The War Leaves Virginia

June 25, 1863 – Both the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and the Federal Army of the Potomac were now across the Potomac River and heading north.

Gen R.E. Lee and Maj Gen J. Hooker | Image Credit:

By this date, Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Confederate Third Corps had entered northern territory, joining the Second Corps under Lieutenant General Richard Ewell. General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate army, sat atop his horse on the Maryland bank of the Potomac and watched Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s First Corps crossing in the rain. Bands played “Dixie” as local ladies came out under umbrellas to meet Lee and welcome him to their state.

Lee wrote President Jefferson Davis proposing that while his army entered Pennsylvania, Confederates at Tullahoma and Knoxville in Tennessee move north and “accomplish something in Ohio.” Lee also repeated his suggestion to pull General P.G.T. Beauregard’s Confederates out of Charleston to reinforce his army:

“If the plan that I suggested the other day, of organizing an army, even in effigy, under General Beauregard at Culpeper Courthouse, can be carried into effect, much relief will be afforded. I have not sufficient troops to maintain my communication, and, therefore, have to abandon them. I think I can throw General (Joseph) Hooker’s army across the Potomac and draw troops from the South, embarrassing their plan of campaign in a measure, if I can do nothing more and have to return. I still hope that all things will end well for us at Vicksburg. At any rate, every effort should be made to bring about that result.”

That same day, three of Hooker’s Federal corps began crossing the Potomac east of Sharpsburg. Lee was unaware of the crossing because his cavalry commander, Major General Jeb Stuart, was not providing him with information. An independent cavalry unit led by Brigadier General John D. Imboden, assigned to guard the Confederate left, entered Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. Apparently Imboden’s men did not heed Lee’s order prohibiting attacks on civilians or their property. According to town resident Dr. Philip Schaff:

“On Thursday evening their captain, with a red and bloated face, threatened at the Mansion House to lay the town in ashes as soon as the first gun should be fired on one of his men. He had heard that there were firearms in town, and that resistance was threatened. He gave us fair warning that the least attempt to disturb them would be our ruin. We assured him that we knew nothing of such intention, that it was unjust to hold a peaceful community responsible for the unguarded remarks of a few individuals, that we were non-combatants and left the fighting to our army and the militia, which was called out, and would in due time meet them in open combat. They burned the barn of a farmer in the country who was reported to have fired a gun, and robbed his house of all valuables.”

By the 26th, most of the Federal army had crossed into Maryland. Hooker informed his superiors that he was heading to Frederick. Hooker also hoped to use the garrisons of Maryland Heights and Harpers Ferry to cut Lee’s communications, but they were outside his military department. President Abraham Lincoln did not want to give up these garrisons because he hoped they might cause Lee to divide his army as he did in last year’s Maryland campaign.

Moreover, the administration began doubting that Hooker could stop Lee. When Hooker asked General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, “Is there any reason why Maryland Heights should not be abandoned after the public stores and property are removed?”, Halleck responded, “Maryland Heights have always been regarded as an important point to be held by us, and much expense and labor incurred in fortifying them. I cannot approve their abandonment, except in case of absolute necessity.”

Lee arrived at Chambersburg that day, as one of Ewell’s divisions under Major General Jubal Early scattered Pennsylvania militia defending Gettysburg. Many of the militiamen were mere boys with no combat experience. Early told those that were taken prisoner, “You boys ought to be home with your mothers, and not out in the fields where it is dangerous and you might get hurt.” When the residents could not pay the $10,000 that Early demanded in tribute, the Confederates resumed their march to York. Early notified A.P. Hill of a shoe factory in Gettysburg that the footsore troops might use.

Governor Andrew Curtin called for 60,000 volunteers to serve in the state militia for 90 days or until the Confederates were driven out. Confederate guerrillas reentered Mercersburg, and according to Dr. Schaff:

“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 20 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.”

Lee reiterated his orders prohibiting destructive behavior in General Order No. 73, issued on the 27th:

“The Commanding General considers that no greater disgrace could befall the army… than the performance of the barbarous outrages upon the innocent and defenseless, and the wanton destruction of private property that have marked the course of the (Federals) in our own country. Such proceedings not only disgrace the perpetrators… but are subversive of the discipline and efficiency of the army, and destructive to our present movement.”

Lee called on his men:

“… to abstain with most scrupulous care from unnecessary or wanton injury to private property. It must be remembered that we make war only upon armed men, and that we cannot take vengeance for the wrongs our people have suffered without lowering ourselves in the eyes of all whose abhorrence has been excited by the atrocities of our enemies, and offending against Him to whom vengeance belongeth, without whose favor and support our efforts must all prove in vain.”

This did not stop the guerrillas acting independent of the main Confederate army from returning to Mercersburg where, according to Dr. Schaff, they “drove their booty, horses, cattle, about 500 sheep, and two wagons full of store goods, with 21 negroes, through town and towards Greencastle or Hagerstown… 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.”

Early’s division arrived at York on the 27th, where he demanded $100,000 in tribute, along with food, clothing, and shoes. City officials surrendered to Early but could only muster $28,000. One of Early’s brigade commanders, Brigadier General William “Extra Billy” Smith, addressed the residents:

“My friends, how do you like this way of coming back into the Union? I hope you like it; I have been in favor of it for a long while. We are not burning your houses or butchering your children. On the contrary, we are behaving ourselves like Christian gentlemen, which we are.”

Early received orders to wreck the railroad and bridges linking Harrisburg to Baltimore. Ewell’s other division under Major General Robert Rodes arrived at Carlisle, east of Chambersburg, and three Confederate divisions (two of Longstreet’s and one of Hill’s) were near Greencastle. Lee sent a message to Ewell expressing his desire to concentrate the army near York before driving on the state capital of Harrisburg. Lee did not know where Hooker was because Stuart had not informed him.

On the Federal side, every corps within the Army of the Potomac except VI Corps was across the Potomac by day’s end. Some Federals guarded the South Mountain passes and threatened Confederate communication lines, while others moved north to find Lee. Hooker directed his cavalry to ride ahead to Emmitsburg, Maryland, and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to scout the Confederate movements.

Hooker received Halleck’s message refusing to allow Maryland Heights to be abandoned. He personally inspected the defenses at both the heights and Harpers Ferry, and responded:

“I find 10,000 men here 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. All the public property could have been secured tonight, and the troops marched to where they could have been of some service. Now they are but bait for the rebels, should they return. I beg that this may be presented to the Secretary of War and His Excellency the President.”

This angry exchange would have far-reaching consequences.



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