Lee’s battered Army of Northern Virginia retreated from Gettysburg, moving south toward Hagerstown, Maryland. Unfortunately, except for skirmishing by cavalry, Meade’s victorious Army of the Potomac did not vigorously pursue Lee even though heavy rains on July 4 had swollen the Potomac River, isolating the Confederates on the north side of the river.
From Lincoln and the Union War Department George Meade received multiple messages urging him to pursue Lee, given that the Confederates could not immediately cross the Potomac.
With Lee’s army retreating from Gettysburg, in the West General John Pemberton surrendered Vicksburg, Mississippi to Federal forces commanded by Ulysses Grant. Approximately 29,000 Confederates surrendered after weeks of siege by Federal forces.
When Union soldiers entered the city, many soldiers—acting without orders—began to hand out food to the departing Confederates and Vicksburg’s civilian population. It was obvious to all that the Confederate troops and civilians were starving as a result of Grant’s siege of the city.
July 3, 1863: Gettysburg’s third day dawned as the Federals prepared to be attacked by Lee’s Confederates. Flanking attacks had been tried fruitlessly against the Union line. Lee gambled that a direct assault against Meade’s center would crack the Union line. Success or failure would fall squarely on the shoulders of General George Pickett and his veteran units.
July 2, 1863, Gettysburg, the second day: Lee ordered Longstreet’s corps to attack the Federal left while Ewell’s corps assaulted Cemetery Hill and Cemetery Ridge. When the Union Third Corps moved forward along the Emmitsburg Road, an exposed salient was created in the Union line at Little Round Top Hill.
On July 1, 1863 when Confederate General Henry Heth’s advancing brigades met Union cavalry on the Chambersburg-Gettysburg road four miles outside of Gettysburg, each side committed piecemeal addition units, initiating the Battle of Gettysburg.
On the last day of June 1863, in Pennsylvania Robert E. Lee, determined to confront the Union army at Cashtown, moved toward that objective. Lee ordered his corps commanders not to engage the enemy until all elements of his army, including Jeb Stuart’s cavalry, could be assembled.
On Monday, June 29, 1863, in less than twenty-four hours after being informed of his new command, Union General George Meade had the Army of the Potomac moving rapidly through Maryland in pursuit of Lee’s Confederate invaders.
Meade, a West Point graduate and career officer who had fought against the Seminoles in the 1830s and served in the Mexican War, had distinguished himself in George McClellan’s 1862 Peninsular Campaign against Richmond and at the battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. He was not shy in taking command and acting decisively.
On Saturday, June 27, 1863 after days of disappointment over Joseph Hooker’s inability to respond to Lee’s invasion of the North President Abraham Lincoln removed Hooker and named General George Meade as the new commander of the Union Army of the Potomac.
Thousands of Lee’s Confederates were in Pennsylvania, as yet not seriously opposed by Federal forces. Confederate General Jubal Early accepted the surrender of York, Pennsylvania but demanded clothing, rations, and gold from its citizenry. Other Confederate units moved toward Harrisburg, threatening the state capital.
On Thursday, June 25, 1863, Robert E. Lee sent General Jeb Stuart to reconnoiter with his Confederate cavalry, passing between the Federal army and Washington, D.C. Such a raid would, of course, panic the North.
Thus began an operation which deprived Lee of his cavalry for much of the Gettysburg campaign. Lee, a masterful tactician who knew by heart every topographical feature of his beloved Virginia, knew little about Northern geography, and Confederate maps proved to be inaccurate.
On Wednesday, June 24, 1863 Union General Joseph Hooker wrote the War Department in Washington, D.C. that he would send a corps or two across the Potomac River, making Washington more secure and positioning himself on Robert E. Lee’s probable line of retreat once Lee decided to return to Virginia.
Who or what would force Lee to retreat seems not to have entered Hooker’s mind, as the general requested orders from the War Department while acknowledging, except for his relation to his own army, “I don’t know whether I am standing on my head or feet.”