Gettysburg: Wanted, A Man to Match Robert E. Lee

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Gettysburg: Turning Point of the Civil War

Abraham Lincoln was, on balance, an astute judge of character, but now and then he made a mistake. Unfortunately, during the months that led to Gettysburg, those mistakes involved the commanders of the Army of the Potomac. Everyone remarked on what a splendid army it was, well drilled and copiously supplied, yet no one could lead it to a decisive victory. Now it was summer 1863, and Lee’s rebels were once again marching northward through the picturesque valleys of western Maryland toward Pennsylvania. Lincoln could not afford another mistake.

Ambrose Burnside had been a doozy. What was it about the Rhode Island inventor with the splendidly feline whiskers? Perhaps it was his winning, and entirely justified, modesty that appealed to Lincoln during the summer and fall of 1862, when the President was besieged by regiments of self-promoters. Burnside had, in the early days of the Civil War, a neat little victory to his name—an innovative amphibious assault on Confederate posts along the North Carolina coast—and few Union generals could claim more than that. He took on a high gloss in Lincoln’s eyes; the Commander in Chief pleaded with Burnside to accept command of the Army of the Potomac in place of the maddening, preening George B. McClellan. In November 1862, Lincoln finally turned his request into an order, and Burnside reluctantly embarked on three disastrous months in which he conceived the suicidal plan for the Battle of Fredericksburg, ordered the humiliating and feckless Mud March and provoked a near mutiny among his division commanders.

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Even then, Lincoln merely reassigned Burnside to a lesser command in Ohio, where the general’s ill-considered crackdown on antiwar protests stirred up a tempest of criticism, leaving Lincoln to ride out the storm. Determined not to repeat his mistake, Lincoln picked his next general with his clear gray eyes wide open. Joseph Hooker was a schemer, and Lincoln knew it. Hooker had a well-founded reputation for backstabbing and loose morals, but as veterans of the carnage at Antietam could attest, the man did not dodge a fight. “Fighting Joe” had his foot just about shot off in the opening hours of that battle, and for months afterward he told everyone who would listen that Lee was able to escape from Maryland only because Joe Hooker couldn’t chase him. It was this show of aggressive spirit that tipped the balance and earned him the top job, but before Hooker got started, Lincoln wanted the general to know that his President had taken his measure.

So he had handed Hooker a brutally candid letter to go with his new command. “I think it is best for you to know that there are some things in regard to which, I am not quite satisfied with you,” Lincoln wrote bluntly. He liked the general’s bravery, his skill, his self-confidence, even his ambition. But Hooker’s insubordination to Burnside had undermined the morale of the entire army, Lincoln scolded. What’s more: “I have heard, in such way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the Army and the Government needed a Dictator.” Scoffing, Lincoln gave Hooker a dose of his own considerable self-confidence. “Only those generals who gain successes, can set up dictators,” he warned. “What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship.”

But Lincoln’s eyes were trained on the wrong dangers. Hooker devised a lovely plan for trapping Lee and seizing Richmond, and struck a bold tone when he declared, “May God have mercy on General Lee, for I will have none.” When the outnumbered rebels launched perhaps the most audacious attack of the war, however, the brave and brash Hooker froze like a charmed snake. Apprised of the fact that Lee’s army was scattered through the woods and byways south of the Rappahannock River around Chancellorsville, he lacked the nerve to commit his troops to a decisive battle. Hooker could not even claim credit for the death of Thomas (“Stonewall”) Jackson, the Confederate magician who was mortally wounded at dusk on May 2. Jackson was hit by friendly fire.

Such low moments had become all too familiar for Lincoln, but the bright side of failure was that he had mastered the art of staying cool while people around him panicked. When Lee, after regrouping, pointed his troops northward through the green springtime of early June, Hooker rashly proposed a counterthrust to the south. Lincoln quashed the idea. “I would not take any risk of being entangled upon the [Rappahannock] river, like an ox jumped half over a fence,” he counseled. Lee could hit the Union army on both sides of the stream, and Hooker’s ox was “liable to be torn by dogs, front and rear, without a fair chance to gore one way or kick the other.”

Instead, Lincoln advised Hooker to follow Lee toward Maryland, or Pennsylvania, or wherever he was headed. Confederate incursions into the North were occasions of fear and trembling for most Americans, but for Lincoln, they were bracing opportunities. Lee was sticking his neck out, just as he had done the previous summer, and this meant that Hooker had a chance to do what McClellan had failed to do in September 1862: cut him off. By mid-June, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was stretched out from the Rappahannock almost to the Potomac. “The animal must be very slim somewhere,” Lincoln urged. “Could you not break him?”

Yet Hooker was slow to turn his own gaze away from Richmond. Lee’s column flowed onward as he ripened his plans to strike a series of blows in Pennsylvania to break the will of the Northern voters. Meanwhile, he would feed his troops for a while on Northern crops and livestock, giving his battered Virginia homeland a reprieve. At the same time, Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens sought permission to deliver a peace overture to Washington, hoping to ratchet up pressure for a truce. He was refused.

