Big Pipe Creek role in Civil War featured at Taneytown fair Controversy surrounds Meade's orders to hold line before Gettysburg

August 23, 1998|By Andrew D. Faith | Andrew D. Faith,SUN STAFF

More than 500 Civil War re-enactors at yesterday's Taneytown fair portrayed an event that never happened, but could have.

During the Civil War, Taneytown had its moment of glory in the events leading up to the battle of Gettysburg in the summer of 1863.

Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, taking over the Army of the Potomac on June 28, 1863, after the resignation of Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker almost on the eve of Gettysburg, hurried north and made his headquarters in Taneytown.

Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, President Abraham Lincoln's chief military adviser, gave these orders to Meade: "Maneuver and fight in such a manner as to cover the capital and also Baltimore, as far as circumstance will admit. Should Gen. [Robert E.] Lee move upon either of these places, it is expected that you will either anticipate him or arrive with him so as to give him battle."

Among Meade's first orders was an instruction to his engineers to lay out a defensive line along 25 miles of high ground on the east side of Big Pipe Creek from Manchester in the east to Middleburg in the west of Carroll County. Meade thought it might be necessary to concentrate his army along this line to stop a thrust by Lee toward Washington or Baltimore.

"I determined to move my army as promptly as possible on the main line from Frederick to Harrisburg, extending my wings on both sides of that line as far as I could consistently with the safety and rapid concentration of that army, and continue my movement until I either encountered the enemy or had reason to believe that he was about to advance upon me; my object being, at all hazards, to force him to loose his hold on the Susquehanna, and meet me in battle at some point," Meade said in a report to Congress.

"It was my firm determination to give battle wherever and as soon as I could possibly find the enemy, modified, of course, by such considerations as must govern every general officer. On the night of the 30th I had become satisfied that the enemy was apprised of my movements; that he had relinquished his hold on the Susquehanna; that he was concentrating his forces, and that I might expect to come in contact with him in a very short time - when and where I could not at that moment tell.

Meade told his corps commanders, "This order is communicated that a general plan, perfectly understood by all, may be had for receiving attack, as made in strong force upon any portion of our present position. Developments may cause the Commanding General to assume the offensive from his present positions."

Halleck's instructions to Meade on July 1 were: "The movements of the enemy yesterday indicate his intention to either turn your left, or to cover himself by the South Mountain and occupy Cumberland Valley. Do not let him draw you too far to the east."

After issuing the Big Pipe Creek plan, Meade advised Halleck on July 1: "I shall not advance any, but prepare to receive an attack in case Lee makes one. A battlefield is being selected to the rear, on which the army can be rapidly concentrated, on Pipe Creek, between Middleburg and Manchester, covering my depot Westminster. If I am not attacked, and I can from reliable intelligence have reason to believe that I can attack with reasonable degree of success, I will do so, but at present, having relieved the pressure on the Susquehanna, I am now looking to the protection of Washington and fighting my army to the best advantage."

Halleck replied: "Your tactical arrangements for battle seem good, so far as I can judge from my knowledge of the character of the country; but in a strategic view, are you not too far east, and may not Lee attempt to turn your left and cut you off from Frederick? Please give your full attention to this suggestion."

Controversy over Meade's Big Pipe Creek plan arose with indications that he intended to retreat from Gettysburg to Big Pipe Creek after the fighting started at Gettysburg before dawn July 1.

Evidence of Meade's intentions includes an account by Brevet Maj. E. P. Halstead: About 4 p.m. July 1, more than eight hours after the shooting started, Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock arrived the battlefield at Gettysburg to take command from Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard. According to Halstead, Hancock told Howard: "General Meade has also directed me to select a field to fight this battle in rear of Pipe Creek."

Meade arrived on the battlefield early in the morning of the second day. He soon called a council of war with his corps commanders. In Maj. Gen. John Gibbon's account of those deliberations, the substance of the question was: Should the army remain in its present position or take up some other? The officers voted to stay and fight; in the end, according to Gibbon, Meade said: "Such then is the decision."

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