Monday, June 3, 2013

150 Years Ago This Week: The Campaign Began

The town of Gettysburg in July, 1863. Image by Mathew Brady, Image source: New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

By June of 1863, the citizens of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania had lived with war for two years. Many of the residents had seen their sons march off to fight in several regiments, including the 1st Pennsylvania Reserves, the 87th Pennsylvania, and the 138th Pennsylvania. Some of these soldiers had already returned in coffins, or rested in distant graves. While somewhat removed from the major scenes of conflict in Virginia, from the early days of the war Gettysburgians had demonstrated a keen awareness of their proximity to the Potomac River and their vulnerability to Confederate excursions into the North. In the fall of 1862, their fears nearly became a reality during Lee's invasion of Maryland. During that campaign, federal cavalry from the Army of the Potomac occupied the town for a day and a half. In October of 1862, Confederate cavalry under J.E.B. Stuart had approached to within six miles of Gettysburg on a raid. Once again, Union cavalry arrived in town. Despite these close calls, more often than not rumors were just that, and while Gettysburgians continued to fear the potential of a Rebel invasion, the prospect seemed unlikely in June of 1863.

War news continued to dominate the pages of the local newspapers in Gettysburg as residents prepared for summer. The draft was coming, and on June 2nd The Sentinel led off its page two news items with full details. "A draft for 300,000 men will shortly be ordered by the President for the purpose of filling up the old regiments" the paper reported. The Sentinel, with its Republican bent, supported the Conscription Act, and noted that "many friends of the Union are impatient at the delay in ordering a draft."

The citizens of Gettysburg also closely followed news from the front. In early June, all eyes were on Vicksburg. The Sentinel reported that Grant's siege was progressing well, but that the Rebel troops in the city were holding out bravely, and hoped for relief from forces under command of General Joseph Johnston. "We cannot tell what a day may bring forth," the editor related. Meanwhile, wild rumors of Rebel movements in Virginia had begun to circulate. In the very same June 2nd edition, The Sentinel attempted to discredit some of these whispers. For many days people had talked of a Rebel advance down the Shenandoah Valley. "From the latest accounts up to night before last," The Sentinel explained, "the whole affair was the act of a few straggling guerillas-some of whom were caught." Contrary to the rumors, no enemy had been found within ten miles of Harper's Ferry.

Indeed, on June 2nd, Lee's army remained in its camp south of the Rappahannock River. But it would not stay for long. On Wednesday, June 3rd, the Army of Northern Virginia began to pull away from the vicinity of Fredericksburg. The First Corps divisions of Lafayette McLaws and John Bell Hood were the first to go. On Thursday, Robert Rodes' division followed, and on Friday, June 5th, the rest of Ewell's Second Corps took up the march. They would move towards Culpeper Court House, and thence toward the Shenandoah Valley. By June 5th, Major General Joseph Hooker had concluded that Lee was attempting to move north to the Potomac River, or to cut him off from Washington. By June 6th, he would have word of a Confederate column at Culpeper Court House, and the following afternoon he would issue orders to cavalry chief Alfred Pleasonton to take all of his cavalry and 3,000 infantry across the Rappahannock to destroy these forces. The Gettysburg Campaign had begun.

Many miles to the north, Gettysburgians worried about the progress of the war, and the safety of their loved ones in the army. Yet none of them could imagine how drastically the war would change their lives in just one month.

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