As I sit to compose this post, the importance of this day to Gettysburg history is not lost on me. My fingers quickly produce a cadenced clicking on the keys below them. My view beyond the screen of my laptop is from my temporary residence on the campus of the Lutheran Theological Seminary and across the fields of the first day of the battle of Gettysburg. It will not be long before the historical timeline of this day plays out as it did 153 years ago. Confederate infantry from North Carolina, Pettigrew’s brigade, march toward my view-shed in the distance. Federal troopers in Buford’s command arrived to the relief of the citizens of Gettysburg and Pennsylvania and deployed across the numerous ridges to my front. This story, for those that relish the moments of July 1863, is nothing new. It even played out on the big screen in 1993. But for the numerous visitors that come to Gettysburg each year, and those that only study July 1-3, 1863, a continual part of the story that is lost is how these two armies got to Gettysburg.
In our latest work, my co-author, Rob Orrison, and I set about to change that yawning gap in Gettysburg studies. Certainly there are several campaign length studies of the Gettysburg campaign, but none of them provide information or narrative to connect the 21st-century student to these dozens of places from central Virginia to central Pennsylvania as “The Last Road North” sets out to accomplish. The Gettysburg campaign happened across a massive geographic space over the course of six weeks and the events of that campaign were firmly felt by those that tread the roads and fields to Gettysburg on June 30, July 1, and beyond.
Take for example this very common question received from visitors to Gettysburg: Why did the southern army come to Gettysburg from the north and west and northern army come to Gettysburg from the south? To answer this question, one has to look at what had occurred over the previous weeks of the campaign. The Army of Northern Virginia had been on the march continuously since June 3. Despite several combat interruptions along the way, and stops for rest, the average daily marches far outpaced and outdistanced those of the Army of the Potomac. General Hooker, commanding the Union army during this portion of the campaign, continually reacted to intelligence and waited for more concrete actions by Lee to decide his course of action. Thus, his army did not march nearly as far or as hard as the Confederates did during most of the month of June. It would not be until the Army of the Potomac received a new commander, George Meade, did the length and duration of the marches increased significantly to bridge the large gap that had developed over the month between the two armies.
Another question we often receive as staff at the park is why Jeb Stuart was so late to Gettysburg. Someone in the audience will jokingly quip “Well he was off getting his name in the papers!” Perhaps. But what about the countless cavalry actions during the campaign? Aldie, Middleburg, Upperville, Goose Creek Bridge, Cooksville, Hanover, and numerous other skirmishes. Many know about the numerous wagons Stuart captured that slowed the column down, but what about the countless hours Stuart took granting official paroles to captured Union soldiers during his ride? That would also hinder the rapidity of his movements.
Ever since the movie Gettysburg was released in 1993, one of the must-see locations on the Gettysburg battlefield has been Little Round Top and the location of the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry. Millions of visitors since that time have wanted to stand in the footsteps of Jeff Daniels on the Union army’s left flank. Gettysburg was not the first time during the campaign, however, that the 20th Maine and the rest of Col. Strong Vincent’s brigade had gone into a fight. At Goose Creek Bridge, on June 21, 1863, Vincent’s men, along with the 20th Maine were sent forward as supports in a growing contest between Union and Confederate cavalry during the battle of Upperville.
With “The Last Road North,” readers will have an opportunity to discover the many places that the Gettysburg campaign took place 153 years ago. We will take you over the same roads that portions of both armies used, have you walk the same fields where numerous actions occurred both before and after the battle of Gettysburg, and take you to numerous historic sites that witnessed those events of long ago. By taking these tours and reading these words, we hope to not only be able to answer some of those lingering Gettysburg questions, including how these armies got to Gettysburg, but also have you discover the larger story of the Gettysburg campaign.