Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Rereading the Tide Tables at Gettysburg

The "High Water" mark of the Confederacy has crept into and has remained as part of the historiography of the Battle of Gettysburg ever since "Colonel"  John B. Bachelder experienced an awakening as he strolled The Angle area of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge during the 1880s.  As Superintendent of Tablets and Legends for the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association, he supposedly coined that phrase to describe the ineffective Confederate  breakthrough near a thicket of trees.

This point may well reflect the greatest point of incursion into the Union defenses by the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble charge during the third day of battle.  Is the high water mark label accurate when one views the entire campaign?  Geographically speaking the stain of the high water mark was left behind in Cumberland and York Counties which represents the furthest points north and east attained by the Army of Northern Virginia (ANV).

The second foray into the North by Confederate General Robert E. Lee became known as the Gettysburg Campaign which many historians say began on June 3 and ended on July 14, 1863.  The label Gettysburg is used because the largest land battle in North America occurred in the borough of Gettysburg and surrounding area during the campaign.  June 3 represents the date the ANV starting moving north and July 14 is the date the ANV crossed the Potomac River in retreat from its sortie.

Lee had several reasons for venturing north which included relieving Virginia of constant warfare, gathering supplies such as livestock, feed and food from the northern states as yet untouched by war, to engender support from the northern antiwar faction called Copperheads and of course destroy as much of the Union Army of the Potomac as possible.

To alert and panic the northerners Lee determined his focus would be on wreaking havoc in the north by menacing cities such as Harrisburg, Philadelphia and Baltimore.  He wanted to frighten the politicians in Washington to a degree that with adequate public pressure, the federal government would sue for peace.

Plaque on the Governor Curtin statue in Harrisburg
Lee's brilliant plan of hiding the ANV from Union troops by riding them north, west of the Blue Ridge worked perfectly.  The geography of the area reveals that the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia continues north as the Cumberland Valley of Pennsylvania and the South Mountain chain is an extension of the Blue Ridge.  The city which appears as a bulls eye to the Cumberland Valley arrow is Harrisburg, then and now, the capital of Pennsylvania.

State historical marker in Harrisburg.
Harrisburg was a major transportation hub.  The transportation of troops and commercial goods were serviced from points north and east by the Northern Central and Pennsylvania Railroads.  Camp Curtin one of the largest training camps and supplier of troops was located just north of the city.  In addition, historians also maintain that there were a fair number of Copperheads in central Pennsylvania during this period

General Richard Ewell commanding the Second Corps of the ANV was the lead element of the ANV which crossed the Potomac River on June 15.  On that same day orders were sent to Ewell from General Lee concerning his mission in Pennsylvania which included the following,  "If Harrisburg comes within your means, capture it."

On June 25 in Chambersburg, General Ewell met with General Early, one of his division commanders. General Ewell ordered General Early to cross South Mountain and go through Gettysburg.  He was then to proceed to York and cut the Northern Central Railroad which ran from Baltimore to Harrisburg.  Early was also ordered to destroy the Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge which carried track from York to the Pennsylvania Railroad at Columbia. 

On June 26 Early's column easily traversed Adams County, staving off some militia units and while in Gettysburg he garnered some supplies and rations.  Part of Early's column commanded by General Gordon took York on the 28th without opposition.  Early had ordered Colonel White's battalion of cavalry to ride to Hanover Junction and destroy as much track and bridges he could of the Northern Central.

Upon Gordon's arrival at the Wrightsville Bridge he found it was defended by 1,200 militiamen.  Shortly after Gordon attacked the defended portion of the bridge, the militiamen began retreating across the bridge.  The defenders outran the Confederates and fired the bridge in the process.   The bridge was totally destroyed and it actually ignited several buildings in Wrightsville.  The Southerners quickly transformed themselves into firemen and assisted the locals in quenching the flames.

With the bridge burned and unusable, Gordon and his men remained on the west bank of the Susquehanna River. Harrisburg was safe, for now.
Jenkins monument in Mechanicsburg, PA.

General Ewell continued north up the Cumberland Valley with his other infantry divisions commanded by Generals Rodes and Johnson and a brigade of cavalry lead by General Jenkins.  Jenkins brigade was in the lead and it was his duty to perform reconnaissance for the infantry corps.

Most of the Union troops Ewell encountered in Pennsylvania were not from regular army units.  These troops mustered to defend against the invasion into the state were militia and
emergency troops from Pennsylvania, national guard units from New York State and even some troops from New Jersey.  Locally recruited colored troops were used as well.

After easily brushing off some skirmishers at Stones Tavern in Cumberland County, Jenkins occupied Carlisle, the county seat and location of the U. S. Army's Carlisle barracks.  The handful of Union defenders wisely retreated north rather than take on the 1,200 troopers of Jenkins' brigade.  

Ewell's infantry arrived in Carlisle later in the day and several confederate officers felt at home.  Both General Ewell and General Iverson had once been posted at the barracks prior to the war, while they were in the U. S. Army.
View of Harrisburg from the site of Fort Washington.

Ewell decided to remain at Carlisle while he sent Jenkins' cavalry and his engineering officer forward to reconnoiter the defenses of Harrisburg. 

On June 28 Jenkins made contact with the enemy at a location in present day Camp Hill known as Oyster Point where the Oyster family ran a
tavern. (It is the present day intersection of Market and 30th Streets.  The skirmish consisted of an exchange of  artillery and musket fire which was desultory in nature and lasted for a day.  The position was never taken since Jenkins used his time to scout the area.  He covered about a four mile front from Oyster Point to Slate Hill.
Monument at Lemoyne, PA.


Historical marker for Fort Couch, Lemoyne, PA.
Oyster Point was located two miles southwest of the Susquehanna River and situated near two newly constructed defensive fortifications called Fort Washington and Fort Couch, built across the river from Harrisburg.                                                              
Remnants of Fort Couch.

On June 29 Ewell's division began moving back south by an order of General Lee.  The main body of the Union army was located in the vicinity of a small town called Gettysburg.