by Andy Mateja

As the summer of 1863 heated up with Gen Robt. E Lee’s foray into Pennsylvania, climaxing with an epic showdown at the little town of Gettysburg. The events leading up to this immortal conflict included a preliminary battle there between the opposing sides just days before the main event.

While Lee’s primary motivation for bringing the war to Northern soil was foraging for supplies to feed his beloved Army of Northern Virginia, there were strategic and political reasons as well….including the possible capture of Harrisburg, the capital of Pennsylvania. Lt Gen Richard St Ewell’s Second Corps was spearheading the advance toward Harrisburg with Maj Gen Jubal Early’s division passing through Gettysburg on June 25th. A brigade of cavalry accompanied Early to screen his movements.

It was quite obvious that Pennsylvania was unprotected and certainly not expecting Confederate army presence in the very heart of the state. The Union army of the Potomac was still many miles away trying desperately to “catch up” with Lee’s army. All that was available to counter the Confederate juggernaut was a handful of militia units and battlefield invalids…. Many of the local men did not want to join the militia as they believed it was only a stepping stone to being forced into regular army service.

Harrisburg was aware that the Confederates were coming and scraped together a hodge-podge force of defenders comprised of militia and home guard. They were dispatched west to stop or slow down the Confederate advance at the mountain passes near Cashtown until the Army of the Potomac arrived… Students from the Gettysburg College joined in for the defense including a future Governor of Pennsylvania.

Heavy rains during this time stopped the relief forces and forced them to bivouac in Gettysburg at the same time Early’s Confederates were heading there as well from the West…  Early was aware of the presence of the militia and home guards in Gettysburg and conceived a plan to have the cavalry brigade attack them in the front while his infantry circled around Gettysburg from the North and attacked the outnumbered defenders from behind.
The Confederate cavalry attacked first – screaming and yelling as they tried to unnerve the “green” defenders. The militia did the best they could and those defenders in advance had quickly retreated into the perceived safety of the town buildings in Gettysburg. Some of the militia kept on going past Gettysburg and nearly ran all the way back to Harrisburg !!!

Shots were fired between both sides and when the remaining defenders realized further resistance was useless, they surrendered. Early’s troops entered the Gettysburg and began to ransack the town in search of supplies. The townspeople of Gettysburg tried to avert further destruction by providing food and delicacies to the Confederate invaders.

The militia and home guard prisoners were paroled by Early only to be re-captured by Maj Gen Robt. Rodes’ Confederate division outside of town. Rodes men also confiscated their shoes before releasing them again.

Those that made it back all the way to Harrisburg filled the listeners with stories of “harrowing escapes”, “desperate life and death struggles” and other traumatic experiences in their “valiant” attempt to repel the horde of terrifying invaders. Fortunately for them by the time they made it back to Harrisburg, the titanic three-day struggle at Gettysburg was over with the Confederates soundly defeated and on their way back to Virginia……