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The Battle of Emmitsburg

Michael Hillman

During my research on the history of our farm and the lands and families surrounding it, I stumbled across Emile and Mary Nakhleh's book, EMMITSBURG: HISTORY AND SOCIETY. The Nakhleh's book is a highly detailed account of the history of Emmitsburg. In the seven years I have lived here, I had never heard the stories written in this fascinating collage of Emmitsburg's rich history. In every American history class, the Battle of Gettysburg is portrayed as a high water mark for the Confederacy; however, little if anything is ever said, nor do I think many of our newer residents know, of the pivotal role Emmitsburg played in that historic battle.

As we sit in our yards listening to the sounds of cannons booming, troops clashing, and the poignant refrain of bugles calling the troops to battle during the annual re-enactment of the Battle of Gettysburg, I believe it is important to remember our role in this battle. To this end, I would like to share with you excerpts of key sections from EMMITSBURG: HISTORY AND SOCIETY and James A. Helman's: HISTORY OF EMMITSBURG, as well as other information that I have collected through interviews and research which deal with Emmitsburg and its role in the Battle of Gettysburg.

While comparatively little actual fighting occurred around Emmitsburg during the Civil War, Emmitsburg was always on the perimeter of the battlefields: first Antietam, then Gettysburg and finally Monocacy. The town often saw cavalrymen from both armies scouting their opponents or in pursuit of foes they knew had passed through or were encamped nearby.

Stuart's Confederates passed through Emmitsburg on Oct 11, 1862 on their way back to Virginia from the their raid on Chambersburg, following the battle of Antietam. According to reports filed by Stuart, his troops were hailed by the residents of Emmitsburg with enthusiastic demonstrations of joy. Emmitsburg’s first encounter with troops in large numbers occurred just before the Battle of Gettysburg when as many as 25,000 troops were either stationed in or around the town.

The town’s first real taste of the effect of war occurred on June 15, 1863, two weeks before the Battle of Gettysburg, when a nighttime fire destroyed most of the town's center. Folklore has it that 'The Great Fire,' as it was known, was started by a Union sympathizer to prevent advancing Confederate forces from drawing upon supplies in the town. The fire began at 11:00 PM in the town’s livery stable and was not brought under control until 7:00 the next morning. In all, fifty houses were destroyed. According to James Helman, people for miles around Emmitsburg heard the church bells ring for help but feared to come into town as they thought the Rebel army had fired it, as they had Chambersburg a few days earlier.

Originally it was Lee's intention that the invasion of Pennsylvania should be staged partly through Emmitsburg. On June 28, 1863, there was scattered fighting at Fountain Dale, about seven miles west of Emmitsburg. In his official journal, Confederate Col. John Mosby noted that this encounter was between his and General Buford's Union Cavalry. 

After this short engagement, Buford withdrew through Emmitsburg towards Gettysburg. While in Emmitsburg, Buford reported on the results of his scouting expedition to General Reynolds', who had set up Union headquarters in Emmitsburg. Up until he moved to Gettysburg on July 1st, Reynolds's directed Union efforts from Emmitsburg’s Lutheran parsonage, St. Joseph's Rectory, and the present funeral home.

In the book, THE STORY OF THE MOUNTAIN, a contributor noted that "The Army of the Potomac was truly a beautiful sight" and describes as grand but horrible the passing of "the wagons, ambulances, cannons, etc, which were coming early dawn till nightfall. ... They camped around Emmitsburg. Their campfires, as viewed from the college windows, almost led one to imagine that this section for miles had received in one shower all the stars of the heavens."

The Union believed Lee's invasion of Pennsylvania was a feint and that his true goals were Washington and Baltimore, upon which he must descend from Pennsylvania, passing, of course, through Emmitsburg. However, it was crushing the Union Army, not capturing Washington and Baltimore, that was Lee's true goals. Lee's plan of operation was to fall upon the advance of the Union Army, when and wherever he found it, crush, and hurl it back on the main body, press forward and beat that before its Commander could have time to concentrate his whole force.

Emmitsburg might well have been the site of this impending battle. When Lee learned of the approach of the Union forces from the south, he concentrated on attacking them from the north. As fate would have it, it was General Reynolds, in Emmitsburg, who formed that advance of the Union army, which Lee wanted to crush, with the rest of Meade's army scattered far behind him.

Reynolds wrote to Meade on the 30th: "I think if the enemy advances in force from Gettysburg, and we are to fight a defensive battle in this vicinity, that the position to be occupied is just north of the town of Emmitsburg. Lee will undoubtedly endeavor to turn our left flank by way of Fairfield and the mountain roads ... near Mount Saint Mary's College." In preparation for this, Reynolds stationed two divisions behind Marsh Creek, one on the road to Gettysburg, and the other on the road leading to Fairfield; a third division was placed on the road to Chambersburg, behind Middle Creek.

