If Confederate President Jefferson Davis could have stopped the war at any point, it might have been after the winter of 1862– 1863. General Robert E. Lee had shown his total command of the battlefield, chasing Union General George McClellan from Richmond during the spring of 1862 and then crushing his replacement, General Ambrose Burnside, at Fredericksburg in December. “If there is a place worse than hell,” said Lincoln, wringing his hands, grief- stricken, after Fredericksburg, “I am in it.”
The stakes of the war rose after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. All understood the conflict could no longer be resolved with the country reuniting as it had been. “[The war] will be one of subjugation,” Lincoln said to an official after the proclamation was issued. “The [old] South is to be destroyed and replaced by new propositions and ideas.” Black soldiers, finally recruited into the Union Army in 1863, were one of the “new propositions.”
After a brilliant victory at Chancellorsville in the spring, a confident Lee took the fight to Northern soil a second time in early summer. If it worked, it would be brilliant— he might send the Lincoln administration scurrying, force Ulysses S. Grant’s army to pull back from the besieged Vicksburg, the key city on the Mississippi River, and destroy Northern morale. Success might even convince England and France to join the Confederacy in its war of independence.
Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia crossed the Potomac into Pennsylvania, until some of his troops stumbled upon federal cavalry outside a small crossroads named Gettysburg. Within hours, 165,000 men converged. For the first three days in July, they would make devastating war in a battle that would become the largest ever fought in the Western hemisphere, producing suffering and death that exceeded anything Americans have experienced before or since.