Emmitsburg during the Pennsylvania Campaign of 1863

Published 6/09 Emmitsburg (Chronicle) News-Journal

As we sit in our yards listening to the sounds of cannons booming, troops clashing, and the poignant refrain of bugles calling the troops to battle during the annual re-enactment of the Battle of Gettysburg, I believe it is important to remember Emmitsburg’s role in the battle that is considered [one of] the turning point[s] of the American Civil War.

On June 15th, 1863, the first portions of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia began to cross the Potomac River near Hagerstown, Maryland. Learning from the mistakes of the Maryland Campaign in September of 1862, General Lee decided to launch a campaign into Maryland and Pennsylvania where his army could gather much-needed supplies and relieve war-torn Virginia for several weeks while the army was in Pennsylvania. But unknown to General Lee, Union scouts had seen his movements in Maryland as early as June 17th. Because of this, General Hooker started to develop a plan of attack to seize the mountain passes at South Mountain from Sandy Point to Boonsboro.

During the morning of June 18th, General Hooker requested that a signal station be built at Crampton’s Gap on South Mountain. On June 23rd and 24th, General Hooker requested to have more Federal troops in possession of South Mountain. General French carried out those orders, as Union scouts were overlooking and watching the Hagerstown Valley as well as Pleasant Valley. During the early hours of June 25th, General John Reynolds ordered General Oliver O. Howard to send a brigade of infantry along with a battery of rifled guns to Crampton’s Gap.

On June 26th, General Oliver O. Howard’s 11th Corps began to occupy the mountain gaps along South Mountain. While General Howard’s men at Crampton’s Gap were waiting to be relieved, Colonel William D. Mann’s 7th Michigan Cavalry occupied Turner’s Gap and sent patrols throughout the valley toward Hagerstown. Most of the Confederate forces had left Hagerstown and were concentrating their efforts on Chambersburg and fortifying the area.

During the afternoon of June 27th, a portion of the Michigan Cavalry Brigade encamped just south of Emmitsburg near the old tollgate house before heading toward Hanover the following Monday. George Custer was only 24 years old when he was promoted to Brigadier General in Frederick. He had replaced General Joseph T. Copeland as commander.

The Michigan men had made their camps on the grounds of St. Joseph’s Academy. Joseph Brawner, the field manager, would carry out the task of cutting down the clover in the meadows that surrounded St. Joseph’s. Mr. Brawner had the cutting machine out, ready to cut down the clover that covered the fields. As the 5th Michigan Cavalry made their quarters for the night, they let their horses graze in the fields. Much to the dismay of Mr. Brawner, once sunrise came on Sunday morning, June 28th, the fields were barren and nothing was left of the clover.

In June, Cole’s Cavalry Battalion had separated and each company was to act as an independent organization. On June 27th, Lieutenant William A. Horner asked permission to take a dozen men to go through the Confederate lines on a scouting mission. After some debate Captain Albert Hunter, commanding Company C of Cole’s Cavalry, allowed a dozen of his troopers to go on a scouting mission. They marched from Boonsboro to Waynesboro then to Fountain Dale where they skirmished with Confederate artillerymen from Crenshaw’s Battery who were foraging in the area.

General Hooker learned his resignation had been accepted after midnight on June 28th, and General George Meade was placed in command of the Army of the Potomac. Not liking the tactical disadvantage of the Army of the Potomac on South Mountain, General Meade started to pull his forces off South Mountain. Later that day, General Meade issued orders to march northward to Emmitsburg, Taneytown, and Union Mills.

At 4:00 a.m. on June 29th, 1863, marching orders were carried out. Portions of the Union army were to march through Woodsboro on their way to Middleburg. The 12th Corps and the 3rd Corps, along with their corresponding artillery, would march through Woodsboro followed by General Meade’s headquarters wagon train. General Farnsworth’s brigade of cavalry also traveled through Woodsboro toward Taneytown. The 1st Corps marched through Lewistown and Mechanicstown to Emmitsburg. The 11th Corps, under the command of General Oliver Howard, marched through Creagerstown to Emmitsburg.

As General Reynolds and his men approached Emmitsburg that evening, he rode ahead of his column and entered the town. Once there, Reynolds and his staff tried to recruit local citizens to cross through the Catoctin Mountain gaps in order to observe and report in detail the movements of the Confederate Army. General Reynolds also placed a signal corps on the mountain behind Mount Saint Mary’s. A battery of artillery was held in reserve in Emmitsburg on the heights toward Thurmont. General Reynolds set up his headquarters in Emmitsburg and directed Union efforts from Emmitsburg’s Lutheran parsonage, St. Joseph’s Rectory, and the present day funeral home.

As the First Corps marched past Mount Saint Mary’s College, Dr. Moore recalled: “The Army of the Potomac was truly a beautiful sight” and he described as grand but horrible the passing of “the wagons, ambulances, cannons, etc, which were coming from early dawn till nightfall. … They camped around Emmitsburg. Their campfires, as viewed from the college windows, almost led one to imagine that this section for miles had received in one shower all the stars of the heavens.”

On the evening of June 30th, the First Corps was ordered to proceed to Marsh Creek, located about four miles from Emmitsburg, and to re-establish camp there. Shortly after the orders were given, a disturbance broke out when soldiers of the 76th New York were told to wait until the next day to receive their pay. As they marched through Emmitsburg a soldier, and later historian of the 12th Massachusetts Volunteers, recorded a story about a young boy of 15 years of age from Emmitsburg by the name of J.W. Wheatley who volunteered for the Union army. After marching alongside of the men in blue, the 12th Massachusetts gave him his own suit of blue and the young boy fought in the first day’s Battle of Gettysburg where he was severely wounded.

