July 1, 1863. Confederate troops engage with Union troops outside of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, setting off one of the bloodiest and most important battles of the American Civil War. *** Get an exclusive NordPass deal plus 1 additional month for FREE at nordpass.com/historydaily
It’s May 1863 at the Chancellor house in Spotsylvania County, Virginia; two years into the American Civil War.
14-year-old Sue Chancellor crouches in her bedroom as the sound of Confederate cannons echoes outside. Days ago, her home was taken over by Union General Joseph Hooker. Hooker’s been using Sue’s house as his headquarters, and a military hospital, during this days-long engagement that will come to be known as The Battle of Chancellorsville. And today, the Rebels have Sue’s house surrounded.
Sue hears a pounding on the door, and a Union soldier calling out to her.
Sue darts across the room, and throws the door open. The soldier tells Sue that she needs to get to the cellar for safety.
The cannon fire grows louder as Sue rushes down a hallway toward the stairs.
Sue stumbles as a Confederate strike hits close enough to shake the walls of the house. Sue runs faster, desperate to reach the cellar.
She barrels down the stairs to the first floor. And there, she hears the groans of wounded men as she runs to the steps that lead down to the basement.
Sue closes the door behind her. And inside, she sees her mother and sister already huddled together in the dark, their faces illuminated by the glow of a burning candle. She breathes a sigh of relief. As she rushes to her mother, she prays the cellar will be enough to protect them.
But then… the house shudders from a direct hit, and Sue hears shouting from above.
Soon, a Union soldier opens the cellar door. He says they have to get out, and now. Sue bounds up the steps, followed by her mother and sister.
Upstairs, Sue and her family move through the choking smoke and push outside where Union soldiers wait to take them to safety. As the troops lead Sue and her family off, she looks back and sees her home burning to the ground. Sue is grateful to these soldiers who are helping her escape. But they fight for the Union and the Union stole her house, now it’s been destroyed. And Sue hopes the Union’s chances at victory will be destroyed with it.
At the outset of the Battle of Chancellorsville, Union General Joseph Hooker was confident he would quickly get the best of the Rebels. His army outnumbered them almost two-to-one. Still, days later, the battle is still raging, and Hooker is on his heels. His makeshift headquarters is destroyed. And soon, Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army will have him and his men on the run.
The improbable Southern victory at Chancellorsville emboldens General Lee. Following the battle, Lee will decide to take the fight to the Union on their own soil. Lee’s decision will prove to be a turning point in the Civil War, and it will set off the deadliest fight of the conflict; the Battle of Gettysburg, which begins on this day, July 1st, 1863.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
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Today is July 1st, 1863: “The Battle of Gettysburg Begins”.
It’s May 14th, 1863 at Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ office in Richmond, Virginia.
General Robert E. Lee steps into the room and greets Davis warmly and confidently. Lee feels more assured in himself and his army than he ever has during the war, and he’s here to win Davis over to an ambitious plan he’s been putting together.
Lee’s recent victory at the Battle of Chancellorsville has convinced him that the time is right for his Army of Northern Virginia to invade Union territory. Lee understands that his strategy could leave Southern strongholds vulnerable, but he thinks gaining ground in the North is worth the risk. And now, he has to get Davis to agree with him.
Lee takes a seat across from the Confederate president and makes his case. Lee is known as a keen military strategist, but he’s also skilled at talking to politicians. To win Davis over, Lee focuses on a goal that Davis is desperate to achieve. Lee says a victory on Northern soil will demonstrate to President Abraham Lincoln that major Union cities like Washington, Philadelphia, and New York are not safe. Lee says the threat of Southern armies marching on the North’s political, economic, and cultural centers would convince Lincoln to seek peace with the Confederacy and, perhaps, end the war.
This is exactly what Davis wants. But Confederate president is quick to remind General Lee that they’ve been down this road before. He brings up Lee’s crushing defeat at Antietam, the only Civil War battle Lee waged in the North. Still, Lee doesn’t back down. He argues that this time will be different, saying his soldiers are more battle tested. And he uses the events at Chancellorsville to prove that even when outnumbered, the South has the superior army. Then, Lee tells Davis that if they truly want to end the war, they have to make northerners feel like the battle is happening in their own backyard.
Lee’s confidence is enough to convince Davis, who gives the general his blessing to lead the charge North.
