“War with all its desolating evils is upon our Good Old Commonwealth! The Rebel invaders are upon our Soil, with Fire and Sword desolating the once happy homes of our people. Come to the Rescue!”
Bombastic militia recruiting posters expressed the panic that spread across southern Pennsylvania, which for twenty-six months had been spared the ravages of the Civil War. But now the storm had arrived in the form of a host of 77,000 armed Rebel troops in their midst. Thousands of civilians evacuated to Philadelphia and beyond. The rest stayed behind to face the wrath of their new occupiers. As the South’s victorious army marched its way through the plush farmland and small towns of the bucolic Pennsylvania countryside they raided barns, broke open chicken coops, and emptied smokehouses of many a prosperous farmer of mostly hardy German stock. The Rebels confiscated livestock, rode off with horses, and commandeered supplies of all kinds from leather goods to hats to produce to shoes…especially shoes that were always much coveted by the footsore infantrymen. On many occasions they did pay for their loot--but with worthless Confederate script.
When they entered a town, the Rebels typically gathered the sullen townsfolk into the central square and demanded tribute in exchange for sparing them the torch. York, PA was a typical example. “My friends,” said one Confederate officer to its frightened inhabitants, “how do you like this way of our coming back into the Union?” Then the occupiers levied a sizeable bounty, collecting 28,000 pounds of baked bread, 3,500 pounds of sugar, 1,650 pounds of coffee, 32,000 pounds of beef, 1,500 pairs of shoes and $28,000 cash. Lee’s army, which was near starvation just a few months earlier, had never eaten so well. 2nd Corps commander Lt. Genl. Richard Ewell (Jackson’s successor) wrote to his wife that should the army remain in Pennsylvania for long they would grow too fat!
Although the Confederate soldiers comported themselves as well as an invading army amidst an enemy population at its mercy could be expected—especially given the harsh occupation the Union army had inflicted upon the ravaged Virginia they left behind—there was one dark reminder of what the war was ultimately about. “We took a lot of negroes yesterday,” wrote home a member of the 55th Virginia regiment. Although not officially sanctioned, neither was slave-catching discouraged. Indeed, it is estimated that Lee’s men hunted down, rounded up, and shipped south into slavery several hundred unfortunate Pennsylvania Blacks, fugitive and freeborn alike, who’d been unable to flee ahead of the invading Southerners. One teen-aged Gettysburg civilian recalled a woman of color anxiously urging her exhausted children to keep moving down the road and warning them: “If dem Rebs done catch you dey’ll tear you all up!” Of all the ugly episodes of the campaign, this practice surely ranks as the most heinous and cruel.
By the end of June, the invasion was in its third week and the Army of Northern Virginia was scattered over fifty miles across Pennsylvania, from Chambersburg in the west to Harrisburg along the Susquehanna River to the north. Despite the fact that the Union army was now in hot pursuit, Lee had strung out his forces so thinly because he had no clue the enemy was so close! In a mid-nineteenth century army, reconnaissance and intelligence gathering was carried out by the highly mobile cavalry corps. But at the onset of the campaign, Lee’s celebrated cavalry commander, Major General James E. B “Jeb” Stuart, attempted to ride around the Army of the Potomac to the east, hoping to wreak havoc in their rear, disrupt communications, and then quickly link back up with their own legions in Pennsylvania. But the Union army had moved too fast and Stuart soon found himself cut off and hauling 140 captured Union wagons across Maryland and southeastern Pennsylvania that slowed his pace even more. Unaware that his cavalry was incommunicado, Lee naturally assumed that, since he’d heard no news of enemy movements from Stuart, there was no news to report and so the Union army must still be far to the south in Virginia. It was a dangerous intelligence failure on the eve of a battle no one in the Confederate army had the faintest idea was approaching.
It was with considerable disquiet then that late on June 28 Lee learned—not from Stuart but rather an enterprising spy—that the Union army wasn’t still idle in Virginia but had actually crossed the Potomac River into Maryland two days earlier and was getting dangerously close. Lee also learned for the first time that General Meade was his new opponent as head of the Army of the Potomac…the former corps commander replaced Hooker, whose May offensive Lee broke apart at Chancellorsville, and since then had lost the confidence of Lincoln.
Immediately Lee sent couriers racing on horseback in all directions across southern Pennsylvania with orders for his scattered army to reunite at Cashtown or, if more feasible, the crossroads town eight miles farther to the east called Gettysburg. Meanwhile Meade’s army, advancing on a broad front, had moved to a position in Maryland along the Big Pipe Creek just fifteen miles south of Gettysburg. The gap between the two armies was rapidly closing and both sides had strong patrols out.