PRELUDE TO THE BATTLE.
Editor’s note: Often overlooked by the casual reader, the month and day before the Civil War Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863), are also filled with fascinating examples of intrigue and blunder. Utmost is an amazing decision by President Abraham Lincoln to replace his top field General Joe Hooker on June 28 with General George Meade. Two days later, General Meade is faced with preparing to fight the Rebels on Federal/Pennsylvania soil.
It was akin to Lincoln saying “...Thank you for accepting the promotion and by the way here are the keys to hell.”
Let’s go back six weeks before Gettysburg.
GUEST BLOG—National Park Civil War Series [ www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/civil_war_series/16/sec2.htm#2 ] -- Immediately after his victory at Chancellorsville (Apr. 30 to May 6, 1863), General Robert E. Lee prepared the Army of Northern Virginia for campaigns soon to come. He reorganized its infantry into three corps of three divisions each and placed them under command of Lieutenant Generals James Longstreet, Richard S. Ewell, and A. Powell Hill. (A Confederate corps numbered about 20,000 infantrymen, 2,000 artillerymen; a division 6,000 infantry men, and a brigade 1,500.) His cavalry division remained under the command of Maj. Gen. James E. B. Stuart, and he allotted supporting artillery battalions to each. The Army of Northern Virginia numbered about 75,000 officers and men, nearly 10,000 of whom were cavalry.
After his defeat at Chancellorsville, General Hooker's Army of the Potomac returned to its positions near Fredericksburg and prepared for a new thrust toward Richmond. Lee retained the initiative gained at Chancellorsville, however, and on June 6 launched an ambitious campaign of his own. Because he could see nothing to be gained from another battle in the Fredericksburg area, he decided on a bold move that would transfer the scene of hostilities north of the Potomac River. If this could be done, it might disrupt Federal campaign plans for the season, remove Federal forces from the Shenandoah Valley, and give him a chance to win a decisive victory for the Confederacy.
Leaving Hill's Corps to guard the Rappahannock River's crossings at Fredericksburg, Lee moved Ewell's and Longstreet's Corps west and north to the Culpeper area where much of Stuart's cavalry had assembled for the march north. There on June 9, in obedience to Hooker's order to "disperse and destroy" the Confederate force in that area, the Cavalry Corpus of the Army of the Potomac surprised and nearly defeated the Confederate horsemen in the battle of Brandy Station, the largest cavalry battle of the war. The battle was a draw; the Federals rode from the field, leaving Stuart to nurse his wounded pride. Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, commander of the Union cavalry, however, had confirmed that the Confederates were in force in the Culpeper area, and the Union horsemen had learned that they could "dispute the superiority hitherto claimed by, and conceded to the Confederate cavalry."
On June 10 Ewell's Corps left Culpeper for the Shenandoah Valley. Four days later it captured the Union garrison at Winchester and a large amount of supplies there and at Martinsburg. Ewell's Corps reached the Potomac near Hagerstown on June 15. As Ewell neared the Potomac, Longstreet's Corps moved northeast of the Blue Ridge to the mountain gaps west of Washington. There it and Stuart's cavalrymen guarded the Confederate right and rear as the remainder of Lee's army moved north. In mid-June also Hill's Corps marched from Fredericksburg toward Front Royal and the Shenandoah Valley beyond. Lee's plan to remove the theater of operations from Virginia was well under way.
General Hooker knew that Lee's army was moving north but could not divine Lee's intentions or objectives. When it became apparent that only Hill's Corps remained at Fredericksburg, Hooker suggested that he be allowed to strike it and advance toward Richmond. Although this suggestion had some merit at that time, Lincoln denied it, observing that Lee's army was his "sure objective point." Therefore, Hooker shifted the Army of the Potomac to the area west of Washington and south of the Potomac, whence it could face Lee's main force and cover Washington. Hooker's efforts to learn of Lee's army's locations west of Washington by sending cavalry and infantry probes through the mountain gaps there resulted in lively fights with Stuart's men at Aldie, Middleburg, and Upperville, but they provided little information and did not seriously disrupt Lee's movements.
Ewell's Corps and Brigadier General Albert G. Jenkins's brigade of cavalry crossed the Potomac on June 15 and headed north up the Cumberland Valley to Hagerstown and Chambersburg in a giant raid, sweeping the country for supplies. At Chambersburg, the one-legged Ewell divided his force, sending Maj. Gen. Jubal A. Early's division east to Gettysburg, York, and the Susquehanna River beyond. In the meantime, Ewell continued north to Carlisle and toward Harrisburg with the divisions of Maj. Gens. Robert E. Rodes and Edward Johnson. On June 29 Early's troops reached the Susquehanna River at Wrightsville, and Rodes's division threatened Harrisburg. By this time the corps of Hill and Longstreet had crossed the Potomac on June 24th and 25th and reached the Chambersburg area on the 27th. They occupied Chambersburg and Cashtown Pass over South Mountain to the east.
