The Rebels Cross the Potomac and Enter Pennsylvania!

June 15, 1863 (Monday)

Allegheny Johnson
Allegheny Johnson

Well before dawn, Allegheny Johnson’s Confederate Division was lying in wait for the Federals fleeing Winchester. Stephenson’s Depot, along the Winchester & Potomac line, presented the Rebels with the perfect opportunity to bag Robert Milroy’s defeated division, routed out of their defenses by Jubal Early’s troops the day before.

But before he could get properly set, Milroy’s advance stumbled into his pickets and a fight kicked up before sunrise. With the fear of being captured pumping in his heart, Milroy was determined to somehow cut his way out and ordered an assault against Johnson’s still-gathering lines.

The Rebels, however, had artillery, and blasted away at the coming Yankees. Milroy had been forced to abandon his twenty-three cannons back in Winchester. Though he outnumbered Johnson, it was no use. His men were out gunned and demoralized. When the light mercifully filled the sky, he ordered his men to disperse. They ran in every direction, and many were captured. General Johnson himself claimed to nick thirty of them “with his opera glass.”

In all, 4,000 Union soldiers from Milroy’s command were taken prisoner, though he personally was not, having left the field immediately after giving the order to disperse.

General Richard Ewell, commanding the Confederate divisions that had flooded into the Shenandoah Valley was, of course, satisfied with the results, but wanted to capture the lot of them. He sent a message to Robert Rodes, commanding his northernmost division, to see if he (Rodes) couldn’t send some troops or perhaps some of Albert Jenkins’ Cavalry, which had been traveling with Ewell, to intercept the fleeing enemy.

Robert Rodes couldn't help if he wanted too.
Robert Rodes couldn’t help if he wanted too.

Rodes had just taken Martinsburg to the north, which had been occupied by Col. Benjamin Smith’s Federal Brigade. Smith had sent his infantry to Harpers Ferry, while his artillery and supply trains made for Williamsport, Maryland. The Confederates under Rodes were exhausted, having marched nearly 100 miles in four days. They could be of no help, as even the fastest of them couldn’t catch Milroy’s flying retreat.

Neither could Jenkins and his Cavalry be of any help. The previous night, just after the fall of Martinsburg, Rodes sent Jenkins north, across the Potomac River, with designs upon Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, forty miles to the north. He was to gather supplies and remain in Chambersburg until Rodes’ men could catch up.

As Johnson’s troops were being assaulted by Milroy’s panicked men, Jenkins was crossing the Potomac River near Williamsport. Not a shot was fired as they splashed to Maryland soil. The people of Williamsport welcomed the Rebels with a fine breakfast, but their guests could not tarry long. Soon they were on the road to Hagerstown.

Here's today's expanding map.
Here’s today’s expanding map.

All along the way, they skirmished from ridge to ridge. Union cavalry under Captain William Boyd contested the Confederates every chance they could, forcing the Rebels to deploy as they went. This ate up quite a bit of time. It wasn’t until noon that they made the six miles to Hagerstown, where another fine meal awaited them. During lunch, Jenkins was warned of a great Federal force in Greencastle, Pennsylvania, about ten miles north. Contested again by Boyd’s Federals, it took ten long hours to reach this quaint little town. But when he reached it, he saw no enemy force at all.

While in Greencastle, Jenkins asked one of its citizens who he voted for in the last Presidential election. The man replied that he had voted for Lincoln. “Get off that horse, you…abolitionist!” came Jenkins’ reply. He then asked the mayor the same question. When the official replied that he had voted for Douglas, Jenkins smiled and said, “You can ride your horse as long as you like – I voted for Douglas myself.”

Jenkins then turned for Chambersburg, with Boyd’s cavalry still contesting the move. In front of the fighting, for days now, streams of refugees, both white and black, were flooding through Chambersburg.

Before the arrival of the Rebels, almost every horse had been sent north, hopefully out of their reach. When Union troops fled through town, it fully convinced them that not only were the Confederates in Pennsylvania, but Chambersburg was their target.

Shop owners and bankers closed their stores and headed north. Many male family members left with wagons full of valuables. They, especially the black population, believed that no harm would come to the women and children left behind. To be sure, some of them were escaped slaves, but many were legally free. Many had been born free.

Around 11pm, Jenkins’ men arrived in the town square before encamping a mile north of town on the Col. Alexander McClure property. The next day, they would make their presence known in some very deplorable ways.

About the time that Jenkins reached Chambersburg, Rodes crossed three brigades. The march was finally taking heavy tolls upon his men. Many dropped out of the ranks, unable to make another step. A vast number were barefooted and blistered. Upon arrival in Williamsport, they would remain there for three more days.

Jenkins: I'm about to make things really ugly.
Jenkins: I’m about to make things really ugly.

This was also the day that General Lee set the rest of his army in motion. James Longstreet’s Corps, 100 miles south at Culpeper, stepped off with John Bell Hood’s Division in the lead. Lee had left A.P. Hill’s Corps at Fredericksburg, but since few Federals remained, all but William Pender’s Division was put on the road.

In Washington, little accurate information was getting through to the War Department. Alfred Pleasonton, the Federal Cavalry commander charged with providing some modicum of factual intelligence was failing miserably. “Pleasonton’s telegrams… contain all the information we have of the enemy’s movements,” wrote General-in-Chief Henry Halleck to Joe Hooker, head of the Army of the Potomac, which was quickly racing up the inside track towards Manassas. “They are very contradictory.”

By this time, Hooker was at Fairfax Station, north of Manassas. He, like everyone, finally realized that General Lee was invading the north with most or even all of his army. “It is not in my power to prevent it,” he told an exasperated President Lincoln. What Hooker wanted to do was prevent Lee’s army from concentrating, but wasn’t exactly sure how to do it, and wasn’t even sure it was the wisest move.

Much of Hooker’s Army – all but the II and VI Corps – were in and around Manassas. At this point, they were more or less between Ewell’s Corps at Winchester and the rest of Lee’s Army near Culpeper. Should he decide to cut the Rebels in two, no better time might present itself.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 27, Part 1, p42-43; Part 2, p550; Here Come the Rebels by Wilbur Nye; Gettysburg by Stephen Sears. []
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The Rebels Cross the Potomac and Enter Pennsylvania! by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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