The Day Grew Ever Stranger – The Crest of the Rebel Invasion

June 28, 1863 (Sunday)

Meade: Hold on a moment, I might have to sit down for this.
Meade: Hold on a moment, I might have to sit down for this.

Just outside of Frederick, Maryland, the commander of the V Corps, George Gordon Meade, was roused from his slumber. Very few pleasant reasons exist to be woken at such an hour, and Meade assumed he was either to be dismissed or arrested. But it was neither. As he read the orders from Washington placing him at the head of the Army of the Potomac, he knew that it was his duty to accept. There was little political intrigue in this old army officer. And though he did not pursue the position, there was no way he could refuse it (after strongly suggesting that John Reynolds of the I Corps take the job instead).

At dawn, he rode to the resigned General Joe Hooker’s headquarters to sort out the details. After quite a bit of time talking in private, Hooker wrote up his last order, praising the Army of the Potomac, and urging them to follow their new commander. This was a fairly easy task. The soldiers were used to command changes, while many of the officers held General Meade in the highest regard.

The biggest problem for Meade on this day was figuring out where his army was located. Most of the corps were in and around Frederick and Middletown, Maryland, but specifically, Hooker had been secretive and Meade was left guessing. As for his plans beyond that, there was little he could do apart from following Hooker’s lead. He would march the Army into Pennsylvania and defeat the Rebels.

Just where the Rebels were was another issue, but one that was quickly cleared up. Scouts had delivered an incredibly accurate accounting of General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, correctly placing the total number of enemy troops at 80,000. They were in Pennsylvania, strung from Chambersburg to Carlisle to York. The only wild card was Jeb Stuart’s Cavalry.

Stuart had attempted to ride around the Army of the Potomac, hoping that it would stay in position around Centerville, Virginia. It clearly did not and now he and his cavaliers had crossed the Potomac and were trying to make haste for the Keystone state. Near Rockville, Maryland, they captured a huge wagon train and decided to drag it along with them as they made their way north. To strike at Stuart, General Meade dispatched two brigades of his own cavalry to track them down.

Mister, here's yer map.
Mister, here’s yer map.

While Meade knew Lee’s location, Lee had no real idea at all where the Federal Army was. He had instructed his most advanced corps, under Richard Ewell, to move east upon the Susquehanna River and Harrisburg. Two of Ewell’s divisions occupied Carlisle, twenty miles west of Harrisburg, and spent this Sabbath as intended, resting and refitting. Long before the war, Ewell had been stationed at Carlisle Barracks, and must have felt a bit of delight as he raised the Confederate flag above its parade grounds.

Though he was resting on this date, he planned to strike for Harrisburg on the 29th or 30th, and dispatched Albert Jenkins’ Cavalry to reconnoiter the ground to the Susquehanna. Through the night, as they camped just west of Mechanicsburg, they were fired upon the Yankee cavalry patrols based out of Fort Couch, just east of the town.

Ewell’s entire corps was not in Carlisle. He had detached Jubal Early’s Division a few days back and it had made its way through Gettysburg, entering York on the morning of this date. There had been some thought by the people of York of trying to defend the town with a measly home guard. But after seeing that the Rebels coming from the west were not merely cavalry, but a division of infantry, they reconsidered.

Smith: I've got some extra words for you, York.
Smith: I’ve got some extra words for you, York.

Around 10am, Early’s men entered town in several columns. In the town square, Confederate General “Extra” Billy Smith took advantage of the large crowds, making a speech to all who could hear. The Confederate Army, said Extra Billy, was not a horde of ruthless monsters, but was made up of Christian gentlemen. He made a few jokes about needing to escape the Virginia heat and rejoining the Union. “Are we not a fine set of fellow?” he asked. “You must admit that we are.” His speech was warmly received with a fairly rousing applause, all things considered.

Everyone but Jubal Early seemed to enjoy it. Extra Billy’s speech had stopped the crowds in York as well as the Confederate troops moving through it. When Early pushed his way to the front and saw what was going on, he grabbed Extra Billy by the collar, screaming at him for “stopping the head of the column in this cursed town.”

