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Posted on Jun 29, 2011 in War College

How Pennsylvania Militia Affected the Battle of Gettysburg

By Scott L. Mingus, Sr.

A view of Gettysburg, taken soon after the battle. National Archives.

Confederate Major General Henry Heth’s decision to attack blue-coated cavalry outside Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on the morning of June 30, 1863, has drawn sharp criticism among some historians. The assault was contrary to Robert E. Lee’s orders to avoid a general engagement until the entire army was up. Some have speculated that Heth, somewhat incompetently, blundered into a trap skillfully executed by Union cavalry general John Buford. But earlier encounters with Pennsylvania’s hastily assembled "emergency militia" may have been the real cause behind Heth’s actions.

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On the evening of June 30, 1863, with the dark heights of South Mountain looming in the distance, Major General Henry Heth received a report of a supply of shoes in nearby Gettysburg. His commander, Lieutenant General A.P. Hill, mentioned that recent intelligence from scouts indicated only enemy cavalry occupied the town. "Harry" Heth later claimed to have responded, "If there is no objection, I will take my division tomorrow and go to Gettysburg and get those shoes!" Hill nonchalantly replied, "None in the world."

Heth's approach blocked by John Buford's cavalry. Click to enlarge. Map by Hal Jespersen, www.posix.com/CWThe following morning, Heth’s 7,500 men advanced eastward on the Chambersburg Pike and encountered the cavalry force defending Gettysburg. Many in his ranks assumed they were facing poorly trained militia that day—bothersome perhaps, but rarely deadly and a good source of amusement and fresh shoes if captured. Few men expected an encounter with the Union Army of the Potomac. Heth slowly deployed and moved forward, gradually pushing the Yankees back toward town.

By mid-morning, Union infantry arrived and began replacing the weary cavalrymen on the front lines. When the famed Iron Brigade of the West with their distinctive black felt headgear entered the scene, Heth’s veterans instantly knew they were not facing untrained state militia—the Army of the Potomac had arrived. Heth was in for a serious fight, not the minor scrap that he had expected.

Heth indeed misjudged the strength and identity of his opponent that morning, and his slow advance doomed his assault from the beginning, especially when the Yankees retired from ridgeline to ridgeline. Yet, his error become understandable in light of the pattern established during most of the numerous small fights in Pennsylvania in the days prior to the Battle of Gettysburg. Those seemingly insignificant skirmishes played their role in shaping Confederate tactics and added to the belief of invincibility that many soldiers in the Army of Northern Virginia carried with them into Pennsylvania. One of those "insignificant" skirmishes occurred on the ground where so many were about to fight and die.

* * *

During the second week of June, as lead elements of Lee’s army marched through the Shenandoah Valley and overwhelmed scattered Federal garrisons, U.S. War Department strategists believed that Pennsylvania could be a likely target. However, many in the government, as well as in the press and the army itself, were not convinced. Confederate cavalry had raided the Keystone State on previous occasions, and perhaps this latest situation would play out similarly. However, when President Lincoln called for 100,000 volunteers to parry any Rebel thrust into the North, Pennsylvania’s Republican Governor, Andew G. Curtin, issued a proclamation that the enemy was threatening the state and asked for 50,000 men. Response to Curtin’s call was lukewarm at best—only 7,000 recruits stepped forward to join a series of hastily organized "emergency militia" regiments. The defense of Harrisburg became Curtin’s main priority. Neighboring New York and New Jersey sent some their standing militia regiments to man the defensive line Curtin and the newly appointed commander of the U.S. Army’s Department of the Susquehanna, Major General Darius N. Couch, planned along the banks of the Susquehanna River.

