Close this search box.
Close this search box.

Why did Lee want Gettysburg?

Why did Lee want Gettysburg?

L. Prang & Co. print of the painting “Hancock at Gettysburg” by Thure de Thulstrup, showing Pickett’s Charge.

Was the Battle of Gettysburg Really a Meeting Engagement?

This 1863 oval-shaped map depicts the Gettysburg Battlefield during July 1–3, 1863, showing troop and artillery positions and movements, relief hachures, drainage, roads, railroads, and houses with the names of residents at the time of the Battle of Gettysburg.

The Battle of Gettysburg was the largest ever fought on American soil.

165,000 soldiers fought over the three days.

There were thousands of fatalities and a total of over 51,000 casualties. Before Gettysburg, General Robert E. Lee’s army had won every battle except one; after it, he was never again able to take the offensive and was increasingly driven to defensive tactics. The battle itself demonstrated that the Union army had finally developed into a capable force that would not retreat when pressed.

Sears among many other historians states that Gettysburg was a “meeting engagement”, i.e., that forces of both armies found themselves in battle accidentally, without prior intimation of each other’s proximity. This depiction isn’t entirely accurate. This article will discuss the actual circumstances in detail.

Origins. The Confederate Army crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains and moved north through the Shenandoah Valley, capturing the Union garrison at Winchester, in the Second Battle of Winchester, June 13–15, 1863.

Crossing the Potomac River, Lee’s Second Corps advanced through Maryland and Pennsylvania, reaching the Susquehanna River and threatening the state capital of Harrisburg. However, the Army of the Potomac was in pursuit and had reached Frederick, Maryland, before Lee realized his opponent had crossed the Potomac. Lee moved swiftly to concentrate his army around the crossroads towns of Cashtown and Gettysburg.

On June 30, new Union commander General George Meade’s headquarters advanced to Taneytown, Maryland, and he issued two important orders. The first was the Pipe Creek Circular, and the second directed that a general advance in the direction of Gettysburg begin on July 1, a destination that was from 5 to 25 miles away from each of his seven infantry corps. 

Maj. Gen. George Meade, (Commanding) USA

It seems in retrospect that Lee had no definite tactical plan, and clearly the Union army had no idea what Lee was doing either. General Hooker had to anticipate an attack against DC or Baltimore and wanted to bring as many troops to their defense as possible. He was fired when he insisted on letting Harper’s Ferry go and bring those troops closer to help in the defense. So, 3 days before the great battle, a new Union commander took over. 

When General George Meade took command he had no clue where Lee’s army was, what his plan was, or any sense of what his own deployments should be. His communication and rail transportation had been cut, and he had staff who didn’t support him. All he really knew was that General Stuart had been in his rear and had destroyed railroads and telegraph lines leading northwest. 

Macintosh Downloads:88DEE437-ED4E-480E-8A74-1A6FDF500992:IMG_5023.JPG
Figure 1. The Pipe Creek Line

Pipe Creek. Despite this uncertainty, everyone knew that a pivotal battle was imminent. Meade, a careful, thoughtful man, decided to await Lee rather than chase after him aimlessly. He decided the smart thing to do was to build a defensive perimeter. The Pipe Creek Line (figure 1) was a defense against any threat to attack Baltimore and DC. The line ultimately acted as a reserve line in the case that a Union fallback from Gettysburg was necessary, although that wasn’t the original idea.

The Pipe Creek Line ran just to the north of the town of Westminster, Maryland. Westminster had great strategic significance to the Army of the Potomac, as the Western Maryland Railroad had its terminus there. The Western Maryland would serve as the primary line of supply for the army if it was going to operate anywhere in the vicinity (including at Gettysburg), and protecting it was critical. The Pipe Creek Line ran along Parr Ridge, a substantial ridge that ran on an east/west axis, and which extended from Manchester, Maryland on the east end to Middleburg, Maryland on the west. With the exception of some lower ground around Middleburg, the entire position was on very high, easily defensible ground that was probably impregnable unless Lee could manage to flank the strong position.

The Day Before. On the morning of June 30,  Brig Gen John Buford rode into Gettysburg with 2 brigades, about 3000 cavalry, and set up headquarters. He heard from local residents that confederate soldiers were nearby. 

Portrait of Brig. Gen. John Buford (Maj. Gen. from July 1, 1863)

Also on June 30, one of Lt Gen AP Hill’s brigades, North Carolinians under Brig Gen. J. Johnston Pettigrew, ventured toward Gettysburg. The memoirs of Maj. Gen. Henry Heth, Pettigrew’s division commander, state that he sent Pettigrew to search for supplies in town—notably shoes, a recollection that has often been questioned. General Pettigrew’s brigade of 2700 conducted a scouting mission of the town. Along the road he ran into a physician, Dr John O’Neal, making a house call. After demanding to see his medical gear, he asked O’Neal if he had seen Union troops and was told that he hadn’t. But as they rode closer to the town, Pettigrew observed what he identified as Union cavalry from afar. He did not bring on an engagement as he had been ordered, and returned to Generals Heth and Hill to report. 

