From the Potomac River to the Mason Dixon Line: The First Corps on the Road to Gettysburg

Shortly after the Chancellorsville Campaign in May of 1863, Confederate General Robert E. Lee decided to launch a campaign into the north for several reasons. Locally, the Army of the Potomac morale had hit a low point. Also more than twenty regiments were to be mustered out of service since the enlistments were up with many of the men. The area in which the war was being fought was devastated and war torn, and the people of Virginia needed some normalcy in their lives. Supplies were also needed, and by taking the war northward, Lee could gather an abundance of produce, livestock, and materials. Looking to the population in the north, the war had once again grown unpopular and the people had lost confidence in their elected officials. Nationally, the Confederate states needed to relieve pressure off of several areas including Vicksburg.

Lee began moving his army northward. By the time Union General Joseph Hooker realized that the Confederate army was on the move, he began to move the Army of the Potomac. During the march northward toward Maryland, the Union soldier did not have the typical appearance that they were known for, as several accounts stated raggedness, dirtiness and filth was the common image of the Union soldier. Many were shoeless and lacked good uniforms. The reason for this was because once it was realized that the Confederate army had been on the march for a whole week before the Union army moved, the supply wagons hung back at a further distance while the main army moved forward with great speed.

On June 25th, 1863, ten days after the first Confederate soldier had set foot on northern soil, the First Corps was ordered over the Potomac River using the pontoon bridge at Edward’s Ferry, and were the first of the army to enter Maryland. They encamped around the village of Poolesville. A soldier from the 97th New York recalled that the day was spent marching while drizzle fell. A soldier from the 11thPennsylvania described passing through Poolesville and encamping near Barnsville that night. The roads that he marched upon were “soft and slippery.” That night, the men rested before waking up at four o’clock in the morning to begin their march to Jefferson, Maryland.

The next day on June 26th, the First Corps marched passed several small towns along the way including Barnsville, Greenfield, and Adamstown before reaching Jefferson. The first obstacle to Jefferson was the Catoctin Mountain. The road leading to Jefferson over the Catoctin Mountain was not as steep as it was to the north along the National Road. Many soldiers would come to know the Catoctin Mountain soon enough after the Battle of Gettysburg. A soldier from the 16th Maine recalled marching just after five in the morning and reaching Jefferson that evening at around six o’clock. The next morning the men marched through the village to cheers from the locality. The entire town, as written by one soldier in the 150thPennsylvania, was there to greet the soldiers in blue. “Old and young was gathered in the main street, waving miniature flags, and the ladies were profuse in their bows and smiles.” The scene was similar as regiment after regiment marched through the village on their way to Middletown.

During the seven mile march toward South Mountain via Middletown the advance units arrived shortly after one in the afternoon and spent the day relaxing in the fields of the Middletown Valley as best as one soldier could. Rufus Dawes of the 6th Wisconsin recalled his regiment’s march to Middletown. “Our marches, except today, [June 27th, 1863] have been long and toilsome. What do you think of trudging along all day in the soaking rain, getting as wet as a drowned rat, taking supper on hard tack and salt pork, and then wrapping up in a wet woolen blanket and lying down for a sleep.” Dawes continued “In the dust, men are dogged and silent. In the rain they are often even hilarious and jolly.”

The First Corps was no stranger to this area. During the Maryland Campaign not even a year before, General Hooker led the First Corps into battle at SouthMountain. Many soldiers of the famed Iron Brigade recalled seeing the field where they fought upon near Turner’s Gap and the graves of the dead they buried there. Rufus Dawes recalled that the grave’s headboards were “barley legible.”

Several regiments were spread around the Middletown area encamping for the night near the foot of SouthMountain along the National Road. The local farmers of the MiddletownValley were shocked to see how quickly their fences were disappearing for fuel to keep the fires of the soldiers going. As the First Corps encamped for the night, a command change was made when General Joseph Hooker learned that his resignation was accepted and General George Meade was given command of the Army of the Potomac.

Not liking the layout of the Union army in FrederickCounty, General Meade issued orders for his army to concentrate at FrederickCity to begin movements northward toward Pennsylvania. At four o’clock in the morning the First Corps began moving out of the MiddletownValley, and ascended the CatoctinMountain along the National Road, as well as the road to Hamburg. They began to enter the streets of FrederickCity by late in the evening, where the soldiers bivouaced for the evening. General George Meade had issued orders for his army to begin marching northward toward Pennsylvania at four o’clock the next morning. 

On June 29th, the First Corps marched along the Frederick Road to Emmitsburg, Maryland, where they entered the town during the evening. The soldiers passed through Lewistown, Catoctin Furnace, and Mechanicstown where the population greeted the men with fresh bread, cakes, coffee, tea and buttermilk, which the soldiers placed into their haversacks. A soldier from 150thPennsylvania recalled the ladies of Mechanicstown were wearing dresses made from the National colors and waving small miniature flags.

Upon reaching Emmitsburg, the men were shocked to see that a major fire had burned the majority of the town. The men had marched more than twenty-six miles that day. Some of the units had marched more than thirty-five miles within a twenty-four period. The soldiers were ordered to encamp on the grounds of Saint Joseph’s.

By June 30, the First Corps were ordered to Marsh Creek along the Emmitsburg Road. General John Reynolds made his headquarters at the Moritz Tavern. The next day, the First Corps were called to Gettysburg.

Chamberlin, Lt. Colonel Thomas. History of the One Hundred and Fiftieth Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers, McManus JR. and Co. Philadelphia, PA. 1905.
Dawes, Rufus. Service With The Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers, Alderman and Sons, 1890.
Fiebeger, Colonel G.J. The Campaign and the Battle of Gettysburg, West Point, New York, 1915. Reprinted Bloodstone Press of New Oxford, PA 1984.
Hall, Isaac. The Ninety-Seventh New York Volunteers in the War for the Union, LC Childs and Sons, UticaNY, 1890
Locke, William Henry. The Story of the Regiment, JB Lipponcott, 1868
Small, Major AR. The Sixteenth Maine in the War of the Rebellion, Thurston and Company, PortlandMaine, 1866.
Strong, William. Survivors Association. History of the 121stPennsylvania Volunteers. Catholic Standard Times, Philadelphia, PA 1905.
Winey, Michael. Union Army Uniforms at Gettysburg, Thomas Publications, FairfieldPA, 1998.

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