The Road to Gettysburg, as my Civil War ancestor saw it

Today is the 156th anniversary of the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg.

For the 11th Massachusetts Infantry, the pursuit of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia during its invasion of the North began on June 11th, 1863.  The regiment had been making plans to celebrate the anniversary of its muster into Federal service on June 13th.  Early in the afternoon a large group of the 11th’s officers were playing a baseball game against the officers of the 26th Pennsylvania, one of the other regiments in the brigade, when marching orders were received.  By 1:30 the regiment was assembled with knapsacks and began marching.  The weather was already brutally hot.

The following morning, June 12th, many soldiers discarded their overcoats and extra blankets, and yet many soldiers still fell out by the side of the road on the march.  Less than a third of Humphrey’s division made it into camp that night.  After guarding Kelly’s Ford on the Rappahannock River during the day on the 13th, the regiment started marching again on the evening of the 14th until after 7 AM the following morning.  After a 90 minute rest, the 11th moved out again and kept marching until after midnight.  At this point the 11th and the other regiments of its brigade were stuck behind the wagon train belonging to their division, and orders from one of their generals made sure that no one stopped to rest in the shade of the forests that they marched past.  One officer of the 11th even accused one of their generals of ordering the dry leaves in the woods set on fire, in order to keep the men out of the woods.  Between the heat of the sun and the smoke in the woods, less than a quarter of the division made it into camp that evening.

Marches like this continued for the rest of June, until the 30th, when they crossed the Potomac River and entered Maryland.  The following day, July 1st, the division entered Pennsylvania as a summer storm poured rain down upon them.  Far ahead cannon could be heard as cavalry under General John Buford fought the Confederate advance for control of the town of Gettysburg.  While marching along a group of captured Confederates passed, under guard, heading in the opposite direction.  Some of the men called out to the Confederates, saying things like “How are you, Johnny Reb?”  “How are you, blue-belly?” was the reply.  When the brigade crossed the boundary between Maryland and Pennsylvania, the band began to play “Home Sweet Home” and the 26th Pennsylvania broke out in cheers.

A friendly African-American warned the troops that the Confederates were ahead, but was ignored by the generals and the march continued.  By 10 PM that evening a Confederate picket who had been trying to fill his canteen was captured, and the division, realizing they were about to march into Confederate lines, ended up turning around and marching back about three miles, until it took another road that led to the rest of the Third Corps at around 2:30 AM on July 2nd.

During the course of the entire Gettysburg campaign, from June 11th to August 1st, 1863, the 11th Massachusetts marched about 410 miles altogether.

And because I think it’s awesome, here’s a clip of what that might have looked like, courtesy of the 20th Maine from the movie Gettysburg.

I will continue tomorrow with what happened to the 11th Massachusetts on July 2nd.




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