In 1863, Union General Robert E. Lee would face his darkest hour as his armies were broken up during an assault against the invading Confederate forces of General James Longstreet.
Lee Falls at GettysburgBy 1863, the Civil War had dragged on through three of its six Aprils, and times were difficult for the Union. Draft riots sent New York City up in flames, the presidency of Abraham Lincoln came under question, and the South intended to follow up victories in Virginia by an invasion of Northern territory, hopefully impressing foreign powers to recognize the Confederacy.
Times were also difficult for Robert E. Lee. A native Virginian, he had very nearly seceded along with his state, but a personal intervention by retiring General Winfield Scott convinced him that his duty was to the United States government. He was branded a traitor by many in the South, who quickly seized his wife's property at Arlington, looting furniture that had once belonged to George Washington, inherited through Lee's wife Mary Custis, great-granddaughter of Martha Washington. In the North, many suspected the accented general as a potential conspirator. Further questions were raised as Lee's campaigns in the East were slow, though knowledgeable officials recognized that he spent much of the early war assembling key supply lines and training a terribly green Union army.
The invasion of Maryland and Pennsylvania came as a surprise to many, but Lee seemed almost ready for the expedition, quickly maneuvering his armies to force a battle near the town of Gettysburg, PA. Here, however, his plans failed. He had long studied the effectiveness of an artillery bombardment followed by an infantry charge as used by Garibaldi in the wars of Italian unification, but his emulation in Pennsylvania would suffer problems of wet powder, crosswinds, and unshakable dug-in positions. When his army broke, Lee was reported to have rode among them and said, "I've lost this battle, not you".
Longstreet finished his plans of rooting his army at the rail center in Harrisburg, effectively cutting off Maryland and, more importantly, Washington, D.C. Despite the victory, it would be quickly overwhelmed by a reformed Union army under General Meade. Lee was shifted into a support position, where he would ride out the rest of the war, while command shifted to the new celebrity of Ulysses Grant, whose simultaneous conquest of Vicksburg, MS, would herald the beginning of the end of the war in the West.
After the war, Lee would be a proponent for reconciliation with the South, accepting a lecturing position at Washington College, now known as Washington University, in Lexington, VA.