The day before the opening of the Battle of Gettysburg proved to be rather dramatic for the Confederate and Union forces. Both sides began to marshal their forces, but neither side was ready to risk a general engagement just yet. But as fate would have it, both armies would be marching along roads toward a small town in Pennsylvania, and into three of the most crucial days in the history of the United States.
For the Confederates, things began to turn against them from almost the very beginning of the campaign. The main problem stemmed from a man who, until this point, had proven himself capable as a Cavalry officer: Major General James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart. Having been humiliated at the Battle of Brandy Station on June 9th, Stuart took his cavalry on a “joyride” around Pennsylvania, causing havoc wherever they went. However, Stuart’s actions proved to be a problem. The cavalry had always been the eyes and ears of the army. But with Stuart and his troopers out of the picture, General Robert E. Lee, and the rest of the Army of Northern Virginia, marched through enemy territory blind.
Without Stuart’s cavalry, Lee was forced to rely on spies to obtain his information. In the last two days of June, Lee received word from a spy that the Federal forces were already on the move, and were moving faster than the Union forces had ever been known to march. With time already against him, Lee realized that the army had to concentrate, to face the Union forces. The troops would concentrate at a little town where several roads converged at one point: Gettysburg.
For Union forces, the campaign saw the placing of another officer at the head of the Army of the Potomac. Having lost confidence in Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker (Hooker had also lost confidence in his own leadership abilities), President Lincoln knew that another leader had to be found in a hurry. He originally offered command to Major General John Reynolds, who declined the command. One June 28th, command of the army was given to Major General George Gordon Meade. Having proven himself as a fairly capable commander, he was also known to have a short temper, and was not easy to get along with. His prickly demeanor earned him the nickname “Old Snapping Turtle.” With no time to lose, Meade hurried his troops north to face off against Lee. With the summer already hot, it proved to be a rough march, with many men falling due to heat exhaustion, with several dying. Still, the men pressed on. Once again, the will to win had returned to the army.
On Tuesday, June 30th, two Union cavalry brigades under command of Brigadier General John Buford arrived in Gettysburg. Confederate troops had already been through the town. They arrived to find the residents already worried about a possible fight. Receiving word from several scouts, Buford knew that the Confederates were concentrating in the direction of Gettysburg. With this information, Buford decided to place his troops on good ground northwest of the town, and hold out against any Confederates who came their way, until Union troops under Reynolds I Corps could arrive. It was a decision that would have great ramifications on the American Civil War.
In tomorrow’s article: A look at the unsung Union Cavalry commander who chose the ground where the bloodiest battle of the war was fought, and helped change the course of the war for the Union…