Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Gettysburg Homefront During the Maryland Campaign

Newspapers are one of my favorite primary sources to delve into. When you spend time with historical newspapers from a community, you get a good feel for that community. You begin to understand the major issues that concerned its citizens, and the principal actors that held down leading roles. You also begin to understand the divisions that existed. In my readings of Gettysburg's newspapers, I've become more interested in learning about this community over the entire course of the Civil War. We tend to focus on Gettysburg's citizens only when discussing civilian experiences during the battle itself, or how those civilians coped with the aftermath of the battle. Yet the war did not first arrive on Gettysburg's doorstep on July 1st, 1863. The crossroads town sat just eight miles from the Mason Dixon Line, and not far from the Potomac River. Gettysburgians worried about the potential of enemy raids and invasions from the early days of the war, and not without cause. And when Robert E. Lee's army invaded Maryland in September of 1862, Gettysburg prepared for the worst. A review of Gettysburg's newspapers from that September provides us with a first-hand look at how its civilians experienced, and reacted to, their first brush with an invading enemy.

Lee's army began crossing the Potomac River on September 4th. That same afternoon, Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin issued a proclamation, recommending that companies of militia form to defend the state from invasion. Rumors swirled through Gettysburg over the next few days. But the true excitement and panic began on Saturday, September 6th.

On Monday, the Compiler carried the story:
There was no little excitement here on Saturday morning last. Several persons arrived from Frederick, Md., stating that 30,000 rebels had crossed the Potomac at Noland's Ferry, and were on the march for Frederick.... At 5 o'clock about 300 sick soldiers arrived here from Frederick, and were well cared for by our citizens until Sunday morning, when they were sent to York in a special train.

There was probably more bustle in this town yesterday than on any previous Sabbath during its existence. Refugees from Frederick city and county arrived by fives and tens, aggregating several hundred.--Rumor with her hundred tongues, was also busy, but few of the statements seemed to have a reliable basis.
On the same Saturday that refugees began to arrive, a large town meeting convened at the courthouse on Baltimore Street for the purpose of recruiting militia companies in accordance with Curtin's proclamation. On Monday, a total of four units began to organize. The Gettysburg Zouaves - first formed during the secession crisis in 1861 - reformed its ranks. Two additional infantry companies were commanded by Dr. E.G. Fahnestock and S.S. McCreary, while Perry J. Tate headed up a cavalry organization. Meanwhile, reports filtered into town, some credible, others not. On Tuesday, September 9th the Sentinel reported that 30-50,000 Confederates held Frederick. On the 11th word arrived that a small force of Rebel cavalry had captured Westminster.

Meanwhile, Lee's army left Frederick on September 10th to execute his instructions outlined in Special Order 191. The Army of Northern Virginia split up, part to encircle the Federal garrison at Harpers Ferry, and part to hold the passes of South Mountain west of Frederick. The Army of the Potomac pursued, and entered Frederick on the 12th. On September 13th, some Gettysburgians heard cannonading in the distance, while a few rebel deserters arrived in town with wild claims as to the strength of Lee's army. The next afternoon, Sunday the 14th, two cavalry regiments rode into town from the south, the 1st New York and 8th Pennsylvania. These two regiments would remain through the following afternoon. Throughout the day on the 14th, the citizens could hear the sounds of battle in the distance as the Army of the Potomac struggled to seize the passes of South Mountain. As they listened to the distant thunder, more than forty miles to the south many of the town's young men serving in Company K, 1st Pennsylvania Reserves fought against Alabamians for possession of Turner's Gap. In the fight that afternoon, 1st Lieutenant John D. Sadler was killed while commanding the company. According to the Sentinel, Lieutenant Henry Minnigh - himself wounded - arrived in town the following day accompanying Sadler's lifeless body. The brutal reality of war had arrived in Gettysburg, not for the first time, and certainly not for the last.

Lee's invasion took place against the backdrop of the upcoming fall elections in the North. As events moved toward a climax at the Battle of Antietam, Gettysburg's citizens debated the progress of the war, and the political fallout of the invasion. The newspapers reported the day-to-day progress of the armies alongside their own political arguments for and against sustaining the current administration's prosecution of the war. Even as President Lincoln became firmly set in his desire to issue the Emancipation Proclamation as soon as a victory came to hand, The Compiler and the Sentinel made clear that the issue of slavery remained a prominent and divisive issue in Gettysburg. The Republican rallying cry during the fall was Unionism and patriotism - everyone needed to support the war effort. Meanwhile, the Democrats decried the lack of military progress, sought to tie Republicans to the Abolitionist cause, and argued that a war for Union could be won, while a war for abolition could not. During the height of invasion hysteria in Gettysburg, the Compiler published the following argument from "a Republican" supporting the Democratic ticket:
Now, my friends, we have but one course to pursue as true Americans. I appeal to you to at once search after the causes of our troubles, and hunt up the impediments in the way of an early peace, and I hope that you will readily see them, and by the nearest road, go and crush the serpent's head. Abolitionism and Secessionism are twin sisters, and the only two questions which claim our attention; and they are so completely interwoven amongst the draw-backs to American liberty, that nothing but the waging of a simultaneous war for the destruction of both will ever restore peace, power, and prosperity in this country. Here are before our eyes two monsters to deal with--Secessionism and Abolitionism--operating conjointly and pushed forward by monomaniacs on both sides with stubborn tenacity that knows no bounds for the overthrow of these States; the former with arms in hand, openly proclaiming their purpose, and the latter lying coiled around the portals of the nation, inflicting poisonous wounds upon its body. The Government will be able to suppress the one, if the people take hold of the other. Secessionism must fall before our powerful armies, and Abolitionism is an easy prey to the united voice of the impartial peoples.
The next day's Sentinel responded:
Men who will at this day, when our nation is in a desperate struggle with traitors, seek to divide our people by a ridiculous expression of apprehension about abolitionists, can be considered in no other light than as the allies of treason and the enemies of our government. He who now seeks to distract and antagonize our people is as black a traitor as Jeff Davis himself, let him live in Seccessia or in our midst. The secessionists are now the great and only enemies who require our immediate attention, and until they are put down all other issues should be dropped.
After the Battle of Antietam, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. There were political consequences. In the November elections Democrats made major gains across Pennsylvania. In the 16th District, Democrat Alexander Hamilton Coffroth narrowly unseated Gettysburg's Republican representative Edward McPherson. And yet with his pen Lincoln had ended the question of a limited war for Union. By the time the armies arrived in Gettysburg on July 1st, 1863, the war for Union and the war to end slavery went hand-in-hand.

No comments:

Post a Comment