150 Years Ago This Week: Prelude to Gettysburg

June/July 1863

Excitement raged on the coast of Maine as the month of June closed, as there were well-founded rumors of Confederate raiders off shore. As if on cue, the Confederate schooner Archer sailed into Portland at night and seized the Federal revenue cutter Caleb Cushing. Lt. Charles “Savez” Read and his Confederate sailors were unable to escape when attacked by two Union steamers and three tugboats.

The cutter was blown up and the Confederates surrendered. During the time of Lt. Read’s raids, the U.S. Navy had deployed 47 vessels to track him down; he had captured 21 ships in just 19 days. Lt. Read had done most of his raiding in Tacony, but transferred his command to Archer near the end of his raiding days.

On Saturday, June 27, President Lincoln decided to relieve Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker of command of the Army of the Potomac, and named Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, a Pennsylvanian, to command the army. At this time, the entire Army of Northern Virginia arrived at Chambersburg, Pa. Maj. Gen. Jubal Early, commanding a division in Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell’s Second Corps, accepted the surrender of York, Pa., from local officials.

Gen. Hooker’s Federal army was now all in Maryland, and he was concerned about the Union troops occupying Harpers Ferry. He stated that if his advice was not taken, he asked to be relieved from commanding the army. Little did he know that the decision had already been made, and Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck, Army Chief of Staff, wired Gen. Hooker at Frederick, Md., and told him that Gen. Meade had replaced him.

On June 28, Gen. Meade received orders appointing him to the army command; he responded, saying, “This is unexpected and that I am in ignorance of the exact condition of the troops and the position of the enemy.” He stated that he would move towards the Susquehanna River, cover Washington and Baltimore, and give battle to the Confederates — except that he had no idea that Gen. Lee’s troops were now all in Pennsylvania.

Gen. Lee, when he learned that the Union army was in Maryland, altered his plans to move on Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s capital, and ordered his army south to converge on Cashtown and Gettysburg. Maj. Gen. James E.B. Stuart and the Confederate cavalry were north of Gen. Lee’s three army corps, and ranged far and wide.

In contrast, Brig. Gen. John Buford and the Union cavalry headed towards Gettysburg to determine the location of Gen. Lee’s troops. Far to the south, heavy fighting between opposing forces occurred in Mississippi and Tennessee as the Vicksburg military campaign and siege continued. In London, in the House of Commons, Prime Minister William Gladstone told Parliament that a reunion between North and South in America was not obtainable.

Almost by accident, Union cavalry under Gen. Buford and Confederate infantry of Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill’s Third Corps stumbled into each other, and what was to be the Battle of Gettysburg opened on Wednesday, July 1. Maj. Gen. John Reynolds, commanding the Union First Corps and one of the Federal army’s best combat officers, was killed in midmorning as the Confederates pressed their advantage.

Losses were heavy that day, and Gen. Lee arrived on the field to establish his headquarters. Gen. Meade’s troops continued to arrive from the south, reinforcing the Union lines. Gen. Meade arrived at midnight, with Union troops occupying Cemetery Ridge and the Southerners over a mile away on Seminar Ridge. The battle at Gettysburg was to be a long, hot and bloody three days.

Indications at Vicksburg were that the siege there could not last much longer. Lt. Gen. John Pemberton’s imprisoned army in the city knew that surrender to Maj. Gen. Ulysses Grant seemed to be the only alternative to starvation. Confederate reinforcements under Gen. Joseph Johnston could not overcome the constantly increasing numbers of Federal besiegers.

Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 193 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.