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Gettysburg was a small rural town with no special significance or importance, like the thousands of other small towns that dotted the American landscape of the 19th century. Then came General Robert E. Lee, with his 75,000-strong Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, marching into Pennsylvania in June 1863. When Lee’s men stumbled onto Major General Joseph Hooker’s 95,000-man Union Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg on July 1, the tiny country town suddenly became synonymous with one of the greatest battles ever fought in the Western world.

If Lee had had his way, however, Gettysburg would have remained nothing more than it had ever been. In those few weeks before his fateful encounter with Hooker’s pursuing army, Lee seemed to have his sights set on Harrisburg, the Keystone State’s capital and stepping stone to the huge port city of Philadelphia. And before the Battle of Gettysburg changed his plans, Lee very nearly had his prize in his hands.

Northern officials swung into action with an urgency bordering on panic when reports of Lee’s invasion first came in. On June 12 and again on the 16th, Pennsylvania Governor Andrew G. Curtin issued a call for volunteers to defend the state. President Abraham Lincoln issued a similar call on June 15, for 100,000 militiamen from Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, and West Virginia. But these efforts at raising an impromptu militia to fend off Lee’s battle-tested veterans came to nothing, and for good reason: Curtin’s call stated that recruits would be put on standby for active duty in the Department of the Monongahela in western Pennsylvania or the Department of the Susquehanna in the east, depending on where they lived, but it had no cap on how long the term of service could continue. Lincoln offered a six-month term, but without the bounty usually paid to men who enlisted for army service. And because Congress had not appropriated money for the militia force, there was a chance that the men might not be paid at all.

Curtin and Lincoln finally shortened their proposed terms of service to three months, and when the governor called for volunteers again on June 26, he pledged that, if the Rebel threat was gone before 90 days were up, the men could return home early. The federal government would provide the men with arms, ammunition, transportation, and subsistence–everything but uniforms.

While the president and the governor waited in vain for a force of any size to materialize, a glimmer of hope came from New York. The Empire State, whose militia was better organized than those of most other states, offered 8,000 to 10,000 men from New York City to serve immediately, but only for three months. Union Secretary of War Edwin Stanton accepted the New Yorkers at once, and so it was that the defense of Pennsylvania’s capital fell almost entirely to New York troops.

By June 28, Major General Darius Couch, commander of the Department of the Susquehanna, would have some 11,000 to 12,000 Northern troops at his disposal. Thirteen regiments of New Yorkers tramped off rail cars in Harrisburg–eight of them to be deployed around the city, one to remain within the city, and four to guard two rail bridges over the Susquehanna River at Marysville, seven miles north of Harrisburg on the opposite riverbank. Five Pennsylvania regiments, along with assorted company-sized units of infantry, cavalry, and artillery, bolstered the city’s defenses.

Civilians from the Harrisburg area joined with soldiers to dig defensive positions on the heights across the Susquehanna from the capital. The principal defense, Fort Washington, was protected by an outwork named Fort Couch, about 700 yards farther from the river on the same ridge. These forts were far from formidable. Each mounted a miscellany of poor-quality cannon, mostly 6- and 12-pounders. The inadequacies did not stop with the hardware, either. Except for a contingent of sailors who served a howitzer battery, the training of most of the artillerists was as lacking as their combat experience. In fact, most of the Northern troops had little training and less experience.

Perhaps the only thing that held Harrisburg’s improvised defense force together was the professionalism of key principal officers: Couch, the able Brigadier General William F. “Baldy” Smith, Lieutenants Edward Muhlenberg and Rufus King of the U.S. Artillery, and Captain William H. Boyd of the U.S. Cavalry.

Approaching Couch’s green, piecemeal force was a Confederate army of legendary skill and experience. As Lee’s troops fanned out across south central Pennsylvania, they formed an arc approximately 100 miles long, centered a few dozen miles north of Gettysburg at Carlisle. To the west, Rebel troops were in McConnelsburg and Chambersburg, and to the east they occupied York and Wrightsville. Lee had already ordered Lieutenant General Richard Ewell, commander of his 2d Corps at Carlisle, to capture Harrisburg if he “had the means.”

