June 29, 1863 (Monday)
Jeb Stuart had fallen behind. It all started with his first misstep on the 25th, but the captured Federal wagon train and a barren of mules which he insisted upon delivering to General Lee, now somewhere in Pennsylvania, helped him little.
Stuart’s men were twenty or so miles west of Baltimore and well north of Washington. In fact, quite a panic had gripped the capital as Stuart’s Cavalry was in between the Army of the Potomac and the city. Though Stuart had dreamed of riding through the streets of Washington, swords drawn and slashing, he knew he could not. He was well behind schedule and needed to reunite with General Lee. Hitting the road in Brooksville at 1am, Stuart and his men were exhausted. Many, including Stuart himself, fell asleep in the saddle.
They crossed the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad at Sykesville, burning a nearby bridge. They also tore up track and cut telegraph wire, the latter severing the Army of the Potomac’s last link with Washington. Though it was all a bit of fun, the damage was actually slight and easy to repair.
Stuart had also caught wind that General George Meade had replaced Fighting Joe Hooker at the head of the Federal Army. He had a feeling that Hooker would be returning to Washington via the railroad and wanted to intercept every train that went by until he captured the humiliated General. The Federals, however, had a feeling that Stuart might try something like this and held Hooker’s train back until the threat passed.
All this burning, tearing and Hooker-baiting had delayed Stuart even more. He had learned a great deal of information about the Union Army, such as it was moving quickly northward and threatened to cut off the Confederate Army from Virginia. He knew that he had to rejoin Lee’s main body as soon as possible. Leaving the B & O, they made haste for Westminster and problems galore.
Westminster was held by the 1st Deleware Cavalry, which consisted of no more than 90 men. They were commanded, however, by one of the greatest names in Civil War history: Major Napoleon Bonaparte Knight. Unfortunately, on this date he was blind drunk. The duty then fell to the less-colorfully-named Captain Charles Corbit, who was ordered by Major Knight to attack.
And so less than 100 brave (or something) Delawareans drew sabers and charged the 4,000 Rebels in their front. They were aided by the Unionist citizens of Westminster, who took to windows and roofs, firing down onto the massed Rebels.
The insane charge actually worked. So surprised were the troopers, mostly from Fitz Lee’s Brigade, that they retreated out of town. Soon they regrouped and countercharged the 1st Delaware, which had well established itself in a cut of the road. The Rebels charged once and were beaten back. They charged again and Corbit’s men held. But the third time, there was nothing he could do. The Federal troopers were grossly outnumbered and forced to retreat through town.
Most of the Delaware troops were captured, while the others were pursued by Stuart’s forces. In the end, they lost 67 men out of an official tally of 95. Stuart and his main command stayed in Westminster through the night. The further delay allowed Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps to pull to within three miles of the town. Fortunately for Stuart, Hancock’s call for David Gregg’s Cavalry to take on the Rebels fell upon the deafest of ears.
Stuart decided to ride for Hanover, Pennsylvania the following day. This was the same town sought by Union General Judson Kilpatrick, now commanding a third division of Federal Cavalry. But that is a story to be told soon enough.
On the road marching north, General Meade knew the score. “I am going straight at them,” he wrote in a letter to his wife, “and will settle this thing one way or the other.” Before leaving, General Hooker had divided the army into two wings. The left, commanded by John Reynolds, consisted of the I, III and XI Corps. This, Meade sent due north, with John Buford’s Cavalry acting as a screen. By night, they would camp near Emmitsburg and Taneytown, fifteen or so miles south of Gettysburg. As for the rest of Meade’s Army, they were well behind and sorely needed to catch up. Through hot and grueling marches, however, they were closing the gap.
The Yankees were drawing nearer and General Lee knew it. The previous night, he had sent word to General Richard Ewell at Carlisle, twenty miles west of Harrisburg, to rejoin the army at Chambersburg. But by morning, the letter had not yet arrived. Ewell was still acting on the premise that he was to take Harrisburg. In this, he was gleefully waiting for a reconnaissance report from Albert Jenkins, his cavalry commander.
Jenkins, however, had run into a bit of a problem with the Federals at Oyster Point near Mechanicsburg. He needed to get to the Susquehanna, but they were blocking his way. Rather than defeating them, he wanted to distract them so he could personally see the river for himself.
The Rebels had been shelling the mostly residential area through the morning. Around 11am, they charged, but were stopped by a bit of Yankee fire and a pile of logs thrown across the street. Two in their number were shot and Jenkins’ men soon backed off a bit.
But Jenkins didn’t need a full pitched battle. He, accompanied by several of Ewell’s staff and about sixty troopers, made his way to the Susquehanna, overlooking the capital of Pennsylvania. What they saw was a splendid sight. Taking Harrisburg, they concluded, would be a fairly simple task. Ewell’s staff officers rode back to his headquarters at Carlisle to tell him the good news. They arrived around 2pm.
Ewell was ecstatic and immediately issued orders for Robert Rodes Division to have the honors of capturing Harrisburg the following day. An hour later, when the courier from General Lee arrived, his hopes were dashed. Ewell was to move his entire corps back to Chambersburg. He sent word to Jubal Early, whose division was at York, to return, as he started off Allegheny Johnson’s Division on the road south. Rodes would follow soon after.
Late in the afternoon, another message from Lee arrived. Becoming ever worried that the Union Army would sever his supply line, Lee devised a new plan. He needed to somehow convince the Federals to keep east of South Mountain (basically, east of Hagerstown) – his line of communication. To accomplish this, Lee wanted to threaten both Washington and Baltimore.
Lee’s new message read:
I wrote you last night, stating that General Hooker [Lee still didn’t know Meade was in command] was reported to have crossed the Potomac, and is advancing by way of Middletown…. I desire you to move in the direction of Gettysburg […] When you come to Heidlersburg, you can either move directly on Gettysburg or turn down to Cashtown.
Ewell had received the message too late. Johnson was already well on his way to Chambersburg – he would rest near Shippensburg this night. Rodes would remain in Carlisle, as Early retained York, until morning. Lee had expressed no great rush, and so Ewell felt there was no need for a march through the night. The rest of Lee’s Army, aside from Henry Heth’s Division, which arrived near Cashtown, more or less stayed where they were around Chambersburg.
That night, near Fountaindale, Pennsylvania, twelve miles from Gettysburg, Union Cavalry commander, John Buford spoke to his officers. “Within forty-eight hours,” he told, “the concentration of both armies will take place upon some field within view, and a great battle will be fought.”
Through the night, elements of Buford’s pickets brushed up against elements of the 52nd North Carolina from Heth’s Division, which had wandered south to Fairfield. Buford would have to give this a closer look the next morning.1
- Sources: Here Come the Rebels by Wilbur Nye; Plenty of Blame to Go Around by Eric J. Wittenberg and J. David Petruzzi; Gettysburg by Stephen Sears; The Gettysburg Campaign by Edwin Coddington; Make Me a Map of the Valley by Jedediah Hotchkiss; Morning at Willoughby Run by Richard S. Shue. [↩]