Bait for the Rebels

As General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia continued its march into Pennsylvania, Lee felt the need to reiterate his call for the troops to abstain from destroying civilian property. This was issued in General Order Number 73 on June 27:

“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.”

Gen Robert E. Lee | Image Credit:

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 guerrillas who acted independent of the main Confederate army. A Confederate unit had recently threatened residents and kidnapped blacks in Mercersburg. According to local Dr. Philip Schaff, the Confederates “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.”

While panic was gripping the residents of Harrisburg, fears were much more tempered in Philadelphia. Prominent businessman George Fahnestock wrote, “Thousands of able bodied young fellows are ever parading in the streets, but no enlistments go with spirit. These chaps can lounge and dress, swinging canes, or twirling moustaches, but they have no patriotism in their souls.”

Major-General Jubal Early’s Confederate division arrived at York on the 27th, where Early 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. Meanwhile, a division under Major-General Robert Rodes arrived at Carlisle, east of Chambersburg, and three Confederate divisions were near Greencastle. Lee sent a message to Lieutenant-General Richard Ewell, commanding the Second Corps, expressing his desire to concentrate the army near York before driving on the state capital of Harrisburg. Lee did not know where the Federal army was because his cavalry commander, Major-General Jeb Stuart, had not informed him.

On the Federal side, every corps within the Army of the Potomac except the Sixth 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. Major-General Joseph Hooker, commanding the army, directed his cavalry to ride ahead to Emmitsburg, Maryland, and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to scout the Confederate movements.

Hooker also inspected the Federal garrisons at Maryland Heights and Harpers Ferry. Hooker had asked his superiors to allow him to commandeer these troops, but General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck had refused. Hooker reported:

“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.”

Harpers Ferry | Image Credit:

The tense messages between Hooker and Halleck about the fate of Harpers Ferry would continue.


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