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Emmitsburg in the Civil War

Cavalry Operations of Emmitsburg 1863

John Allen Miller

On June 15, 1863 one of the biggest cavalry battles of the Civil War occurred in Virginia at a cross road named Brandy Station. This was where the Confederate Cavalry's reputation as being invincible began to crumble. The Federal soldiers were beginning to out perform General Jeb Stuart's cavalry. The Federal Cavalry had younger boys in the saddle who were not afraid of battle and the old commanders were being replaced by newer ones who could do the job. Compared to the Confederates the Federals had the advantage of more fire power. Typical Confederate guns were shot guns or sawed off Enfield, which held fewer rounds, verses the Federal Sharps Carbines. As the battles occurred in the Shenandoah Valley, the main Confederate Army was making its way into the North for its second invasion known as the Gettysburg Campaign.

The last days of June were crucial to both armies. General Hooker, the commander of the Army of the Potomac was relieved of command and General George Meade stepped in. The Federal position at this time was located about 35 miles south in Frederick, Maryland. Confederate James Longstreet was informed that the Federal Army was not in Virginia but in Maryland. The Confederate Cavalry kept the Federal Cavalry engaged, while General Lee's Army of Northern Virginia was crossing the Potomac River near Hagerstown, Maryland. At this time the Federal Army could not pinpoint General Lee's location, he had used the Catoctin and South Mountains as cover. During the last days of June, the Confederate Army moved about 50 miles into south-central Pennsylvania reaching from Chambersburg. Parts of the southern army made their way to York even as far as the Susquehanna River outside of Harrisburg.

While, General JEB Stuart remained in Maryland, the Confederate Cavalry crossed the Potomac River near Seneca Mills outside of Urbana, Maryland. General Stuart had orders from General Lee to scout the Federal positions and report back as soon as possible. In Rockville, Maryland General JEB Stuart captured a wagon train from the Federal Cavalry. General Stuart was slowed by his prizes, which he lost in the skirmishes that took place in the next few days. On June 28th, General JEB Stuart was in Westminster, Maryland where he engaged in his second major fight while in Maryland. Subsequently JEB Stuart made his way through Union Mills where he camped on the night of the 29th. 

Two weeks earlier on June 15 a major fire had started in the town of Emmitsburg, destroying about three of the four blocks. More than fifty homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed. Some speculation and rumors stated that it was set on fire by parts of the Confederate Army or by some southern sympathizers. The fire was started in the loft of the Beam and Guthrie Stable around eleven o' clock on a Monday night. The fire then spread eastward up along Main Street, involving the North East, North West and South East blocks around the old water hole. 

As the Union Army received its orders to march onward toward Gettysburg, General Alfred Pleasonton issued his orders to the Army of the Potomac's Cavalry Divisions.  The orders are as follow:

"Special Orders, Headquarters Cavalry Corps, Numbers 99. June 29, 1863.

I. The First Cavalry Division will move immediately on the receipt of this order as follows: Two brigades and a battery by the way of Peaksville [Beallsville?], Weedsville [Wolfsville?], and Chewsville, to Emmitsburg, and from thence to Gettysburg by tomorrow night; one brigade and battery with trains to march, by way of Frederick City, Adamsville, Lewistown, and Catoctin Furnace, to Mechanicstown, where it will encamp for the night, protecting the rear, and bring up all stragglers. Headquarters tomorrow night at Middleburg. A staff officer will be sent to headquarters to-morrow night for orders from the headquarters of the division, which will move with the two brigades to Gettysburg. A staff officer will also be sent tomorrow night from the brigade at Mechanicstown to headquarters Cavalry Corps at Middleburg, for orders. The left of the infantry corps will rest to-morrow night at Emmitsburg. The two brigades at Gettysburg will cover and protect the front, and communicate all information of the enemy rapidly and surely. The Third Cavalry Division will be to-morrow at Littlestown.

II. The Third Cavalry Division, commanded by General Kilpatrick, will move by 8 o'clock this morning as follows: First Brigade and a battery, Brigadier-General Farnsworth, will move, by way of Woodsborough, Bruceville, and Taneytown, to Littlestown. Second Brigade and a battery, Brigadier-General Custer, will move by Utica, Creagerstown, and Graceham, to Emmitsburg; from thence to Littlestown. The trains of this division will move with the First Brigade, and will encamp near headquarters of the corps, at Middleburg. A staff officer will be sent by the commander of this division to the headquarters of the corps at Middleburg to-morrow night, for orders.

