Stories from PA History
The Gettysburg Campaign
The Gettysburg Campaign
Chapter 3: Confederate High Tide: Operations on the West Shore of the Susquehanna

The Confederate advanced across the Potomac River and into Pennsylvania crested during the last week in June 1863.
Portrait of Confederate General Robert Emmet Rodes, by William D. Washington, ca. 1863. (VMI Class of 1848).
Confederate General Robert Emmet Rodes, ca. 1863.
Robert E. Lee's daring plan to carry the war into Northern territory was going well up to that time. Having left Fredericksburg, Virginia, in early June, his army had moved west into the Shenandoah Valley, and then driven off the Union garrison at Winchester, capturing more than 4,000 Yankees. Lee's Second Corps, led by Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell, was the army's advance unit.

Screened by the cavalry brigade of Brigadier General Albert G. Jenkins, Ewell's men moved north across the Potomac, swept into Chambersburg, and continued north through the Cumberland Valley. Two of Ewell's infantry divisions, those of Major Generals Robert E. Rodes and Edward Johnson, followed the bulk of Jenkins' cavalry, which occasionally skirmished with retreating Union militia as they rode north.

Ewell's other division of foot soldiers, led by Major General Jubal A. Early, marched up the west side of the mountains and then turned east at Cashtown.
Major Gen. Darius N. Couch
Major Gen. Darius N. Couch
Ewell directed Early to screen the advance of his other two divisions by moving east through the Adams County seat, Gettysburg, to York. From there, Early was to head to the Susquehanna River at Wrightsville, where a large, covered wooden bridge spanned the river, the only dry crossing point between Harrisburg and Conowingo, Maryland.

Recently enrolled state militia from Pennsylvania and New York opposed Ewell's tough veterans. Major General Darius N. Couch, former commander of the Army of the Potomac's Second Corps, was given the task of creating a new military department-the Department of the Susquehanna-to defend against the Rebel invasion of Pennsylvania. The War Department in Washington told Pennsylvania markerGovernor Andrew Curtin and Couch that he would receive no help from units already in the field, so he asked the governors of the eastern seaboard states to call out their militia. The word went out even as the Rebels were spilling across the Commonwealth's southern border. New York had a better militia system than Pennsylvania, a number of units having been organized before the war. As a result, regiments from New York and New Jersey began pulling into Harrisburg by rail while Pennsylvania units were just organizing across the countryside. 
“Pennsylvanian Gratitude," Harper's Weekly, July 11, 1863.

Correctly assuming that the Rebels would try to seize Harrisburg, Couch deployed his militia to guard nearby crossing points of the Susquehanna.
Bird's eye view of the City of Harrisburg, Pa. 1855. Drawn on stone from nature, J. T. Williams. Lith. and printed in colors by E. Sachse and Company.
City of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 1855.
He then dispatched Colonel Jacob G. Frick and his 27th Pennsylvania militia regiment to Wrightsville–the only other crossing point in his command–even as civilians began digging earthworks on the Lancaster County side of the river to keep the Rebels away.

The defense of Harrisburg was Couch's more pressing concern. Directly across the river was Hummel Heights, which overlooked the west shore and provided a panoramic view of the city. Couch ordered the construction of an earthwork fort at the eastern end of these heights, christened Fort Washington, to guard the bridges that provided direct access to Harrisburg. Only after building this fort, did the engineers notice that the heights immediately to the west were a bit higher in elevation, and that any Rebel artillery placed there would make Fort Washington untenable. Therefore, it was on these heights railroad workers and militia troops began markerthe construction of Fort Couch.

On the morning of June 28, even as the volunteers labored to erect fortifications, General Jenkins' Rebel cavalry rode into Mechanicsburg. There the general divided his horsemen into two columns. One, under his immediate command, continued eastward through town along the Trindle Road to a knoll of higher ground upon which stood markerPeace Church, a stone house of worship used jointly by two different congregations. Here, Jenkins deployed his men and unlimbered his artillery. A mile ahead, he could see Yankees in the vicinity of markerOyster Point, where the Trindle Road joined the Carlisle Pike. Meanwhile, the other half of Jenkins' command moved east along the Carlisle Pike and went into position half a mile north of Peace Church. There, Colonel Milton J. Ferguson also deployed his artillery battery and opened fire on the Yankees ahead of him.

