Panic Spreads in Pennsylvania

Most of Major-General Joseph Hooker’s Federal Army of the Potomac was now in Maryland, and Hooker informed his superiors that he would be 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 they did in last year’s Maryland campaign.

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.” Hooker replied that he planned to inspect the Harpers Ferry garrison the next day, and he stressed to Halleck that he “must have every available man to use on the field.”

The administration began doubting that Hooker could stop Lee. According to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles:

“Rumors are rife concerning the army. If Hooker has generalship in him, this is his opportunity. He can scarcely fail of a triumph. The President in a single remark today betrayed doubts of Hooker, to whom he is quite partial. ‘We cannot help, beating them, if we have the man. How much depends in military matters on one master mind! Hooker may commit the same fault as (George) McClellan and lose his chance. We shall soon see, but it appears to me he can’t help but win.’”

General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was beginning to concentrate at Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, with Lee himself arriving at the town. The three divisions of Lieutenant-General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps were around Chambersburg, with the other two corps coming up from Maryland. Once united, Lee would then launch his invasion of Pennsylvania in earnest.

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

One of Ewell’s divisions under Major-General Jubal Early scattered Pennsylvania militia defending Gettysburg. Many of the militiamen were just 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 Lieutenant-General A.P. Hill, commanding the Third Corps, of a shoe factory in Gettysburg that his footsore troops might use.

Panic spread through Pennsylvania. Lee’s northern invasion last year only went into Maryland, a semi-friendly slave state, where civilians were treated delicately. Pennsylvanians did not expect to get the same treatment. They were more likely to be treated like the residents of Mercersburg, as described by local Dr. Philip Schaff. The Confederates had come to town issuing threats of destruction on June 25, and they came back the next day:

“On Friday (the 26th) 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.”

State militia companies were hastily organized to defend the Pennsylvania capital of Harrisburg. Major-General Darius N. Couch, commanding the Department of the Susquehanna, raised 30 regiments from the state and 19 more from New York. These troops were drilled in the city park and put to work alongside civilian volunteers building defenses.

Residents crossed the Susquehanna River in droves, bringing with them wagons laden with personal property of all kinds. An unprecedented amount of money was collected at the bridge toll, and railroad tickets out of Harrisburg sold like never before. Businesses shut down, and the capitol building was stripped of all its valuables. Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin called for 60,000 volunteers to serve in the state militia for 90 days or until the Confederates were driven out.

Major-General George Pickett, commanding a division in Lieutenant-General James Longstreet’s First Corps, wrote, “The Yanks have taken into the mountains and across the Susquehanna all the supplies they could, and we pay liberally for those which we are compelled to take, paying for them in money which is paid to us, our own Confederate script.” Since Confederate money was virtually worthless in the North, this was little comfort to those who were forced to part with their belongings.


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