Col. William Jennings, 26th Pennsylvania Volunteer Militia. Author's collection. Click to enlarge.With only a few days of training, the new Pennsylvania Volunteer Militia regiments spread out to defend key locations believed to be Confederate targets, including the railroad intersection and nearby bridges of the Northern Central Railway in York County, the few bridges that spanned the mighty Susquehanna, and the road network at Gettysburg. The 26th PVM embarked on trains for Gettysburg, with the 20th drawing the York County assignment. The 27th PVM headed for the Columbia-Wrightsville crossing to defend the only bridge on the Susquehanna between Harrisburg and Maryland. Veteran officers commanded each emergency regiment and a handful of veterans sprinkled the rosters, especially the 27th which included more than a hundred men recently mustered out of the 129th Pennsylvania after Chancellorsville.

As the lead elements of the Army of Northern Virginia arrived in southern Pennsylvania, they readily brushed aside some New York cavalry near Greencastle and subsequently occupied Chambersburg. By June 24, two heavy columns of Confederate infantry of Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell’s Second Corps tramped steadily through Franklin County, using parallel roads. Ewell and his main force paused at Chambersburg; to their east, along the base of South Mountain, marched the veteran division of Major General Jubal A. Early. Ewell ordered Early to change direction and head east, with a goal of reaching the Susquehanna River at Wrightsville in eastern York County—a march of nearly 60 miles.

Early broke camp on the rainy morning of Friday, June 26, and his men slogged over South Mountain toward Gettysburg. He soon learned that enemy militia guarded the town. Hoping to "amuse and entertain them," the unimpressed general divided his force. He sent Brigadier General John B. Gordon’s Georgia infantry brigade and a battalion of Virginia cavalry forward to Gettysburg on the crushed gravel turnpike, while he led the bulk of his division on backcountry roads, which soon turned into quagmires.

Gordon’s men, fronted by Lieutenant Colonel Elijah White’s cavalry, arrived west of Gettysburg in the early afternoon. Scouts spotted distant enemy cavalry, which they judged to be "mere militia." This was Colonel William W. Jennings’ 26th Pennsylvania Volunteer Militia, the majority of which had just arrived by train that morning and now were establishing camp near Knoxlyn Ridge. About 100 men were further west, near and beyond Marsh Creek, with a small screen of local Adams County cavalry.

As the Confederate force deployed near the Lohr farm just west of Marsh Creek, White sent word back to General Gordon to "come up and see the fun" as he brushed aside the defenders. Despite being badly outnumbered, White charged the Federals, sending the enemy cavalry wheeling in haste back toward Gettysburg while the bulk of the militia, instead of standing to fight, retreated across muddy farm fields to the northeast. Jubal Early dispatched the 17th Virginia Cavalry to seize the retiring Federals, taking some 175 prisoners before nightfall.

Jubal Early and John Gordon were not finished encountering—and routing—untrained Pennsylvania militia. After leaving Gettysburg on Saturday morning, June 27, their soldiers headed east toward York. By noon Rebel cavalry occupied nearby Hanover and later chased off three companies of the 20th PVM from the railroad interchange at Hanover Junction. York’s civic officials rode out to meet General Gordon and "surrender" their town. The passive non-resistance allowed Early to march uncontested into the town of 8,600 people the following morning. Late on Sunday afternoon, Gordon’s Georgians attacked the Wrightsville river crossing. The defending 27th PVM withdrew across a mile-and-a-quarter-long wooden covered bridge into Lancaster County, then torched the bridge behind them. By the time General Early rode out to check on Gordon’s progress, a thick column of black smoke from the blazing bridge hung over the Susquehanna River.

His plans to cross into Lancaster thwarted, Early returned to York. Late on the 29th he received Ewell’s orders to march westward to Heidlersburg because Lee was concentrating the widely scattered Army of Northern Virginia. A day’s march brought Early into connection with his superior.

Why did Henry Heth misjudge his opponent near Gettysburg? National Archives.Concurrently, A.P. Hill’s Corps was advancing on Gettysburg using the same turnpike Gordon had used the previous Friday. Troops under Brigadier General J. J. Pettigrew approached Gettysburg and reported the presence of enemy cavalry, which most believed was merely more militia. Divisional commander Henry Heth then asked Hill for permission to enter the town to capture shoes (likely a euphemism for the shoe-clad militia, whose prisoners had provided shoes earlier for Ewell’s men).

