Nearly 150 years ago today on June 27, 1863, under a headline “The War”, the Saturday Evening Post announced the start of a pivotal moment in United States history:
“Since our last issue, we have had a considerable amount of excitement in this city, owing to the reports of a rebel inroad into Maryland and Pennsylvania. Exaggerated as those reports so far have been, it is better to be prepared for the worst, than to run any risk in such a serious manner.”
The article stated that the federal government had believed the Confederate army to be camped near Chancellorsville, Virginia, across the Rappahannock River under command of General Robert E. Lee. The Union army was encamped directly across the river. But Lee had quietly begun withdrawing his 70,000-man army during the month of June. He took them north, toward Maryland and Pennsylvania.
Small, scattered Union forces were his only obstacle. The advancing rebels were first seen at Winchester, Virginia by a Yankee force of 7000. The encounter brushed those forces aside. The editors wrote that Pennsylvania “lay open for the moment to any rebel body which had the temerity to enter.”
Confederate forces crossed into Maryland on June 19, entering Pennsylvania two days later. They reached Chambersburg on June 28, 160 miles from Philadelphia, and the Post’s offices. However, those miles remained empty of any defending troops. The Union army lay south unable to protect either Philadelphia or Washington, D.C.
The Post editors still felt confident that the men of Pennsylvania could toss the invaders back across the Mason-Dixon Line. They assured readers that a state militia would be quickly formed, far more effective than could be expected. “We hear, in these times, a great deal of underrating of the militia, as unreliable against veteran troops. Men are disposed to think it useless to trust our safety to such a force. But it seems to be forgotten that these militia are now upon the soil of their own states, fighting in defense of all that we hold dear.”
According to the Post, militia soldiers of the South had been highly effective in pushing back Union armies entering their states. But when those same militia were forced to fight beyond their states lines… “They failed thus at Antietam, and South Mountain, and Perryville, and Mill Spring, and other places.”
The article maintained that reports of witnesses from several battles claimed that raw troops had performed just as well as veteran soldiers, even better. They mentioned that a hastily formed militia won the famous Revolutionary war battle of Bunker Hill, and the War of 1812’s Battle of New Orleans.
Despite how well a green militia could fight, the state had only militia to defend itself until the Union’s Army of the Potomac arrived from the south. Pennsylvania’s governor called for 90,000 men to form a militia. Hundreds traveled to Harrisburg to muster in. But by the time they arrived, a good many changed their minds when they learned an enlistment period of six months was longer than they deemed necessary to meet the coming crisis.
Surprisingly, the Post agreed with the volunteers’ decision not to enlist: “We do not censure in the least, those of our citizens who recently returned from Harrisburg, because their business engagements did not admit even a conditional pledge to serve for six months.” If the emergency was short-lived, why enscript these volunteers for a long enlistment?
The governor reduced his request to 60,000 men and an enlistment of just three months.
While the enlistment debate continued, the occupying Confederates helped themselves to the riches of Pennsylvania. Rebel troops had been living on short rations by the countryside in the South ruined by war. The men now found themselves among fattened livestock and bulging granaries on Pennsylvania Dutch farms. Lee ordered his men not to take from the local farmers, but to pay for what they requisitioned in Confederate money. But many Confederate soldiers disregarded orders and helped themselves to livestock, crops, furniture, clothing, along with anything that could be loaded onto a wagon. Several hundred black Americans—some escaped slaves as well as fourth-generation free Pennsylvanians—were seized and sent south to be sold as slaves.
In the North no one knew where Lee was headed, or what he planned by invading Pennsylvania. A June 28th article in the Post implied Harrisburg was the likely target. “The capital of the state is in danger. The enemy is within four miles of our works and advancing. The cannonading has been distinctly heard for three hours.”
Northerners feared if Lee could take Harrisburg and its resources, he could easily turn southeast and seize Washington, D.C., just 120 miles away.
The Post’s editors kept faith in Pennsylvania and the Union Army. They believed Lee’s move to be bold, but also hazardous. “Properly improved on the part of the North and the Government, it may have the most favorable results. Let the friends of the Union seize now the propitious moment.”
But the Post was unaware that the Union army was closer than they, or Lee, expected.
For information about my romance books and novellas set during the Civil War and after in the American Victorian era, visit my website: http://susanmacatee.com