I can feel the anger dripping from every word in the diary entry of Rachel Bowman-Cormany for Tuesday, 23 June, 1863. The rebel cavalrymen had returned. “They rode in as leisurely as you please,” wrote Rachel, “I just wonder what they want this time...”
Jenkin's raiders again invaded the town's businesses “... and were dealing out flour by the barrel and molasses by the bucketful. They made people take them bread and meat...Some dumb fools carried them jellies and the like.” The war for the citizens of Chambersburg was no longer a matter of political principle, religious conviction or moral imperative. Lee's march into Pennsylvania, like Sherman's later march through Georgia, had made it personal.
Two companies of Brigadier General Albert Jenkins' “Border Rangers” had snuck into Chambersburg the night before, and Captain Moorman's Company was ordered to “commender” horses from the farms on the western slope of South Mountain. The remaining 1,500 troopers arrived late in the morning. And 24 hours later, on Wednesday, 24 June, the cavalry were replaced by the 22,000 men of the Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia. “At 10 a.m.,” wrote Rachel, “the infantry commenced to come and for 3 hours they just marched on as fast as they could.” They were hurrying to the top of Jedediah Hotchkiss' 7 ½ foot long map of the Shenandoah and Cumberland Valleys. The road itself made their intended destination obvious. Wrote Rachel, “It is thought by many that a desperate battle will be fought at Harrisburg.”
Following Lieutenant General Ewell's men was the Third Corps under Lieutenant General A.P. Hill, which had crossed the Potomac 3 days before. Still in Virginia, but ready to cross the river at Williamsport, was the First Crops of Lieutenant General James Longstreet. When his entire 70,000 man Army of Northern Virginia was unified north of the Potomac, General Robert E. Lee would be positioned to raid the rich farms and factories of Pennsylvania, confiscating weapons, clothing, food, horses and escaped slaves. And perhaps force the Federal government to its knees.
To mask his movements in Pennsylvania, Lee was operating behind the 70 mile long South Mountain - actually a jumble of peaks and folds up to 12 miles wide. There were only 2 gaps through the range. In the south, touching the Maryland border, was the 10 mile corkscrew Monterey Gap (above)..
The Waynesboro - Emittsburg Turnpike (above) followed Red Run creek, which meandered westward into the Cumberland valley.
Half way up the palisade was the lower, wider and straighter 8 mile long Cashtown Gap, “... through which it was possible to move expeditiously a large force with artillery and wagon trains” (above). Past the Cashtown store, Marsh Creek ran eastward, into the rolling Piedmont of Pennsylvania. Fortifying these two passes would shield Lee's communications and his line of retreat. But even a hundred fifty years later it is unclear exactly what the 56 year old Confederate commander sought to accomplish behind that mountain curtain.
Part of the confusion was created by Lee's personality. On Monday, 22 June, he took note that many of the supplies Jenkin's cavalry had seized were not reaching the rest of the army. So he ordered General Ewell to “If necessary send a staff officer to remain with Jenkins.” Why not just insist on the staff officer? Not that it mattered in this instance because Lee immediately transferred Jenkins brigade out of Ewell's command and into J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry corps.
Lee also decided it was time to let General Stuart off the leash. He told his charismatic drama queen , “If you find...that two brigades can guard the Blue Ridge...you can move with the other three...and take position on General Ewell’s right.” He then warned Stuart these orders were to be “...strictly complied with”, but he never told Stuart how close to Ewell's right he should stay.
At that moment Stuart was guarding the flank of the First Crops of General James Longstreet. And Longstreet, who saw Stuart's orders, and warned Lee that a shift directly north, to cover Ewell, might tip off Hooker to the grand plan. “Pete" Longstreet talked it over with General Lee, and convinced him that maybe, if Hooker was not moving north, possibly, Stuart could slip in-between the units of the Army of the Potomac, get on their eastern flank, raise hell, grab supplies and even beat Ewell to Harrisburg. It was the kind of maneuver Stuart had pulled before. It had the advantage of forcing Hooker to look to his own flank instead of Ewell's, putting Stuart in the soft underbelly of the Federal Army, and maybe surprising and capturing Harrisburg. And, since Lee had given Stuart the option, Stuart naturally decided to take it.
