fall back
into the Richmond defenses. To do so (as he no doubt now pointed out)
would be to surrender the strategic initiative and submit to slow death by
siege. The options were clear, Lee would say: to "stand a siege, which must
ultimately have ended in surrender, or to invade Pennsylvania." To go on the
aggressive, to cross the Potomac and march on Pennsylvania, opened up all
manner of possibilities.
First of all, it would pull the Army of the Potomac out of its fortified
lines and disarrange all its plans for a summer offensive in Virginia. That
alone would justify a march north. At the same time, it would free Lee of the
defensive strictures of the Rappahannock line and allow him to maneuver at
will. Once across the Potomac hungry Rebels could feast in a land of
plenty, and the ravaged fields and farms of Virginia would have an opportunity
for renewal.
In the larger scheme of things, Northern morale and will were sure
to be shaken by the prospect of a Confederate army — a winning
Confederate army — marching into its heartland. "If successful this year,"
Lee had predicted to his wife on April 19, "next fall there will be a great
change in public opinion at the North. The Republicans will be destroyed & I
think the friends of peace will become so strong as that the next
administration will go in on that basis." A successful campaign in
Pennsylvania — even the army's simply remaining there for some length of
time — ought to give voice to the Northern peace movement. And a
success there might even impress the European powers sufficiently to push
them toward intervention or at least mediation.
However he made the case, nothing in Lee's correspondence or
recollections suggests that he raised any hopes among his listeners that
by marching into Pennsylvania he would pry Grant loose from Vicksburg. The
argument that time and distance precluded the Confederates from sending
reinforcements to Vicksburg that spring surely applied in the reverse
direction to the Federals. In any case, it was too much to expect that the
threat of a Confederate invasion of the North would paralyze Yankee efforts
on every other war front. It was possible that an invasion would prevent the
Yankees sending (as Lee put it) "troops designed to operate against other
parts of the country," but that was the most that could be hoped for.
On the other hand, the implications of a Confederate victory in
Pennsylvania were well worth contemplating. Grant's taking of Vicksburg
would be offset, indeed would pale by comparison. On the Southern home
front a Lee victory, said an observer, would be "a slogan to arouse the
impatient populace to new endeavors. . . ." To Richmond it was beginning to
seem that the war might be lost in a year in the West, yet perhaps it could
still be won in a day in the East. Should Lee gain another Fredericksburg or
Chancellorsville on some battleground in Pennsylvania, especially if it was
the more decisive battle he had long been seeking, the war would take on a
whole new balance.
It cannot be imagined, during this War Department conference,
that President Davis, Secretary Seddon, and General Lee had the slightest
doubt that sending the army north across the Potomac would result in
anything less than a major battle. Despite the talk of hungry troops, this
was never designed as merely a massive victualing expedition. Nor was there
any thought of an invasion to conquer and occupy territory north of the Mason-
Dixon Line — to append Pennsylvania to the Confederacy. The conferees
had to be aware that just as surely as a Southern army would rise to the
defense of Virginia, a Northern army would fight an invasion of Pennsylvania.
If the Army of Northern Virginia made a campaign in the North, there could be
no avoiding a battle there.
To be sure, in the hindsight atmosphere of his reports and his
postwar comments, General Lee was circumspect on this point. Still, it is
unmistakable that from the first he intended the operation to end in a battle.
In his reports he spoke of a march north offering "a fair opportunity to strike
a blow" at the opposing army; and, again, he mentioned the "valuable results"
that would follow "a decided advantage gained over the enemy in Maryland
or Pennsylvania. . . ."
In a conversation in 1868 Lee was quoted as saying that "he did
not intend to give general battle in Pennsylvania if he could avoid it." This
was a matter of evasive semantics. In Lee's lexicon, to give battle was to
seek it out deliberately and to attack. To accept battle (to accept "a fair
opportunity"), however — which significantly Lee did not exclude in
describing his plan — was electing to fight if conditions were favorable, or if
by maneuver could be made favorable. This was precisely "the ruling ideas of
the campaign" that he and Longstreet had discussed at length and agreed
upon just before the Richmond conference. At the time of the decision-
making Lee stated his objective with perfect clarity. On May 25, calling upon
D. H. Hill for reinforcements, Lee wrote, "They are very essential to aid in the
effort to turn back the tide of war that is now pressing South." Only battle
could satisfy an objective so grand.
