Gettysburg Live 150 – 5:00pm – Skirmish at Westminster

A little-known cavalry action on the road to Gettysburg happened just about now, 150 years ago.

J.E.B. Stuart was way behind schedule, and rushing north to try and find where the main body of the Confederate Army was. He thought it was near York, so he was just passing through Westminster with no intention of hanging around. His plan was to get to Hanover the next day.

Because of the rail lines in Westminster, there was a small group of Union soldiers there – 2 companies from the 1st Delaware Cavalry. These were no match for an approaching Confederate division, so it wasn’t much of a skirmish – at least not from the Confederate point of view. The Delawareans took 67 casualties of the 108 men that were engaged.

The Confederate cavalry was left with a clear road to Hanover.

Gettysburg Live 150 – The Union Army Enters Pennsylvania

150 years ago today, the first elements of the Union Army of the Potomac, namely Buford’s and Kilpatrick’s cavalry divisions, enter Pennsylvania.

Buford, covering the west, ends up in the vicinity of Fairfield. Kilpatrick is near Littlestown, on his way to Hanover. Both are probing for the location of the main body of the Confederate army.

Soon enough, they’ll both find what they’re looking for.

Gettysburg Live 150

In honor of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, I’m going to be posting about some of the events “live”, that is to say: more-or-less in real-time, as they occurred, 150 years ago. Hopefully this will be a fun and informative series.

I’ve created a new “Live” category under the “Gettysburg” one on the blog. The posts will be automatically-timed, and will appear on my Facebook and Twitter feeds, too – so they should be easy to follow along with and find later on.

I’m also planning to be up in town on July 3rd to take part in some of the events the NPS is putting on. I’ll likely have pictures and thoughts to post about the experience. Though I’ve been to Gettysburg dozens of times, I’ve never been for an anniversary, so I’m pretty excited.

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 He also knew that Hooker had been replaced by Meade as the overall commander of the Union forces.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.

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.