Early was an avowed supporter of slavery, but he was equally opposed to the idea of secession. As a delegate to the Virginia Convention of 1861, he made a passionate plea for remaining in the Union and even condemned the bombardment of Fort Sumter. Despite his reservations, Early joined the Confederacy after his home state of Virginia seceded.
Early began the Civil War as a colonel and commanded a Virginia brigade at the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas). His unit arrived just in time to help drive Union forces from the field. He was promoted to brigadier general shortly thereafter, and in May 1862 was wounded while leading a failed charge against superior Union numbers during the Battle of Williamsburg. Early was then transferred to General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s Second Corps, and played a key role in the Battle of Cedar Mountain in August 1862. He would go on to serve with distinction during the Second Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) and assume a division command at the Battle of Antietam in September 1862. During the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, Early led a crucial counterattack that repulsed the forces of Union General George Meade, which had broken through the Confederate defensive line.
Early was promoted to major general in January 1863 and served during the Confederate victory at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863. His unit’s performance at the Battle of Salem Church helped delay the forces of General John Sedgwick and ultimately hastened a Union retreat. Early next served during the Gettysburg Campaign, commanding a division under General Richard Ewell. He was instrumental in the early invasion of Pennsylvania, in which he famously captured and then demanded ransoms from the towns of Gettysburg and York. Early’s division was involved in the first two days of fighting at the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, and his unit covered the rear of Robert E. Lee’s army during the retreat back into Virginia. Early served as a temporary corps commander at the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864. He was later promoted to lieutenant general and took command of the Second Corps for the Battle of Cold Harbor.