In writing to his wife on April 19 about prospects for the coming
campaigning season, Lee displayed a long view of affairs, looking toward
breaking down the Republican administration in Washington. He did not
suggest achieving this by one great war-ending battle of annihilation, a
modern-day Cannae. His army was, after all, ever fated to be the smaller of
the two armies. More realistically, Lee seems to have projected repeated
morale-shattering victories that would eventually sap Northerners' support
for the war. Gaining a third successive victory, of whatever dimension, over
the Army of the Potomac, this time on Northern soil, should go a long way
toward that goal. That was clearly a risk worth taking. As Lee himself
argued, according to the record of a postwar conversation, "He knew
oftentimes that he was playing a very bold game, but it was the only possible
Some two weeks after the Richmond conference, President Davis
wrote a letter to Lee that has been interpreted by some to show the
president less than wholehearted in his support, and indeed that he was not
even aware of Lee's intentions for the campaign. "I had never fairly
comprehended your views and purposes . . . ," Davis wrote, "and now have to
regret that I did not earlier know all that you had communicated to others." In
fact, as is readily apparent from the context of this remark, and from their
other letters exchanged in this period, Davis was not speaking of the
proposed Pennsylvania campaign at all, but rather of the ongoing difficulty
Lee was having with D. H. Hill over the matter of reinforcements.
While no directive was issued by Davis or Seddon formally
approving the Pennsylvania campaign as Lee had outlined it on May 15,
there cannot be the slightest doubt of their approval. Both Davis and Seddon
fully agreed with Lee on its necessity. In that same letter, for example, Davis
pledged to relieve Lee of any concern for Richmond's safety "while you are
moving towards the north and west." Secretary Seddon, the earlier advocate
of a western strategy, assured the general, "I concur entirely in your views
of the importance of aggressive movements by your army. . . ." Lee could
therefore return to his Rappahannock headquarters confident of Richmond's
support. On Sunday, May 17, he set about the task of readying his army to
march north.
What was debated and decided at the War Department that 15th
of May held the promise of reshaping the very direction of the war. In one
sense, the conference revealed how the crisis in Mississippi had passed
well beyond Richmond's reach. The drama there seemed likely to play out
without any further intervention from the Confederate capital. On the other
hand, General Lee was persuasive in his argument that in the Virginia theater
the road to opportunity pointed north, and that the way was open. By
recapturing the strategic initiative he had surrendered after Sharpsburg, he
proposed to take the war right into the Yankee heartland. At the least, a
success in Pennsylvania would offset any failure at Vicksburg. At the most, a
great victory on enemy soil might put peace within Richmond's reach. James
Seddon said it well: Such a movement by the Army of Northern Virginia "is
indispensable to our safety and independence."

Copyright © 2003 by StephenW. Sears. Reprinted by permission of
Houghton Mifflin Company.

Meet the Author

STEPHEN W. SEARS is the author of many award-winning books on the Civil War, including Gettysburg and Landscape Turned Red. A former editor at American Heritage, he lives in Connecticut.

