A Battle Will Decide the Fate of Our Country

By June 28, both the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and the Federal Army of the Potomac were out of Virginia. The Confederates, commanded by General Robert E. Lee, were positioned along a 45-mile arc:

  • The west end of the arc consisted of Lieutenant-General James Longstreet’s First Corps at Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.
  • Lieutenant-General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps was eight miles east of Chambersburg.
  • The bulk of Lieutenant-General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps was at Carlisle to the northeast, poised to wreck the Pennsylvania Railroad.
  • A division of Ewell’s corps was at York to the southeast, poised to destroy a railroad bridge over the Susquehanna River.
  • The Confederate cavalry, led by Major-General Jeb Stuart, was still conducting its raid around the Federal army and therefore provided no intelligence to Lee as to where the Federals were.

Of the seven corps of the Federal army, three were near Frederick, Maryland, and two were near South Mountain. One corps (the Sixth) was south of Frederick, and one (Twelfth) was around Harpers Ferry. Major-General George G. Meade, commanding the army, planned to move his forces toward York while blocking the Confederates from Baltimore and Washington.

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

Ewell’s cavalry under Brigadier-General Albert G. Jenkins camped within four miles of the Pennsylvania capital of Harrisburg on the night of the 28th. This marked the farthest north that a Confederate army would ever operate 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 because he expected 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’s headquarters, where Harrison asserted that the Federals had been across the Potomac for two days and were now approaching Chambersburg. Harrison also reported that 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 and instead directed his army to concentrate at either Cashtown or eight miles farther east at Gettysburg. Hill’s corps began heading to Cashtown on the 29th, and the lead division under Major-General Henry Heth arrived 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.

Being within striking distance of Harrisburg, 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. Ewell therefore directed his troops at Carlisle and York to move south “in the direction of Gettysburg via Heidlersburg.” The Confederates were disappointed at having to withdraw but complied nonetheless. Lee moved with the rest of the Confederate army eastward from Chambersburg to link with Ewell’s corps.

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.” Lee had known Meade well before the war, and 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. A newspaper correspondent noted the many stragglers “inflamed with whisky and drunk as well with their freedom from accustomed restraint.” He wrote:

“Take a worthless vagabond who has enlisted for $13 a month instead of patriotism, who falls out of ranks because he is a coward and wants to avoid the battle, or because he is lazy and wants to steal a horse to ride on instead of marching, or because he is rapacious and wants to sneak about farmhouses and frighten or wheedle timid country women into giving him better food and lodging than camp life affords–make this armed coward or sneak thief drunk on bad whisky, give him scores and hundreds of armed companions as desperate and drunken as himself–turn loose this motley crew, muskets and revolvers in hand, into a rich country, with quiet, peaceful inhabitants, all unfamiliar with armies and army ways–let them swagger and bully as cowards and vagabonds always do, steal or openly plunder as such thieves always will–and then, if you can imagine the state of things this would produce, you have the condition of the country in the rear of our own army, on our own soil, today.”

The Potomac army’s composition was radically different than it had been just 10 months before. In that time, the army had fought four major battles (Second Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville), with a different commanding general for each. They were now on the verge of fighting a fifth battle under yet another new commander. Casualties and expired enlistments caused tremendous turnover on the corps, division, brigade, and regimental levels. In many ways, this was an entirely different army than the one from just less than one year ago.

The leading Federal elements–the First, Third, and Eleventh 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 described the situation since taking command of the army to his wife:

“It has pleased Almighty God to place me in the trying position that for sometime past we have been talking about… an officer from Washington… handed me a communication to read, which I found was an order relieving Hooker from the command and assigning me to it. As it appears to be God’s will for some good purpose at any rate as a soldier, I had nothing to do but accept and exert my utmost abilities to command success. I am moving at once against Lee. A battle will decide the fate of our country and our cause. Pray earnestly, pray for the success of my country (for it is my success besides).”

Meade shared his strategy with General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck:

“If Lee is moving for Baltimore, I expect to get between his main army and that place. If he is crossing the Susquehanna, I shall rely upon General (Darius) Couch (commanding the Pennsylvania militia), with his force, holding him, until I can fall upon his rear and give him battle, which I shall endeavor to do… My endeavor will be, in my movements, to hold my force well together, with the hope of falling upon some portion of Lee’s army in detail.”

At Washington, administration officials were cautiously optimistic that Meade was capable of commanding the army at this crucial time. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles wrote in his diary:

“Great apprehension prevails. The change of commanders is thus far well received. No regret is expressed that Hooker has been relieved. This is because of the rumor of his habits, the reputation that he is intemperate, for his military reputation is higher than that of his successor. Meade has not so much character as such a command requires. He is, however, kindly favored; will be well supported, have the best wishes of all, but does not inspire immediate confidence. A little time may improve this, and give him name and fame.”

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 up to 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.


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