06 - June 1863 - Prelude to Gettysburg
By Joan C. McCulloh
In June 1863 local people endured several raids by Confederates, some by regular troops and some by guerilla bands, all of whom frightened the local people, especially African Americans, both free people and fugitive slaves. These recurring raids, some preceded by warnings and some by rumors, left the local community feeling vulnerable. Frequently citizens were commanded to give up possessions so that almost everyone knew someone or had heard of someone from whom goods, money, watches, animals or in the case of some African Americans their freedom had been taken. Likewise, the local people felt alone and isolated. Dr. Thomas Creigh noted in his diary on June 16: “No mails and all means of communication with Greencastle, Chambersburg, and Hagerstown closed. We seem to be entirely isolated from the world around us.”
On Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, June 16, 17, and 18, rumors that the Confederates were coming terrified the local people. Dr Philip Schaff of the Theological Seminary of the German Reformed Church located in Mercersburg noted: “Removal of goods by the merchants, of the horses by the farmers; hiding and burying of valuables, packing of books; flight of the poor contraband negroes to the mountains for fear of being captured by the Rebels and dragged to the South.” On Friday, June 19, General Albert G. Jenkins’ troops of cavalry came through town with cattle, horses, and two or three boys they had taken in the McConnellsburg area. Dr. Schaff, a native of Switzerland who was steadfast in his support of the Union, stated: “The Rebels were very poorly and miscellaneously dressed, and equipped with pistols, rifles, and sabers, hard-looking and full of fight….”
On Monday and Tuesday, June 22 and 23, the Confederates again came to town and took cattle and horses. Dr. Schaff wrote about these two days: “No forces of any account this side of Harrisburg, and the Rebels pouring into the State with infantry and artillery. The government seems paralyzed at the moment.” Dr. Creigh wrote: “Persons passing through town, flying with their horses from the enemy. Groups of persons, men, women, and children in all directions, discussing public affairs. Packed a trunk with records of church and sermons and private papers.”
The raid by about 2,500 men in General Ewell’s corps commanded by General “Maryland” Steuart, not to be confused with General Jeb Stuart, with its subsequent occupation on Wednesday, June 24, was terrifying. General Steuart called together some of the citizens of the town and read General Robert E. Lee’s proclamation that his forces would respect private property and would pay in Confederate money for goods received. Despite this proclamation these regular troops demanded that the stores be opened for them to plunder. From Fitzgerald’s store on the Diamond they took sugar, molasses, and hams, and from Shannon’s store also on the Diamond they took nuts and cigars. Leaving the town, they left a guard here.
In succeeding days from Thursday, June 25, through Saturday, June 27, a guerilla band streamed into town. This time the captain of the band in a statement from Colonel Murphy’s Hotel, later known as the Mansion House, threatened to burn the town if anyone in the town fired a shot. Dr. Schaff said that they looked “brave, defiant, and bold” as they went throughout the town looking for contraband people and again threatened to burn the house of anyone harboring a runaway slave. Unfortunately, they captured several contrabands. Dr Schaff wrote: “They proclaimed, first, that they would burn down every house which harbored a fugitive slave, and did not deliver him up within twenty minutes. And then commenced the search upon all the houses on which suspicion rested. It was a rainy afternoon. They succeeded in capturing several contrabands, among them a woman with two small children. A most pitiable sight, sufficient to settle the slavery question for every humane mind.” However, they did not find all of the slaves. Mrs. George Wolfe, wife of the constable, had hidden eleven people who remained safe in her wash house as others were hidden in town.
By this time local people were suffering for lack of necessities as meat, flour, and groceries were scarce. Although it was harvest time, the men who could work in the fields were at war.
On Tuesday, June 30, General John Imboden and about one thousand of his mounted infantry rode into town. On the previous days his brigade had come through the Great Cove and McConnellsburg and had camped between Cove Gap and Mercersburg. Imboden in anger reminded local people of the depredations the Union army had caused in the South. General Imboden demanded 5,000 pounds of bacon, 30 barrels of flour. 2 barrels of molasses, 2 barrels of sugar, 2 sacks of salt, and 150 pairs of shoes to be delivered by eleven o’clock that morning. He stated that, if the residents did not provide the required articles, he would quarter his troops in their houses. The town was divided into four quarters through which an officer accompanied by two local citizens went from house to house to requisition the goods which were then laid out along the sides of the streets. Unfortunately, the people could not gather the amounts demanded; they had garnered only 1,000 pounds of bacon, 15 barrels of flour, 2 barrels of molasses, 2 barrels of sugar, 2 sacks of salt, and 30 pairs of shoes. Since those supplies were deemed to be inadequate, the Confederates demanded that another search be made. Fortunately for the local people Imboden and his troops left hurriedly as a messenger from General Robert E. Lee brought him word that he was to go to Chambersburg in order to relieve General George Pickett who had been ordered to go to Gettysburg. The troops left so quickly that they did not take the food and shoes that the people had been compelled to place along the sides of the streets. Local people did not know the reason for the swift departure but were relieved to see the men leave.
Their relief was short-lived, however, as the next day, Wednesday, July 1, McNeill’s Rangers whom Dr. Schaff called “a lawless band of guerillas” came into town, took African Americans, and, like their predecessors, broke into Fitzgerald’s and Shannon’s stores on the Diamond and took what they wanted. Although the merchants had hidden many of their goods in the Little Cove, a local young man reported that fact to the Confederates who unfortunately found the goods. The events of June 1863 seared themselves into the minds of the local people. Little could they know what would come next.