This is the third in my series of week-long blog posts called Countdown to Gettysburg“. They are written from the perspective of someone who lived at that time and as if the internet existed in 1863.
The introduction to the series is here.
The situation along the Maryland-Pennsylvania border is very confused. I sat down with Major Rathbone this morning to try and make sense of things but it’s very difficult to sort out what’s true, what’s rumor, and what’s just plain false. I guess this is what they call the “fog of war.” At any rate, I’ll start with what we know.
What is absolutely certain is that there’s been a dramatic change in reb army dispositions over the last 24 hours. Where yesterday Bobby Lee’s forces were strung out from Chambersburg to Carlisle (with General Early at York) today they’re all on the move. Early has abandoned York and A.P. Hill is busting hell for leather tearing down the Chambersburg Pike. There’s a reliable report that the rest of Ewell’s Army is hurrying down the Carlisle Road.
What does it mean?
Just yesterday, Lee seemed pretty unconcerned that his force was so spread out and our boys just hours away. “Marse Robert” must have finally figured out the fix he was in and realized he had to do something. Strange that we apparently surprised him like that. Jeb Stuart usually keeps the rebs pretty well informed. I heard this Cavalry officer named Custer say that our boys couldn’t blow their noses without Jeb Stuart knowing about it.
So Rathbone and I both agree that Bobby Lee is concentrating his army and is turning to fight. But where? Cashtown is a possibility but that’s a long way for most of Ewell’s army to march. Meade is being very cautious. We know he’s now got three Corps (I, III, and XI) making a forced march from Emmittsburg up the Emmitsburg Pike. This would seem to force Lee to fight further west. So it looks like it will be Gettysburg – if John Reynolds and his “Black Hats” can get a move on. Otherwise Bobby Lee is just as likely to make a dash for Baltimore straight down the Baltimore Pike – not a good turn of events that.
Howard’s XI Corp is also double timing it up the Pike with III Corp bringing up the rear. The problem as I see it is a question of numbers; can enough of our boys arrive on the battlefield before they’re overwhelmed by Bobby Lee’s forces? And what’s the ground like around Gettysburg? On a map, it looks pretty flat with some low hills to the north. If Lee gets the high ground like he had at Fredericksburg, there will be many a brave boy whose future will be cut short.
The other 4 Corps of our boys are about a day behind Reynolds but moving fast. Those poor fellows are marching 30 or 40 miles a day in 90 degree plus heat. I wonder what shape they’ll be in when they finally “see the elephant?”
Rathbone has a theory that Lee came north originally not to fight but to raid. He pointed out that the northern part of Virginia had been ravaged by more than two years of war what with both eastern armies fighting from just outside Washington D.C. all the way to the gates of Richmond. He thinks that supplies in Virginia are getting scarce so Bobby Lee decided to come north to feed his army and take back as much as he can carry. And if he can take a state capitol like Harrisburg, maybe the Copperhead Democrats will carry the country next year and give our railsplitting President the boot.
It sounds logical except for one thing; Lee is a fighter. I can’t believe he came all this way just for a few wagon loads of food. Lee means to destroy our eastern army and force Grant to lift the siege at Vicksburg and come back to defend Washington. So my thinking is that Lee was planning for a fight and was just waiting for the right moment on the right ground.
And speaking of Vicksburg, ever since General Grant’s brilliant maneuvering below that Gibraltar, it’s been clear that the fortress was doomed. You’ll recall that Grant tried several stratagems last winter, none of them getting him any closer to victory. The reason, of course, was that he was on the wrong side of the river. In order to take Vicksburg, Sam had to find a way to cross the river and come up on the town from the rear. His crossing at Grand Gulf 50 miles below Vicksburg looked suicidal at the time. Boy, were we wrong! When the Rebs slashed around in Grant’s rear looking to cut his supply lines from New Orleans, Grant fooled them by simply living off the land. There were no supply lines to cut!
Here’s a map of the rest of his campaign where he quick marched his 50,000 men to take care of the Reb army at Jackson to clear his rear of interference and then marched steadily to Vicksburg, finally investing the town in the middle of May:
Can’t imagine those Rebs under General Pemberton being able to hold out much longer.
If I’m right and its a fight Bobby Lee is looking for, it’s a fight he’s going to get. By my estimate, close to 70,000 of our boys are wearing out shoe leather heading for the road junction of Gettysburg. Estimates of Lee’s army vary. My source at Pinkerton thinks Lee has more than 90,000 men but that’s surely too high. Reb strength is probably a little less than our own.
Washington is very quiet, very expectant. Something big is about to happen and everyone knows it. My source in the War Department telegraph office tells me that Lincoln spends a lot of time there, pacing nervously back and forth with a haunted look on his face. Who can blame him. Bobby Lee’s boys have never tasted defeat. We have a brand new, untested commander facing what even some of our military people are saying is the best army in the history of the United States. Time is moving very slowly. Soon…very soon now, we’ll know.