Gettysburg ended the Confederacy’s last full-scale invasion of the North.
Following his victory at Chancellorsville, a confident Confederate General Robert E. Lee led his Army of Northern Virginia across the Potomac River into Union territory in June 1863. Lee had invaded the North the prior year only to be repelled at Antietam, but on this occasion his army was at the peak of its strength as it pressed across the Mason-Dixon line into Pennsylvania. A victory at Gettysburg could have launched Confederate forces to Philadelphia, Baltimore or even Washington, DC. Instead, Lee’s army suddenly shifted from offense to defense after the defeat and 10 days later crossed back over the Potomac into Virginia. Never again would the Confederacy regain its momentum and push as deeply into Union territory, which is why many historians consider Gettysburg the “high water mark of the rebellion.”
The battle proved that the seemingly invincible Lee could be defeated.
While Lee had been fought to a draw at Antietam, the Union high command had yet to achieve a decisive victory over the Confederate general as the summer of 1863 began. In spite of being outnumbered, Lee had engineered significant victories at Second Bull Run, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville among others. Meanwhile, Abraham Lincoln relieved a string of Union generals—George McClellan, Ambrose Burnside and Joseph Hooker—of command of the Army of the Potomac due to their failure to stop Lee’s army. Lincoln’s latest choice—General George Meade—had been installed just days before Gettysburg. Lee’s sterling record inspired complete trust in his troops and fear in his enemy. The Battle of Gettysburg, however, finally proved the bold general to be fallible.
Gettysburg stunted possible Confederate peace overtures.
Five days before the start of the Battle of Gettysburg, Confederate President Jefferson Davis dispatched Vice President Alexander Hamilton Stephens to negotiate a prisoner of war exchange with Lincoln under a flag of truce. Davis also gave Stephens license to proceed with broader peace negotiations. On July 4, Stephens sat aboard a boat in Chesapeake Bay awaiting permission to sail up the Potomac. Once news of victory at Gettysburg reached Lincoln, however, he denied the Confederate vice president’s request to pass through Union lines to come to Washington, DC, for negotiations.