This book examines the key role played by Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell’s Second Corps during the final days in June. It is the first in-depth study of these crucial summer days that not only shaped the course of the Gettysburg Campaign but altered the course of our nation’s history.
In two powerful columns, Ewell’s Corps swept toward the strategically important Susquehanna River and the Pennsylvania capital looming beyond. Fear coursed through the local populace while Washington and Harrisburg scrambled to meet the threat. One of Ewell’s columns included a veteran division under Jubal Early, whose objectives included the capture and ransom of towns and the destruction of railroad bridges and the Hanover Junction rail yard.
Early’s most vital mission was the seizure of the Columbia Bridge, which spanned the Susquehanna River between Wrightsville and Columbia. To capture the longest covered bridge in the world would allow the division to cross into prosperous Lancaster County and move against the capital in Harrisburg.
Flames Beyond Gettysburg vividly narrates both sides of Ewell’s drama-filled expedition, including key Southern decisions, the response of the Pennsylvania militiamen and civilians who opposed the Confederates, and the burning of the Columbia Bridge. It also features detailed driving tours of the various sites discussed in the book. Based upon extensive primary source material and featuring original maps by cartographer Steven Stanley, this fast-paced and gracefully written history is a welcome and important addition to the Gettysburg literature.
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Lee Looks North
It was the humid, rainy late spring of 1863, the third year of the increasingly brutal American Civil War. The military outlook for the Union Army of the Potomac had grown more uncertain as the war dragged on. Following yet another devastating defeat by Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia in May at Chancellorsville, this Federal army was in disarray. Leading generals openly sniped at each other in the press and often in front of subordinates. Senior officials in Washington, including President Abraham Lincoln, feuded with the army's commanding general, "Fighting Joe" Hooker, who seemingly refused to fight or make any aggressive moves to keep Lee off-balance. The War Department's policy decisions were being challenged by military officers and disputed by the Northern press.
Disillusioned Federal soldiers questioned the competence and courage of their generals. Morale sank because of Hooker's perceived bungling of repeated chances for victory at Chancellorsville. Discipline began to slip, desertion rates increased, and recruitment declined in many states. As veteran regiments and artillery batteries mustered out when their terms of enlistment expired in the weeks following Chancellorsville, considerably fewer soldiers than expected re-enlisted. In March, the Federal government had approved the Enrollment Act, opening the way for a conscription draft to fulfill the need for additional manpower. As a result, the peace movement gained momentum across a broad spectrum of society, giving anti-war "Copperheads" a wider audience for their rhetoric. The previous September at Antietam, the Army of the Potomac thwarted Lee's invasion of Maryland, but failed to take advantage of its first good opportunity to destroy his army. Two-and-one-half years of killing, suffering, and hardship spawned discouragement and frustration toward the war for many Northerners. Early thoughts of a quick victory had long since vanished. The casualty lists grew numbingly longer, and now, there was no end in sight.
To many Southerners, this was an opportune time for another invasion of the North. It was not a fresh idea. During his Valley Campaign in May 1862, Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson informed a Confederate congressman that if he had forty thousand men, he would "raise the siege of Richmond and transfer this campaign to the banks of the Susquehanna," a broad river flowing southeasterly through central Pennsylvania. Reinforcements were not forthcoming, and Jackson moved his command to the Richmond area to assist Lee during the Peninsula Campaign.
After a series of Confederate victories forced Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan's Army of the Potomac to withdraw, Lee adopted Jackson's general idea and studied an invasion. After bullying John Pope's army at Second Manassas, Lee suddenly turned northward, apparently heading for Pennsylvania. His men had developed a marked attitude of invincibility and were in high spirits as they entered Maryland. Even the ghastly losses at Sharpsburg on September 17 did not dim their confidence. There, they withstood repeated attacks by McClellan's much larger Federal army, retiring from the blood-drenched fields on their own initiative. Just days before that great battle, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet's soldiers marched within ten miles of Pennsylvania before withdrawing toward Sharpsburg.