When Pettigrew’s troops approached Gettysburg, they noticed the Union cavalry arriving south of town, and Pettigrew returned to Cashtown without engaging them. 

Buford had also spotted Pettigrew’s men. Buford recognized that he was facing a sizable force of rebels arriving from the northwest and that the high ground south of the town would be key in any battle fought in the area. He looked around and saw that the western hills would make an outstanding defensive position. 

Confederate Response: When Pettigrew told Hill and Heth about what he had seen, neither general believed that there was a substantial Federal force in or near the town, suspecting that it had been only Pennsylvania militia. The fact that neither Heth nor Hill believed Pettigrew’s identification of Union cavalry is baffling in retrospect. Of course, Pettigrew was killed several weeks later so we don’t know for sure what he said he saw. But, clearly his leadership blundered in not taking his report seriously.  

Why didn’t they trust his observations? Heth and Hill were both new to their jobs and both had a reputation for rashness. Hill had been a brigade commander at the same time as Pettigrew with Pettigrew’s old brigade becoming part of his Light Division in the wake of his wounding.  Heth for his part didn’t have much more practical experience than Pettigrew did. 

Pettigrew wasn’t a West Pointer and had no military experience before the war.

Portrait of General James Johnston Pettigrew by William Garl Browne, 1864. North Carolina Museum of History, Accession Nbr: H.1914.287.1

He was born to a wealthy family and was an author, linguist and lawyer. He had lived in Europe for 7 years before his election to the SC legislature. He had been severely wounded at Seven Pines, captured and exchanged, and had just joined Hill’s Corps prior to the campaign. His men were newly uniformed with new rifles and his staff was comprised of other aristocrats. One may surmise that his lack of prior connection to Hill, his lack of war experience and the appearance of his staff and men without the grime of battle led to his interpretation being discounted by Hill. 

Union Response: In contradistinction, Buford recognized that he was facing a large force of rebels traveling from the northwest. Buford’s recognition of a significant enemy presence in the area was taken very seriously by his superior, Maj Gen John Reynolds.

August 1863 – General Buford (seated) & staff

Buford was the right man in the right place at the right time. He went to West Point, knew many of the generals as friends from school, had been stationed in the US First Dragoons in Texas, Kansas and the frontier, had served as a raider and scout, had commanded infantry, and had led his division of cavalry recently at Brandy Station and Upperville.

First Lieutenant Jefferson Davis was in command of Dragoon company F who later became the President of the Confederate States of America.

His military skill was recognized as top-notch.

Buford and Reynolds trusted each other and had confidence in each other, also their shared experiences at Second Manassas had shown the harm in not taking heed in the accurate reports of a subordinate. So, when he asked for close support, Reynolds unquestionably believed this intelligence and began advancing. Battles turn on these kinds of details; these are the particulars that determine who wins and who loses.

Buford sent messages to Reynolds asking for reinforcements, anticipating that a fight was imminent. He recognized that the direction of the confederate movement was from the northwest, and so he posted his men on the roads in this area. Knowing that any combat involving his division would be a delaying action, he dismounted and posted his troopers on the low ridges north and northwest of town with the goal of buying time for the army to come up and occupy the heights. Buford set up his defense west and northwest of town, where his defense in depth was intended to allow 1st and 11th corps enough time to set up on and defend McPherson and Seminary Ridges.

Events the morning of July 1: Heth’s division marched down the Chambersburg Pike to perform a reconnaissance-in-force. At about 7:30 am 3 miles outside of town near the McPherson barn, the first shots of the battle were fired. Heth’s division had 7,600 men vs Buford with 2,748, about 2.75:1 disadvantage. Only 2 of Buford’s 3 brigades were on the field; Devins Brigade were picketing the roads north and east of town. Further, cavalrymen typically had one man in 4 holding the horses, so Buford had at most 2000 men.

Heth deployed his men without cavalry in front; the first enemy he ran into were Union vedettes. He had his  men deployed in column vs. being deployed in line. While this kept his movement initially faster, it meant he had to keep redeploying his men into line to fight the cavalry on the flanks of his column. The front of the line was Pegram’s artillery, followed by Archer and Davis’ infantry brigades. This was an error since they were not the optimal front line to be deployed in an emergency.  Pettigrew followed, but put his lesser experienced troops in front of his line. 

