Saturday, March 28, 2009

Touring Gettysburg with Tim Smith

Guide Tim Smith describes the actions of the 26th PA Militia in front of the group's monument on Chambersburg Street.

This weekend I had the opportunity to tour battle sites in and around Gettysburg with Licensed Battlefield Guide Timothy Smith via the Civil War Seminars through Harrisburg Area Community College. A great time was had by all and I know everybody in attendance learned a lot. We began in the morning with a talk by Jim Getty (as Abe Lincoln). We then had a classroom session with Tim followed by lunch and battlefield tour. (There were five speakers total and you can choose the one with the topic which interests you most.) About 150 people attended. Tim's topic discussed was the "forgotten" battle at Gettysburg - the skirmishes on June 26, 1863, several days before the major battle. All of the following information is from his presentation.

The battle on that day was "virtually bloodless," as Tim said, but very well could be considered the opening shots of the great battle. During this time, there was great fear in Pennsylvania and Harrisburg regarding Confederate Invasion. The previous fall, Jeb Stuart rode through Mercersburg, Chambersburg, Cashtown, fought a skirmish at New Salem (modern McKnightstown), and barely bypassed Gettysburg.

On June 15, 1863, Confederate General Albert Jenkin's cavalry captured Chambersburg, capturing free African-Americans and claiming them as "escaping southern property." The blacks who escaped dispersed throughout the countryside, spreading the word of invasion and fear throughout the region.

A short time later, Emmitsburg, Maryland was set ablaze and the people of the surrounding communities figured it was the Confederates. Actually, it was a drunk turned arsonist who burned down a saloon he was denied entry to. The fire spread and burned much of the town.

In Gettysburg, the "College Guards," a company of eighty students, was formed under Frederick Klinefelter, a student at the Lutheran Theological Seminary. Granville O. Haller, formerly the Provost under Gen. George McClellan, was on permanent leave in York when he heard of the invasion and offered his services to Governor Andrew Curtin. Haller intended to contain the invasion by falling trees, spying on the enemy, and blocking mountain passes. Haller's men, including five different groups of militia and troops from the area, built a barricade at Monterey. However, Jenkin's cavalry sneaked behind them and ran them off after a few shots. Haller's plan largely falls apart. Meanwhile, Col. William Jennings commanded the 26th PA Emergency Militia, composed of civilians from the surrounding counties.

Mr. Smith told us a very amusing story of a female farmer who lived west of Gettysburg. She lived on one side of a creek and her cow in a pasture on the other side. Every day, she brought the cow over to the house for milking. But, rather than wading through the creek, she slowly took the cow on the railroad bridge over the creek. Besides, she knew the train schedule and when it was safe to cross. June 1863, however, was a different matter. A train filled with troops and supplies of the 26th PA approached the town. The woman (who's name has been lost to history) was crossing the bridge with her cow in front of her when the train came speeding in from Harrisburg. Unable to move around the cow, she was forced to jump in the creek. The locomotive then hits the cow, the cow explodes, the train derails, and many militiamen were hurt! To add insult to injury, as one soldier tried to comfort the wet, crying woman afterward, a number of the militiamen pulled out their bayonets and helped themselves to some fresh ground beef...

(Post Correction: I managed to screw up a few tactical details regarding the 26th PA's actions. My friend and Civil War brainiac JD Petruzzi was good enough to point some of these out. Below is part of his summary of the battle):

It was "Elijah White's 35th Battalion VA Cavalry that [hit] the 26th skirmish line (the rest of the regiment had already skedaddled west by then). Col. William French's 17th VA Cavalry was leading Avery and Smith's column along the Mummasburg Road at the time, having turned off back at Hilltown Road. White and his battalion were leading Gordon's Brigade along the Chambersburg Pike, and that's who skirmished there. And the skirmish actually took place several hundred yards west of the little 26th PA marker - west of Marsh Creek - not where the marker stands today.

The 17th VA Cavalry charged the remainder of the 26th PA at the Witmer Farm later that afternoon. And the militia didn't retreat then along the Belmont Road - that's the road they took during the earlier skirmish with White. At the Witmer Farm skirmish, the escapees took what is today Shrivers Corner Road."

