The Spy Harrison

Also today, 150 years ago, a spy named Harrison that General Longstreet had hired returned to the Confederate camp near Chambersburg, PA with a story that was hard to believe.

Not only did he claim that the Union Army of the Potomac was on the move, but that it had already crossed the Potomac river with all 7 corps, and was rapidly heading their way. He also knew that Hooker had been replaced by Meade as the overall commander of the Union forces. In light of this, General Longstreet took Harrison to see General Lee immediately.

Lee found this information especially troubling. Why was a hired spy telling him this rather than his own cavalry? What was J.E.B. Stuart doing if he wasn’t providing intelligence? Though he didn’t like it, Lee had to act. He sent orders to all his commanders, currently spread all over south central Pennsylvania, to use the road network to concentrate the army in the vicinity of a town called Gettysburg (or maybe Cashtown).

150 years ago tonight, those moves started to happen. It would be a race – one that Lee felt he had to win – whoever could bring their army together first would have a decisive advantage in the coming conflict.


150 years ago this evening, the Confederates made their furthest advance into northern territory at a little town on the Susquehanna river called Wrightsville, PA.

One of Lee’s loose objectives was to threaten a major northern city, and Harrisburg was the closest one along his route out of Virginia. Being the capitol of Pennsylvania though, it was pretty well-defended. General Early, in command of the eastern-most vanguard of the Army of Northern Virginia, came up with another plan: he’d send the brigade of Brig. General John Gordon downriver to find another bridge to cross, and then take Harrisburg from the rear. Wrightsville (about 30 miles away) had such a bridge – the longest covered bridge in the world, in fact.

The militia stationed at Wrightsville had spent the last 2 days trying to construct defenses, but their commander, Colonel Jacob Frick, knew they couldn’t hold out against the brigade of veteran Confederate troops that showed up at about 5pm that night. After fighting for about an hour, he ordered his men to pull back, cross the bridge, and burn it so the Confederates couldn’t follow.

When an effort to put out the flames failed, the Confederates left town and regrouped to set up for a more direct attack against Harrisburg. They wouldn’t get to make that attempt though, because a new set of orders arrived from General Lee. The Army of Northern Virginia had to come together to meet the threat of the rapidly-advancing Union army.

More on that in the next post.

Meade Takes Command

Joe Hooker had been slow to move the army north. That much was irritating. But when he demanded to be reinforced with troops from the Harper’s Ferry garrison, that was quite enough. When the request was refused by General Halleck, Hooker sent back a message threatening to quit if he didn’t get his way. Lincoln and Halleck were only too happy to accept the resignation.

Major General John F. Reynolds
Major General John F. Reynolds

Of course, this created a new problem: who should replace him? The most capable General in the Army of the Potomac – and the one Lincoln had the most confidence in – was Major General John Reynolds, commander of the I Corps. The job was offered to him.

Reynolds was no dummy, though. He had seen what happened to the previous army commanders: one misstep and your career was finished. This would be the 7th commanding General in the eastern theatre in just over 2 years. For Reynolds, the answer was thanks, but no thanks.

His second choice was a much different man, a quieter man: George G. Meade. At about 3:00am, 150 years ago today, Major General Meade was awakened at his camp in Frederick, MD by a messenger from Washington, DC. He had no idea what was going on. His first thought was that he was being arrested for some reason. Alas, he was told that he had been promoted – and that he didn’t have a choice in the matter. Out of a sense of duty, he accepted the charge.

Major General George G. Meade
Major General George G. Meade

The situation was grim. Meade knew where his own troops were, but Hooker had kept all his subordinates in the dark about the over-all plan. The positions of the rest of the army’s corps was completely unknown to him. There was a lot of catching up to do.

Meade started thinking about his options. The orders from Washington (roughly the same ones Hooker had, though Meade was given a little more freedom) were twofold: 1) Destroy the Army of Northern Virginia; and 2) Protect Washington and Baltimore. The first required aggression, the second a conservative nature. This contradiction in orders would cause political problems for Meade when the campaign was dissected in hindsight. For now though, he continued the move north with the aggressive and capable General Reynolds in charge of the westernmost sector – the area where the rebels were most likely (and actually turned out) to be.

At the same time, he developed a defensive position – the Pipe Creek Line – that he was hoping to draw Lee into once the fighting began. Acting defensively on ground that he had scouted out and fortified was the best way Meade could see to achieve both of his objectives.

He wouldn’t have to wait long to see how it was going to play out. In just 3 days, Meade would face the biggest test of his career.

Marsh Creek Skirmish

When rumors started to spread in late May that the Rebel army was on the move, Governor Curtin got nervous. He put out a call for volunteers to defend the state should the Confederates make it as far north as Pennsylvania.

Not many came out. The farmers of Pennsylvania remembered the previous fall – when a similar call came out before what became the Battle of Antietam. They missed their harvest time, and many hadn’t been paid for their efforts like they were promised.

Some of the men who did join up in the face of the crisis were students from Pennsylvania College (what is now Gettysburg College). Along with other volunteers, they got formed into a make-shift regiment in Harrisburg, and became the 26th Pennsylvania Emergency Militia. 150 years ago today, those men got their first taste of combat.

