Armies Converge in Southern Pennsylvania

June 30, 1863 – Cavalry from the Federal Army of the Potomac arrived at Gettysburg from the south, just as infantry from the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia left to the north.

Federal Maj Gen G.G. Meade and Confederate Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit:

The Confederate corps of Lieutenant Generals James Longstreet and A.P. Hill reached Chambersburg on the 27th. Major General Jubal Early, commanding a Confederate division in Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s corps, was at York, poised to destroy a railroad bridge over the Susquehanna River. The other part of Ewell’s corps was at Carlisle, poised to wreck the Pennsylvania Railroad. The Confederates seized food, clothing, livestock, and anything else useful from civilians.

Ewell’s cavalry under Brigadier General Albert G. Jenkins camped within four miles of Harrisburg on the night of the 28th. This marked the farthest north that a Confederate army had ever gone (or would go) in the war. Lee issued orders for Ewell to attack Harrisburg, Longstreet to move north to support Ewell, and Hill to cross the Susquehanna and cut the railroad line linking Harrisburg to Philadelphia.

At 10 p.m., Major John W. Fairfax reported to Lee that a Richmond actor-turned-spy named Henry T. Harrison had told Longstreet that the entire Federal army was across the Potomac and moving north from Frederick, Maryland. This shocked Lee, who had expected his cavalry commander, Major General Jeb Stuart, to notify him when the Federals started moving. He had heard nothing from Stuart for four days.

Both Longstreet and Harrison later visited Lee, with Harrison telling him that the Federals had been across the Potomac for two days and were now approaching Chambersburg. Harrison also reported that Major General George G. Meade had replaced Major General Joseph Hooker as Federal commander. Longstreet vouched for Harrison’s reliability, and Lee quickly changed his plans based on the spy’s intelligence.

Lee canceled the drive on Harrisburg in favor of concentrating the army near either Cashtown or Gettysburg, eight miles east. Hill’s corps began heading to Cashtown on the 29th, with the lead division under Major General Henry Heth arriving that night. Longstreet’s corps followed the next day. Ewell’s corps was to move from Carlisle to Cashtown or Gettysburg, avoiding the busy Chambersburg road being used by Hill and Longstreet.

Ewell’s men were within striking distance of Harrisburg, and Ewell issued orders for Major General Robert Rodes’s division to capture the state capital the next day. But an hour later, Lee’s order to pull back arrived. So Ewell directed Rodes and Major General Edward “Allegheny” Johnson’s division to start moving, along with Early at York.

Speaking to his staff, Lee said, “Tomorrow, gentlemen, we will not move to Harrisburg, as we expected, but will go over to Gettysburg and see what General Meade is after.” When someone asked him to assess Meade’s abilities, Lee said, “General Meade will commit no blunder in my front, and if I make one he will make haste to take advantage of it.”

Meanwhile, the main part of the Federal Army of the Potomac began moving out of Frederick, 40 miles south of Chambersburg, on the 29th. The leading Federal elements–I, III, and XI corps–reached Emmitsburg and Taneytown by day’s end, while the corps behind them hurried to catch up. The Federals held a 20-mile line in Maryland, from Emmitsburg to Westminster. Meade wrote his wife, “I am going straight at them, and will settle this thing one way or the other.”

Brigadier General John Buford’s Federal cavalry division rode in advance of the army, screening its northward movement. Buford’s men entered Pennsylvania on the 29th and rode within 12 miles of Gettysburg. Buford told his troopers, “Within 48 hours, the concentration of both armies will take place upon some field within view, and a great battle will be fought.” That night, Buford’s pickets briefly traded shots with Heth’s.

The Confederates continued concentrating in the Gettysburg area on the 30th. Early had told Hill about a shoe factory in Gettysburg, and Hill directed Heth to lead his men into the town on July 1 and “get those shoes.” Buford arrived at Gettysburg around 11 a.m., just as Heth’s troops were leaving. The two forces skirmished until Buford’s Federals pulled back. Heth reported Buford’s presence to Hill, who did not believe the Federals were in Pennsylvania yet.

Gettysburg had 12 roads leading in and out, making this prosperous little town strategically important. Buford immediately recognized this and posted defenses north and west of town, based on intelligence that the Confederates would come from one of those directions.

Buford was certain the Confederates would attack in the morning. One of his brigade commanders, Colonel Thomas Devin, expressed confidence that he would defeat any concentration of enemy forces coming his way. Buford said, “No you won’t. They will attack you in the morning and they will come booming–skirmishers three deep. You will have to fight like the devil to hold your own until support arrives.”

Meade ordered Major General John F. Reynolds, commanding operations for I, III, and XI corps, to seize the crossroads outside Gettysburg. Reynolds’s Federals camped within five miles of the town that night. Buford sent Reynolds a message stating that the Confederates were “massed just back of Cashtown.”

Meade sent orders for Reynolds to fall back to Emmitsburg if attacked, where strong defenses could be put up along Pipe Creek. Meade planned to let Lee do the attacking and hold him off. But by the time the orders reached Reynolds, the Battle of Gettysburg had already begun.



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