General Jenkins’ Vanguard of Silly Women; Lee’s Confusing Message to Stuart (Part One)

June 22, 1863 (Monday)

No, no, no! Stop it! Stop that! It's too silly!
No, no, no! Stop it! Stop that! It’s too silly!

It was afternoon in the Union camps near Chambersburg, Pennsylvania when she arrived. Col. Joseph Knipe had assembled two New York Regiments called back into service to slow General Lee’s northward march. The mysterious women was dressed in black for mourning; her face almost wholly concealed behind a large, out of fashion black bonnet and veil.

“She went about the camp pretending to be silly,” remembered Jacob Hoke, one of the soldiers in Knipe’s small brigade, “and inquired where a certain farmer lived, whom no one knew.” When some of the troops took notice that she was a rather manly woman, they tried to get Col. Knipe to arrest her. But he replied that “she was only a silly woman, and must not be disturbed.”

After wandering around camp for a time, she quickly left, “and when she was last seen was making her way at a brisk pace southward on the railroad.” Hoke, the narrator of this event, concluded “that this pretended woman was a Confederate scout, sent by Jenkins in advance to ascertain what forces and preparations were here for their reception.”

General Albert Jenkins, commanding the Confederate cavalry preceding Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, had once made his presence known to Chambersburg on the 16th, when he and his men rounded up black people and other supplies. Since that time, he had been hovering around the Potomac, waiting for General Richard Ewell, commanding Lee’s northernmost corps, to cross.

On this day, they did. From Funkstown, Maryland, Robert Rodes’ Division marched, arriving at the Pennsylvania border around 10am. When they marched through Greencastle, a small detachment of Union cavalry under Captain William Boyd was caught by surprise. The Rebels, it seems, were caught as well. Rodes, not knowing who exactly was before him, deployed his entire division of 8,000 men in a beautiful line of battle, red flags snapping in the morning air.

Knipe: Smell ya later, Chambersburg!
Knipe: Smell ya later, Chambersburg!

From a farmer, General Rodes had heard a strange tale that, because of its presence in the newspapers of late, seemed not so strange at all. The story went that General George McClellan had come out of retirement and was storming down from Harrisburg with 40,000 men. Due to such repetition, the rumor was believable and Rodes was taking no chances. Though many in the North had wanted just that – for Little Mac to once again “save the Union,” it was simply not true.

When Captain Boyd and the rest of his Union Cavalry arrived on the scene, they were fired upon not by Rodes’ gathering line, but by Jenkins’ skirmishers laying prostrate and hidden by the tall wheat. Sgt. William Cafferty was hit in the leg, while a bullet passed through the back of Corporal William Rihl’s head. He was dead, having the macabre honor of being the first soldier killed north of the Mason-Dixon line in the campaign.

Unbelievably outgunned, Captain Boyd, who commanded only a company, after all, made quick haste to Chambersburg. He told Knipe all he knew, and soon word had it that Jenkins’ men were six miles away, with Rodes not too far behind. Word had also reached General Darius Couch, commanding the Federal troops from Harrisburg. He ordered Col. Knipe to immediately send the supply train up the railroad to the other side of Scotland, even if it meant leaving the men behind.

Knipe wasn’t about to leave them behind, so, as his men flew into a bit of panic, he managed to corral them onto the cars for a quick flight to Carlise, thirty miles northeast. They left behind their tents, most of their rations, two pieces of artillery, and the incredibly troubled home guard, who wanted to know what they were to do. Since they were not technically his men, Knipe didn’t really care what they did.

In the confusion and race to the railroad station, the befuddled home guard managed to save the two cannons, pushing them onto the cars they were not allowed to enter themselves. When the train left, somehow half of one of Knipe’s regiments was left behind. Through a bit of panicked confusion, they had to march themselves to Carlise. The next day, the home guard would be sent through Gettysburg to York, where they’d join the militia gathering there. Jenkins’ Confederates would not arrive in Chambersburg until the following day (the 23rd).

Here's a map to guide you.
Here’s a map to guide you.

Farther to the south, the confusion in General Joe Hooker’s Army of the Potomac was beginning to wear off. The Union Cavalry Corps under Alfred Pleasonton had battled with their Rebel counterparts commanded by Jeb Stuart. Though the Federals couldn’t break through in any force, some must have gotten atop or even across the Blue Ridge Mountains and gathered some fairly useful information of the Confederate Army’s whereabouts.

Pleasonton’s poor information-gathering skills had plagued Hooker since the armies left the Rappahannock. Finally, something of value came down the line. James Longstreet’s Corps was at Winchester, along with General Lee himself. A.P. Hill’s Corps was rapidly closing in behind them. This was the first concrete information the Union Army had received. It arrived from a cavalry scout who told General George Meade, commanding the V Corps. He had not heard from General Hooker’s headquarters for three days.

Meade and Hooker weren't exactly on speaking terms.
Meade and Hooker weren’t exactly on speaking terms.

As for Pleasonton, any victory he could claim the previous day was a good one and the news spread quickly through the army (unlike the information of Lee’s location). Nevertheless, through the early morning and afternoon, Pleasonton pulled his force back until it was hugging the Bull Run Mountains and asked Hooker for more troops. Army headquarters would not learn of Lee’s position until well after midnight, when it was reported to him by a random Union scout.

Hooker might have known the location of Lee’s Army for the present, but it was not to stay put for long. Lee had ordered General Ewell to advance into Pennsylvania in three separate columns. “I think your best course will be toward the Susquehanna [River],” wrote Lee in his orders to Ewell, “taking the route by Emmitsburg, Chambersburg, and McConnellsburg.”

Lee also scolded Ewell, urging him to get Jenkins’ cavalry under control. “If necessary,” Lee warned, “send a staff officer to remain with General Jenkins.” He made it clear that Jenkins’ job was to gather supplies.

“It will depend upon the quantity of supplies obtained in that country whether the rest of the army can follow,” imported Lee. “There may be enough for your command, but none for the others.”

General Lee then drifted back to Ewell’s objectives: “If Harrisburg comes within your means, capture it.”

Longstreet muddied the waters a bit.
Longstreet muddied the waters a bit.

Lee also sent word to Jeb Stuart. He wasn’t convinced that Stuart had stopped the Union cavalry from peeking across the Blue Ridge and discovering his location. “I fear he will steal a march on us, and get across the Potomac before we are aware,” wrote Lee. He then laid down the first in a series of discretionary directives for Stuart to translate.

“If you find he [the enemy] is moving northward, and that two brigades can guard the Blue Ridge and take care of your rear,” Lee instructed, “you can move with the other three into Maryland, and take position on General Ewell’s right.” For this operation, Lee also gave Stuart command of Jenkins’ Brigade.

Lee would send an official order the following day, he concluded, “which I wish you to see it strictly complied with.”

General Lee sent this message through James Longstreet, whose corps Stuart was screening. Longstreet attached his own suggestion to it; one that he and Lee had discussed. He was worried that if Stuart raced north to be with Ewell, it would disclose the plans of the entire campaign to the enemy.

The other option was for Stuart to ride around the rear of Hooker’s Army. This, felt Longstreet, was the safer option. If Stuart couldn’t pull it off, he added, it might be best if he didn’t leave at all.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 27, Part 3, p255, 258, 259, 913, 914, 915; Here Come the Rebels by Wilburg Nye; Gettysburg by Noah Andrew Trudeau; Plenty of Blame to Go Around by Eric Wittenberg and J. David Petruzzi. []
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General Jenkins’ Vanguard of Silly Women; Lee’s Confusing Message to Stuart (Part One) by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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