By mid-morning, Jubal Early’s Confederate division was approaching the outskirts of Gettysburg. They were within sight of a little stream called Marsh Creek. The 750 very green men of the 26th PA Emergency Militia were camped on the east bank of the stream, and when they saw the Confederates approaching, they started packing up to leave. They knew they were no match by themselves for a sizable invasion force.

There was a brief exchange of fire between the units, and the Union men took about 50 casualties – most of them men who became prisoners. The retreat continued east of town – a Confederate cavalry detachment in hot pursuit. Another minor skirmish took place at the Witmer Farm, this one producing almost 200 prisoners for General Early. The Confederate forces took virtually no casualties in these two actions.

While these seem like minor events, they certainly meant something to the men who took part – especially the rookies on the Union side. They also had a huge psychological impact for both sides. The southerners continued to believe that this whole excursion would be a cake-walk, and the northerners (especially the civilian population in south-central Pennsylvania) felt increasingly defenseless and frightened.

Little did everyone know that they were less than a week away from the largest and bloodiest battle in the history of the western hemisphere, and another turning point in the war.

The Battle of Upperville

I got busy at the end of last week and didn’t get a chance to post about the last of the cavalry battles on the road to Gettysburg: the Battle of Upperville, 150 years ago on June 21st.

This would be the one last push to try to get into the Shenandoah valley and see what General Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia was up to. This time, the Union cavalry had the support of Col. Strong Vincent’s brigade of infantry. This proved to be a decisive advantage for the Federals. Stuart’s Confederate cavalry fought hard for several hours, but couldn’t hold up against the combined Union cavalry, infantry, and artillery. Eventually, the southerners were forced back into Ashby’s gap, losing an artillery piece in the process.

Surprisingly, the northern forces didn’t keep pushing. Stuart succeeded in denying the Federal cavalry the intelligence on Lee’s plans that it needed. The very next day, General Stuart got permission from General Lee to take off on another of his “Wild Rides”. Not to spoil the ending, but this one won’t end so well for J.E.B.

Gettysburg Comic Book

A few days ago, I found and ordered on Amazon, the comic book: “Epic Battles of the Civil War – Volume 4: Gettysburg“. I’d seen this particular comic come up (somewhat jokingly) in conversation among some of Gettysburg’s heavy hitters, and I just had to check it out. The book was the result of a collaboration back in the late 1990s between the Historical Souvenir Company and Marvel Comics, so there’s an expectation that it would be well-produced. Sadly, it’s a bit of a jumbled mess.

Marvel Comics' Gettysburg issue.
Marvel Comics’ Gettysburg issue.

The 48-page book starts off with an overview of the campaign – it doesn’t get to the first day of the battle until page 12 – and when it does, it does a pretty poor job of conveying the flow of the battle. It’s just panel after panel of guys in dialogue. Sometimes they discuss battle plans or results, other times the panels are telling a human interest story, but through short chunks of dialogue that aren’t well-explained. I know the Battle of Gettysburg pretty well, and I have trouble following what’s going on. There are 2 maps in the entire book, and neither one has any troop positions laid out on it. Maps are critical to understanding the flow of any battle, and aren’t comic books supposed to be for visual people?

The hastily-inserted human interest stories – things like Jennie Wade’s death, or Sarah Broadhead’s “mess of beans” – not only break up the flow of the battle, they make the whole thing read more like a collection of facts than an actual story.

And it gets worse when there are things that are suspect in those “facts”. For one thing, the book continues to perpetuate what Garry Adelman calls, The Myth of Little Round Top – we’re told in General Warren’s voice that it was “the key to the Union’s entire position”. General Sickles is portrayed – as is the popular myth – as being cool, calm, and collected after having his leg blown off. The somewhat questionable story of Lt. Bayard Wilkeson cutting off his own leg with a pocketknife is presented as fact. General Heth is shown expressing his desire to General Hill to go into Gettysburg looking for shoes – a story that he almost definitely made up later to make himself look better. And while it gets points for mentioning the oft-overlooked fight at the East Cavalry Battlefield, it completely misses the point of that struggle (it wasn’t because Stuart was supposed to secure the Confederate left – he was trying to attack the Union rear).

There are other things that are visually wrong. In the frame showing the leg story, General Sickles and his aide – both Union officers – are shown in grey coats. During the late-night council of war on July 2, one of Meade’s generals is shown wearing 3 stars (a rank which not only hadn’t been issued to ANY general at that point, but would have obviously out-ranked Meade himself). There is a woman wearing a 12-star flag with 13 stripes (starting and ending with white ones) on her blouse. Come on.

My favorite “typo” in the book comes during the description of the argument about whether to attack the Union position on Culp’s and Cemetery Hills that happens between Confederate Lt. General Richard Ewell, and Confederate Major General Isaac TRIMBLE:

General TRIMBLE loses the argument with General Ewell.
General “Trible” loses the argument with General Ewell.

