General Robert E. Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania in the summer of 1863 was a major turning point in the Civil War. It led to the disastrous Confederate defeat in the Battle of Gettysburg, which has often been termed the high point of the Confederacy.
The fateful decision to approve Lee’s Pennsylvania campaign was made by Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet. Historians usually present the picture of a reluctant Davis being persuaded by Lee to a course of action about which the chief executive had strong reservations.
For example, in his “Overview of the Gettysburg Campaign,” Leonard J. Fullenkamp, Professor of Military History and Strategy at the U.S. Army War College cites historian Edwin B. Coddington as indicating that “Davis was lukewarm at best in his support for an invasion of the north.”
As far as it goes, that assessment is accurate. General John C. Pemberton’s Confederate army at Vicksburg, Mississippi was under severe pressure from Union General Ulysses S. Grant. Davis strongly considered shifting portions of Lee’s army, and perhaps Lee himself, west to relieve Pemberton. In two meetings in May of 1863, Lee pressed hard to persuade Davis and his cabinet that an invasion of Pennsylvania would be a more effective alternative.
But there is a further, seldom told side to the story. Far from having any general reluctance to invade the North, Jefferson Davis had months earlier publicly proclaimed his desire to do exactly that.
In December of 1862, Davis made a speech to the Mississippi Legislature in which he made clear his attitude toward a Confederate invasion of the North. The January 5, 1863 edition of the Richmond Daily Dispatch newspaper reported what he said:
“THE WAR UPON NORTHERN SOIL. He (Davis) alluded briefly to his desire to transfer the war upon Northern soil, but the failure to do this processed not from a want of inclination but of power. We were not an old-established nation; with armies and navies at our command.”
In other words, Jefferson Davis wanted to invade the North long before Robert E. Lee urged that he be allowed to go into Pennsylvania. The only thing holding the Confederate president back from ordering such a move was the lack of a large enough army to be successful.
When Robert E. Lee assured Jefferson Davis and his cabinet that the Army of Northern Virginia was up to the task of beating the Federals on their own turf, Davis may have heard what he wanted to hear all along.