Lee's nonspecific orders, particularly when issues were vital, can be seen as either offering freedom of action for his subordinates, or merely southern gentility, or a passive-aggressive refusal to plainly state what he really wanted when it really mattered. And he had an almost religious faith in his soldiers. He wrote one of his division commanders, John Bell Hood, " There were never such men in an army before. They will go anywhere and do anything if properly led" Such devotion covered a lot of failings in command. Also, whatever his intent his southern manners left his subordinates, like Stuart, struggling with ambiguous wording, and often choosing a course of action they preferred, rather than the one Lee preferred. When they were right, Lee was right. When they were wrong, they had failed Lee. Like his counterpart, Joseph Hooker, Robert E. Lee's talents and shortcomings would be on full display during the Gettysburg campaign.
Trying to guess Lee's intentions for the Union in late June of 1863 was the job of 33 year old Chief Engineer for the Army of the Potomac, Brigadier General Gouverneur K. Warren (above) – a man Lee described as “calm, absorbed, and earnest”. Warren resembled a professor of mathematics - which he had taught at West Point. He was “short and willowy...no more substantial... than a young boy...his uniforms tended to hang off him as if they were several sizes too big.” He was an introvert, rarely smiled, and suffered long periods of depression. But he was a fierce and capable warrior with a quick and powerful mind, and he was so honest his fellow Union officers either hated or admired him.
While the Army of the Potomac was still gathered around Fairfax Courthouse, Virginia, Major General Hooker (above) asked Warren to consider what would happen if he moved the army to Harpers Ferry. Warren admitted such a move would allow them to “protect Washington...and Baltimore... and...enable us to operate on (Lee's) communications.” And maybe catch his army divided by the Potomac, as Hooker's had been divided by the Rappahanock. In addition, Warren mused, “It will prevent Lee from detaching a corps to invade Pennsylvania...”
But Lee already had 44,000 men in Pennsylvania. It was too late for Hooker to move his center of operations to Harpers Ferry, and Warren clearly suspected that, since, in his presentation to Hooker the shy and arrogant genius added “These opinions are based upon the idea that we are not to try and go round his army, and drive it out of Maryland, as we did last year, but to paralyze all its movements by threatening its flank and rear if it advances...”
This was the key to the balance of power between the two armies that June of 1863. By staying south of Lee, between his army and Washington, The Army of the Potomac was positioned to cut Lee off, trap him in enemy territory, and defeat the Army of Northern Virginia “in detail” - a piece at a time. It was a golden opportunity. General Warren knew it. Lincoln knew it. It seems Longstreet and Lee both knew it. But it does not seem to have occurred to “Fighting Joe” Hooker.
That Monday afternoon, 21 June, Company “D” – 50 to 100 men - of Jenkin's troopers under Captain Robert Moreman (above) were in the woods just west of Blue Ridge Summit, Pennsylvania, at the high point of Monterey Pass. They were looking for horses. What they found was some Pennsylvania militia. After firing a few shots the militia scattered, and the rebels pushed ahead to the town Fairfield (below), at the northwestern entrance to the pass. And with that, the south gate to the Cumberland valley was slammed shut.
About 5:00 p.m., 21 June, 1863, Stuart's formal orders arrived by courier and repeated Lee's earlier instructions. But now, they ended, “You...will...be able to judge whether you can pass around their army without hindrance, doing them all the damage you can...” Once again Lee had given Stuart permission to ride around the Army of the Potomac – again. He had not ordered it, but he had not forbidden it, either. Just after dark, another thunderstorm broke over the soldiers sleeping under the stars of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia..