Gettysburg Live 150 – 11:00am – Buford Arrives at Gettysburg

150 years ago right now, Union Brig. General John Buford’s 1st Cavalry Division arrives in Gettysburg.

The folks in town are very happy to see him. Only a few minutes before, a Confederate scouting force – a brigade of infantry under the command of Brig. General J. Johnston Pettigrew – came near the town in search of supplies. He is told that they moved to the west along the Chambersburg Pike, toward Cashtown – back the way they came. Buford decides to go have a look.

Pettigrew left in a hurry because he saw the Union cavalry coming. His orders were to scout, not to start a battle, so he decided to go back to headquarters to let his superiors, Maj. General Henry Heth and Lt. General A.P. Hill, know what was going on. The Union army was north of the Potomac, and closing in on the rebels.

Neither Heth nor Hill believed Pettigrew’s story. You see, Pettigrew was not a West Point-trained, professional soldier like they were; he was a college professor from North Carolina who had spent most of the war in coastal defense duties, not in battle. How could he know the difference between the Army of the Potomac and the inexperienced local militia that General Early’s men had brushed aside a few days before? These had to be those same troops back for more punishment. Heth, new to his division command and looking to gather glory to his name, asked for and received permission from A.P. Hill to take his full division to Gettysburg the next day to rough-up these home guards.

By mid-afternoon, General Buford had a feeling that Pettigrew’s “retreat” was not for real. Though his subordinates disagreed, Buford knew the rebels would be back in force. Gettysburg had a superb road network, and good high ground all around the town. If a battle was to be fought, this would be a good place to do it. Buford wanted to retain control of this excellent position, so he dug in for a defense. He sent word of his plan to General Reynolds, commanding the western sector of the advance, in the hope that he could bring the 3 corps of infantry that were with him down in Emmitsburg, up to Gettysburg by morning.

Gettysburg Live 150 – 9:00am – The Battle of Hanover

Brig. General Judson Kilpatrick led his division out of their camp at Littlestown toward Hanover. Their arrival in town brought great relief to the citizenry.

Just about 150 years ago right now, Maj. General J.E.B. Stuart’s Confederate Cavalry Division also arrived near Hanover. Stuart was behind schedule, and was desperately trying to find the rest of the Confederate army. He thought that Lt. General Richard Ewell’s Corps was in the York area, but he had to get there to find out for sure. Union cavalry was in the way.

What followed was several hours of fighting (including newly-minted Brig. General George Custer’s first action as a brigade commander) with the Union forces holding the town, and the Confederates trying to flush them out. Nothing was to be gained. Eventually, Stuart disengaged to the east and continued his ride in search of the rest of his army.

While relatively light on casualties for both sides, and with no clear tactical winner, the drawn-out struggle was clearly a strategic loss for the Confederate cavalry. It put them one more day behind schedule, and forced Stuart to move ever farther away from where General Lee actually was.

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.

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.

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.

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.