Lee heads for Pa. capital Pennsylvania militia burns Susquehanna bridge at Wrightsville

Revisiting Gettysburg

June 25, 1998|By Andrew D. Faith | Andrew D. Faith,SUN STAFF

Thousands of Civil War re-enactors are converging on Gettysburg, Pa., next week, much as the original armies converged there in 1863.

By mid-June of that year, the Northern and Southern armies were arriving at positions that would make a clash in southern Pennsylvania likely.

Brig. Gen. Albert G. Jenkins had crossed the Potomac River on June 15 with his gray cavalry brigade, and Maj. Gen. Robert E. Rodes' infantry division had followed the next day. The infantry corps of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet and Lt. Gen. A. P. Hill crossed the Potomac on June 24 and 25. On June 25 Longstreet and Hill united their columns at Hagerstown.

Some Union spies who counted the rebel force as it passed through the town made the number to be 91,000 infantry, 280 guns and 1,100 cavalry. This statement, though much exaggerated, gained credence and added to the excitement among loyal people throughout the Northern states while

Southern sympathizers in the North were proportionally active and jubilant. The Confederates marched on Chambersburg and Fayetteville, Pa., arriving on June 27.

The section of the country thus invaded was one of the richest agricultural districts in Pennsylvania. For the first time, Confederate soldiers found themselves in the enemy's open country. This region had known nothing of war except through the visits of purchasing agents and the departure of large bodies of volunteers who responded to President Lincoln's call.

The strictest orders were issued by the Confederate commander in chief, Gen. Robert E. Lee, prohibiting pillage in any form whatever. Lee further issued a proclamation in Chambersburg on June 27 recommending moderation, respect for noncombatants, and the discarding of all thoughts of revenge.

Lee had established his headquarters at Greenwood, Pa., on the Cashtown Road. According to Jesse Bowman Young, who had been a young staff officer at the battle of Gettysburg, "Up to this time he had in mind Cashtown as an opportune place in which to await the advance of the opposing forces. He could have fought here in a very strong position not easily flanked, with his back against the mountains, and with a clear road of retreat open in his rear leading directly to Chambersburg.

"This road is, indeed, the only highway for miles in either direction which commands a pass through the range into the Cumberland Valley; and had Lee simply planted himself here and waited a few hours, [Union Maj. Gen. George G.] Meade would have been bound to attack him in that position."

According to Maj. Gen. Henry J. Hunt in "Battles and Leaders of the Civil War," "General Lee so far had been completely successful; his army was exultant, and he lost no time in availing himself of his advantages. On the 21st he ordered [Lt. Gen. Richard S.] Ewell to take possession of Harrisburg; and on the 22d, Ewell's whole corps was on the march, Rodes' and [Maj. Gen. Edward] Johnson's divisions via Chambersburg to Carlisle, which they reached on the 27th, and [Maj. Gen. Jubal A.] Early via Greenwood and Gettysburg to York, with orders from Ewell to break up the Northern Central Railroad, destroy the bridge across the Susquehanna at Wrightsville, and then rejoin the main body at Carlisle. Early entered York on the 28th, and sent [Brig. Gen. John Brown] Gordon's brigade, not to destroy but to secure possession of the bridge, which would enable him to operate upon Harrisburg from the rear; but a small Pennsylvania militia force, retreating from Wrightsville across the bridge, after an unsuccessful attempt to destroy one of its spans, set fire to and entirely destroyed that fine structure, Gordon's troops giving their aid to the citizens to save the town from the flames.

According to Lee's report on the battle of Gettysburg, "The advance against Harrisburg was arrested by intelligence received from a scout on the night of the 28th, to the effect that the army of General [Joseph] Hooker had crossed the Potomac and was approaching South Mountain. In the absence of cavalry, it was impossible to ascertain his intentions, but to deter him from advancing farther west, and intercepting our communication with Virginia, it was determined to concentrate the army east of the mountains. ...

"Hill's corps was accordingly ordered to move toward Cashtown on the 29th, and Longstreet to follow the next day, leaving [Maj. Gen. George E.] Pickett's division at Chambersburg to guard the rear until relieved by [Brig. Gen. John D.] Imboden. General Ewell was recalled from Carlisle, and directed to join the army at Cashtown or Gettysburg, as circumstances might require. The advance of the enemy to the latter place was unknown, and the weather being inclement, the march was conducted with a view to the comfort of the troops. [Maj. Gen. Henry] Heth's division reached Cashtown on the 29th, and the following morning, [Brig. Gen. James Johnston] Pettigrew's brigade, sent by General Heth to procure supplies at Gettysburg, found it occupied by the enemy."

Being ignorant of the extent of his force, Pettigrew was unwilling to hazard an attack with his single brigade, and returned to Cashtown to advise his division commander, Heth, and corps commander, Hill.

Hill immediately notified Lee and Ewell, informing the latter that he would advance next morning on Gettysburg.

On the eve of the great battle, the gathering storm in Pennsylvania was front-page news in The Sun, but the big picture was elusive: "Our exchanges from the North are filled with rumors and speculations concerning the invasion ... but as a general thing they are of such a sensational and contradictory character as to confuse and confound those who are disposed to ascertain the true facts."

Pub Date: 6/25/98

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