Soon, Lee leaves Richmond and hurries back to Fredericksburg, Virginia where his troops are gathered. As Lee surveys his men, he feels like a proud father. The Confederates lack the Union Army’s resources, often marching barefoot and without food. But that makes Lee love them even more. The general sees them as brave, ferocious fighters, while he views the Union Army as a pampered force led by feeble generals.
But as confident as Lee is in his men, he’s not interested in waging another battle against an army twice as large as his, like he did at Chancellorsville. So Lee bides his time for a few weeks and takes on thousands of new recruits who are eager to join the fight.
By June of 1863, Lee has amassed an army of close to 75,000 soldiers. He devises a strategy to cross the Potomac into Maryland, and then move into southern Pennsylvania. Lee believes fighting in the Keystone State puts him close enough to several major Northern cities to pose a significant threat and hopefully bring President Lincoln and the Union to heel.
Lee is ready to march, but before he gives his orders, he pictures the upcoming campaign in his head. Lee prides himself on out-thinking his enemy, and he wants to keep the North guessing at his plans for as long as he can. So Lee chooses a path through Virginia that won’t immediately indicate that he’s bound for Union territory.
Early in the morning on June 3rd, 1863, General Lee leads the march from Fredericksburg under the cover of darkness. And later that day, when Union General Joseph Hooker, head of the Army of the Potomac, receives word that Lee is on the move, he panics. Hooker is still reeling from his defeat at Chancellorsville, and he has no desire to engage Lee again so soon after their last clash. But Hooker doesn’t have a choice in the matter. He receives a message from President Abraham Lincoln stating that the Army of the Potomac’s priority is to defeat Lee; but first, Hooker must find him.
Over the next few weeks, Hooker pursues Lee through Virginia, but he has no idea where the Confederate Army is going. In late June, General Lee will finally make his plans known when he orders his troops into Pennsylvania to launch an attack.
It’s June 26th, 1863 on a road in southern Pennsylvania.
A young Confederate soldier marches with his regiment. He chews on a piece of fresh bread that a Dutch woman gave him as he passed her house. As he walks with his fellow soldiers, he gazes up at the beautiful cherry trees that shade the road. The food and scenery make him feel like he’s on a leisurely stroll; not advancing into enemy territory.
The Confederate Army has been marching for weeks. Under orders from General Robert E. Lee, the Rebels made their way out of Virginia, through Maryland, and into southern Pennsylvania. And all the while, Lee managed to keep his plans hidden from the Union. Today, these Confederate soldiers entered Pennsylvania undetected. But they’re about to come face to face with the enemy.
As the young Confederate marches chewing on his bread, he hears something in the distance. The young soldier stops his marching. He and the other men hear drumming and the sounds of a camp not far off. Right away, they send a scouting party ahead to evaluate. The scouts return with good news: the camp houses only a few hundred Pennsylvania militiamen. It’s not a major Union force, and it’s ripe for an ambush.
The young Confederate soldier moves quickly down the road. When the camp is within striking distance, he lets out a famed “Rebel Yell.”. Both sides exchange fire. But the Pennsylvania militiamen are clearly outnumbered, so they make a run for it. The Confederates pursue them for miles and eventually take over 100 prisoners. But some of the militiamen getaway, and they take news of the Confederate invasion with them.
Later that night, word of the Confederate push into Pennsylvania reaches Union General Joseph Hooker in Maryland. But Hooker doesn’t order march toward the enemy. He turns north and tries to create some distance between him and the Rebels. Hooker fears he isn’t ready to do battle with Robert E. Lee. He remembers all too well how Lee defeated him at Chancellorsville, even though Hooker had him greatly outnumbered. Now, Lee has even more men in his immediate command than Hooker does, and Hooker is desperate to stall for time enough for reinforcements to arrive.
In hopes of bolstering his army, Hooker sends a telegraph message to President Lincoln, asking for an additional 10,000 troops. But the president denies the request, seeing it as a sign of Hooker is afraid to challenge the army of Northern Virginia. Lincoln fears that Hooker is not up to the task.
On the night of June 27th, Lincoln calls an emergency meeting with his Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton. The president says he’s done with Generals like Hooker who seem to be awed by the military prowess of Robert E. Lee. And after a lengthy discussion, Lincoln and Stanton decide to remove Hooker from command of the Army of the Potomac. They replace him with Major General George Meade. Lincoln likes Meade because he expresses no fear or wonderment regarding Lee’s abilities. Also, Meade is a Pennsylvania man. And Lincoln says he hopes Meade will “fight well on his own dunghill.”
