Armies Converge in Pennsylvania

On the last day of June, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by General Robert E. Lee, was situated as follows in southern Pennsylvania:

  • Lieutenant-General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps was around Heidlersburg.
  • Lieutenant-General James Longstreet’s First Corps reached Greenwood while one of Longstreet’s divisions, led by Major-General George Pickett, stayed at Chambersburg to do enemy reconnaissance.
  • Major-General Jeb Stuart’s cavalry continued raiding the Federal Army of the Potomac and was therefore unable to provide any intelligence on enemy movements.
  • Lieutenant-General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps was moving east on the Chambersburg Pike, with Major-General Henry Heth’s division forming the vanguard at Cashtown.

Heth dispatched one of his brigades under Brigadier-General James J. Pettigrew to Gettysburg to “search the town for army supplies (shoes especially), and return the same day.” Pettigrew was not to start a fight if there were Federals in the town. Pettigrew advanced as ordered but soon spotted Federal cavalry. These troopers belonged to Brigadier-General John Buford’s cavalry division, which was part of the Federal Army of the Potomac. Buford’s men had arrived at Gettysburg around 11 a.m. They traded shots with Pettigrew’s Confederates until Buford pulled back.

Pettigrew reported this to Heth and Hill, who both doubted it was true. Hill asserted that Lee had just told him the closest Federals were 20 miles south at Middleburg. Hill informed Lee of what Pettigrew had seen and stated that he would “advance the next morning and discover what was in my front.” Hill also authorized Heth to go into Gettysburg the next day and “get those shoes” for his footsore troops.

Without his cavalry, Lee still did not have a clear vision as to where the enemy was. This was very bad for Lee, especially considering his army was operating in enemy territory. He sent orders to Ewell “to proceed (the next day) to Cashtown or Gettysburg, as circumstances might dictate.”

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

Brig Gen John Buford | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Buford was certain the Confederates would attack in the morning. Colonel Thomas Devin, commanding one of Buford’s brigades, expressed confidence that he could defeat any enemy forces coming his way. This prompted Buford to respond, “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.” Buford warned his men: “Look out for campfires during the night and dust in the morning.”

Buford informed Major-General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal army, that there would likely be action around Gettysburg in the morning. Meade told him that the First Corps, led by Major-General John F. Reynolds, was on his way to support him, followed by Major-General Oliver O. Howard’s Eleventh Corps.

Meade wrote his wife, “I am going straight at them, and will settle this thing one way or the other… We have been reinforced so as to have equal numbers with the enemy.” The Bureau of Military Information mistakenly estimated Lee’s army to number 100,000 men (Lee actually had closer to 75,000), but Meade, having about 104,000 men of his own, was confident that he could match them.

A group of officers tried to boost morale by spreading the false rumor that the beloved Major-General George B. McClellan had been restored to army command. It was hoped that the soldiers would be inspired enough to win the upcoming battle before learning that the rumor was false. Some soldiers cheered, but most of the veterans doubted that it was true. If McClellan was to be restored, they thought, it would be after the battle, and only if they were defeated.

It was not just army officers clamoring for McClellan’s return. New Jersey Governor Joel Parker implored President Abraham Lincoln to reinstate the general to command either the army or the Pennsylvania defenses. “If either appointment be made,” Parker asserted, “the people will rise en masse.”

Prominent editor Alexander K. McClure told Lincoln that to call McClellan to a command in Pennsylvania would be “the best thing that could be done.” McClure argued that “without military success we can have no political success, no matter who commands.” Lincoln remained firmly against it. “Do we gain anything by opening one leak to stop another?” The president asked. “Do we gain anything by quieting one clamor, merely to open another, and probably a larger one?”

Regardless of rumors, Meade issued orders for the men to be supplied with three days’ rations and 60 rounds of ammunition. He called on officers to “address their troops, explaining to them briefly the immense issues involved in the struggle… the army has fought well heretofore; it is believed that it will fight more desperately and bravely than ever if it is addressed in fitting terms.” Meade grimly concluded, “Corps and other commanders are authorized to order the instant death of any soldier who fails in his duty at this hour.”

Meade directed Reynolds, commanding the wing of the Federal army consisting of the First, Eleventh, and Third corps, to seize the crossroads outside Gettysburg. Buford informed Reynolds that the Confederates were “massed just back of Cashtown.” A sign outside the Gettysburg cemetery threatened a $5 fine for anyone caught firing a gun on the property.

Meade told Reynolds that if attacked, he was to fall back to Emmitsburg, where strong defenses could be put up along Pipe Creek. Meade planned to let the Confederates do the attacking and hold them off. But by the time the orders reached Reynolds, the Battle of Gettysburg had already begun.


Bibliography

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  • Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), Never Call Retreat: Centennial History of the Civil War Book 3. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1965.
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  • Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes. Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889.
  • Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York: Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (Kindle Edition), 2011.
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  • Sears, Stephen W., Lincoln’s Lieutenants: The High Command of the Army of the Potomac. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books, (Kindle Edition), 2017.

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