III. The Second Cavalry Division, Brigadier-General Gregg, will move to-morrow as follows: Two brigades and a battery from Ridgeville, by the way of Carter's, to Westminster, where they will encamp to-morrow night; one brigade and battery from Frederick City, by the way of Liberty and Unionville, to New Windsor, where it will encamp for the night. The trains of this command, on arriving at Liberty, will be sent to encamp near headquarters Cavalry Corps at Middleburg. A staff officer will be sent to-morrow night by General Gregg to headquarters at Middleburg, for orders. He should arrive at 7 p. m. This command protects the left flank and front, connecting with the Third Cavalry Division at Littlestown.

IV. Captain J. M. Robertson will move with the three batteries of his brigade to Middleburg, where he will encamp for the night. He will report in person to these headquarters at Middleburg, upon arrival. He will commence moving at 8 a. m.

By command of Major-General Pleasonton: A. J. Alexander, Chief of Staff, and Assistant Adjutant-General.

As the Confederate troops reached toward Gettysburg, skirmishes developed around Emmitsburg at Fountaindale, PA. where on June 28th, parts of Albert Jenkins Cavalry ran into Cole's Cavalry. On June 30th, eight miles north of Emmitsburg, about 3,000 Confederates skirmished with parts of Buford's Union cavalry at Fairfield PA. This skirmish did not last long, as the patrols broke off the engagement with the Confederates to retreat to the main position of General Burford. General Buford entered Emmitsburg around nine o'clock in the evening. 

On June 30th, as JEB Stuart, came into Hanover, PA, he was attacked by General Kilpatrick's command. It was General Custer and his men of the 7th Michigan Cavalry that managed to repel the Confederates at the battle of Hanover. In an attempt to jump a ditch General JEB Stuart almost fell off his horse, and avoided captured. General Stuart successfully, but barely maneuvered his command out of harms way. The battle of Hanover was fought in the streets, and delayed General Stuart from rejoining General Lee. After leaving Hanover, General Stuart sought a route to rejoin General Lee.

General George Meade, who was commanding the Federal forces, developed a plan in the event General Lee's Confederates came from the cross roads of those little towns that dotted the PA country side. The Pipe Creek Line was a defensive line about twenty miles long that stretched from Middleburg, Maryland to Union Mills, Maryland. The Pipe Creek Line was about twenty miles long. The Pipe Creek Line was the reason that Federal troops raced to Gettysburg on such a short notice. On June 30th, Taneytown was the headquarters for General Meade as Emmitsburg began to take on the role as a supply base for the Union Troops. The Pipe Creek Line was formed because General Meade thought the Confederate Army might try to invade Baltimore or Washington from the North, and because it provided several tactical advantages. The higher grounds offered a natural barrier and also provided vantage points for lookout posts and signal stations. The roads that ran through the region that would move the troops toward Gettysburg on July 1st were almost parallel to the Pipe Creek.

By now Emmitsburg was crawling with Federal Troops coming in from Frederick. On June 30th, men of the First Corps of the Army of the Potomac went into Emmitsburg to obtain fresh milk, bread, pies, and cakes. Members of the First Corps made camp near the present day Post Office and mustered to receive their pay. A disturbance broke out when soldiers of the 76th New York were told to wait until the next day to receive their pay. In the evening hours the First Corps reset Camp three miles from town along Marsh Creek and reset camp there. A battery of artillery was held in Emmitsburg as reserves on the heights toward Thurmont. General Reynolds made his headquarters at the Moritz Tavern, which was three miles north of Emmitsburg. 

 During the evening hours of June 30th, Oliver Howard, commander of the Army of the Potomac 11th Corps, made his way from Mount Saint Mary's College to see General Reynolds. During the evening, Howard thought that the General appeared preoccupied. While at the Moritz Tavern General Reynolds wrote an analysis to General Meade proposing that if the enemy advances in force from Gettysburg, and a defensive battle must be fought. The strategy reasoned in the vicinity the best position to be held would be just north of the town of Emmitsburg. General Lee would undoubtedly endeavor to maneuver the western wing by Fairfield and the mountain roads near Mt. Saint Mary's College. The First Corps was encamped close to Gettysburg when the sounds of cannon and gun fire broke through the morning hours of July 1st. General Reynolds was first on the scene around 10:00 a.m. to reinforce General Buford. Shortly after 10:30am General Reynolds gave the orders to his men, suddenly the general fell dead on the battlefield killed by a sharp shooter's gun.  

