In June, 1863 it seems noone can beat Robert E. Lee. In the most recent battle, Chancellorsville, in May, the Union army’s 130,000 men are defeated by Lee’s 60,000. Lee wins a great victory but loses his right-hand man, the great General Stonewall Jackson. Jackson dies after being wounded accidentally by his own men. Lee will now have to fight on without Stonewall Jackson.
Lee is still confident in his army. "There never were such men in an army before. They will go anywhere and do anything if properly led," he says. But he knows the odds are against the Confederacy. The South has a much smaller population, far less industry, poor transportation and several Southern states—especially Virginia—have been devastated by two years of continuous fighting. The longer the war goes on, the better chance the North will have to win by simply wearing down the South. So Lee hatches a plan to end the war. He will take his army into northern territory—into Pennsylvania—both to relieve Virginia of the burden of the war and to destroy the Union army in its own territory. Then, he believes, foreign powers will recognize the Confederacy. The northerners will be so sick of war, they will pressure Lincoln to put an end to it. The Confederates will win the war and their independence. The Confederate government prepares an important letter offering peace. It will be placed on Abraham Lincoln's desk on the day after Lee destroys the Union army in Northern territory.
Lee’s men move out of Virginia, across the Potomac River, through Maryland into Pennsylvania. Here they are stunned by the richness of the land. Lee's orders prohibit looting, his men are to pay with worthless Confederate money. But after two years of scrounging around Virginia’s ravaged countryside—and sometimes in retaliation for the Union’s treatment of the South—the Rebels take food, livestock, and liquor from the citizens of Pennsylvania. The Confederates also capture African-American people—escaped slaves and free blacks—who they will take South and sell into slavery for a profit. Terrorized blacks flee the area.
While Lee marches his Confederate army into Pennsylvania, the Union command is in chaos. Generals are bickering, engulfed in political turmoil. Lincoln is still searching for a general who can beat Lee. On June 28 in Frederick, Maryland, Union general George Meade, who is feuding with his commanding general, is awakened at 3 a.m. A colonel from Washington has come to see him. Half asleep, Meade stumbles out of his tent, thinking he’s under arrest. As the officer begins to speak, Meade blurts out, “My conscience is clear!” But Meade is not under arrest. He is now in commad of the largest army of the United States. And Lee is on northern soil. Meade has never commanded much more then 10,000 soldiers. Now he commands almost ten times that number. Meade is from Pennsylvania, and Lincoln, who expects a major battle there, predicts, “He will fight well on his own dunghill.” Exactly three days later, Meade will lead the Union army into the greatest battle ever fought in the Western Hemisphere.
As the two large armies spread out over the countryside they look to consolidate their forces via roads. The ten roads leading into Gettysburg, like spokes on a wheel, make it strategically important. In 1863 Gettysburg is a bustling town of 2400 people. It is the county seat, has a thriving carriage industry and is a center of learning with both a Lutheran Seminary and a College.
In the last week of June a small number of Rebels loot the town. Townspeople are in a frenzy as more Rebels draw closer. Merchants send their goods east. Black people flee. On the southside of Gettysburg—on the slopes of Cemetery Ridge—a free black farmer named Abraham Bryan, leaves his home, a white-framed house and barn he purchased on Cemetery Ridge just a few years earlier. In the days ahead his property will see crucial action. Local Gettysburg schoolteacher Sallie Myer’s writes in her diary “Rebel campfires can be seen in the Mountains. We may expect a battle both near and soon. May God help us! For surely our cause is one of justice and humanity.”
Meanwhile, Lee— unsure of his surroundings—moves his men through Pennsylvania. His cavalry, under the command of J.E.B Stuart, is on a raid, far from Lee’s main army. Without Stuart to scout the Union position, Lee blindly makes his way through enemy territory. The Rebel army is spread out – some nearly reaching the Pennsylvania state capital Harrisburg – others still in Maryland. Lee does not know that there is a new Union Commander racing to catch up with his Rebel army. That new Union commander is formulating a plan to fight Lee’s army – to protect Washington and supply lines and take high ground that forces Lee to attack the Union army. Meade's plan is for a small creek in Maryland – 10 miles south of Gettysburg. In the coming days Meade will have to adjust his plan to meet the changing circumstances.
Lee must make adjustments as well. On June 28 he learns from a Rebel spy that the Union army is nearing Pennsylvania under its new commander. Lee wants a battle before Meade adjusts to command. Lee orders the army to assemble in the mountains ten miles west of Gettysburg.
So in the last days of June the Southerners are on the march from the north and west of Gettysburg while the Union army approaches from the south.