(WHTM) — It’s safe to say most people in our coverage area know at least a little something about the Battle of Gettysburg. And yet, with all the interest in the battle itself, people tend to forget (or not know at all) that the three days at Gettysburg were just the culmination of a campaign that took most of a month, and would continue several more weeks after the battle.
During that time there were clashes between Union and Confederate forces in Franklin, Cumberland, Adams, York, and Fulton Counties. (And that’s just in Pennsylvania!) Towns in Pennsylvania that saw units of Robert E. Lee’s army include (but are definitely not limited to) Greencastle, Chambersburg, Waynesboro, Mercersburg, McConnellsburg, Shippensburg, Carlisle, Mechanicsburg, Camp Hill, Hanover, York, Wrightsville, Dover, Dillsburg, New Cumberland, and of course Gettysburg.
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Confederate forces ranged almost to Perry County, and reached the very edge of the Susquehanna River, threatening Lancaster County. Before the battle erupted at Gettysburg, Confederate soldiers were probing the defenses of Harrisburg itself. After the battle came the retreat of Lee and the pursuit by Meade, an epic, grim story in itself.
This timeline draws heavily on the work of others. A major source for this timeline is the excellent chronology included in the book Flames Beyond Gettysburg by Scott Mingus, Sr. This has been augmented with information from a booklet commemorating the 136th anniversary of the invasion in Cumberland County, put out by the Camp Curtin Historical Society and Civil War Round Table, and The Confederate Approach on Harrisburg by Cooper Wingert. Additional information is drawn from Retreat from Gettysburg by Kent Masterson Brown, The West Point Atlas of the Civil War, and snippets from other publications too numerous to detail, even if I could remember where I found them over several decades. Any errors in this chronology are mine, unless they are mistakes by others, in which case they’re still mine because I didn’t catch them.
It’s easy to lose track of where individuals are in the command structures of the two armies. The National Park Service website for Gettysburg National Military Park has two pages detailing the hierarchies of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and the Union Army of the Potomac. They’re worth a look.
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Prologue: In May 1863, Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia wins a smashing victory against General Joseph Hooker’s Union Army of the Potomac at Chancellorsville, Virginia. But it’s victory at great cost; not only does Lee lose soldiers he will be hard-pressed to replace, but he also loses his “right arm”, Corps Commander Lt. General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, who is wounded in a friendly fire incident and dies ten days later.
The loss of Jackson prompts Lee to reorganize his army, creating three corps where there had been two. The First Corps is commanded by Lt. General James Longstreet, The Second Corps by Lt. General Richard Ewell, and the Third Corps by Lt. General Ambrose Powell Hill. In addition, the Cavalry Corps is commanded by Major General James Ewell Brown (Jeb) Stuart.
The Union Army of the Potomac, smarting from the latest in a dreary string of defeats, is camped along the north bank of the Rappahannock River, facing the Confederates on the south bank. There seems to be no one willing to take the offensive. Any moves they make are strictly defensive, to block an advance on Washington D.C. They basically sit and wait to see what Lee would do next.
Robert E. Lee travels to Richmond, and consults with Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, and his cabinet about their next move. They are all aware that despite Lee’s series of showy victories in the Eastern Theater, overall the Confederacy’s situation is bleak. The South is on the defensive everywhere. In the west, the last major Confederate stronghold along the Mississippi River, Vicksburg, is under siege by Ulysses S. Grant. If it falls the Confederacy is effectively cut in half. Along the Atlantic coast and the Gulf of Mexico, the Union blockade of Southern ports is slowly strangling trade with the outside world, including much-needed weapons and supplies. Detaching part (or all) of Lee’s army to relieve Vicksburg would open the road for the Union to capture Richmond. Staying put along the Rappahannock might do the same, opening an opportunity for the Union to go around Lee’s army and strike at the Southern Capital.
Lee argues the best strategy is for the Army of Northern Virginia to invade the North. He has been contemplating this move for months, well before his victory at Chancellorsville. It would force the Army of the Potomac to move to shield Washington while allowing the Confederates to live off the rich Pennsylvania countryside. Lee could threaten Washington, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and even Pittsburgh were he to decide to go that way. And while Lee knows the South can’t destroy the North’s ability to fight, it might be possible to destroy its will to fight. if Lee can lure the Union Army onto ground of his choosing, it might be possible to inflict yet another defeat. This would be devastating to Northern morale, especially if Lee’s army can also capture an important state capital (Harrisburg). This would energize the peace movement in the North. The South might also win recognition from foreign powers (particularly England and France). Such a victory, coupled with European pressure, might force the North to the bargaining table. (In truth, that was a long shot; the Emancipation Proclamation made European powers skittish about backing a nation backing slavery.)
