The movement of large bodies of Civil War troops from one point to another was a difficult undertaking. While there are guidelines, many fall by the wayside due to the vicissitudes of time and distance, available roads, physical barriers such as rivers and streams, dense forests, rocky ground, mountains, lack of water, bad roads, lack of roads, and of course, the physical and mental condition of the troops, and finally, by the presence of the enemy in any strength that could present an obstacle to movement.
So it was for both Robert E. Lee and George G. Meade at the end of June, 1863. It began to become apparent to both that there would soon be a battle, but the question was “Where?”
Lee was in the Cumberland Valley perhaps 20 miles west of Gettysburg, with some of his troops farther north toward Camp Hill, and others separated from the main body by almost 50 miles, having marched to the banks of the Susquehanna River at Wrightsville.
Meade was still in west-central Maryland but his troops were moving north at a good clip. A network of roads led into western York County, and eastern Adams County, while some others led into central Adams County. See the Campaign map below:
The natural convergence of the two armies would be somewhere around the town of Gettysburg. One look at the map and you can see why the eye is naturally drawn to Gettysburg…the network of roads leading into and out of the town is geometric, balanced, and becomes a focal point: it not only drew the eye, it drew the armies as well.
So it was with Lee, and Meade, and with John Reynolds as well. Major General John Fulton Reynolds, commanding the First Corps of the Army of the Potomac, was a native Pennsylvanian, born and raised in nearby Lancaster City, about 65 miles east and well across the Susquehanna River. Reynolds was also the ranking officer in the Army of the Potomac, and a trusted commander of the Union First Corps, known for its tenacious fighting regardless of its losses. Premier among the First Corps was the First Brigade of the First Division, a brigade of Midwesterners under the command of Brigadier General Solomon Meredith. The soldiers in the brigade were battle tested, battle hardened and some of the toughest fighters in either army. They wore distinctive high crowned black-lacquered hats, and that was how they were known in the ranks of the Army of Northern Virginia: “…them damned Black Hats!” Meade placed Reynolds in command of his left wing of the army, which then consisted of the First, Third and Eleventh Corps.
At the end of the march on the 29th, Reynolds made his headquarters in Emmitsburg, Maryland, just a few miles from the Pennsylvania border. He recognized the focal point on the maps that Gettysburg presented, and the network of roads. Additionally he could see that his line of march would take him straight north into downtown Gettysburg. He also would have seen a network of side roads on the southeast of town. That was something that could come in handy if they fought at Gettysburg.
In the Cumberland Valley, between Chambersburg and Carlisle, General Robert E. Lee was issuing orders to concentrate his forces near Gettysburg. He had already ordered Ewell to head back with his two divisions [Rodes’s, and Johnson’s Divisions], to return to Chambersburg, and almost immediately changed those orders. It was too late for Major General Edward Allegheny Johnson’s Division as they had gotten on the road southwest to Chambersburg in near record time. It would be foolish to turn them around when they had already covered so much ground. Lee rode north and joined Major General Robert Rodes and his division at Carlisle. The next day Lee would ride over South Mountain to York Springs with Rodes’s Division. Other orders recalled Major General Jubal Early’s Division from far to the east, and bring them to East Berlin northeast of Gettysburg. Lieutenant General Ambrose Powell Hill’s Corps was ordered toward Cashtown on the Chambersburg Pike about 8 miles west of Gettysburg. Longstreet’s Corps was still in the Cumberland Valley waiting for the roads east to clear enough to start his men east.
It would take the bulk of the next day for the forces of both sides to consolidate into their final pre-battle positions.
Both sides smelled a battle. Lee was thirsting for the ‘one big battle’ where he would destroy the Army of the Potomac, while Meade, faced with the constraints from Washington to remain between Lee and Washington and Baltimore, maneuvered his men in a masterful use of available roads. Lee would not expect them to arrive on scene as quickly as they did. Meade began to formulate a plan of battle based on the Army of the Potomac moving east and south into Maryland to a location along Pipe Creek and there to invite Lee to attack him. Events would grant him an attack by Lee, but not at Pipe Creek.
Gottfried, Bradley M., The Brigades of Gettysburg, Da Capo Press, Cambridge, 2002, ISBN 0-306-81175-8.
Coddington, Edwin B., The Gettysburg Campaign, A Study in Command, Touchstone Press, New York, 1997. ISBN 0-684-84569-5.