The “means” at Ewell’s disposal were formidable ones, and the corps commander had soon put them to work preparing to capture the capital city. Major General Jubal E. Early, one of Ewell’s division commanders, was to cross the Susquehanna over bridges at Wrightsville, capture Lancaster, in the midst of Pennsylvania’s most fertile agricultural region, cut the main railroad to Philadelphia, and then attack Harrisburg from the rear. Major General Robert E. Rodes’s division would attack the city’s front simultaneously. By the closing days of June, Ewell had his corps within striking distance.

Before any confrontation with Rebels happened, a running battle broke out between some of the residents of central Pennsylvania and the New York militiamen who had come to defend them. The Empire Staters were galled by the high prices the locals charged them for food and water. The historian of the 23d New York State National Guard called the area’s residents “poltroons” who sold their goods at “ruinous prices, and who were thinking of nothing…except how to escape with their worthless lives and…property.”

In another example of this homespun profiteering–a practice in no way unique to Pennsylvania–the owners of a bridge over the Susquehanna charged the Union army a hefty sum to use the span. The “Camelback” Bridge, a wooden covered bridge with a somewhat humpy profile, was the only feasible supply route from Harrisburg to defenses on the river’s western bank. The federal government eventually paid $3,028.63 for the privilege of using the bridge, thereby doubling the bridge’s stockholders’ dividends for the year.

There was, of course, another side to the civilian-soldier feud. Locals claimed that Federal soldiers stole more from them than the Southern invaders eventually did. A resident named John Mater accused the soldiers of taking all but about a dozen of his chickens, and the survivors were saved only because he had hidden them under a box. Mater and some of his friends stood on the box while the soldiers searched for more chickens. “I guess the chickens knew it and kept quiet,” he concluded.

The real confrontation, the showdown between Union and Confederate troops, finally began on the evening of Saturday, June 27, when Captain Frank Murray’s Federal cavalry unit, known as the Curtin Guards, sighted Ewell’s pickets east of Carlisle and five miles from Mechanicsburg, a town nine miles west of Harrisburg. The enemy troops exchanged shots. At 8:30 the next morning, Murray reined up at the telegraph office in Mechanicsburg and wired a report to Smith. Fifteen minutes later, Murray led his troopers out of town, followed by a rear guard. At 9:00 a.m., according to an account published in the local Cumberland Valley Journal on July 23, 1863, “two butternuts, bearing a flag of truce, dashed into town, and halting at the square, inquired for the civil authorities and the flag” that had been flying before their arrival. The Rebels captured the Stars and Stripes.

These Confederates belonged to Brigadier General Albert G. Jenkins’s cavalry brigade, serving with Ewell’s 2d Corps. Jenkins divided his command into two contingents of 700 and 800 men each. He put M.J. Ferguson, commander of the 16th Virginia Cavalry, in charge of the contingent that included the 16th, the 26th Virginia Cavalry Battalion, and Captain William L. Jackson’s Virginia Battery, and sent it north on Hogestown Road to the Carlisle-Harrisburg Pike, which ran directly past the Union forts en route to Harrisburg. Jenkins himself oversaw the other contingent, and occupied Mechanicsburg with the 14th Virginia Cavalry, the 34th Virginia Cavalry Battalion, and Captain W.H. Griffin’s 2d Maryland Battery. He took over the Ashland House hotel and demanded that 1,500 rations be delivered to the town hall.

Jenkins’s ragtag troops camped in a field east of town. “Some were clad in…butternut uniforms, while a majority had no uniforms at all,” reported the Cumberland Valley Journal. “A few…, with their stolen rig, looked very much like Pennsylvania farmers.” Most of the men were well mounted on horses taken along the march. Nevertheless, the Journal admitted that the Rebels were “pretty well behaved.”

Carrying out their orders, Ferguson’s contingent of Jenkins’s brigade had turned east off Hogestown Road onto the Carlisle-Harrisburg Pike, when they spotted some Union troops. The Confederates were near Salem Church, a mile and half from their turn-off, and the Yankees they saw were deployed on high ground a little more than a mile farther east, at Sporting Hill. These Federals were part of Brigadier General Joseph F. Knipe’s two-regiment brigade–the 8th and 71st New York State National Guard–supported by an untested battery commanded by Captain Elihu S. Miller. Jackson’s battery exchanged fire with Miller’s guns, but the shelling had no effect, and the Federals withdrew east through their picket line at Oyster’s Point, a road junction midway between Sporting Hill and the forts.

