The Regular Slave Hunt Returns to Pennsylvania; Hooker Replaced by Meade

June 27, 1863 (Saturday)

Mercersburg, Pennsylvania had seen its fair share of Rebels over the past week. They were first treated to the marauding ways of the Confederate Cavalry under Albert Jenkins that, as a vanguard for General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, rounded up supplies, horses and black citizens to aid the Southern war effort. Next came infantry under General George “Maryland” Steuart. They were well behaved and took little, though they were merely marching through.

Schaff: The guerrilla band came to town on a regular slave-hunt.
Schaff: The guerrilla band came to town on a regular slave-hunt.

Then came the guerrillas – bands of apparently independent Confederates, probably under the command of General John Imboden, who was actually under the official command of General Lee’s Army (though they were hardly recognized as such).

They had come through town the day before “on a regular slave-hunt,” as Mercersburg resident Dr. Philip Schaff wrote in his diary. On this date, they came back. Again taking to his diary, Dr. Schaff noted that the returning guerrillas “drove their booty, horses, cattle, about five hundred sheep, and two wagons full of store goods, with twenty-one negroes, through town and towards Greencastle or Hagerstown.” Mercersburg was located west of Chambersburg. Imboden was ordered by Lee to protect the left of General Richard Ewell’s Corps, specifically mentioning the Mercersburg Road upon which the cavalrymen were operating.

Philip Schaff continues:

“It was a sight as sad and mournful as the slave-hunt of yesterday. They claimed all these negroes as Virginia slaves, but I was positively assured that two or three were born and raised in this neighborhood. One, Sam Brooks, split many a cord of wood for me. There were among them women and young children, sitting with sad countenances on the stolen store-boxes. I asked one of the riders guarding the wagons: ‘Do you not feel bad and mean in such an occupation?’ He boldly replied that ‘he felt very comfortable. They were only reclaiming their property which we had stolen and harbored.'”

The Rebels also took sheep, hardware, arms, dry goods, clothing, and whiskey. Other items that could not be carried with them, such as fine China, were smashed out of spite. So bold were these Confederates that they offered to sell back the stolen goods to the very people who, until the previous day, were the rightful owners. The black citizens, however, were not given such a chance.

“I expect these guerrillas will not rest until they have stripped the country and taken all the contraband negroes who are still in the neighborhood, fleeing about like deer,” wrote Schaff. “My family is kept in constant danger, on account of poor old Eliza, our servant, and her little boy, who hide in the grain-fields during the day, and return under cover of the night to get something to eat. Her daughter Jane, with her two children, were captured and taken back to Virginia. Her pretended master, Dr. Hammel, from Martinsburg, was after her, but the guerrillas would not let him have her, claiming the booty for themselves.”

Col. Christian: I was offered my choice, but as I could not get them back home I would not take them.
Col. Christian: I was offered my choice, but as I could not get them back home I would not take them.

Schaff concluded that the guerrillas were “far worse than the regular army, who behaved in an orderly and decent way, considering their mission. One of the guerrillas said to me, ‘We are independent, and come and go where and when we please.'”

Though it was obvious that most of the kidnapping took place on the outskirts of General Lee’s Army, it’s also clear that it was an accepted (or at least tolerated) practice in the regular infantry. Col. William Christian of the 55th Virginia in Henry Heth’s Division of A.P. Hill’s Corps, described an offer made to him. On this day, his regiment had marched through Chambersburg, Pennsylvania before turning east towards Gettysburg.

“We took a lot of negroes yesterday,” wrote Col. Christian (the letter was written on the 28th, so he was actually speaking of this date, the 27th). “I was offered my choice, but as I could not get them back home I would not take them. In fact, my humanity revolted at taking the poor devils away from their homes. They were so scared that I turned them all loose.”

Originally, Christian confessed, that upon entering Pennsylvania, he wanted to seek revenge upon the population, “yet when I got among these people I could not find it in my heart to molest them. They looked so dreadfully scared and talked so humble, that I have invariably endeavored to protect their property, and have prevented soldiers from taking chickens, even in the main road; yet there is a good deal of plundering going on, confined principally to the taking of provisions.”

Today's map.
Today’s map.