After their decisive victory at Fredericksburg in December, Lee and Jackson again contemplated an invasion. They would push well beyond Maryland into the lush Pennsylvania farmlands, forcing the Army of the Potomac to come to them. Their eyes were on targets of political and strategic importance, among them Harrisburg. The seizure of the capital of the North's second most populous state could stimulate cries for a negotiated peace and increase European pressure on Washington. Jackson advocated breaking up Pennsylvania's coal mining operations and cutting off fuel supplies vital to Northern war efforts. In late February, he directed topographical engineer Jedediah Hotchkiss to draw a detailed map of the Valley of Virginia up to Harrisburg and beyond to Philadelphia. He warned Hotchkiss to keep the preparations "a profound secret."
The Keystone State was a logical objective. Confederate strategists believed the southern tier of Franklin, Adams, and York counties to be ambivalent to the Union cause. Much of its population was of German or Scotch-Irish ancestry, typically hard-working people with thriving farms and well-stocked larders. Southern sympathizers in the region had openly supported the controversial Fugitive Slave Law. Bounty hunters and slave traders from below the Mason-Dixon Line freely roamed the area before the war. Maps were plentiful and detailed, and the vast road network was conducive to the movements of thousands of soldiers.
This agricultural breadbasket of the North was rich with bountiful orchards and well-cultivated farms brimming with food and much-needed horses and mules. Several prosperous towns invited tributes that could be levied to raise cash, supplies, and other useful goods. Escaped slaves might be recaptured and returned to the South, a political concern not lost on wealthy plantation owners who wielded considerable clout in Richmond. Perhaps the coal industry, so critical to the North's industry and war machine, could be damaged; three-quarters of the country's production came from Pennsylvania mines.
Despite the abortive Maryland Campaign, by the spring of 1863 strong public sentiment in the upper South pressed Lee to move his army into the Northern heartland. That would provide devastated Virginia farmers much needed relief from the rigors of feeding and supporting the soldiers for another summer campaign. Two years of fighting and supply raiding depleted previous harvests, because both Union and Confederate forces repeatedly crisscrossed the upper counties. Fields and orchards had been replanted, and civic officials were eager to allow the farmers a season of uninterrupted agriculture. If Lee remained in the North for an extended period, the Federals would be compelled to follow him, removing their resource-draining presence from the Old Dominion. Let the Yankee farmers feed both armies for a summer, thought many in Richmond. In some circles, there was a growing belief that just one more victory in the East might even end the bitter war. Virginia newspapers were vehement in sounding the trumpet for another invasion to relieve pressure on Richmond, as Jackson had suggested during the Peninsula Campaign. Jackson was mortally wounded at the battle of Chancellorsville and died shortly thereafter, but his invasion idea lived on.
Southern military advisers believed that the summer would bring another major Federal push to take Richmond. If Lee instead moved north, surely the Yankees would strip troops from Washington's defenses to try to corner Lee. Isolating the Federal capital might spark loud cries throughout the North to shift troops from the West to aid Hooker. If this happened, the Southerners could perhaps break Union Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's tightening grip on Vicksburg, Mississippi. Its loss would split the Confederacy in two as the Yankees gained full control of the Mississippi River.
For some time, Lee conversed with his staff regarding a growing concern. While the Army of Northern Virginia was consistently winning battles, the South did not have the sustainable strength in manpower, logistics, or resources to prevail in a prolonged war. Time was of the essence. Lee expressed to Jefferson Davis that it was wise to "carefully measure and husband our strength." The falling aggregate of available combat soldiers indicated to Lee that his army was growing weaker, and fresh recruits were not adequately resupplying its ranks. A protracted battle of attrition would only bring ruin and, in the end, the Confederacy would lose.
To many in its military, the only real opportunity for victory was in seizing the initiative. Brigadier General John B. Gordon of Georgia related the prevailing philosophy for another invasion. "In the logistics of defensive war, offensive movements are often the wisest strategy. Voltaire has somewhere remarked that 'to subsist one's army at the expense of the enemy, to advance on their own ground and force them to retrace their steps — thus rendering strength useless by skill — is regarded as one of the masterpieces of military art.'" Adding one more significant win to the string of previous tactical successes might finally lead to the desired strategic triumph. Peace Democrats, other war-weary groups, certain religious organizations, and influential newspapers might form a powerful lobby and force Lincoln to negotiate a peace settlement. The Confederacy might attain status as an independent legal nation in the eyes of the world.