Jackson’s battery limbered up and galloped after the Yankees as far as the Eppley (later Albright) farm house, less than half a mile from the point. He placed two guns in front of the house, with a line of supporting infantry several hundred yards to the southeast, but no further action occurred. Ferguson and his men remained in the vicinity of the Eppley house for the rest of the day. Knipe’s men remained near Oyster’s Point, while Knipe himself was ordered back to take command of Fort Washington.

Jenkins, meanwhile, after arranging things in Mechanicsburg, rode north to visit Ferguson. After conferring with the colonel, he rode southeastward to Peace Church, at the junction of St. John’s Church Road and Trindle Spring Road, to meet Colonel James Cochran and part of his 14th Virginia Cavalry. Some of Cochran’s men were in a patch of woods west of the Peace Church cemetery. The four Parrott rifles of Captain Griffin’s Maryland battery were in the road in front of the church, pointed east. Several cavalry companies were dismounted and deployed on each side of the building.

Cochran had scouts out grilling locals for information about the Federals and their whereabouts. They seized a Mr. Cromleigh, sexton of Peace Church, and his 16-year-old son, William. Both were imprisoned in the church.

As the prisoners arrived, Jenkins was looking through field glasses at the terrain to the east. Along a tree line about a mile away, he saw what he thought was a line of skirmishers. Perhaps it was Federal cavalry at Oyster’s Point; perhaps it was just some farmers. Jenkins handed the glasses to William Cromleigh and asked him to take a look and give his opinion. Young Cromleigh audaciously concluded that what the general had seen was just a line of fence posts on the Charles Rupp farm. Jenkins spat a few choice words at the boy and sent him away.

Convinced he had seen something more than fence posts, Jenkins ordered his artillery to fire toward Oyster’s Point. The first shell flushed out a Union cavalry picket, who hastily withdrew to an infantry picket line about a mile to the rear. Closer to Peace Church, a handful of advance infantry pickets took cover in a limestone quarry south of the pike.

This Yankee activity led Jenkins to believe the enemy was about to attack, so he ordered his men to take cover behind the cemetery wall and directed Griffin to fire a volley into the woods at Oyster’s Point. Miller’s Union battery–posted 200 yards east of the toll gate where Trindle Spring Road, on which Peace Church stood, met the Carlisle-Harrisburg Pike–soon answered. Most of the rounds fell well short of the Confederate position, where Griffin’s men kept firing until dusk. Toward evening, Jenkins withdrew his men and bivouacked near the John Neidig farm, closer to Mechanicsburg. One cavalry company was sent to camp just east of the town, with orders to maintain contact with the force at Carlisle during the night.

At 10:00 p.m. the 22d and 37th New York regiments quietly marched out in an attempt to cut off the Rebel cavalry. The column marched in silence for five miles but saw nothing. At 4:00 a.m. the force returned without incident.

June 29 dawned stormy, but Jenkins’s men returned to their probing action. The artillery advanced on parallel roads, pausing to fire occasionally, one battery on Trindle Spring Road, the other on Gettysburg Pike to the south. Eventually, the Confederates established an eastward-facing battle line running generally from the Eppley farm southeast to Gettysburg Pike, with pickets about 100 yards out in front. In the Rebels’ path was an advance Federal line of 150 men–consisting of one company each from the 8th, 23d, and 56th New York and commanded by Lieutenant Colonel John Elwell of the 23d. The Union line ran generally north and south from Oyster’s Point and a patch of woods a bit to the west.

Miller’s Union battery opened fire from behind Elwell’s line. Jenkins’s advance, with its strong artillery support, soon persuaded the Federals to withdraw several hundred yards. About 11:00 a.m. one or two companies of Lieutenant Colonel Vincent A. Witcher’s 34th Virginia Cavalry Battalion, accompanied by a cannon, galloped boldly from near the Eppley farm to Oyster’s Point. There they ran into a hot fire from the Federal pickets and Miller’s battery, and were blocked by a log barricade. When the Confederates stopped briefly near the hotel, one of them was shot from his horse, and another was also wounded.

This seemingly futile Confederate sortie had been designed to divert Union attention so Jenkins could reconnoiter the Northern position from Slate Hill on the Union left. There, about noon, Jenkins studied the Federal defenses. Based on this reconnaissance, Ewell ordered Rodes to prepare to capture Harrisburg with his division on June 30.