General Sickles Third Corps marched through Emmitsburg between two and three o'clock that afternoon.  Emmitsburg was now holding troops in reserve for Western Wing of the Army of the Potomac. The town of Emmitsburg was critical to the war efforts. General Meade sent a dispatch to General Sickles and told him to hold Emmitsburg in case of a break through which would have Emmitsburg acting as a road block. General Sickles was subsequently ordered to leave Emmitsburg to rejoin the Army of the Potomac that was heavily engaged at Gettysburg.

One reason that General Meade ordered Sickles to leave Emmitsburg was that so many Union troops were engaged at Gettysburg it would be too risky to hold Emmitsburg as part of a plan that didn't involve retreat. When another order came from General Meade to confirm the original order to stay at Emmitsburg, General Sickles disregarded it and moved on toward Gettysburg. Union troops made their way toward Gettysburg from the roads that reached from Emmitsburg, Maryland to Hanover Pennsylvania. The tide of the Confederacy would be tested on the fields at Gettysburg. Gettysburg would be one of the bloodiest campaigns of the American Civil War.

July 2nd, would come to a draw with a slight edge in favor of the Federal troops. The attacks made on Culp's Hill, Big Round Top, Little Round Top, and the Wheatfield would prove disaster for both sides. The wheat in a matter of moments would be covered with dead and wounded soldiers of both sides. Companies would be wiped out in a matter of minutes. Inch by inch the Confederates would gain but would be soon repulsed. On the Round Tops when the Federal troops ran out of ammunition, they led bayonet charges in an attempt to hold the high ground. This would prove disaster for the men in gray. After their final charge on the Round Tops, the Confederates withdrew back to Seminary Ridge. Reinforcements from Merritt's Brigade started to march from Thurmont toward Emmitsburg in an effort to get to Gettysburg. When they reached Emmitsburg, Merritt's Brigade halted and stayed the night. By July 2nd was coming to an end. Confederates held their ground, but attempts to gain the ground that the federal troops held would be thought to be too costly.

On the morning of July 3rd, the Confederates attacked the Federal positions in the center of Cemetery Ridge. The attack started with a major cannonade, under the command of Porter Alexander. Then the plan called for a major assault over open fields that stretched for about a mile. General Pickett's Division led the attack. More than 15,000 men were part of the attack and only but 5,000 of them would return. This was known as Pickett's Charge, or Longstreet's Assault. On the eastern side of Gettysburg the Confederate Cavalry ran into General Kilpatrick's main division. This battle would prove that the Confederate cavalry was as invincible. General Stuart battled on what is called the East Cavalry Field. It was here that General George Custer ran out in front of his troops and said "Come on you wolverines.". After the cavalry battle, which proved fateful to the Confederates, Pickett's Charge also came to a close. The Confederate Army was forced to abandon Gettysburg.

On July 4th, Confederate troops started the long march back toward Virginia. The weather took a turn for the worse as heavy rains and thunderstorms raged throughout the area. Members of Cole's Cavalry, most of whom were from Emmitsburg, destroyed a pontoon bridge that carried the Army of Northern Virginia across the Potomac River as they invaded Maryland, near Falling Waters, West Virginia.

On July, 4th General Kilpatrick came into Emmitsburg in search of any rebels.  With him was a young, dashing general, dressed in black velvet with a red scarf around his neck. This young man was of General George Armstrong Custer. He was only 24 when he was promoted to Brigadier General in Frederick only a few days' prior. At Emmitsburg, General Kilpatrick learned of the retreating wagon train upon Jack's Mountain. A midnight battle at Monterey proved to be quite an action according to General Custer.

On the morning of July 5th, General JEB Stuart made his way from the fields of Gettysburg to Emmitsburg. There was a sharp skirmish fought in the town's square as seventy Union men and their Captain were taken prisoners. General Stuart stopped long enough to study maps and feed and water the horses. Supplies were also taken for the wounded Confederates who fought at Gettysburg. At this time JEB Stuart learned that the action of Monterey Gap happened only a few hours prior to him entering Emmitsburg. The route he wanted to take had been closed since General Kilpatrick's men rode out of Emmitsburg to attack the retreating wagon train. Another detour was needed. 