Pressure mounted on the Confederate government to do something to relieve the threat on Vicksburg. In mid-May, Lee took a train to Richmond to meet with President Jefferson Davis and Secretary of War James Seddon to discuss an invasion. He soon returned to Fredericksburg to start planning tactical details with his staff. On May 27, Union intelligence officers informed Washington that plans were afoot in Richmond for Lee to go on the offensive. Three days later, Lee reorganized the Army of Northern Virginia. He appointed one-legged Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell to lead the Second Corps and high-strung Lt. Gen. A. P. Hill to head the new Third Corps, in effect splitting the late Jackson's old command. Longstreet retained his First Corps.
Lee's army could easily reach Pennsylvania from deep within Virginia by following the Shenandoah Valley, which runs northeasterly to the Potomac River. In Maryland, it becomes the Cumberland Valley, situated between Blue (North) Mountain and South Mountain. In turn, the valley leads to Harrisburg in central Pennsylvania. This lush and fertile region reminded an observer of a dagger pointed straight at the Yankees' heart. Steep mountains to Lee's right flank would screen his forces from pursuit. Cavalry and mounted infantry would safeguard mountain passes that the enemy might use to attack Lee's army, which would be vulnerable when strung out in long columns. The politicians and the War Department approved the plan, but insisted that Lee leave several brigades to guard Richmond. Confident that the Federals would make no aggressive moves to attack the capital, Lee wrestled with Davis and his war managers over which specific commands would stay behind.
Once his army's final composition was set, Lee estimated it would take roughly two weeks to march into Pennsylvania and threaten Harrisburg. He expected minimal resistance from badly outnumbered Federal troops stationed in the Shenandoah Valley. Lee's religious faith bolstered his confidence that a second incursion into the North would be successful. The disjointed and confused Army of the Potomac could not stop his victorious army, as an unseen God was guiding its fortunes. Nor could any militia or amateur home guard thwart Lee's ultimate goal, no matter their strength. He stated, "There never were such men in an army before. They will go anywhere and do anything if properly led." On May 31, he wrote his wife Mary, "I pray that our merciful Father in Heaven may protect and direct us! In that case, I fear no odds and no numbers."
After entering Pennsylvania, his advance elements would focus on collecting supplies and disrupting supply routes, telegraphs, and railroads. These linked the West with New York, Philadelphia, and other wealthy eastern cities. Surely Hooker's army would follow Lee, especially when Northern newspapers began clamoring for action. If Lee was correct, he could, at the time and place of his choosing, determine the circumstances for a pitched battle. His opponent, Joseph Hooker, enjoyed a reputation as an aggressive fighter at the division level, with some skills when leading a corps. His perceived success led to his installation as commander of the Army of the Potomac, replacing Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside after the ill-fated Rappahannock Campaign. Hooker was a gifted administrator whose reforms initially worked wonders for the badly demoralized soldiers. However, when commanding an entire army in combat at Chancellorsville, he exhibited uncertainty. Lee suspected that Hooker's indecision regarding Confederate intentions would aid his army in reaching Pennsylvania unmolested. He was correct. Unknown to Lee, on September 12, 1862, just before Antietam, Hooker wrote, "To my mind the rebels have no more intention of going to Harrisburg than they have of going to Heaven." His opinion had not changed, nor had Lee's objective.
North to the Mason-Dixon Line
While Lee and Confederate authorities contemplated an invasion of Pennsylvania, most of the Army of Northern Virginia remained stationary near Fredericksburg. Major General Jubal A. Early's 7,200-man division, including John Gordon's brigade of six crack Georgia regiments, camped on a low ridge near Hamilton's Crossing. Organized by Brig. Gen. Alexander Lawton in early 1862, the battle-tested brigade fought in the Seven Days' Battles against George McClellan and at Second Manassas against John Pope, where Lawton assumed divisional command after Ewell was wounded at Groveton. At Sharpsburg, the Georgians formed the apex of Jackson's line. Attacked near farmer David Miller's cornfield, they suffered massive casualties, including acting brigade commander Col. Marcellus Douglass and five of six regimental leaders. Farther south, near the Piper farm, Colonel Gordon and his 6th Alabama lined the infamous "Sunken Road." He received five painful wounds, but greatly impressed his superiors and peers with his courage and charisma. While Gordon recovered, Lee promoted him to brigadier general on November 1, 1862. The next spring, a healthy Gordon assumed command of Lawton's Brigade shortly before the Chancellorsville Campaign.