The 11th Corps made their way into Emmitsburg at the southern end of town, toward Mount Saint Mary’s College, where General Howard made a temporary headquarters. As the rear of the 1st Corps marched out of Emmitsburg, regiments of the 11th Corps started to lay out camp on the grounds of Saint Joseph’s Academy. General Howard made his headquarters at the Saint Joseph’s Rectory.

Eli Horner owned and lived on a farm east of Emmitsburg along Toms Creek where soldiers of the 11th Corp encamped. The day before the Battle of Gettysburg, the family had baked bread for the entire day. The soldiers brought their containers of hardtack into the house, dumped them on the table, and proceeded to fill them with the fresh baked bread. This was the position for most of the families that lived in the vicinity of Emmitsburg. As soldiers passed through the town they also shared their homes.

Beginning the evening of June 30th through the morning hours of July 1st, the Third Corps under General Daniel Sickles were encamped at Bridgeport, Maryland, just east of Emmitsburg. Marching from Taneytown at around 3:00 p.m., General David Birney who was commanding General Sickles’ 1st Division, placed the camp about a mile and a half from Emmitsburg. As soldiers from Birney’s division encamped near Saint Joseph’s, General (then Colonel) Philippe Regis de Trobriand, commander of the 3rd Brigade of Birney’s Division received a very triumphant welcome by the residents of Emmitsburg. These men marched through the streets as women cheered and waved their handkerchiefs and men stood in the doorways waving their hats.

As daylight came on July 1st, the bleak sky looked as though it would open up and drench the soldiers. The Union troops of the Eleventh Corps, still tired from marching, got underway with their daily chores. Between eight and eight-thirty in the morning General Reynolds sent his orders to General Howard to begin marching as soon as possible and by nine-thirty all of the men of the Eleventh Corps were marching. In order to move at a faster rate, the soldiers were ordered to leave their knapsacks at Emmitsburg. The roads that they would be traveling, leading from Emmitsburg to Marsh Creek, were badly torn up from the wagons and artillery from the First Corps.

The rest of General Sickles’ Third Corps marched from Bridgeport, Maryland, through Emmitsburg, heading to Gettysburg between two and three o’clock that afternoon. Union engineers began surveying the land around Emmitsburg for a possible battle site. For a few desperate hours the town of Emmitsburg was crucial to the war efforts. General Sickles was to hold Emmitsburg in case of an attack of Confederate forces from Fairfield to the west. Disobeying direct orders to hold Emmitsburg, Sickles marched to Gettysburg.

As the Sisters at Saint Joseph’s watched the troops of the Army of the Potomac march by, the sight terrified them. It was about noon on July 1st when the Sisters heard a frightful boom in the distance. It was from the artillery engaging in the battle that was opening at Gettysburg. They continued to hear the cannon fire until it ceased during the afternoon of July 4th. Many of the Sisters prayed that the terrible noise of the battle in the distance would go away. Father Burlando wrote to the superior general in France following the opening of the artillery fire at Gettysburg: “The bellowing of those instruments of death and destruction was frightful, and the thick smoke which rose in the atmosphere was black as the clouds which preceded a tempest.”

On July 2nd, more Federal soldiers came into Emmitsburg. These soldiers were the Army of the Potomac’s U.S. Cavalry under the command of General Wesley Merritt. After being ordered to guard the mountain passes at South Mountain, General Merritt and his regulars had been ordered to Mechanicstown, Maryland, on June 29th. This left the U.S. Cavalry to guard and to protect the roadways and communication lines in the vicinity of Mechanicstown.

The highest point in the Emmitsburg area, Indian Lookout, served an important role in communications and observations during the battle in Gettysburg. Emmitsburg also served as a supply base of operations.

After the battle of Gettysburg, General Lee’s Confederate army began to withdraw from the area. General Lee wanted to secure Monterey Pass, near Blue Ridge Summit, as the army’s direct route back to Virginia. On July 4th, Confederate cavalry entered Emmitsburg, screening for any Federal resistance that might pose a problem for Lee’s retreating army. A few hours after the Confederate cavalry left, Union cavalry under the command of General Kilpatrick entered Emmitsburg. Kilpatrick received orders to harass the Confederate retreat at Monterey Pass. Leaving around 3 o’clock in the afternoon, Kilpatrick skirmished with several Confederate troops in and around modern day Zora.

Early in the morning on July 5th, General J.E.B. Stuart’s Confederate cavalry entered Emmitsburg and skirmished with Federal troops near the modern day Emmit House. While at Emmitsburg, General Stuart’s cavalry captured three photographers who were staying at the Emmit House. Alexander Gardner was questioned and released and soon after photographed the famous pictures of the carnage at Gettysburg as well as several photographs of Emmitsburg on July 7th. Stuart learned of the cavalry battle that took place at Monterey Pass and decided to take another route over the mountains.

After General Stuart’s cavalry left Emmitsburg they marched toward Creagerstown and Graceham, where Stuart learned of the impasse at Harman’s Gap and traveled back toward Franklinville where Stuart’s cavalry took the road leading to Deerfield and then onto Smithsburg.

On July 5th, as General Lee’s Confederate Army marched in the Cumberland Valley toward Williamsport, General Meade gave marching orders to his Army of the Potomac to begin following Lee’s army. The bulk of the Union Army marched through Emmitsburg from July 6th to 7th, marching to Middletown Valley, back to the exact location where the Army of the Potomac was before Meade had taken command.

On July 7th, General Meade rode through Emmitsburg and was hailed by the citizens, who thanked him for winning the battle of Gettysburg. It was at this time that the war shifted to Williamsport and Hagerstown as the Union army followed Lee’s movements. Even though Lee’s army was under careful scrutiny, Meade allowed Lee to re-cross the Potomac back to the safety of Virginia on the night of July 14th.


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