After three days of discussion, Davis approves Lee’s plan.
On the north side of the Rappahannock River, it’s still watch and wait. The Union Army of the Potomac, under Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, consists of seven infantry corps, a cavalry corps, and an Artillery Reserve, for a combined strength of more than 100,000 men. While Hooker may have dropped the ball at Chancellorsville, during his time as commanding officer he’s made a series of improvements to the army’s organization. Many of these changes, such as better food, medical care, and leave policies directly benefits the soldiers. Devising distinctive badges for each corps boosts “team spirit” (and makes it easier for commanders in the field to know who’s doing what where.) He consolidates the cavalry into a corps unto itself, instead of attaching units to individual corps. (Consolidating the cavalry would make a big difference in the horse soldiers’ usefulness in the upcoming battle, and throughout the remainder of the war.) And he creates an efficient, effective intelligence operation, which by late May is already providing Hooker with indications of Lee’s overall plans, but few specifics.
The first moves. Major General Lafayette McLaw’s Division, of the First Corps of the Confederate Army, leaves Fredericksburg, Virginia, and heads northwest to Culpeper. Brigadier General John B. Gordon’s Brigade (Major General Jubal Early’s Division, 2nd Corps) is camped at Hamilton’s Crossing. The Confederate Army’s ultimate goal is to move into the Shenandoah Valley and head north. They are shielding their movements from the Union as much as possible.
Major General Robert Rode’s Division of Ewell’s 2nd Corps moves out. New military technology comes into play-aerial reconnaissance. Union observation balloonists spot Rode’s Division and alert Joseph Hooker that the Confederate army is on the move.
Gordon packs his supply wagons, breaks camp, and prepares to move.
Around 1 a.m., Gordon leaves Hamilton’s Crossing. Under the cover of darkness, he marches his brigade 16 miles, past Spotsylvania Courthouse to Gordonsville.
The rest of Ewell’s Corps start their move. Union balloonists see them leaving Fredericksburg and sound the alert.
Joseph Hooker cancels all leaves and furloughs, and orders all troops to be prepared to march.
Hooker orders Major General John Sedgwick, commander of the Sixth Corps, to cross the Rappahannock and test Confederate strength at Fredericksburg.
Union forces probe Confederate strength at Fredericksburg. The aggressive response of A.P. Hill’s Third Corps convinces Sedgwick the main body of the Confederate Army is still in the area.
Gordon holds at his current location and prepares to countermarch in case Union action at Fredericksburg turns into a full-scale attack. It doesn’t.
Hooker orders Major General Alfred Pleasonton, commander of the Cavalry Corps, on a reconnaissance mission to Culpepper.
Gordon resumes his march toward Culpeper Court House. His men wade across the Rapidan River at Raccoon Ford.
Lee reviews Jeb Stuart’s cavalry corps near Culpeper. Stuart’s instructions for the upcoming invasion are to screen Confederate movements until the army is well on its way, then guard the right flank and gather information. Stuart’s troops will block four major gaps leading into the Shenandoah Valley; Ashby’s Gap (through which Route 50 runs), Snickers Gap (Route 7) and Thoroughfare (Interstate 66) in the Blue Ridge Mountain, and Aldie (also on Route 50) at the north end of the Bull Run range.
Stuart will ultimately decide on a tactic he’s used twice before. Once he is finished screening the army’s move into the Shenandoah he will ride around the entire Union army. Much ink will be spilled in the future about whether this was a wise move, and whether he stretched his orders to the breaking point.
Gordon’s brigade makes a short march through Culpeper Court House, and camps two miles beyond.
Union cavalry under Brigadier General Alfred Pleasonton will have the task of trying clear the way to the Blue Ridge to see what Lee is up to.
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Federal cavalry surprises Stuart at Brandy Station, triggering the largest cavalry battle of the Civil War. The fight ends in a tactical draw, but being caught flat-footed is a major embarrassment to Stuart and may have affected his decisions during his ride north. Gordon marches to reinforce Stuart but arrives after Union forces retire. His soldiers camp on the battlefield.
The U.S. War Department creates two new departments to guide the defensive measures. The Department of the Monongahela, based in Pittsburgh, covers western Pennsylvania and parts of West Virginia and Ohio, and the Department of the Susquehanna, headquartered in Harrisburg, covers south-central Pennsylvania and Harrisburg. The Department of the Monongahela will play little role in the upcoming invasion. The Department of the Susquehanna, on the other hand, will be very busy.
To be continued…