After some desultory firing that afternoon, Jenkins retreated at dusk, a short distance toward Mechanicsburg, taking the markerJohn Rupp House as his headquarters. While the main body of Jenkins' cavalry investigated the Union militia positions, patrols ranged across the countryside, checking the road network and looking for any approaching enemy troops. One patrol reached Sterrett's Gap, the markerfarthest north that the Confederates got during the Gettysburg Campaign.

On the morning of June 29, Jenkins' brigade again advanced to Peace Church even as Ferguson's men occupied the Carlisle Pike near Orr's Bridge. Both sides fired artillery at each other, creating more noise than actual damage, although Rebel shells did hit a few structures in the vicinity of Oyster Point. Later that morning, Colonel Ferguson launched a small charge against the Yankee militia defending at the point, which easily repelled the Southern horsemen. The charge and its accompanying noise, however, was only a diversion.  
In his 1998 oil painting <i>Distant Thunder,</i> artist Mort K√ľnstler depicts Robert E. Lee, on horseback, entering Cashtown, Pennsylvania, on July 1, 1863
Distant Thunder, by Mort Künstler, 1998.

To the south, Jenkins, accompanied by three of Ewell's engineer officers, rode to high ground on Slate Hill to observe the Yankee defenses of Harrisburg. Convinced that the defending militia would pose no problem, in spite of Forts Couch and Washington, the engineers reported favorably to Ewell, then at Carlisle. In turn, Ewell ordered General Rodes to move his large division forward, drive off the Yankee militia, and capture Harrisburg.

Even as Ewell prepared to seize the Pennsylvania capital city, however, General Lee was receiving word that the Union Army of the Potomac had crossed its namesake river and was on the move into Pennsylvania. In response to this new threat, Lee called off any further advance and sent out orders for his army to concentrate in the Cashtown area, just east of the mountains. So instead of marching to Harrisburg, Rodes, on June 30, turned south.
Bradley Schmehl painting of  the burning of the Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge
Burning of the Columbia-Wrightsville bridge

Jenkins received word of the change of plans later that day. Pulling his column at Peace Church back into Mechanicsburg, he headed off toward Carlisle. Colonel Ferguson, at Orr's Bridge, rode west on the Carlisle Pike to a broad plateau known locally as markerSporting Hill, where he halted to cover a detached company that was ripping up railroad tracks in Mechanicsburg. That afternoon, a New York militia brigade under the command of General John Ewen appeared on the eastern edge of Sporting Hill, conducting a reconnaissance to see where the Rebels had gone.

After deploying his two cannon in a wood near the pike, Ferguson dismounted his two Virginia cavalry units to protect his guns, and ordered his men to open fire on the New Yorkers, who hesitated at first, then formed a battle line to face the Rebels. Two Yankee cannon appeared on the scene and began dueling with Ferguson's guns. When the better-served Union cannon quickly got the upper hand, Ferguson mounted his men, limbered his guns, and rode off to Carlisle, leaving the battlefield to the victorious Empire State militia, who scoured the area for casualties, and then marched back to Fort Couch.

Even as Ewell's two divisions continued north to Carlisle and Jenkins advanced closer to Harrisburg, Early's Division marched into Gettysburg on June 26th, having chased away a Pennsylvania militia regiment and its accompanying cavalry. Early's four brigades continued east the next morning, with markerGeneral John B. Gordon's Georgia Brigade marching on the York Pike, and the other three brigades paralleling the pike to the north. Gordon's brigade marched into an undefended York on June 28, then continued east toward markerWrightsville. Here, Gordon's artillery battery opened fire on Yankee militia defending the bridge, and drove them from their positions.

Following orders, Colonel Frick, the Union officer in command, blew up a mined span of the bridge. When the resulting explosion failed to cleanly blow a hole in the bridge, he ordered the entire wooden structure torched to keep the Rebels from seizing it. Wind soon spread the flames into Wrightsville, where gray-clad soldiers joined with citizens to prevent the town from burning. Rebuffed in his attempt to cross the Susquehanna, Early concentrated his division at York, where on June 29 he received word of Lee's change of plans. He marched west out of York the next day. And so Harrisburg was saved from Rebel capture. On the first of July, a substantial portion of the two great armies would collide at the crossroads town of Gettysburg.

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