The Gettysburg Town Fight!
Volume XXX Issue #3 • An Excerpt From:
The Gettysburg Town Fight
by David G. Martin
Gettysburg in the spring of 1863 was a bustling market town typical of those in southeastern Pennsylvania at the time; the fact that it was the Adams County seat and nexus of ten roads and one railroad added to its activity level. The town had been painfully involved in the great Civil War that had been waging for two years and had sent its fair share of soldier boys to join the conflict. Though the town was located just a day’s travel north of the Potomac, Gettysburgians little expected that the war would physically come to them. That is exactly what happened at the beginning of the summer, when two great armies converged on the town to fight what is generally considered to be the most important battle of the war.
For three days, from July 1 to July 3, the fighting swirled over, around, under and through the town and forever changed it and its inhabitants. The significance of the fighting that took place in the town has long been overshadowed by the conflict that took place in its environs at McPherson’s Ridge, Barlow’s Knoll, Culp’s Hill, Cemetery Hill, Cemetery Ridge, the Peach Orchard, Wheatfield, Devil’s Den and Little Round Top. The purpose of this feature is to discuss the long overlooked combat that occurred within the town itself and its effects on the course of the battle.
Local residents began to grow anxious as soon as Gen. Robert E. Lee’s advance forces crossed the Potomac on June 15 and started heading north. Pennsylvania Gov. Andrew Curtin notified residents to be on the alert and begin removing their valuables. Leading local merchants, the Fahnestock Brothers and John L. Schick, took the Governor’s warning seriously and loaded up their best goods on railroad cars for shipment to Philadelphia for safe-keeping. Other wealthy residents likewise sent their valuables east, and those who could, also sent their horses and livestock out of town.
The Confederates were reported to be in Chambersburg on June 24, and a few troops were gathered in Gettysburg to defend the town if necessary: a couple companies of cavalry had already been in town for a few days, and then the 26th Pennsylvania Emergency Volunteers arrived on the morning of June 26. The 26th Volunteers marched out toward Chambers-burg only to be routed from their camp just east of Marsh Creek at mid-afternoon by the troopers of Lige White’s “Comanches” (35th Virginia Cavalry Battalion).
The Union would-be defenders of Gettysburg fled to the northeast, and the town was defenseless when Confederate cavalry began entering town that afternoon. A short while later Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon’s brigade of Georgia infantry arrived, along with division commander Maj. Gen. Jubal Early. The war had come to Gettysburg in earnest.
Because there were no Union troops in town to contest Early’s occupation, there was no fighting in the streets. Citizens generally locked their doors and peered through their shutters at the ragged Rebels, who made a demand for a fair amount of cash and some requisitions for supplies, and then marched out of town the next day.
Matters became more serious on June 30, when Brig. Gen. J. Johnston Pettigrew’s Confederate brigade made a reconnaissance in force. Before the enemy could move any closer to the town, a strong column of blue-clad cavalry under the command of Brig. Gen. John Buford came riding up the Emmitsburg Road and turned onto Washington Street. The townspeople were delighted to see them and thronged the sidewalks, offering the dusty troopers water, milk and treats. Pettigrew and his men promptly pulled back toward Cashtown, and Buford’s men headed out Chambersburg Street and bivouacked west of town on Seminary Ridge. Buford himself set up his headquarters in the Eagle Hotel, located at the northeast corner of the intersection of Chambersburg and Wash-ington Streets, and ordered that no one in town was to give alcohol to his men.
Unknown to the people of Gettysburg, maneuvers leading to the battle were underway west of town before dawn on July 1. They did not sense the imminent battle until 8:00 a.m., when Buford’s bugles sounded for his troopers to form up. What had been a peppering of small arms shots became rapidly more intense, and between 9:00-10:00 a.m. the firing was heard to grow in the direction of Seminary Ridge. Then the booming of cannon was heard. Sarah Broadhead, who lived at what is now 217 Chambersburg Street, recalled that at about 10:00 a.m. “the shells began to fly around quite thick,” so she took her child and went to a friend’s house uptown. On the way she passed a number of wounded men coming in from the field. Tillie Pierce Alleman, who lived on the southwest corner of Baltimore and Breckenridge Streets (now 303 Baltimore Street), went to South Washington Street and witnessed troops passing by followed by a long line of wagons and ambulances, which continued to pass by until almost noon.
The firing greatly intensified after 10:15 when Brig. Gen. James S. Wadsworth’s division of the I Corps entered the fray on McPherson’s Ridge. Wadsworth’s men, the advance guard of Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds’ left wing of the Army of the Potomac, had left their camp at Emmitsburg at about 8:00 a.m. They were about a mile south of Gettysburg on the Emmitsburg Road when they met Reynolds near the Codori farmhouse and were ordered to head north across the fields toward the Seminary in order to save time. They would soon run smack into Joseph Davis’ and James J. Archer’s Confederate brigades of Maj. Gen. Henry Heth’s division, and the battle would be on in earnest.
Ten-year-old Charles M. McCurdy of Gettysburg recalled that “there was heavy cannonading and the musket fire was continuous, making a rattling sound like heavy wagons being rapidly driven over a stony pike, or like hail falling on a tin roof. I remember thinking of the comparison at the time.” McCurdy also recalled seeing Union officers ride along Chambersburg Street and advise the townspeople gathered there to go into the side streets so as to “be out of line of the firing and less subject to danger.” Fannie Buehler, who lived on Baltimore Street nearly opposite the Courthouse (112 Baltimore Street), recalled officers dashing through the streets “ordering everyone to their cellars, as the town would be shelled.”