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.