I’ll admit: at first, I thought this was a mistake. I only knew of General TRIMBLE being present at the battle, but it turns out that I was wrong. After a little research on the Internet, I found out that there was a Confederate General Trible (even though his name is correctly spelled “Tribble”):

The only known image of General Trible (sorry - "Tribble").
The only known image of General Trible (sorry – “Tribble”).

This is the junction where my Civil War nerd side starts to collide with my Star Trek nerd side. I deeply apologize that you had to witness that.

Seriously though, all of these seemingly little things come together to make the comic historically hazardous for the casual reader who knows very little about the battle. Something like this could be a great introduction for people who “don’t like history”, but instead it reinforces many misconceptions and muddies the telling of the story.

The only thing that keeps me from completely dismissing it is that, much like the old Gettysburg movie has for my generation, maybe there are a few people out there who would casually pick this comic up and have it spark an interest in the battle that propels them to learn more. I won’t hold my breath, though.

The Battle of Middleburg

150 years ago today, the cavalry skirmishes on the road to Gettysburg continued with the Battle of Middleburg.

There had been a small skirmish in Middleburg 2 days before, but now a more sizable force from both armies formed near the town. Once again, the result was a measured Union victory, in that the Confederates were eventually driven from the field (even though the Union forces took heavier losses). The southerners left in order to move farther west and strengthen their own screen against the Union cavalry; preventing them from encountering the main body of the Army of Northern Virginia.

There’s one more minor battle coming before the Union cavalry finally gives up and decides to move on to the north.

The Battle of Aldie

As the armies moved north through Virginia as part of what would become the Gettysburg Campaign, General Alfred Pleasonton continued to deploy his cavalry to the west in search of the main body of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.

Today marks the 150th anniversary of one of the times they stumbled onto Confederate cavalry – this time under General Munford – the Battle of Aldie.

While a relatively minor engagement, it had some interesting consequences. For one, the Confederates abandoned the field after the fighting, moving back toward the west and the mountains to provide a more effective screen. They’d be pushed back even further over the next few days. This “loss” served to bolster the confidence of the Union cavalry after their good showing at the Battle of Brandy Station about a week earlier.

Captain George Armstrong Custer leads the charge at the Battle of Aldie.
Captain George Armstrong Custer leads the charge at the Battle of Aldie.

This battle also sparked the rise of one of the most famous cavalry commanders in American history: George Armstrong Custer. Custer was serving on Pleasonton’s staff as a Captain and was able to convince his commander to allow him to take part in the attack on this day. As the 1st Maine cavalry charged forward, the regiment’s commander fell dead and Custer took the lead in his place.

This act of bravery (combined with the fact that he was already a favorite of Pleasonton – the overall Union cavalry commander) led to Custer’s promotion to Brigadier General before the end of the month. As the youngest General in the Union army, he would lead a brigade of Michigan cavalrymen at Hanover and Hunterstown on his way to the East Cavalry Field at Gettysburg.

Of course, he’s most famous for being killed 13 years later with the rest of his command at Little Bighorn. But if not for his part at Aldie, he may never have become more than a mere staff officer.

Brandy Station’s 150th

150 years ago this Sunday, June 9, the Gettysburg Campaign started in earnest when shots were fired at the Battle of Brandy Station – the largest cavalry engagement to ever take place in the western hemisphere.

Almost 20,000 horse soldiers (and some Union infantry) clashed in the fields along the Orange and Alexandria railroad, south of the Rappahannock river. While casualties were relatively light as Civil War battles go (less than 1,500 between the two armies), and the engagement basically ended in a draw – with both sides returning to their original positions – it signaled the rise of the Federal cavalry, which up to this point had been easily whipped over and over by the southern forces under J.E.B. Stuart. This role reversal continued all the way up to Gettysburg.

It’s an exciting time of year for Civil War buffs, and with this year being the sesquicentennial, it’s even more so! Stay tuned for more posts as we follow the armies north.

Another Old Brochure

A few days ago, I posted about some old books I found among my grandpa’s things. One of those was a Ft. McHenry Visitor’s Brochure from the 1940s. It’s a really special artifact to me.

This was cool because I’m something of a collector of NPS brochures. Though I don’t have very many old ones, I always pick up a brochure when I go to a park. They always have some general overview historical information on them, and usually a map of the park with a driving tour. I have one from every park I’ve been to.

Cover of the 1961 Gettysburg NMP Brochure.
Cover of the 1961 Gettysburg NMP Brochure.

Some time ago though, I got a very special brochure: a Gettysburg one from 1961. I’m not even sure where I got it from – it may have been tucked inside a used book that I bought.

Either way, I’ve scanned it in so that we can all share in the fun.

I’m noticing something about these older brochures that I’m really liking, too – there’s TONS of text. The newer brochures focus on providing big maps and color graphics (usually photos of the people or artifacts associated with the park). It feels like the older ones were there to teach you something, not appeal to your senses. Maybe there’s something to that.

Just take a look at this one compared to what the NPS gives out at Gettysburg today. Talk about night and day, huh?

Anyway, the PDF of the 1961 brochure is here. Enjoy, fellow historical brochure fans!