With Hill’s blessing, Heth on the morning of July 1 headed for Gettysburg. Whether he fully knew the details of Gordon’s June 26 encounter with militia is uncertain. His men assumed the enemy cavalry and later infantry he spotted on the same ridges west of the town were mere militia. Certainly, up to that point in the campaign the Southerners had brushed aside Northern defenders with minimal effort. The Yankees Heth encountered outside Gettysburg that morning proved to be tougher competition than expected, but only when the Iron Brigade showed up wearing its distinctive headgear did the truth become obvious: the Confederates were facing the Army of the Potomac not a gaggle of emergency militia.

One Confederate, who had seen that headgear in previous battles, put it succinctly: "T’aint no militia – it’s them black-hatted fellows!"

Did John Gordon’s earlier, brief encounter with outmatched state militia influence Heth’s early deployment and tactics on the morning of July 1? Gordon was convinced it did. He wrote, "The appearance of my troops on the flank of General Meade’s army during the battle of Gettysburg was not our first approach into that little city which was to become the turning-point in the Confederacy’s fortunes. Having been detached from General Lee’s army, my brigade had, some days prior to the great battle, passed through Gettysburg on our march to the Susquehanna. Upon those now historic hills I had met a small force of Union soldiers, and had there fought a diminutive battle when the armies of both Meade and Lee were many miles away. When, therefore, my command — which penetrated farther, I believe, than any other Confederate infantry into the heart of Pennsylvania—was recalled from the banks of the Susquehanna to take part in the prolonged and stupendous struggle, I expressed to my staff the opinion that if the battle should be fought at Gettysburg, the army which held the heights would probably be the victor. The insignificant encounter I had had on those hills impressed their commanding importance upon me as nothing else could have done."

Gordon’s "diminutive battle" indeed may have shaped Confederate strategy on "those now historic hills."

About the Author:
Scott L. Mingus, Sr., is the author of several books related to the Gettysburg Campaign, including Flames Beyond Gettysburg: The Gordon Expedition, June 1863, and two volumes of Human Interest Stories of the Gettysburg Campaign. For more information, visit his Website.

Editor’s Note: After many years of getting short shrift from computer game manufacturers, the Civil War has returned to gamers’ screens. See why Armchair General’s reviewer Bryce T. Valentine calls Scourge of War: Gettysburg the "Best Civil War game available to date."

3 Comments

  1. I am the Great Great Grandson of William A, Jennings. In your article you state William w, Jennings. This is a Typo. His Name is William Albert Jennings an was a Col. in the 26th Pa vol. militia.

    I have written to the National Civil War Institute and they confirm the name William W, Jennings is a typo. Our family has in it’s possession the musket which has William A, Jennings hammered into the lock plate.

    Understandably, errors happen when history is written by scholars and not family members.

    Please correct this misspelling to William A. Jennings.

    Respectfully Yours,
    David Jennings

  2. David,

    Are we talking about the same man????? William Wesley Jennings indeed was the name of the colonel of the 26th PA. Militia. He was a very prominent businessman and the sheriff of Harrisburg, and there are literally dozens of accounts of him with that name, including contemporary newspapers in the Harrisburg area, the History of Dauphin County, Jennings’ other descendants, and many other sources. Check out his soldiers’ accounts, including those of Samuel Pennypacker at Pennypacker Mills, Pa, and many others.

  3. William Wesley Jennings was Col of the 26th PA emergency militia in Harrisburg and sent to Gettysburg. Earlier he served as Col of the 127th PA volunteers for a 9 month enlistment. They fought at both battles of Fredricksburg.

    Pretty well documented in the records and regimental histories. Gov Samuel pennypacker served as a young man with the 26th and went on to write the history. Scholars got it quite correct.

    He was my great great grandfather.

    George Lichte

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