Farther to the south, General Joseph Hooker, commanding the Union Army of the Potomac, was doing what he could to keep up with the Confederate push into Pennsylvania. He had completely crossed the Potomac and ordered his cavalry to Emmitsburg, Maryland and Gettysburg so he could make a clearer decision on what to do next.

There had been a sticking point, however. For the past several days, he had wanted to abandon Harpers Ferry and fold the garrison troops into his own army. He believed (or at least expressed) that he was outnumbered and could use the extra bodies. General-in-Chief Henry Halleck in Washington, disagreed, disallowing Hooker to give up the town unless absolutely necessary.

Hooker: I beg to be understood...
Hooker: I beg to be understood…

To see if he could pull it off, on this date, Hooker dropped by Harpers Ferry and toured the town’s defenses, as well as those upon Maryland Heights across the Potomac River. Now he was fully convinced that there was no point at all in holding the place.

Hooker wrote a fairly angry message to Halleck, begging that it before shown to the Secretary of War and President Lincoln. “I find 10,000 men here,” began Hooker, “in condition to take the field. Here they are of no earthly account. They cannot defend a ford of the river, and, as far as Harpers Ferry is concerned, there is nothing of it. … Now they are but bait for the rebels, should they return.”

Completely convinced that he had forced Halleck’s hand, Hooker issued orders to the commander in charge of the town, General William French, to abandon Harpers Ferry at once. The order was also forwarded to Halleck. Hooker, who was with French when he issued the order, waiting for Halleck’s reply. Before long it came, addressed to General French: “Pay no attention to General Hooker’s orders.”

Hooker was livid and likely humiliated. His mind was also made up. When a fellow officer approached him, making a bit of small talk about a coming battle, Hooker replied, “Yes, but I shall not fight the battle. Halleck’s dispatch severs my connection with the Army of the Potomac.”

At 1pm, Hooker shot off his reply:

My original instructions require me to cover Harper’s Ferry and Washington. I have now imposed upon me, in addition, an enemy in my front of more than my number. I beg to be understood, respectfully, but firmly, that I am unable to comply with this condition with the means at my disposal, and earnestly request that I may at once be relieved from the position I occupy.

Since Hooker was appointed by President Lincoln, Halleck could not accept his resignation. He was, however, incredibly ecstatic that he had forced Hooker’s hand and convinced him to resign. Halleck quickly and joyously took the resignation to Lincoln, who just as quickly approved it.

Meade: Dunghill?!
Meade: Dunghill?!

Lincoln also knew exactly who he wanted to fill Hooker’s shoes. The commander of the V Corps, George Gordon Meade was just the man for the job. Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton had come to the conclusion that nobody else in the Army who was qualified would accept. Besides, most of them had detractors. All, that is, except Meade.

Stanton put forward that he could find no fault at all with Meade’s records, “and as a Pennsylvanian,” he continued, “he has patriotism enough to draw out all the latent energies of his nature.”

“And will fight well on his own dunghill,” Lincoln interjected.

It was well after dark that the orders accepting Hooker’s resignation and containing Meade’s not-asked-for promotion left Washington. One line contained in the orders promoting Meade must have burned General Hooker deeply. Lincoln informed Meade that “Harper’s Ferry and its garrison are under your direct orders.”

Meade would receive the orders early the following day.1



  1. Sources: Scribner’s, Vol. 16; The Rebellion Record, Vol. 7, p325; Here Come the Rebels by Wilbur Nye; Gettysburg by Stephen Sears; The Gettysburg Campaign by Edwin Coddington; Fighting Joe Hooker by Walter H. Hebert; Life and Public Services of Edwin M. Stanton, Volume 2 by George Congdon Gorham. []
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2 thoughts on “The Regular Slave Hunt Returns to Pennsylvania; Hooker Replaced by Meade

  1. Well done as usual. I will add that Lincoln had originally approached I Corps commander John Reynolds. However, Reynolds had required a “free hand” with the army, which Lincoln could or would not promise.

  2. No one ever explains that General Hooker offered his resignation–they just say Meade replaced Hooker. Huzzah, as usual–& am following you two on your Route 66 trip. Looking forward to strange stuff from the West!

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