General JEB Stuart mounted up and rode toward Old Frederick Road. This led him and his men to the town of Cooperstown, (Creagarstown as its known today). The Confederate Cavalry divided the column and some wound up in Graceham. Mr. Cramer a resident of Graceham did not have time to hide his horses and the black powder that he kept in his store. Outside of his store troopers and their mounts were thirsty. A girl, Belva Anne Elizabeth Cramer, pumped the water for the horses and men. Tears started to roll down her face as she pumped. A trooper told her ""Don't cry little girl. We're dirty and ragged, but we are all gentlemen and we will not hurt you."" The trooper did not know that Belva had a bad tooth, and pumping the water from the well made the pain worse.

Accounts from the Ladies of Mt. Carmel and George Wireman indicate, that sometime on July 5th, General JEB Stuart made his way from Cooperstown to Mechanicstown. A priest was giving a sermon while the Confederate Cavalry was making its way through the town. As the priest boarded his buggy, General JEB Stuart came along and escorted the priest to Mount Saint Mary's. General JEB Stuart demanded supplies or else he would burn the school down. The priest and JEB Stuart became such good friends that Mount Saint Mary's was spared from the torch. General Stuart even escorted the priest to his sanction.

General Stuart now had to get across the Catoctin Mountain and rejoin General Lee. It would seem almost impossible for General Stuart to do this while parts of General Wesley Merritt's troops were at Harman's Pass. This was a good route for the Confederate Cavalry to take (The road, known today as Route 77 went from Thurmont to Smithsburg). After learning of the impasse at Harman's Pass, General Stuart traveled Old Emmitsburg Road passing through Franklinville (located between Thurmont and Emmitsburg).  While at Franklinville, General Stuart and his cavalry rested in the fields near the mill and creek to feed and water their horses. 

Many historians will argue the route that General Stuart took during his movements protecting General Lee’s Left Flank.  Some speculate General Stuart took Hampton Valley Road into Deerfield by way of Eyler's Valley Road. Seeing parts of Kilpatrick’s command, General Stuart diverted toward Harbaugh Valley Road to Mount Zion Church, which is outside of Sabilliasville. From there General Stuart made his way toward Leithersburg. It was about sunset when Kilpatrick saw JEB Stuart's column movement along the mountainside. General Stuart then ordered his men to dismount and fight Kilpatrick''s Brigade. Emmitsburg had now seen the last of the Confederate troops.

Another story tells about a skirmish that erupted south of Emmitsburg as General Stuart and his cavalry passed Mt. Saint Mary’s College. It was here, General Stuart ran into a small body of Union cavalry. In the skirmish the Confederates pushed the Union troopers back into town. The out come of the skirmish might have been different if it occurred at ten a.m. that morning, when a large body of Union troops came through town. The news came to Emmitsburg with these Union troops that the Confederates had in deed lost the Battle of Gettysburg.

Emmitsburg saw Union troops for the several days. The I, VI, and the XI Corps marched through Emmitsburg on July 6th. Members of the I Corp found other members of the VI Corp resting after their march from Fairfield. Emmitsburg was now hosting the Union troops and opened their stores to them. A drummer boy named of Bardeen purchased a fair amount of green peas at a price of ten cents. Katherine Hewitt, a lady friend of General Reynolds, tried to keep their secret love affair private until the end of the war. When she asked to view the Generals body, she told the members of his family that they met in California. A grieving Katherine Hewitt entered a convent in Emmitsburg, but kept in touch with the family of General John Reynolds. Ms. Hewitt stayed in Emmitsburg until 1868 when she vanished.

Emmitsburg became a landmark for those in blue since other roads in poor condition could not handle the huge army. Poor conditions and detours caused the armies to split up their columns in pursuit of General Lee. On July 7th, General Meade himself came to Emmitsburg and was received with much enthusiasm. Many of the townspeople thanked the General for all he did in protecting the town from the Confederates. Members of the Fifth Corps came through Emmitsburg on their way to Utica. By now the last of the Federal soldiers were passing through Emmitsburg. Frederick and Washington Counties became one major battlefield. There are reports of numerous engagements from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to Falling Waters, West Virginia. The worst of the war was now gone from these little communities and the rebuilding could begin.


Read other civil war articles by John Miller

Read Mike Hillman's Account of the Emmitsburg role in the Battle of Gettysburg