Before dawn on June 28th, 1863, Major General George Meade wakes up in his tent in Maryland to find a courier standing over him. Meade serves under General Hooker in the Army of the Potomac, so he assumes the courier is delivering Hooker’s early morning instructions. But as Meade listens to what the courier has to say, he learns that President Lincoln has ordered him to replace his commanding officer. Hearing the news, Meade is suddenly wide awake, he gets dressed, and steps outside, takes in the air, and ponders Lincoln’s decision.
In the early rays of dawn, Meade cuts an imposing figure. He’s tall with a graying beard, and age-cracked face. Meade’s physical attributes and his quick temper have led his officers to nickname him the “old snapping turtle.”
But Lincoln’s message causes Meade to evaluate himself as a leader. Meade respects honesty and dependability and he isn’t afraid of anyone; certainly not Robert E. Lee. Meade is certain that those are the reasons Lincoln has called on him to face down the invading Rebels.
So later that day, Meade assumes control of the Army of the Potomac. But Meade has no intention of chasing Lee. Instead, he instructs his Generals to fan out across southern Pennsylvania, where he’ll soon join them. Then, he orders them to prepare to throw everything they have at the enemy.
Soon, General Meade’s strategy will bring the Union and Confederate armies face-to-face in Pennsylvania, where a surprise attack will spark the beginning of the Battle of Gettysburg.
It’s almost 7:30 AM on July 1st, 1863 on a road outside Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Confederate General Henry Heth leads over 7,000 troops toward the town. Heth is alert, but he isn’t overly cautious.
General Robert E. Lee has laid out plans to launch his battle against Union forces from Cashtown, located about eight miles northwest of Gettysburg. Heth’s men are in desperate need of supplies, especially shoes, to prepare for the battle. So Heth is leading them into Gettysburg in hope to finding what they need there. Heth’s understanding is that the only Union soldiers in the area are a small number of ragtag militiamen.
But as Heth approaches Gettysburg, he and his troops spot Union cavalry riding fast to meet them. Soon, the Confederates are under fire. Heth and his men scramble to fire back. This is no small militia coming his way. It’s a Union cavalry division of close to 3,000 men.
Heth orders his men to fall back and take up fighting positions. But even though Union army is outnumbered, they've caught the Confederates by surprise and manage to stand their ground.
Then, at 10:15 AM, Union General John Reynolds arrives with over 13,000 reinforcements. But within 15 minutes of arriving at the Battlefield, Reynolds takes a bullet to the head. With his death, the Northern soldiers are in disarray. The situation gets worse when Robert E. Lee and his troops arrive from Cashtown, swinging the balance of power and giving the Confederates superior numbers.
Lee’s men enable the Confederates to push the Union lines back. And at 4:30 PM, the Northern army retreats through Gettysburg. By the end of the first day of fighting, Lee believes he’s on the brink of another Confederate victory.
But late that night, Union General George Meade arrives. Meade refuses to retreat any further. He sends out calls for roughly 90,000 more men to join the fight at Gettysburg. And over the following two days, the growing Northern army beats the Confederacy back and eventually sends Robert E. Lee and his men marching home to Virginia in defeat.
But in the course of the battle, the two armies have suffered monumental losses. Over 50,000 men are dead, wounded, or missing; the largest number of American casualties from a single battle in history.
Some historians will argue that Lee’s overconfidence led to his defeat at Gettysburg. Others will credit Meade and his generals for refusing to give up the fight, even when it looked like the North would lose.
But regardless of the reasons for the battle’s outcome, the Union victory shatters Robert E. Lee's reputation as being invisible. And four and a half months later, President Lincoln uses the victory in his Gettysburg Address to serve as a rallying cry for the Union army and northern cause. The south abandons Lee’s strategy, and will not again fight on northern soil.
The Civil War will rage for another two years, and thousands more will lose their lives. But the path toward the eventual victory for the Union was set in motion when the Battle of Gettysburg began on July 1st, 1863.
Next on History Daily. July 4th, 1838. The Huskar Pit mine in northern England floods, drowning 26 children and leading to significant changes in child labor laws.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Music and sound design by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Michael Federico. Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.