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Gettysburg 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 50 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Let me make this clear upfront: Sears wrote a good book about the battle of Gettysburg, it¿s just that Noah Trudeau¿s ¿Gettysburg, A Testing of Courage¿ is simply better. After reading Sears¿ version, you will come way with a full understanding of the campaign -- the reasons for invading the north, the characters involved, the tactics involved, the aftermath and a detailed order of battle. In Trudeau¿s version, you get all this and more. Both books are easy and captivating reads, but Trudeau¿s version has more detail. For example, in describing the first day of the battle (July 1), Sears provides four maps Trudeau provides thirteen! Other examples are Trudeau¿s description of Iverson¿s failure, the famous 20th Maine and the separation of its Co. B, Biglelow¿s artillery stand at the Trostle farm which are all superior to Sears¿ version. Really, the number of examples are too numerous to list. One area that Sears¿ version is better is the inclusion of more photographs. Finally, Trudeau¿s version provides a closing ¿whatever happened to¿ section. You won¿t go wrong with Sears¿ book, but you¿ll do better with Trudeau¿s.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Sears has written a balanced, single volume account of Gettysburg blending a dry narrative of the facts of the campaign with some thoughtful analysis. I enjoyed the book, but part of my enthusiasm was bolstered by a recent trip to Gettysburg where I viewed the battleground myself. Sears focuses on the high command of each of the opposing armies and the evolution of their decision making throughout the contest. His final analysis finds Robert E. Lee chiefly responsible for the South's failure to win the battle. Indeed, Sears is critical of Lee's decision to invade the North in the first place. As much as I am a Robert E. Lee fan, I have to admit that he did appear to suffer some unexplainable loss of good judgment at precisely the worse time. It was hard for me to stand on Seminary Ridge and stare across the .8 mile sloping battlefield that Lee ordered 13,000 soldiers to cross under enfilading enemy fire. Therefore, I agree with Sears that Lee made some bad decisions, but I do not believe he ordered a charge based on an ego battle with Longstreet. Lee ordered the charge because he thought it would be successful even against odds that his overconfidence allowed him to ignore. In the final analysis, I agree with Lee's decision to invade the North. Lee did not have the option of fighting a defensive war only, like George Washington did against the British. Lee's enemy was much stronger and growing ever stronger by the day. Also, Lee's enemy didn't have to cross an ocean to bring its industrial might to bear. So in the end, Lee had to do something audacious. Unfortunately for him Gettysburg just wasn't it!
Guest More than 1 year ago
An engaging book on the bloodiest battle of the bloodiest war in American history. Sears's quick-paced writing makes for good reading and you'll fly through chapter after chapter before you know it! Buy it know!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very detailed account of battle Gettysburg but it read more like a text book
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HCENK More than 1 year ago
Having seen the movie, walked the battlefield several times, the detailed account of the players, their backgrounds and the role fate played in many of the events that shaped the outcome my next trip to the battlefield will be much more enjoyable. If you have the patience to wade through the very detailed history of the key players, the explanation of how the battle unfolded is well worth the wait. The inlusion of excerpts from contemporaneous correspondence of soldiers, officers and general staff gives some insights on the influences and state of mind of the decision makers.
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drkrec More than 1 year ago
I took a guided tour of Gettysburg the day I finished the book. It was like I was having my own conversation with the guide. Sears is the Civil War Expert
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A great read on the famous battle. Full of facts and anecdotes and still written in an engaging way so as not to be dry and boring.
glauver More than 1 year ago
I really did not think anything new could be written about the battle of Gettysburg. A few months ago I obtained a copy of Under a Northern Sky by Steven Woodworth and was surprised to find a fresh viewpoint in a compact form. A couple weeks ago I found a copy of Sears’ Gettysburg at a thrift shop. I am impressed by the account he has written. Gettysburg details the campaign from beginning to end. Sears explains both Lee’s decision to invade Pennsylvania and the Union command crisis and then follows the armies into the battle. He details both the horrors of the battle and the decisions of commanders from army to regiment level that contributed to victory and defeat. His chapters on Pickett’s charge are especially vivid, taking you inside the maelstrom. The definitive book on Gettysburg will never be written but both Sears and Woodworth have come close. Many years ago I read Sears’ book Landscape Turned Red about Antietam and thought it was a merely a rehash of Bruce Catton. Maybe I was wrong. I am thinking of revisiting it and reading some of his other Civil War books.
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John60WV More than 1 year ago
Geettysburg was fought from S. He discuses why the Confederated leaders decided to invade the North the decision that affteected the outcome of the campaign and why they were made. Sears discusses every aspect of the battle in vivid prose . TYhe treasder is transported back in time to those eventual days and is left with a greater understanding of that era. I think this is an excellent introduction to those three days in 1863 that decided the fate of a nation.
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