Unsure of Lee's intentions, from his position in Taneytown, Meade instructed Reynolds that, "With Buford at Gettysburg and Thurmont and a regiment in front of Emmitsburg, you ought to be advised in time of their approach. In case of an advance in force against you, your advance troops must fall back to Emmitsburg were you will be re-enforced from units nearest you, which are Sickles' 3rd Corps at Taneytown and Slocum's 12th Corps at Littlestown ... If it is your judgment that you would be in better position at Emmitsburg ... you can fall back [there] without waiting for the enemy or further orders."

On July 1st, General Sickles, issued orders to "leave one brigade and a battery on the heights beyond Emmitsburg, commanding the approaches by way of Thurmont." This action was taken in response to Meade's wish that the approaches through Emmitsburg, not be left unguarded. Sickles was instructed by Meade to "hold on at Emmitsburg, as it is a point not to be abandoned, excepting in an extremity." Meade also ordered Reynolds, who had moved his command to Gettysburg, "to leave a division of the 3rd Corps at Emmitsburg, to hold in check any [enemy] force attempting to come thought there."

Nobody expected that the resistance offered by Buford and Reynolds on the first day of the battle would be as great as it was in the face of overwhelming numbers of Confederate forces who descended upon them from all directions. Though compelled to retreat, they found a closer defensive position on Cemetery Ridge. Not till 7:30 that night, when it was obvious that too many Union troops were in Gettysburg and the Union’s plan to retreat and fight at Emmitsburg was now too risky, did Meade direct Sickles' remaining men to leave Emmitsburg to "join their corps at Gettysburg with the greatest dispatch."

Emmitsburg saw both armies again during Lee's retreat. JEB Stuart directed most of his cavalry to retreat through Emmitsburg, so as to guard the southern flank of the main body of the retreating Confederate forces. According to Stuart's official reports, "Just at dawn [apparently on July 5th] we entered Emmitsburg. We there learned that a huge body of the enemy's cavalry had passed through the afternoon previous ... I halted for a short time to procure some rations ... In and around Emmitsburg we captured 60 to 70 prisoners of war and some valuable hospital stores." 

According to reports, when asked by residents how the battle had turned out, the Confederate forces claimed victory. Soon after entering the town, Stuart's retreat was resumed on the road to Frederick, via Thurmont.

Around 10:00 in the morning on that same day, the Union Cavalry came dashing into Emmitsburg in full charge, expecting to find Stuart's forces, which had already fled. It was these Union forces that brought the town the first news of the real outcome of the battle. That evening, amidst the ringing of church bells, the Union Cavalry went into bivouac near the town. For the next week or more, Union forces by the tens of thousands passed through Emmitsburg. General Meade himself passed through on July 7 and was received with much enthusiasm by the people.

Residents of Emmitsburg also played a key role in delaying Lee's retreat to Virginia. While the Battle raged at Gettysburg, Union Cavalry, including a company of Cole's Cavalry made up of Emmitsburg residents, destroyed his unprotected pontoon bridges across the Potomac.

Emmitsburg saw no more combat until the Battle of the Monocacy in 1864. During that raid, the small contingent of Union Cavalry guarding the area around Emmitsburg, was driven into Emmitsburg by superior numbers of Confederate forces and were, for a time, in danger of being cut off. However, the Union Cavalry held about a mile from the town and Emmitsburg was once again spared the destruction of war.

While Emmitsburg's luck held out, there were still many families in the valley who lost fathers, sons, brothers, and husbands. Samuel Maxell, a staunch abolitionist and owner of the mill located just upstream of Four Points Bridge, lost his son on July 5, 1864 during the battle at Piedmont. Samuel was a passionate advocate of the Union and was very influential in changing the sentiments of the local population with regard to slavery.

In 1862, Samuel sons Samuel Jr. and Thaddeus joined Cole's Cavalry. A Frederick County unit, Cole's Cavalry was like most units of that time, consisting of brothers and friends who had enlisted together to fight. Following the battle of Gettysburg, Cole's Cavalry joined in the union attack down the Shenandoah Valley. During their advanced to Piedmont, Virginia, they collided with a Confederate army under the command of Jubal Early. 

While charging a breastwork, Thaddeus Maxell was fatally shot by a Confederate sharpshooter. Samuel Jr. accompanied his brother's body home where Emmitsburg witnessed his burial at the Lutheran church where his father served as both a deacon and an elder. Following his brother's funeral, Samuel returned to his unit and played a key role in the Union victory at the Battle of the Monocacy.

The Maxwell brothers represented just one of the Emmitsburg families who contributed and fought valiantly in the Civil War. The history of Emmitsburg and our community is rich with stories of everyday sacrifice and valor. When the cannons sound this July 1, 1997 - take a minute to remember the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson:

On this green bank, by this soft stream,
We set today a votive stone;
That memory may their deed redeem,
When like our sires, our sons are gone.

Spirit, that made those heroes dare
To die, and leave their children free,
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
The shaft we raise to them and thee.

It is up to us, the living, to remember the role the founding families of this community and the role Emmitsburg has played in the history of our country. This valley has a rich heritage and stories that deserve to be told and remembered.

Read more articles by Michael Hillman

Read John Miller's Account of the Emmitsburg in the Civil War