Thursday, June 13, 2013

"Nothing but a Vast Road" - 150 Years Ago This Week

14th Brooklyn monument at Gettysburg. Photo by Ron Zanoni. Creative Commons Licensing.
As the month of June wore on, Fighting Joe Hooker continued to grapple with a vexing question: just where was his counterpart, Robert E. Lee, heading? Despite later claims to the contrary, the cavalry fight at Brandy Station had not revealed Lee's hand to the Army of the Potomac commander. By June 13, two competing possibilities still loomed large in Hooker's mind: (1) that a major cavalry raid led by J.E.B. Stuart was in the offing, and (2) that Lee intended to move his army toward the Shenandoah Valley en route to the Potomac River, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. Finally, the 13th brought concrete intelligence that would allow Hooker to make up his mind. Word arrived at headquarters that two rebel corps had passed through Sperryville headed in the direction of the Valley. This news stirred headquarters into action, and soon a circular went out to each corps: "This army," relayed Assistant Adjutant-General Seth Williams, "will be transferred from this line to the Orange and Alexandria Railroad." The great pursuit began. That evening, at around 7 p.m., Hooker composed a dispatch to Major General Halleck in Washington, informing his superior of his intention of abandoning the line along the Rappahannock in order to better cover Washington D.C.

Lee had stolen a march on Hooker, and now his army faced the possibility of being cut off from Washington. With a blistering June heat wave baking the roads of Virginia, only hard marching could now remedy the situation. On June 18th, a member of the nattily attired 14th Brooklyn took a brief moment to update his hometown paper. "I suppose you know by this time..." he began, "that our army has moved." He went on to describe the forced marches that he and his comrades had recently endured:
The General put us through this day, marching us two and three miles at a time through the hot sun, without a rest. Our doctor was put under arrest for giving so many passes to the men who were "played out".... We have marched over 95 miles since we have started, through dust six inches deep and the sun coming down red hot. You could fill a canteen with cold water and in ten minutes time it would be like hot water. A great many officers and men were sun struck on the route. One of Gen. Wadsworth's staff fell off his horse sun struck.
This hard marching brought the Army of the Potomac northward in order to prevent a sudden Confederate thrust toward Washington. It could not however, save the surprised Federal garrison at Winchester. On the afternoon of June 14th, Joseph Hooker received an ominous telegraph from Washington:
Major-General Hooker:
Do you consider it possible that 15,000 of Ewell's men can now be at Winchester?
A. Lincoln
It was possible, as General Robert H. Milroy was finding out that very day. As his scattered command disintegrated in the face of Richard Ewell's onslaught, the realities of a Confederate invasion began to set in across the north. In Pennsylvania,  Governor Curtin had already called for the organization of a homeguard militia. Yet militia alone would not be enough to stop the vaunted Lee. For the veterans of the Army of the Potomac, the march would continue. On June 21, our Brooklyn solider would take pen in hand again as he marked time near Gilford Station in Loudon County, Virginia. "The part of Virginia we are now in is splendid," he recorded, "but the parts we came through to get here were awful; nothing but a vast road."

Soon, the 14th Brooklyn would leave war-ravaged Virginia behind for the rolling farmlands of southern Pennsylvania.

A note on sources: The quotations provided here were obtained through the 14th Brooklyn's Civil War newspaper clippings file available online as part of the excellent website run by the New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center

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