By day, Lincoln goaded his general to attack. “Fight him when opportunity offers,” he urged Hooker. By night, the President passed short hours of troubled sleep. “Think you better put ‘Tad’s’ pistol away,” Lincoln cabled his wife on June 9 at the Philadelphia hotel where she was traveling with their youngest son. “I had an ugly dream about him.”

In the Western Theater, a Fighter Rises
How different things were in the West, where the taciturn cigar-chewer Ulysses S. Grant, a onetime quartermaster who never lost the common touch, had spent April and May solving the problem of Vicksburg without troubling Lincoln a bit. The President had seen to the core of Grant’s character when he said simply, “He fights.” Sure enough, in April Grant ran gunboats down the Mississippi through storms of artillery fire from the Vicksburg bluffs. With the boats as cover, he ferried an army across the river, then launched the most dazzling campaign of the war. “Grant is a copious worker, and fighter, but a very meagre writer, or telegrapher,” Lincoln once explained. The first news he received of Grant’s exploits came from captured Confederate newspapers, but on May 23, an aide to Grant filled in the details.

Grant’s Army of the Tennessee “landed at Bruinsburg on 30th April,” the aide telegraphed. “On 1st May, fought battle of Port Gibson; defeated rebels … On 12th May, at the battle of Raymond, rebels were defeated … On the 14th, defeated Joseph E. Johnston, captured Jackson … On the 16th, fought the bloody and decisive battle of Baker’s Creek … On the 17th, defeated same force at Big Black Bridge … on the 18th, invested Vicksburg closely.” Simple as that. The last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi was now surrounded, besieged, starving.

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The path to victory, Lincoln had come to understand, lay in breaking up the rebellion and snuffing out its armies. Grant was on the verge of cutting the rebel lifeline to the fertile lands of the West and forcing the surrender of an entire Confederate army for the second time in his short career. Why couldn’t the President find such a man for the Eastern Theater? Lee continued down the Shenandoah Valley, capturing the Union garrison at Winchester, as Hooker’s cavalry tried and failed to break through the Confederate screen. As the head of the rebel column neared Union soil, Lincoln issued a call for 100,000 fresh volunteers, but that was no use in the present emergency. If Lee was to be stopped, the Army of the Potomac would have to stop him.

And Lee was moving rapidly now, sending his vanguard straight through Maryland to the outskirts of Harrisburg, the capital of Pennsylvania. For Lincoln, these were dark hours indeed. There was no word from Grant at Vicksburg. The Democrats of Ohio and New York had issued formal protests against the arrest of leading antiwar activists and draft resisters. Friends in Philadelphia and the governor of New Jersey pleaded with him to call McClellan back to command, for only the ousted general could “rescue” the nation “from the hopelessness now prevailing,” they declared.

Hooker Gets the Hook
But Lincoln, still convinced that the rebels were overplaying their hand, had already moved quietly in another direction. On June 28, as Lee began to collect his forces in the rolling countryside west of Harrisburg, the President took the extraordinary step of changing generals in the midst of a crisis. He accepted Hooker’s petulant offer to resign and promoted in his place a turtle-eyed Pennsylvanian named George G. Meade. Short-tempered, conservative, an Army man top to toe, Meade was no one’s favorite officer—but he proved to be the right man for the moment. Assuming command so abruptly that he didn’t even know precisely where his army was, he nevertheless managed to collect his troops and his wits in time to meet Lee three days later.

What followed has been called the turning point of the Civil War, the beginning of the end for the Confederacy, and the making of Lincoln’s presidency. There is some truth and a bit of exaggeration in those assessments, but what can be said for sure is that no handful of days in American history was richer in portents or more saturated in blood. Through three days of fighting along the meadows and ridgelines of Gettysburg, Meade’s Union defenses often bent but never broke, and Lee’s failure in Pennsylvania was quickly followed by news that Grant had captured Vicksburg.

In the immediate aftermath, Lincoln ached to see Meade attack Lee’s decimated force, for he imagined that the end of the war was but one more battle away. As the smoke cleared, however, he came to hold a more charitable opinion of the general. When Oliver O. Howard, an experienced division commander in the Army of the Potomac, protested to Lincoln that Meade had managed to bring harmony to a badly demoralized force, the President agreed. “A few days having passed” since Lee’s successful retreat across the Potomac, “I am now profoundly grateful for what was done, without criticism for what was not done” at Gettysburg, Lincoln wrote. “Gen. Meade has my confidence as a brave and skillful officer, and a true man.”

Now the pieces were rumbling into place for the ghastly final act of the nation’s great drama. Grant was soon on his way to Chattanooga, Tenn., to break the South’s main railway and start William T. Sherman down his long road of destruction. From there, Grant would be called to the East to devise the final, crushing campaigns along the path to Appomattox. Lincoln had found his generals at last, in the only way circumstances would allow: by gory trial and error. He made his mistakes, yes, but he learned from them.

To mark the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg, TIME has published a richly illustrated 192-page book, Gettysburg: Turning Point of the Civil War. To buy a copy, go to

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