June 28 and 29 had been exciting and dangerous for people living near Oyster’s Point. Zacheus Bowman remembered that bullets “were flying all around…[and] we got behind an old stone kitchen.” Seeing that a New York soldier was running behind him, he yelled, ” ‘What’s up?’ Just then a bullet struck his cap and knocked it right off his head. He said ‘Now I guess you see what is up?'” Bowman reported that the Rebels reached the toll gate at Oyster’s Point, but got no farther.

W.L. Gorgas watched Jenkins’s party from his home at the intersection of Lisburn and Simpson’s Ferry Roads, southeast of the point. He estimated that there were about 60 men moving within three-quarters of a mile of the Federal picket post on Cedar Spring Run near his house. No civilian remembered any Confederates advancing farther east than Limekiln Lane, though some Rebels did reach that point on the 29th.

While Jenkins’s men were carefully feeling out Harrisburg’s defenses, Robert E. Lee was trying to discern what the Army of the Potomac was up to. Late on the 28th he learned that Hooker’s Federals were approaching South Mountain on the Maryland-Pennsylvania border, so he decided to concentrate his army east of the mountains, and ordered Ewell’s corps to rejoin the army at either Cashtown or Gettysburg.

By 3:00 a.m. on June 30, only Jenkins’s cavalry brigade, along with some artillery, remained near Harrisburg. Cochran’s 14th Virginia Cavalry had left for Carlisle, but part or all of Ferguson’s command was near Salem Church on the Carlisle-Harrisburg Pike, with pickets near the west edge of Sporting Hill.

Murray’s Curtin Guards entered Mechanicsburg on the morning of June 30 to find the Confederate troops gone. General Smith then ordered Brigadier General John Ewen to take the 22d and 37th New York regiments, accompanied by Miller’s battery, on a reconnaissance along the Carlisle-Harrisburg Pike. Preceded by Lieutenant Frank Stanwood’s company of 3d U.S. Cavalry scouts, Ewen’s brigade departed at 9:45 a.m. Smith and several members of his staff, including Rufus King, accompanied Ewen.

The brigade inched forward for three hours and reached the Eppley farm, near which Jenkins had his line on the 29th, but no Rebels turned up. At Oyster’s Point, the brigade met Stanwood’s men, who excitedly reported that elements of Jenkins’s brigade had been encountered near Silver Spring Creek, several miles to the west. Ewen turned his brigade around and headed back against the Confederates. It was early in the afternoon, but Ewen’s column advanced so slowly that it was 4:00 p.m. before it arrived at the junction of the Carlisle-Harrisburg Pike and Sporting Hill Road, on the east side of Sporting Hill.

Just north of the junction stood Simon Eberly’s redbrick house and a tavern. Also in that area were fields of foot-high corn and plowed land. On the south side were a cooper’s shop, a blacksmith’s shop, and a 400-yard-wide field of waist-high wheat. In the wheat field stood the McCormick family’s barn, 400 yards northwest of the crossroads. Beyond the fields, parallel to the pike, was a belt of woods. Beginning a mile and a third to the west, a plateau stretched west to Salem Church. The Gleim house and a few oak trees lay in a dip about 900 yards away in the same direction, on the north side of the pike.

Soon after Ewen’s men arrived at the junction, puffs of smoke rose from the barn, and Confederate musket balls whizzed overhead. Return fire struck harmlessly against the barn’s stone walls. Ewen halted his column, but did nothing more. Lieutenant King, cresting a hill, saw some Rebels run from the Gleim barn across the pike diagonally and into the woods south of the pike. Believing they might be trying to turn the Union left flank, King directed the 22d New York’s two leading companies, A and C, into these woods. Seeing this, the Rebels withdrew to the woods around the Gleim house. New Yorkers on patrol captured only a frightened farmer.

The troops of four 22d New York companies were deployed on their stomachs south of the road, concealed by the wheat. Three similarly deployed companies to the north were only partially hidden by the short corn stalks. Finally, Ewen ordered the 37th to move up on the right flank of the 22d, deploy, and attack the McCormick barn.

