In our studies of the Civil War, we often focus on the pivotal importance of the Battle of Gettysburg, its strategies and tactics that ended the Confederate’s chance for a quick victory in the North. But how did the armies get there in the first place? Acclaimed historian Bert Dunkerly, who leads BGES’ “Great Invasion, Prelude to Gettysburg” tour on April 10-13, 2019, provides insight into Lee’s 14-day sortie prior to this great July 1863 battle, delving deeply into the general’s psyche. We caught up with him to ask a few questions about this lesser known part of the war.
BGES Blog: If you could get inside Lee’s head, what was he thinking when he invaded Pennsylvania?
Bert Dunkerly: Lee had several goals: relieve pressure on the Western Theater (Vicksburg), provide relief to Virginia’s farms from the armies, disrupt the Union economy, and decisively defeat the Union army on its home ground. This last goal specifically might achieve Confederate independence.
BGES Blog: Are there any “what if” moments, as in if someone had done something differently, or a skirmish had gone another way, the entire course of history might have changed?
Bert Dunkerly: Several: The Confederates were about to attack the state capital at Harrisburg, but pulled back to march to Gettysburg instead. Confederate troops were also poised to cross the Susquehanna towards Lancaster, putting them within 60 miles of Philadelphia.
BGES Blog: Who were the key players in the prelude?
Bert Dunkerly: Lee, and his corps commanders, two of whom are new (that is important): Longstreet, AP Hill, and Ewell. Hooker and Meade, and the shake up in the Army of the Potomac’s command structure, is crucial. Department of the Susquehanna commander General Darius Couch, and Pennsylvania governor Andrew Curtin.
BGES Blog: What role did Lee’s interest in political events in the United States affect his campaign to move north?
Bert Dunkerly: Lee was not only a brilliant battlefield commander, but understood how politics, home front, and battlefield intertwined. He had a keen understanding of the Union home front and that affecting civilian morale was a key to Confederate success.
BGES Blog: What’s your personal interest in telling this story?
Bert Dunkerly: I have several connections to this: I’m a native of central PA, growing up north of the battlefield; I visited on scout trips and school field trips. I had several ancestors there as well. This is a part of the campaign that I’ve always been interested in, and it has gotten relatively little coverage.
BGES Blog: Anything else to add?
Bert Dunkerly: This will be a program that visits several widely scattered sites, and along the way we’ll see the site of the first battle on northern soil, where the first Union soldier fell in Pennsylvania, where the first Confederates fell, and the impact of the Confederate troops on the towns of south-central Pennsylvania.