On June 25, on learning that Lee's forces had crossed the Potomac, Hooker ordered the Army of the Potomac from Virginia into that part of Maryland between Frederick and the river. In the meantime other Federal commands in the threatened area girded to meet the Confederate menace, and Governor Andrew Curtin of Pennsylvania worked to organize the Pennsylvania militia to defend Harrisburg and other important points within the Keystone State.
On June 3, 1863, the Army of Northern Virginia begins moving west to cross the Blue Ridge Mountains and gain the Shenandoah Valley. By the time General Hooker discerns Lee's purpose the Confederate army has entered the valley and is moving north to cross the Potomac and invade Maryland and Pennsylvania. The Union Army of the Potomac withdraws from the line of the Rappahannock River and starts marching north to intercept Lee's army.
After crossing the Potomac, Lee lost contact with Stuart and much of the Confederate cavalry. He had instructed that general to guard the mountain passes with part of his horsemen so long as the enemy was south of the Potomac and to cross that river with the remainder in order to screen Ewell's right. Stuart saw that his troopers guarded the passes, but he attempted to reach Ewell's right, not by a direct route near the mountains, but by leading his three best brigades between the Union army and Washington. Stuart hoped that such a move would create havoc among the enemy and remove the stain of Brandy Station from his reputation. But his gamble failed; the Union forces moved and prevented his reaching Ewell's right. Thus, the three errant brigades crossed the Potomac at Rowser's Ford and rode north via Rockville, Westminster, and Hanover to Carlisle, completely out of touch with General Lee and the main army and not providing the intelligence and screening important to its success. Stuart's failure to cover the the right of Lee's army and provide him with information on the enemy was one of the major Confederate blunders of the Gettysburg Campaign.
Early on June 28, when the Army of the Potomac was concentrated near Frederick, Maryland, a messenger from the War Department arrived with an order relieving General Hooker from command of that army and replacing him with Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, commander of the Union Fifth Corps. Hooker had rashly offered his resignation on the 27th, and President Lincoln accepted it with alacrity. Meade was thoroughly surprised at his appointment and was reluctant to accept it. Few if any Americans have had so much responsibility thrust upon them at such a critical time. Yet, Meade, a thoroughly capable professional soldier who had a strong sense of duty, shouldered the burden and took immediate measures to move his army north on a broad front to the relief of Harrisburg while covering Washington and Baltimore.
SITUATION JUNE 30, 1863, THE EVE OF BATTLE
On the evening of June 28 General Lee, who was at Chambersburg, learned from a spy that the Army of the Potomac, now under General Meade, had crossed the Potomac and was in the Frederick area. He decided immediately to concentrate his army east of the mountains to hold the Union army there and sent riders to General Ewell at Carlisle with orders to return his corps at once to the Gettysburg-Cashtown area. Ewell, who was about to attempt the capture of Harrisburg, called off that operation and ordered General Early at York, Pennsylvania, to return his division to the assembly area without delay. In the meantime, Ewell sent Johnson's division and his wagon train back toward Chambersburg and started with Rodes's division on a direct route toward Gettysburg.
The Army of Northern Virginia is attempting to concentrate near Cashtown to prepare for battle. Only four of the army's nine divisions are on the eastern side of the mountains. The Army of the Potomac is moving north from Frederick along nearly a thirty-mile front. Buford's Union cavalry division occupies Gettysburg during the afternoon, and Reynolds's 1st Army Corps camps five miles south of the town. The remainder of the army is gradually moving in the direction of Gettysburg.
On June 29 Maj. Gen. Henry Heth's division of Hill's Corps crossed South Mountain through Cashtown Pass to the hamlet of Cashtown at the east base of the mountain. On June 30 Heth sent a brigade east eight miles to Gettysburg in search of supplies, shoes especially, that he heard were in the town. When near Gettysburg, the Confederates saw a sizable force of Union cavalry and returned to Cashtown without having a fight. On July 1 General Hill sent Heth's division, followed by that of Maj. Gen. Dorsey Pender, to Gettysburg in a reconnaissance-in-force.