Most escaped though, marching 55 out of the next 60 hours to reach the safety of Harrisburg. However, that same day, Private George Washington Sandoe, a resident of Gettysburg and member of the Adams County Cavalry, was killed along Rock Creek while trying to get back home.

This great skedaddle of June 1863 had finally ended. Tim told us calling this engagement "a route" was putting it kindly. However, he said we shouldn't be quick to judge the soldiering or patriotism of these militiamen, for most weren't professional soldiers and they still did more than those who decided to stay home. Confederate Gen. Jubal Early later commented on this skirmish, revealing his witty dark humor, saying it was a good thing the Pennsylvania Militia scattered so quickly "or somebody might have been hurt."

Below are some photos of my adventures this weekend:

We started with Jim Getty as Lincoln at HACC.

26th PA Monument on Route 30.

This marker describes some of some of the fighting on June 26, 1863. It is on the northern side of Route 30 heading into Gettysburg from the west. It is in front of the salvage yard.

The Witmer Farm on Schriver's Corner Road.

Tim opposite of Witmer Farm - site of 26th PA's skirmish line.

Tim's point of view looking east. The building at center also belonged to the Witmer's but wasn't built until the 1870s.

I also checked out the Camp Letterman field hospital site this weekend. Unfortunately, the land has been cleared and looks like it is going to be developed.

And the old visitor center...

You can see the old entrance ways into the Electric Map in the far background. Much has been going on in Gettysburg these days. I'm anxious to see what the restored area will look like.

9 comments:

  1. Hey Jared,

    Sounds like it was a fabulous day! There are just a couple things in your post to correct, though - not sure if Tim might have bollixed a few things, or if you goofed up your note-taking a bit :)

    The 26th PA Militia did not skirmish with the 17th VA Cavalry at Marsh Creek - it was Elijah White's 35th Battalion VA Cavalry that charged the 26th skirmish line (the rest of the regiment had already skedaddled west by then). Col. William French's 17th VA Cavalry was leading Avery and Smith's column along the Mummasburg Rd at the time, having turned off back at Hilltown Road. White and his battalion were leading Gordon's Brigade along the Chambersburg Pike, and that's who skirmished there. And the skirmish actually took place several hundred yards west of the little 26th PA marker - west of Marsh Creek - not where the marker stands today.
    The 17th VA Cavalry charged the remainder of the 26th PA at the Witmer Farm later that afternoon. And the militia didn't retreat then along the Belmont Rd - that's the road they took during the earlier skirmish with White. At the Witmer Farm skirmish, the escapees took what is today Shrivers Corner Rd.
    Pvt. Sandoe was never a member of the 21st PA Cavalry. The militia cavalry unit there that day was Capt. Robert Bell's Independent Adams County Cavalry Company, which Sandoe had joined on June 23. It wasn't until August 1863 that Bell's Cavalry became Co. B of the 21st PA Cavalry, raised in Harrisburg - long after Sandoe was already dead.
    I hope this helps. As you may know, all of this and more is in the full tour of the June 26 skirmishes in my and Steve Stanley's new book "The Complete Gettysburg Guide" (http://www.completegettysburgguide.com).
    As I said, sounds like it was a terrific day and I wish I could have been along!

    Best,
    J.D.

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  2. Thanks JD. Yeah, getting a detail or two mixed up can really botch an otherwise okay post. Doh!

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  3. For much more info on this fight, see Flames Beyond Gettysburg: The Gordon Expedition, June 1863. There is a complete chapter on the fight at Witmer Farm.

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  4. thank you so much for the great info. My great grandfather, Charles W. Mader, was part of the 26th emercency unit. Carol Long

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  5. That's fascinating Carol. Thanks for sharing!

    What was your ancestor's name? Where was he from?

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  6. Did your brother enjoy his field trip to Gettysburg

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  7. Tim has hosted a bike tour for the Cambridge School seventh grade for 6 years and we've always been surprised when the end of the day was upon us. Tim is a master of engaging his audience of all ages and he never fails to fascinate with his detailed descriptions.
    C. Twist

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  8. I would like to know if the skirmish at Marsh Creek and what is now the Gettysburg Campground, that land there, did any significant battle or even campout occur there?

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