June 26, 1863 (Friday)
Thaddeus Stevens was not a very well liked man south of the Mason-Dixon line. His early career as a Gettysburg-based lawyer defending the rights of fugitive slaves certainly won him few Southern sympathizers. His intense hatred of slavery and racism was fully realized when he was elected to the House of Representatives as a Radical Republican. When came the Civil War, Stevens was for total war, especially against the slave owners, calling for the confiscation of their estates.
And so the events that transpired on this day should hardly come as a surprise. Confederate General Jubal Early marched his division east from Greenwood, Pennsylvania. They were marching toward the towns of Gettysburg and York with orders to burn the railroad bridge across the Susquehanna River at Wrightsville. Along the way, about ten miles west of his objective, General Early came across the Caledonia Iron Works, a business owned by none other than the abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens.
Jubal Early was a slave owner and avowed white supremacist until his dying day. In his memoirs, for example, he grumbled that the “barbarous race from Africa” should have been “kept in a state of subordination.” When Early learned that the iron works were owned by Stevens, he ordered them to be burned. The works consisted of not just a furnace, but a mill, shops, stables, a storehouse, and cottages where the workers lived.
At this time, Stevens was in Lancaster, but the foreman did his best to convince General Early that the place should be spared. Stevens, he said, only kept the works in operation to provide jobs and housing for the poor people in the area.
Early didn’t buy this for a second. “Yankees don’t do business that way,” he sneered. “They carry on their operations to make money.” Almost immediately, the works and buildings, even the cottages, were put to the torch. Early later claimed that he laid waste to the Caledonia Iron Works because the Federal troops “invariably burned such works in the South wherever they had penetrated.” True or not, even Early couldn’t resist admitting that it was his own dislike of Thaddeus Stevens that prompted the destruction: “Moreover, in some speeches in Congress Mr. Stevens had exhibited a vindictive spirit toward the people in the South.”
Happy with how his day was going thus far, Jubal Early carried on, marching towards Gettysburg. He had heard rumor that a large force of Federals was gathering in that town. As it turned out, these rumors were true. Pennsylvania’s Governor Andrew Curtin was fearful that the Rebels would turn east and fall upon the Susquehanna River. To stop them, he dispatched the 26th Pennsylvania Emergency Regiment, raised just over a week prior and consisting of over 700 central Pennsylvanians, who had until this point thought that war was not for them.
The impromptu Pennsylvania regiment arrived in Gettysburg at 9am on this date. When word of Jubal Early’s advancing Confederates came into town, the raw recruits were marched west of town to a little stream called Marsh Creek. They threw out a thin skirmish line atop the next ridge, known locally as Herr’s Ridge, and waited.
General Early was not at all sure how many Yankees were waiting for him at Gettysburg, but he knew he wanted to bag the lot of them. To ensure this, he detached a brigade under John Gordon and sent it down the pike directly toward Gettysburg. With the rest of his division, he took a more northerly road through the town of Mummasburg. Cavalry led the way for each column.
And it was the cavalry that was first spotted by the makeshift Union regiment on Herr’s Ridge. As if on the wind, word spread quickly and before the Confederates were close upon them, the bulk of the regiment quickly formed up and began a sharp march towards the northeast – away from Gordon’s Rebels coming at them on the Chambersburg Pike. The idea was to abandon Gettysburg and march to Harrisburg. It wasn’t the best example of Yankee bravery, but nobody liked the idea to being slaughtered with no chance to even slow down such a multitude of Confederates.
With no opposition, the Rebels entered Gettysburg, where they were met by the citizens who tried to win the favor of the wild-looking Southerners with drink. This, as it turned out, was an incredibly bad idea. Though they were surprisingly well behaved, the Rebel cavalry ran loud and frightening through the streets for the rest of the day, much to the amusement of Jubal Early, who had ventured into town to see how Gordon was coming along.
When he heard that the mysterious force of Yankees had started off for Harrisburg, he sent cavalry and two infantry regiments to track them down. Four miles north of Gettysburg, the Rebels caught up with their fleeing quarry. The Yankees turned and tried to form a line of battle, but these poor men were hardly trained in the military arts. Everything fell apart rather quickly. The skirmish, if it could be called that, lasted about twenty minutes, most of which involved both sides getting ready to fight. After a couple of volleys, the Pennsylvanians had had enough. All fled and many were captured.
That evening, Jubal Early addressed the 175 or so who had been taken prisoner. “You boys ought to be home with your mothers,” he spoke from the town square, “and not out in the fields where it is dangerous and you might get hurt.” Not wanting to deal with them any longer, he paroled them all. Most marched to Carlisle, where they would arrive in three day’s time.
Forty miles west, in the town of Mercersburg, Confederate guerrillas watching General Richard Ewell’s left showed the true face of war. One of the towns residents, Dr. Philip Schaff, wrote in his diary:
“On Friday this guerrilla band came to town on a regular slave-hunt, which presented the worst spectacle I ever saw in this war. They proclaimed, first, that they would burn down every house which harbored a fugitive slave, and did not deliver him up within twenty minutes. And then commenced the search upon all the houses on which suspicion rested. It was a rainy afternoon. They succeeded in capturing several contrabands, among them a woman with two little children. A most pitiful sight, sufficient to settle the slavery question for every humane mind.”
The barbarism against Mercersburg, however, was not yet at an end, as the Confederates encamped nearby and would be sure to revisit the town the following day.
In the greater picture, all of General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia (except for Jeb Stuart’s Cavalry) had crossed the Potomac River. More and more of it was crossing into Pennsylvania. The bulk of Ewell’s Corps made it to Shippensburg, while two of James Longstreet’s Divisions (Pickett and Hood) and one of A.P. Hill’s Division (Anderson) were encamped near Greencastle.
Lee had indeed beaten Union General Joe Hooker across the Potomac, but the Federals were not at all far behind – and much closer than Lee suspected. All of Hooker’s Army but the VI Corps and the cavalry was across the Potomac. Unsure precisely where Lee was, Hooker guarded the passes over South Mountain in Maryland while the rest of the troops marched north, mostly hugging the river, in an attempt to concentrate around Middletown. As he did the previous day, believing he was outnumbered by Lee, Hooker tried again and again to procure the 10,000 or so Federal troops at Harpers Ferry. To no avail – Washington would not give them over.
That night, as General Richard Ewell was establishing his temporary headquarters in the house of one of the Unionists in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, he received a message from General Lee. In it, he reiterated the idea of concentrating his army somewhere around York, but allowed that the great battle could take place in York, but also possibly in Gettysburg.1
- Sources: Here Come the Rebels by Wilbur Nye; Gettysburg by Stephen Sears; The Gettysburg Campaign by Edwin Coddington; Make Me a Map of the Valley by Jedediah Hotchkiss; Scribner’s, Vol. 16. [↩]