Macintosh HD:Users:lloydklein:Desktop:Gettysburg_Day1_0700.png
Figure 2. Position at 7:00 AM July 1.

General Buford made an unforgettable contribution on July 1. Buford’s tactical strategy defined a covering force action, in which space is traded for time. Having only enough strength to post one man per yard of ground, Buford instructed one of his brigades, under Colonel William Gamble, to dismount to impede the advance of A.P. Hill’s Confederate III Corps along the road from Cashtown (figure 2). He deployed all 6 guns of Calef’s battery (battery A, 2nd US) of Tidball’s battalion. The guns were 3″ ordnance rifles. Besides being prepared and in excellent defensive position, Buford’s men had weapons that gave his men an advantage: Although Shelby Foote and others incorrectly state they had multi-shot repeating carbines, they did not, as these only became available that Fall. They did have breech-loading carbines, which allowed a 2-3 times faster fire than muzzle loaded rifles.

Buford resisted the approach of two Confederate infantry brigades on the Chambersburg Pike until the nearest Union infantry, Reynolds’ I Corps, began to arrive. Reynolds rode out ahead of the 1st Division, met with Buford, and then accompanied some of his soldiers, probably from Brig. Gen. Lysander Cutler’s brigade, into the fighting at Herbst’s Woods. Buford’s tactical strategy defined a covering force action, in which space is traded for time. Buford traded 3 ridges for enough time for Reynolds and the First Corps to come up. Buford’s skillful defensive troop alignments along with the bravery, dedication, and the skill of his men gave the Union First Corps, under Major General John F. Reynolds, the time it needed to deploy to meet the Confederates outside of Gettysburg. 

General John Reynolds was Buford’s immediate superior on the morning of July 1.

Captain & Brevet Major (later Major General) John F. Reynolds of the 3rd U.S. Artillery Regiment.

President Lincoln had offered Reynolds command of the Union Army but he insisted on no political oversight if he accepted the position, a rather odd demand that probably shows he wasn’t the right man for the moment. Nevertheless, Meade respected and trusted him greatly, making him Left Wing Commander; which as fate would have it, is exactly where General Lee was congregating.  His death that morning precludes our knowing exactly what his views of the early stage of the battle was. 

The Pipe Creek Circular was dated July 1, written early that morning well before the battle began. In it, Meade ordered his forces to start pulling back to this line to await Lee’s expected advance once Lee is found and begins his attack. George Meade had no intention of fighting in Pennsylvania on the eve of battle. That much is beyond dispute. On the morning of July 1, Pipe Creek was The Plan rather than a contingency. Meade’s intention was to rest his forces where they were on July 1. If a planned withdrawal was the plan, it obviously wasn’t communicated to Buford. 

Reynolds clearly understood from Buford that a sighting of the enemy had been made the day before, and was well aware of the Pipe Creek Circular. The orders Meade gave him are a bit hard to interpret; apparently, the plan was to conduct a strategic withdrawal back to Pipe Creek. The movement of the I and XI corps to Gettysburg was a reconnaissance in force/advance guard operation to draw out and consolidate Lee’s forces and lure them back to the Pipe Creek Line.  

Subsequent Events: After Reynolds’ death, Major General Abner Doubleday, the ranking officer on the field, assumed command of the Union defenses. Doubleday was there on July 1 at the front as division commander of the second infantry division on the field. With Reynolds’ death, Doubleday found himself in command on the field at Gettysburg at 10:50 am. It is entirely unknown if Reynolds had told him what his orders were; if he was aware that he was supposed to fight a reconnaissance-in-force, he certainly never tried. For the next 5 hours he defended the ridges west of Gettysburg as increasing numbers of Confederate soldiers appeared, eventually outnumbering him by about 16,000 to 9,500. 

Macintosh HD:Users:lloydklein:Desktop:Gettysburg--July-1-1863--930-to-1130-am--McPherson_Seminary-Ridge-(November-2019).jpg
Figure 3. Position at about 10: 30 AM July 1.

Doubleday is usually identified as having planned to fight a withdrawal to the south of the town. It’s unknown if Reynolds changed his mind when he arrived at the scene and agreed with Buford that this was an excellent place to make a defensive stand. OO Howard has also been credited with delaying the Confederates long enough to make sure the rest of the federal army was concentrated; for sure, he left a division in reserve on Cemetery Hill and used this area to collect those retreating from the front line. Hancock, commander of the II Corps was ordered to take command of the field and to determine whether Gettysburg was an appropriate place for a major battle. Hancock told Howard, “I think this the strongest position by nature upon which to fight a battle that I ever saw.” When Howard agreed, Hancock concluded the discussion: “Very well, sir, I select this as the battle-field.” For these actions, Howard received the Medal of Honow, Hancock did not.

