At three o’clock on the morning of June 28th, 1863, Major General George Gordon Meade, commanding Fifth Corps, Army of the Potomac, was awakened by a messenger from Washington DC. The messenger, Colonel James A. Hardie, from the staff of General-in-Chief of the Union Army, Henry Halleck, had arrived in the camp near the mouth of the Monocacy River, with a message of “trouble.” Still not quite awake, Meade’s thoughts turned to his impending arrest while asserting his innocence. Hardie gave Meade the message and Meade began to read it. The message was an order, from President Lincoln, through General Halleck, for Meade to assume command of the Army of the Potomac, replacing the recently resigned Major General Joseph Hooker. Meade is said to have commented later that he would rather have been arrested.
The situation was dire. The Army of the Potomac had been moving for several weeks shadowing Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia as it moved up inside the Shenandoah Valley, and after crossing the Potomac River into Maryland, the Cumberland Valley, which would eventually lead that Army to the west shore of the Susquehanna River across from Harrisburg, the Capital of Pennsylvania. Meade himself was a mere twenty five miles from Pennsylvania. Several hours later, after drafting a reply to General Halleck, Meade and Hardie rode to the camp of General Hooker. Hooker met with them and for several hours, they discussed details of what orders Hooker had issued recently and the logistical details that are the heavy weight on the shoulders of any General. Specifically, the details of the locations and conditions within the other six corps of the army, along with the artillery, and of course, the cavalry, still fairly flush from their recent showing at Brandy Station. For the rest of the day, Meade was busy with assembling his Head Quarters staff, and issuing orders to the various commanders as to when and where they should head next. He wired Halleck that he would “move toward the Susquehanna, keeping Washington and Baltimore well covered, and if the enemy is checked in his attempt to cross the Susquehanna or if he turns toward Baltimore, to give him battle.”
[Official Records, Part 3, pp. 61-62, as cited in Coddington.]
Late in the afternoon Halleck wired Meade information on Confederate Major General James Ewell Brown “JEB” Stuart, Cavalry Commander, Army of Northern Virginia. Stuart was conducting a raid and was east of Meade and his Army, which was east of Lee’s Infantry. Meade essentially dismissed the news as other units not part of the Army of the Potomac and near Washington and Baltimore would have to deal with Stuart.
By the end of the Day, Meade had ordered the abandonment of the garrison at Washington Heights overlooking Harpers Ferry, transport of the military material from there to Washington, via canal, and the troops to move to Frederick and become the rear guard of the Army of the Potomac, which he had ordered to concentrate around Frederick. In addition, he carefully mapped out the roads over which he would move his army, and the massive supply trains that followed it, north into Pennsylvania in the coming days, while staying between Lee and Baltimore/Washington.
One other event of some note occurred when Meade agreed to a request from his cavalry commander, Alfred Pleasonton, to promote three junior officers to Brigadier General to command new units in his cavalry corps, formerly two divisions, now reorganized into three. Thus Captains Elon J. Farnsworth, and Wesley A. Merritt, and Lieutenant George Armstrong Custer were elevated to Brigadier General and each given a brigade to command. They would all play important roles in the coming battle.
June 28th was Lee’s first full day in Pennsylvania. The advanced units of his army, specifically the cavalry brigade of Brigadier Albert Gallatin Jenkins, which ranged the Cumberland Valley north to Carlisle, and east to Camp Hill across the Susquehanna River from Harrisburg, had been in Pennsylvania for two weeks.
In the van of the Infantry columns was Richard S. Ewell’s Second Corps, with General Jubal Early’s Division leading the way. After passing through Chambersburg, Early sent Brigadier General John B. Gordon east through Gettysburg to try to capture a bridge across the Susquehanna east of York. In the process they cleaned out the shoes and boots that were available in Gettysburg. By the 28th they were in York getting $100,000 in ransom, supplies, food, hats, and shoes and boots.
One interesting observation was about some of the culture shock the Confederates experienced in Pennsylvania. “As Confederates pushed on into Pennsylvania, the countryside startled them. For most, this was their first trip to the North, and the natural beauty of the region and the level of opulence among northern farmers shocked these southern boys. They had accepted unquestioningly arguments about the superiority of slave labor. What they saw, however, belied those tales. Soldier after soldier wrote home of stunning landscape, with hardwood forests atop hills and lush pastureland and tidy fields scattered along the gentle slopes and valley floors. In Pennsylvania, the soil was rich and the livestock fat. Impressive stone homes and enormous barns dotted the panorama. Evidently, these middle-class farmers in a free labor society did quite well for themselves.” [The Common Soldier’s Gettysburg Campaign, Joseph T. Glatthaar, in Boritt, p. 9.]
The Confederate spy James Harrison reported to Longstreet and Lee on the night of the 28th that the Army of the Potomac had crossed that river and was in Maryland headed north. Hard on the heels of this news came the news of the replacement of Hooker by Meade. The absence of Stuart and the absence even of word from Stuart had cost Lee some time, but well into the night Lee was writing new orders to his commanders, calling them back to assemble near Cashtown, a few miles west of Gettysburg, at the foot of South Mountain on the Chambersburg Pike.
Borritt, Gabor, Ed. “The Gettysburg Nobody Knows”, Oxford University Press, New York. 1997. ISBN 0-19-510223-1
Coddington, Edwin B. “The Gettysburg Campaign, A Study in Command” Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. 1984. ISBN 0-684-18152-5 (pbk.)