Storm Clouds, June 28 – 30, 1863

Burning the Wrightsville/Columbia Bridge spanning the Susquehanna River, June 28, 1863.

By the afternoon of June 28, 1863, the vanguard of General Robert E Lee’s vaunted Army of the Northern Virginia is spread in a wide arc across south central Pennsylvania, wreaking havoc. On the western side of the Susquehanna River, the left wing of Lt. General Richard S. Ewell’s 2nd Corps approaches the heavily defended state capital at Harrisburg. The right wing of the 2nd Corps arrives at Wrightsville, PA, to find the 5,620 foot long covered bridge (thought to be the longest in the world) engulfed in flames. The stretch goal of threatening the city of Philadelphia now seems out of the question.

The center of Lee’s arc, Major General Harry Heth’s division of Lt. General A.P. Hill’s Corp, arrives in Cashtown, PA, on the 29th of June. It is rumored that there is a warehouse containing 2,000 pairs of shoes in the crossroads town of Gettysburg, about 8 miles East of Cashtown. A large number of Harry Heth’s soldiers are barefoot. He directs Brigadier General James J. Pettigrew to take his 1,800 man brigade and a train of supply wagons to get the shoes from the Gettysburg warehouse. Believing that there are only local militia troops in the region, Heth still cautions Pettigrew to not bring on an engagement should he encounter any resistance. Pettigrew sets off on the morning of June 30th to collect the footwear supposedly ripe for the picking in Gettysburg.

Brigadier General John Buford leads his Cavalry Division into Gettysburg on June 30, 1863.

At 11:00 AM on June 30th the lead element of the Union Army of the Potomac, 2,900 troopers of Brigadier General John Buford’s division of cavalry, noisily clatters into the town of Gettysburg. Buford finds the townspeople people to be in a state of heightened anxiety. The town elders inform him that Rebel infantry has been reported at Cashtown to the west, and that scouting parties were seen observing the town. Buford orders his troopers to fan out from the northwest to the southwest of town to seek out the Rebel troops.

As Pettigrew’s Brigade approaches Gettysburg, his scouts come rushing back to tell him that the town is crawling with Yankees. Pettigrew trots out in advance of his command and clearly sees the Yankee cavalry – Buford’s troopers – confidently and aggressively probing the woods and ridges on the outskirts of Gettysburg. Under orders not to bring on an engagement, Pettigrew turns his column to march back to Heth at Cashtown. According to historian Bruce Catton, John Buford watched Pettigrew approach, halt, then reverse course. Catton wrote, and I paraphrase, that as the last of the Confederate troops began to march out of view, a Rebel officer (perhaps Pettigrew) was seen to remove his hat, raise it high above his head and make a sweeping, theatrical bow to the Yankees watching. I have not read this anywhere else (“when the legend becomes fact, print the legend”).

Upon returning to Cashtown, Pettigrew informs Heth and his staff that Gettysburg appears to be under the control of the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac. Heth is incredulous and neither he, nor his staff take much stock in Pettigrew’s assessment. The Army of the Potomac is thought to still be in Maryland or even Virginia. And, you see, James Pettigrew is not a professional soldier, he did not attend West Point. Pettigrew, who enrolled in the University of North Carolina at the age of 15, is a truly brilliant man and takes affront. He pushes back stating he knows the difference between militia and well trained soldiers. The confidence, discipline and aggressive behavior of these Yankee cavalry troopers was sure not indicative of part-timers. Heth is still skeptical. He asks his commanding officer, A.P. Hill, if he would have any issues if he took his entire division to Gettysburg the next morning, July 1st, to obtain the shoes. Hill replies “None at all”. The rest is history.

Brigadier General John Buford: Buford’s Cavalry Division, Pleasanton’s Cavalry Corp, Army of the Potomac. (And one of my heroes of the Civil War).

Sources: Edwin Coddington: “The Gettysburg Campaign”, Bruce Catton: “Glory Road”, Douglas Southall Freeman: “Lee’s Lieutenants”, Harry Pfanz: “Gettysburg: The First Day”, Stephen Sears: “Gettysburg”, others to numerous to mention as well as special Gettysburg issues of “Blue & Gray Magazine” and “Civil War Times Illustrated”.

2 thoughts on “Storm Clouds, June 28 – 30, 1863

  1. Wonderful backstory for Gettysburg. Especially for anyone who has visited the battlefield or read the stories of the slaughter. We love the perspective of a talented officer’s intel being disregarded by a snobby cedentialed superior whose subsequent descision leads to calamity. Great bit of writing.


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