As the 37th came over a hill, fire from the barn wounded a lieutenant and a drummer boy. The troops fell to the ground for cover and would not follow Ewen’s orders to move forward to a wheat field about 30 yards closer to the barn. The frustrated Ewen then ordered the three companies of the 22d north of the road to drive the 37th forward with fixed bayonets. Before the 22d could digest this strange order, the 37th, of its own accord, rushed forward to a fence and resumed its ineffective fire on the barn.

Confederate artillery began to fire from among Gleim’s oaks. Four rounds whistled over two companies of the 22d, which promptly moved en masse to the south side of the pike. The Rebel artillery shifted its fire to try to follow its runaway targets, but the Yankees had gotten too far away.

At 5:00 p.m. a Lieutenant Perkins arrived with two rifled guns from a unit known as Landis’s Philadelphia Battery. King placed one gun on the pike atop the hill, and the other in a farm field north of the Eberly house. Their first shot hit McCormick’s barn. The doors swung open, and the Southerners fled back to their main position. The Federals seemed to win the ensuing artillery duel, inflicting casualties and forcing the Rebels to limber up their cannon and withdraw.

It was then that Ewen’s men heard artillery fire from the direction of Mechanicsburg, about a mile and a half from their left. Shells seemed to be bursting on Trindle Spring Road to the southeast, not near Sporting Hill. Fearing he was being outflanked, Ewen had the 22d’s flank companies turn and face the line’s left rear.

It turned out that the fire was coming from a gun that had accompanied Lieutenant Herman Schüricht’s Rebel cavalry company to Mechanicsburg. Schüricht had driven out Murray’s Federals and taken position east of town, where the Cumberland Valley Railroad crossed Trindle Spring Road. Schüricht’s horsemen were burning ties to heat and twist rails when the lieutenant detected men in a patch of woods between him and Shiremanstown, to the east. Believing them to be Yankees preparing to attack, he ordered the gunners to fire a few rounds into the woods. No one was hurt, and the “Yankees” proved to be local farmers.

Soon, Schüricht found himself in the same unnerving predicament as Ewen, as shifting winds brought the sound of artillery from the direction of Sporting Hill. Schüricht feared he was about to be cut off from the main Confederate force, so he withdrew his force to Carlisle. Ewen stayed in position almost until dark, then marched back east to Bridgeport.

The fighting across the river from Harrisburg was over. Union officials estimated that 16 Confederates had been killed, and 20 to 30 wounded, while the Federals had lost 1 officer and 19 enlisted men wounded. There had been more fear than fighting, and most of the troop movements and shooting had been part of reconnaissance efforts. What the enemies did not know about one another had shaped the skirmishing.

On the morning of July 1, Colonel William Brisbane’s brigade (the 32d and 33d Pennsylvania) and Ewen’s brigade (the 22d and 37th New York), accompanied by Landis’s battery, struck out from Fort Washington for Carlisle, on the trail of the Rebels. Captain William H. Boyd’s 120-man company of the 1st New York Cavalry reached the town well ahead of the infantry.

James W. Sullivan, a 15-year-old local boy, wrote years later about the entry of Union troops into Carlisle. “They made a brave showing coming up Hanover Street…to the square,” he recalled. “First were the regiments of the New York National Guard, led by a drum and fife corps.” After the ecstatic locals laid out a feast for the soldiers, Sullivan continued, “the scene was that of a merry picnic.”

But the feast was premature. The howl of an incoming artillery shell announced that a Confederate force was still nearby. This time it was not Jenkins’s command, but Brigadier General Fitzhugh Lee’s brigade of Major General J.E.B. Stuart’s Cavalry Corps, freshly arrived in the area. The ensuing bombardment, lasting until 3:00 a.m. on July 2, left 1 Federal dead and 12 wounded. The Confederates suffered about 8 casualties from return fire. A lumber yard, the local gas works, and the town’s famous U.S. Cavalry barracks were all burned during the engagement.

The skirmishes near Harrisburg and at Carlisle in June and July 1863 caused probably less than 100 casualties, so they get little attention from military historians. But had this small-scale fighting not been interrupted by the huge Battle of Gettysburg, the Rebels might have captured the capital of Pennsylvania. And with that moral victory under their belt, who knows what the Confederates might have captured next.

Uzal W. Ent is a retired brigadier general of the Pennsylvania National Guard.