John Brown Gordon was born February 6, 1832, in Upson County in rural Middle Georgia. The fourth of twelve children of a minister, he was an outstanding student at the University of Georgia, but withdrew during his senior year. Instead, he studied law and passed the bar exam before briefly becoming a journalist covering politics in the state capital, Milledgeville. Gordon and his father developed several profitable coal mines in Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee. Elected as captain of a group of mountain men known as the "Raccoon Roughs," Gordon offered his services to Georgia upon secession. However, all volunteer quotas were full so his coonskin-capped volunteers were not accepted for duty. He then telegraphed several Southern governors, being rewarded when Andrew B. Moore commissioned him as major of the 6th Alabama Infantry.
When Gordon finally went off to war, he received an emotional farewell from his mother, a parting that "nothing short of death's hand can ever obliterate from my heart." Holding John in her arms, "her heart almost bursting with anguish, and the tears running down her cheeks," she asked God to take care of him. She added, "Go, my son; I shall perhaps never see you again, but I commit you freely to the service of your country."
The six-foot tall, ramrod straight Gordon proved to be one of the best citizen-soldiers in the army. His tactical judgments often exceeded those of professionally trained officers. He rose from captain to corps commander by the end of the war, a rare feat in the Confederacy. Gordon was a captivating orator and brilliant negotiator, skills that contributed to his successful military career. He devoted much time and attention to his adoring wife Fanny. Much to Jubal Early's consternation, she often accompanied her husband on campaigns, leaving their two boys under the care of his mother and "Mammy Mary," a slave. However, Fanny stayed put that summer.
Now her beloved husband prepared for yet another campaign. Private G. W. Nichols of the 61st Georgia wrote:
Here in this camp our regimental chaplains held divine services day and night. Our beloved General Gordon was often among the worshippers. He had become almost an idol in the brigade with officers and men, often leading in the prayer and exhortation service. A great many professed religion, joined the church and were baptized. The last of May we drew plenty of clothing and shoes. Every gun was examined and if they were not all right we had to get one that was. Our cartridges boxes were filled, and we knew something was up ... On the first day of June we were ordered to cook two days rations, which we did.
Well after dark on June 3, elements of the Army of Northern Virginia broke camp near Fredericksburg and headed northwest toward Culpeper. The next night, Maj. Gen. Robert Rodes' division of Ewell's Corps left after dark to avoid the watchful eye of Union observation balloonists. John Gordon's 2,500 veterans also prepared to depart Hamilton's Crossing. The 13th Georgia was his most seasoned regiment, having mustered into service in July 1861 at Griffin. Reduced by attrition to a little more than three hundred men, the diverse command contained companies from ten counties in Middle Georgia. A 39-year-old lawyer and blacksmith's son, Col. James M. Smith, Jr., rode at their head. The Democrat had unsuccessfully run for Congress in 1855, and he still harbored political ambitions.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Flames Beyond Gettysburg"
Copyright © 2011 Scott L. Mingus Sr..
Excerpted by permission of Savas Beatie LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword, by Eric J. Wittenberg,
Chapter 1: Lee Looks North,
Chapter 2: Pennsylvania's Response,
Chapter 3: The Rebels are Coming!,
Chapter 4: Invasion!,
Chapter 5: Gunfire at Gettysburg,
Chapter 6: Gordon Reaches York County,
Chapter 7: White Raids Hanover Junction,
Chapter 8: Gordon Parades through York,
Chapter 9: Wrightsville Prepares,
Chapter 10: Gordon Attacks Wrightsville,
Chapter 11: A Scene of Confusion and Excitement,
Chapter 12: The Aftermath,
Chapter 13: The Impact of Gordon's Expedition,