The troops seen near Gettysburg on June 30 were cavalrymen of Maj. Gen. John Buford's division of the Army of the Potomac. As that army had moved north from the Frederick area, Buford's troopers screened its left front, collecting information on Lee's army for General Meade and for Maj. Gen. John E. Reynolds, commander of the Union First Corps. Buford, an excellent cavalry officer, had reached Gettysburg with two of his three brigades. He posted them in an arc west and north of the town covering the roads over which the Confederates might approach.
Gettysburg in 1863 was a town of about 2,400 people. It sat amid gently rolling farmland—a bucolic quilt of orchards, grain fields, pastures, and wood lots. Its landscape undulated between low north-south ridges sometimes connected to lone granite hills, and Rock Creek bordered the town on the east. Gettysburg was the county seat of Adams County, and it could boast having Pennsylvania College and a Lutheran seminary. In addition, it was the hub of a road network with turnpikes leading west to Chambersburg, east to York, and southeast to Baltimore. Eight other roads led to Harrisburg, Carlisle, Emmitsburg, Taneytown, Hagerstown, Hanover, and lesser places nearby. A railroad stretched east to Hanover Junction and to Baltimore beyond. A railroad bed had been constructed near the Chambersburg Pike west of the town, but it had no tracks.
The Army of the Potomac numbered about 95,000 officers and enlisted personnel, all volunteers. It had seven corps of infantry and artillery, a corps of cavalry and artillery, and an artillery reserve of twenty-one batteries. Its corps were significantly smaller than Confederate corps and averaged 14,000 officers and enlisted men each but ranged in size from 9,800 to 17,000. There were twenty-two divisions, two or three per corps, divided into fifty-nine brigades. The infantry brigades were comparable in size to Confederate brigades, having an average strength of about 1,500 officers and men. Union divisions, however, were usually smaller than those of the Army of Northern Virginia.
Meade's army had marched north from Frederick on a broad front, searching for the Confederates and covering Baltimore and Washington. On June 30 the left of Meade's army was near Emmitsburg, Maryland, and its right about 25 miles to the east near Manchester. As Lee ordered a concentration near Gettysburg, Meade prepared to set up a defensive position along Pipe Creek just south of the Mason-Dixon line. The events of July 1 were to change each commander's plans.
BUFORD IN BATTLE, JULY 1, 1863.
|This is the official print for the 1990 Class of the U.S. Army War College by renown Civil War artist Mort Kunstler.|
Above, we see General Buford, dismounted, holding binoculars and pointing to the Confederate forces on the other side of Willoughby's Run. General Reynolds peers through his binoculars to see the enemy, through the smoke and dust. the action takes place McPherson's ridge at the site of the monuments to General Buford and Reynolds, McPherson's barn, still in existence, is seen in the right background. Two artillery pieces are seen, both 3" Ordinance Rifles, part of Calef's Battery A, 2nd U.S. Artillery. They were positioned at this site and are there to this day. The "worm" fence on the north side of the Chambersburg Pike has been torn down at this point to prepare the ridge for the strong defense that followed. In the background, a shell bursts near one of the horse holders of the dismounted cavalry, as they are being led to a safer area behind the ridge.
General Buford, casual in his field appearance (note the unbuttoned top button of his four button sack coat) has his ever present pipe protruding from his chest pocket. His headquarters flag, carried by the mounted corporal immediately behind him, with the two number ones in block lettering (1st Brigade, 1st Division) was the standard headquarters flag adopted for the Cavalry Corps in early 1863. His horse is held by the dismounted sergeant, immediately below his outstretched arm.
General Reynolds, on his black charger, has a Western style saddle, which still exists in the J. Norward Wirt Collection at the Mollus Museum in Philadelphia, and has a brace of pistols in horse holsters attached to the saddle. His uniform is regulation dress for General officers, with the buttons grouped in threes, and a velvet collar and cuffs. Directly behind him flies his headquarters flag, as illustrated in Headquarters Flags, American Military Equipage Vol. II. A fragment of the actual flag is also in the Mollus Museum in Philadelphia. The cavalry escort for General Reynolds was Company "L" of the 1st Maine Cavalry. Their guidon flies between the two headquarters flags. The other flag in the painting is the artillery guidon of Calef's Battery, with Lt. John Calef, seen mounted to the immediate right of the guidon and directly behind the artillery piece in the left foreground. The officer directly to the left of Reynolds is Capt. Miles Keogh, one of Buford's aides, who would eventually die at the Little Big Horn, under Custer.
The title of the painting is based on the actual words of Brigadier General Buford to Major General Reynolds when asked, "What's the matter, John?" plans.