The War Leaves Virginia

General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, sat atop his horse on the Maryland side of the Potomac River and watched Lieutenant-General James Longstreet’s First Corps cross over from Virginia in the rain. Bands played “Dixie” as local ladies came out under umbrellas to meet Lee and welcome him to their state. These were the last of Lee’s troops to enter northern territory.

Gen Robert E. Lee | Image Credit:

Lee wrote President Jefferson Davis proposing that while his army entered Pennsylvania, Confederates at Tullahoma and Knoxville in Tennessee move north and “accomplish something in Ohio.” Lee also repeated his suggestion to pull General P.G.T. Beauregard’s Confederates out of Charleston, South Carolina, to reinforce his army:

“If the plan that I suggested the other day, of organizing an army, even in effigy, under General Beauregard at Culpeper Courthouse, can be carried into effect, much relief will be afforded. I have not sufficient troops to maintain my communication, and, therefore, have to abandon them. I think I can throw General (Joseph) Hooker’s army across the Potomac and draw troops from the South, embarrassing their plan of campaign in a measure, if I can do nothing more and have to return. I still hope that all things will end well for us at Vicksburg. At any rate, every effort should be made to bring about that result.”

That same day, three corps from Major-General Joseph Hooker’s Federal Army of the Potomac began crossing its namesake river east of Sharpsburg. Lee was unaware of the crossing because his cavalry commander, Major-General Jeb Stuart, was not providing him with information. An independent cavalry unit led by Brigadier-General John D. Imboden, assigned to guard the Confederate left, entered Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. Apparently Imboden’s men did not heed Lee’s order prohibiting attacks on civilians or their property. According to town resident Dr. Philip Schaff:

“On Thursday evening their captain, with a red and bloated face, threatened at the Mansion House to lay the town in ashes as soon as the first gun should be fired on one of his men. He had heard that there were firearms in town, and that resistance was threatened. He gave us fair warning that the least attempt to disturb them would be our ruin. We assured him that we knew nothing of such intention, that it was unjust to hold a peaceful community responsible for the unguarded remarks of a few individuals, that we were non-combatants and left the fighting to our army and the militia, which was called out, and would in due time meet them in open combat. They burned the barn of a farmer in the country who was reported to have fired a gun, and robbed his house of all valuables.”

Maj Gen Joseph Hooker | Image Credit: American Battlefield Trust

Hooker ordered his Cavalry Corps to move toward Gettysburg in southern Pennsylvania to “see what they can of the movements of the enemy.” By this time, Hooker knew that Lee’s Second Corps, led by Lieutenant-General Richard Ewell, was in Pennsylvania, and the rest of the Confederates were following. The three divisions of Ewell’s corps were around Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. This town was to serve as the concentration point for the rest of Lee’s army.

The Federal high command was not impressed with Hooker’s performance so far in this campaign, as he seemed content to simply follow Lee and shield Washington rather than give immediate battle. Hooker also continued pushing to get the 10,000-man Federal garrison at Harpers Ferry under his command. His superiors finally gave him authority over these troops, but they would not allow him to pull them out of their defenses. Nonetheless, Hooker ordered the commander at Harpers Ferry, Major-General William French, to be ready “to march at a moment’s notice.”

Hooker planned to merge French’s command with Major-General Henry W. Slocum’s Twelfth Corps to block the Confederate escape route back into Virginia. If Lee moved to attack this force, Hooker would send his First, Third, and Eleventh corps (under temporary command of Major-General John F. Reynolds) to attack the Confederate flank. Hooker started to develop this strategy but did not inform his superiors just yet.


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