Reynolds’ death and Doubleday’s decision to reinforce and make a stand west of Gettysburg scuttled Meade’s plan. But where was the plan lost? Did Reynolds not convey to Doubleday the overall plan to move as a reconnaissance in force or was Doubleday unable to make this happen, or did he simply change the plan on the fly? Did Reynolds not convey to Doubleday the overall plan to move as a reconnaissance in force or did Doubleday simply make a bad decision? We don’t know for sure. We don’t even know exactly what Reynolds thought Meade had ordered. It is usually said that Doubleday made this critical decision, but he was also quoted after the war as saying, ”It was General Reynolds’s intention to dispute the enemy’s advance, falling back, however, in case of a serious attack, to the ground already chosen at Emmitsburg” That, of course, was precisely what Meade instructed Reynolds to do. 

“The Harvest of Death”: Union dead on the battlefield at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, photographed July 5 or July 6, 1863, by Timothy H. O’Sullivan

Conclusion. The plan to fall back on Pipe Creek changed that morning when Buford, Reynolds and Doubleday were in a fight and thought it was a good place for an even bigger fight. Hancock that afternoon saw it and agreed. Meade showed up at midnight and said well, it’s too late to go back now. Perhaps no one actually “chose” the location but rather the geography was favorable under the circumstances.

Why General Lee invaded the north without a specific plan is a bit baffling. 

Lee was behind a screen of mountains and had a supply line. He thought Hooker was still in Virginia. 

Lee figured that he would catch Hooker in a surprise someplace and that Hooker would again not be able to think imaginatively. The particular location was secondary. Lee believed in his army and believed that all of his victories were proof of divine support on his cause’s behalf. But then, Lee discovered that it wasn’t Hooker he was facing but Meade, a thorough, methodical man. So, Lee had to pivot and develop a more meticulous plan. The first step is to collect his army in one place. He chose a central location, a crossroads town central to his forces, to gather. Then, he will decide if he moves on Meade or chooses another course. But first, he has to get his army in one place.

The assertion that the Battle of Gettysburg was a “meeting engagement” isn’t entirely accurate.

Tyrrell County Confederate Monument noting the death of General J. Johnston Pettigrew

Neither Meade nor Lee knew for sure where the other was, and neither were prepared to battle or had chosen ground to fight on; so, on that basis, it might be considered accurate. But plenty of subsidiary commanders on both sides suspected strongly that the enemy was near: Buford knew; Reynolds had a good idea. Meade sent Reynolds to delay an advance and develop the size of the force. Pettigrew knew there was Union cavalry in the town on June 30, but AP Hill didn’t believe it. Instead, he ordered a reconnaissance-in -force on July 1, suggesting that while he wasn’t certain, he realized something was up.

Written by Civil War Historian Dr. Lloyd W Klein

Civil War Historian Dr. Lloyd W Klein 

Dr. Lloyd W. Klein is Clinical Professor of Medicine in the Cardiology Division of the University of California, San Francisco. In addition, Dr. Klein is an accomplished consultant, author, lecturer and investigator. In addition, with over thirty-five years’ experience and expertise in managing myocardial infarction and tailoring coronary revascularization strategies. 

Moreover, Dr. Klein is a nationally recognized expert in individualizing coronary revascularization strategies. He has published extensively on analyzing operator quality and decision making.

Dr. Klein is also an amateur historian who has read extensively on the Civil War with a particular interest in political and military leadership and their economic ramifications. Furthermore, Dr. Klein has published numerous articles on the Civil War. Moreover, with a special concentration in why decisions were made and the people who made them. Lastly, using his professional experience in appraising leadership, he is especially insightful in evaluating the internal and external motivations which influenced decisions in battle and in the political hall.

Please see Dr. Klein’s Works:

Siege of Vicksburg

The Battle of Shiloh

The Hampton Roads Conference

Sherman’s March To The Sea

Why Did the North Win the Civil War (and, Alternatively, Why Did the South Lose?)

The Atlanta Campaign : The Conundrum of General Joseph E Johnston

The “Lost Order” Of General Lee

What caused the South to start the Civil War?

Was the Reconstruction of the Civil War successful?

Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Greatest Victory

References forWhy did Lee want Gettysburg? :

• James M McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom. Oxford University Press, 1988.

• Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative. Volume 2. Random House, 1963.

• Harry W Pfanz, Gettysburg – The First Day. The University of North Carolina, 2010.

• Edwin B Coddington, The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command. Charles Scribner, 1968.

• Stephen Sears, Gettysburg. Mariner Books, 2004.

• Eric J Wittenberg, The Devils to Pay: John Buford at Gettysburg. Savas-Beattie, 2018.

Why did Lee want Gettysburg?