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What were Robert E Lee’s goals for invading Pennsylvania in 1863?

What were Robert E Lee’s goals for invading Pennsylvania in 1863?

US Civil War

Why did General Robert E. Lee invade Pennsylvania in the summer of 1863? Was the primary purpose to gather supplies for the army, or to initiate a battle that might end the war? Exactly what General Lee had in mind for his invasion of the North in June 1863 remains a mystery; and what is most perplexing is that we don’t fully understand what the central general of the war was thinking about, perhaps the central moment of the war. Coming off his victories at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, Lee (with Davis) made a decision to take the war to the North rather than reinforce Vicksburg. 

The division of his forces as he advanced over the Potomac, as he did in his first northern invasion and at Chancellorsville, might suggest that he was looking for an open space to battle and not attack a fort or make a direct siege of a city. The very western route he took exiting in western Pennsylvania seems rather indirect if Baltimore or DC or Philadelphia were truly his ambition. We hear often that Harrisburg was his target; if so, he was planning on its capture with just one corps.

What were Robert E Lee’s goals for invading Pennsylvania in 1863?

Gettysburg can’t be understood as a stand-alone campaign. It was a final try to win on the battlefield. I offer these reasons: a) Lee wanted to bring on a huge battle in the north that might be decisive. The idea was to take attention away from the events out west and to precipitate a battle in the east that might change the trajectory of the war. In part, it would give war torn Virginia a much needed respite, and would allow the Army of Northern Virginia to provision itself from his enemy’s resources; b) the invasion into Pennsylvania might cause the Federal government to shift troops from the west possibly loosening the grip of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s siege of Vicksburg, c) probably foremost was Gen.

Moreover, Lee’s confidence in his army, and that if he could find and prepare ground which was to his advantage, the ANV could defeat the Union Army on its own soil. This, Lee reasoned, might possibly have caused the war-weary north to sue for peace, d) It might also have been the military stroke needed to demonstrate to Great Britain and France the strength of the Southern will for independence.

On April 16, 1863, Lee wrote President Jefferson Davis and presented his strategic thinking on the situation along the Virginia front:


Lee in uniform, 1863

“I think is all important that we should assume the aggressive by the first of May, when we may expect Genl Hooker’s army to be weakened by the expiration of the term of service of many of his regiments, and before new recruits can be received. If we could be placed in a condition to make a vigorous advance at that time I think the valley could be swept of Milroy and the army opposite me be thrown north of the Potomac. I believe greater relief would in this way be afforded to the armies in middle Tennessee and on the Carolina coast than by any other method.”

Following the Battle of Chancellorsville, Lee had to recognize that time was running short. He incurred  almost 13,000 casualties in that battle, including 1665 killed and 2000 captured. Vicksburg did not look good in the west. The rations his men received continued to be awful. The army lacked fresh meat. Scurvy had become widespread, and his medical director, Dr Lafayette Gould, had ordered the collection of vegetables and greenery. Lee had had to separate Longstreet’s corps in April to collect food and supplies, and hence nearly half of his army was not on the battlefield at Chancellorsville.

Unsurprisingly, President Davis and Secretary Seddon had suggested sending Longstreet west. It was clear to Lee that unless he planned a campaign requiring his entire army and how they would solve their logistical problems, a critical portion of his army would be detached and sent to fight with western generals who had not, thus far, won a single victory. This was the background for the Pennsylvania campaign. (Brown p13-14.)

Eight men standing, Davis with cloak is in the middle, three on the extreme right sitting, one on the left sitting.

Colored lithograph of Jefferson and his generals by Goupil (1861)[d]

Picture by Goupil Lithography – Smithsonian Picture Gallery

Lee later suggested that he had 5 objectives for the campaign and that in retrospect he had achieved 4 of them: 

  • To draw the Union Army of the Potomac away from the Rappahannock River line.
  • Take the initiative away from the enemy and disrupt any defensive plan General Joseph Hooker might have had for the rest of the summer.
  • To drive Union occupation forces out of Winchester and the lower Shenandoah Valley.
  • To draw Union forces away from other theaters to reinforce Hooker.
Joseph Hooker - Brady-Handy--restored.jpg

Brig. Gen. Joseph Hooker. 

Take the armies out of war-ravaged Virginia and to provide the Army of Northern Virginia with food, forage, horses, and other supplies from the rich agricultural countryside of Pennsylvania.

As McPherson notes ( , Lee may have been engaged in post action retrospective hyperbole, having lost a major battle, but modern scholarship does show that the loss may not have been the military turning point of the war. In particular, the last bulleted point strongly demonstrates just how important resources to supply the army had become. 

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.

Kent Masterson Brown wrote that the seizure of supplies to feed the army was the primary objective of the invasion. Brown wrote, “Although Lee undoubtedly visualized a peace dividend, his objectives for the invasion of Pennsylvania appear to have been nothing more complicated than to feed and equip his army and to keep it intact, although he communicated those objectives to no one. Nevertheless, Lee’s officers quickly surmised his intentions.”

Sears and Coddington both say that multiple reasons influenced Lee’s thinking, and that acquiring supplies was important. They ascribed military and political factors as the primary reasons influencing Lee’s decision to mount the Pennsylvania campaign. Principally, their interpretation was that Lee sought both to upset the plans of the Union by carrying the war north, and to deliver a blow to the Army of the Potomac that would fuel the peace movement in the North and raise the prospects of Southern independence. They also noted that any success in Pennsylvania would offset defeat at Vicksburg, Mississippi. Symonds went farther than the others by suggesting that Lee argued with Jefferson Davis that a Maryland-Pennsylvania invasion might force the Federal government to recall Grant from Vicksburg and so save the citadel on the Mississippi as well.

What were Robert E Lee’s goals for invading Pennsylvania in 1863?

Hartwig suggests a different purpose. Discarding the idea that supplies were his main objective, he suggests that Lee intended to draw the Army of the Potomac from the line of the Rappahannock and disrupt its plans for the summer. If successful, his next move depended upon the actions of the Federal army. When it backed off from an engagement in northern Virginia, Lee seized the opportunity to widen his offensive and carry it north across the Potomac into Pennsylvania, with the hope that he would draw the Army of the Potomac even farther north.
Lee thought Hooker was his opponent. Lee expected that he’d freeze again when confronted with an unexpected enemy tactic, like at Chancellorsville. When Lee learned that Hooker was out, he had to pivot and change tactics quickly. He knew Gen Meade was a careful and methodical engineer warrior. The first step was to collect his army in one place. He chose a central location, a crossroads town close to his forces to gather. It’s hard to imagine with his country and his army in the balance, to go into a huge gamble like the Pennsylvania campaign without an idea of where he was going and where the optimal places to fight – and not fight – would be well in advance. But General Lee was an opportunist and adapted to conditions as they arose. He was a riverboat gambler. He lost this hand.

Civil War Historian Dr. Lloyd W Klein

US Civil War

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

What were Robert E Lee’s goals for invading Pennsylvania in 1863?