In no mood for such shenanigans, Early sent most of his division to encamp on the northern outskirs. Meanwhile, he demanded of the town 2,000 pairs of shoes, 1,000 felt hats, 1,000 pairs of socks, three days’ worth of rations, and $100,000 in cash to be delivered by 4pm.

Of course, the town could do no such thing. But they managed to scrape together $28,000 and gave it to Early, who used it to buy the supplies himself.

Fire on the Wrightsville Bridge.
Fire on the Wrightsville Bridge.

This strange day was only to get stranger. Early had sent John Gordon’s brigade farther east to seize the bridge at Wrightsville. His plan was to procure enough horses to mount most of his command, cross the Susquehanna at Wrightsville, march first to Lancaster, and then take Harrisburg from behind.

Guarding Wrightsville were around 1,000 Union militia troops, including a company of local black men. It was obvious that they could not hold the town against such numbers and without artillery. And sure enough, before Gordon’s troops were involved, his artillery opened upon the Union position. Soon, the militia troops were scurrying across the bridge. They had tried to blow it up, but the charges failed. With no other recourse, they set it to burning.

The span, which had been soaked in kerosene, went up with a whoosh. The Rebels closest to the conflagration did their best to put it out, but it was impossible. They tried to procure buckets from the town, but the Unionists citizens claimed there were none. When a few of the houses caught fire, however, the buckets mysteriously reappeared. The locals and the Rebels worked together to save the town. In this, they were successful.

The glow from the fire could be seen as far as Harrisburg, thirty miles upriver. Only two men, both of whom were Federals, were killed. One was from the black company and was buried by the Rebels in the trenches he helped dig. Gordon’s men spent the night just outside of town.

Though this was a strange day all around, it was most strange for General Robert E. Lee, who had made his headquarters just outside Chambersburg, sixty-five miles west of Wrightsville. Late that evening, Lee issued orders for his three corps. Ewell was to attack Harrisburg, Longstreet would march north to join him, and A. P. Hill was to cross the Susquehanna and take the railroad running to Philadelphia.

Around 10pm, everything changed. Lee was visited by one of James Longstreet’s favorite spies, Henry Thomas Harrison. At first, Lee had little interest in even seeing him, but trusting Longstreet as he did, the commanding General decided to at least hear the man out.

Harrison: I probably wasn't an actor, though all the world can still be in love with night and pay no heed to the garish sun, etc etc.
Harrison: I probably wasn’t an actor, though all the world can still be in love with night and pay no heed to the garish sun, etc etc.

The Union Army of the Potomac, spilled Harrison, was no longer resting idly in Virginia. It had crossed the Potomac River starting three days prior. Harrison knew the location of five of the seven Federal corps. To Lee this was almost unbelievable. Certainly, Lee believed, if the Union Army had crossed the Potomac three days ago, Jeb Stuart would have found a way to get in contact about it. But Lee hadn’t heard from Stuart since that time.

If this Harrison fellow was correct, General Hooker (Harrison did not know that Meade had taken over) had stolen a two-day march on him. Lee believed that Stuart’s silence could only mean that the Federals had not yet moved. Still, with nothing else to go on, Lee had to act. If Hooker was really this close, Lee had to immediately concentrate his entire Army.

Shortly after Harrison departed, Lee wrote an order to Ewell in Carlisle to return to Chambersburg. The message would not arrive until the next morning, and by then, Lee would have changed his mind and altered the plan. As history would have it, this was the crest of the Confederate invasion.1

  1. Sources: Fighting Joe Hooker by Walter H. Hebert; Here Come the Rebels by Wilbur Nye; The Gettysburg Campaign by Edwin Coddington; Gettysburg by Noah Trudeau; Gettysburg by Stephen Sears. []
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The Day Grew Ever Stranger – The Crest of the Rebel Invasion by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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