“Upon The Banks of the Potomac”: Two Lieutenants & The Gettysburg Campaign, Part 4

Gettysburg Campaign (Map by Hal Jespersen, www.posix.com/CW, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1259123)

Part of a Series

The rearguard is not always the glamorous place to be. Especially during an advance. However, “our” Lieutenants Dooley and Rhodes both found themselves forming part of the rearguard during the Gettysburg Campaign. That meant that their regiments finally crossed the Potomac while the lead units were already ranging into Maryland and Pennsylvania, scaring the civilians. Their journal entries give valuable glimpses into the experiences at the tail end of the Army of the Northern Virginia and Army of the Potomac.

Dooley, in Longstreet’s Corps, Pickett’s Division, 1st Virginia Infantry, crossed the river on this week 156 years ago and then marched on to Chambersburg. Some of his diary was definitely written in “real time”, but some sections from the period may have been added later during the campaign or when he added clarifications much later.

Rhodes, in the VI Corps, Third Division, Second Brigade, 2nd Rhode Island Infantry, started journaling day-by-day again after taking a break in the previous week. He carefully details the towns his regiment passed through.

The lieutenants’ entries are included below, along with a brief outline of other campaign happenings:

Presbyterian Church in Chambersburg, PA

June 24 – Confederate troops enter Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.

June 25 – Union General Hooker’s pursuit of the Confederates “officially” begins.

June 26 – A detachment of Confederate cavalry and infantry arrives in Gettysburg for a day, scaring the local civilians and cutting that town’s communication and transportation network with other communities.

June 27 – Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart and his cavalry cross the Potomac River and will lose contact with the rest of the army for a few days; Lincoln orders General Hooker removed from command of the Army of the Potomac.

June 28 – General John B. Gordon’s Confederates reach the Susquehanna River at Wrightsville, but are unable to cross due to local militia and a fire; Jenkin’s cavalry raids Mechanicsburg. General George G. Meade takes over as the new commander of the Army of the Potomac.

June 29 –  Confederates begin centralizing and pulling back from their most northern points.

June 30 – Jenkins’s horsemen skirmish at Sporting Hill, marking the northern point of fighting during the Gettysburg Campaign. Union cavalry scouts into Gettysburg and realizes the Rebels are likely heading for the crossroad town. Meade orders a general advance in the direction of Gettysburg, but holds onto his Pipe Creek Circular as a solid back-up plan.

John Dooley

John Dooley, 1st Virginia Infantry

June 24th, 1863. We are moving in the direction of Martinsburg and learn for the first time that Pennsylvania is our objective point.

June 25th. Pass through Martinsburg about 11 A.M. and perceive at once that we are not treading friendly streets. The Yankee citizens feel doubly aggrieved since their favourite butcher Milray [Milroy] has but lately fled ignominiously through these same streets, having lost his entire army and only escaping with a small body guard. Late in the afternoon we reach the Potomac and being disappointed in our pontoons prepare to wade this mighty stream which separated us from our beloved Virginia soil.

…But now we stand upon the banks of the Potomac and prepare to cross. As we advanced into Pennsylvania the road becomes almost impassable, so slippery is the mud; whilst a cold steady rain falls constantly upon our ranks.

The wheat fields are every where nearly ripe for harvesting, and all around plenty appears to bless the fertile land. We destroy nothing uselessly, but in self defense (on account of the roads) are obliged to cut a passage through these rich fields of wheat, which however is now larger than necessary; for our Generals are even more careful of the property of these Thrifty German Farmers than they were of the lands and houses of their own soil.  And General Lee was so solicitous for the safety of the fences that he dismounted this morning (so we are told) and on the muddy road side made some of his staff officers assist him in putting up the portion of the rail fence which had been through negligence left down. We are further informed that several of the soldiers in the van of the army have already been shot by their generals for plundering the houses of these peace loving German Yankees.

Never before has the army been in such fine condition, so well disciplined and under such complete control. Perhaps never before have we had a larger effective force, sixty thousand infantry with some two hundred pieces of cannon. (There are also from seven to ten thousand cavalry who should be with us but who, under the command of their dashing general, are far away towards Washington City, leaving our infantry and artillery unguarded in flank and rear, and stripping the cautious Lee of sufficient force to explore the exact position of his enemy.)

Our Division (Pickett’s) is the rearmost, and we are left in the vicinity of Chambersburg to cover the March of the main body advancing on Gettysburg, to protect the convoys of horses, cattle, etc., the spoils of our invasion, which with very frail guards were being constantly sent across the Potomac; and to be ready at a moment’s warning to join the main army whenever the enemy might be found, for as yet we were ignorant of his position.

In and around Chambersburg we found the people very silent and maliciously disposed, and not a few maledictions were hurled at us from garret windows by croaking croans; and many young but frowning brows and pouting lips we saw in doorways and even on the sidewalks. But our boys laughed cheerfully, and when contempt and were shewn  then answered by jests and witticisms rather than with the bayonet, as so often did these Yankee ruffians in our Southern Cities. But here let me say that the inhuman barbarities and insulting ruffianism was not so often the action (perhaps never was so) of the veteran Northern soldier as of the low hirelings who skulked in forts and cities distant from the battle field and who continually fashioned their conduct on such leaders as Ben Butler…

Elisha Hunt Rhodes (no known restrictions)

Elisha Hunt Rhodes, 2nd Rhode Island Infantry

Centreville, Va., June 25th 1863

Yesterday we left Fairfax Court House and marched to this place. We left Fairfax Station on the 18th and marched to Fairfax Court House where our Corps encamped about the town. Here we were ordered to reduce our baggage to the least amount possible to get along with. We are to travel light hearafter. Centreville is a queer old place, and this is the third time that we have been here during the last two years. Only a few buildings are now standing and they are mere huts built of logs. The deserted Rebel works here appear strong. Every hill is crowned with a fort, and they are all connected by rifle pits and covered ways for Artillery to pass from one to another. The troops that have been stationed here have been ordered to the front, and it is rumored that we are to remain, but I do not believe it, for if the Rebels are in Pennsylvania the 6th Corps will be needed there.

June 26th 1863

We left Centreville this morning and passing through Herndon encamped at Drainesville at night.

June 27/63

This morning we broke camp and marched to Edwards Ferry on the Potomac River. Here we found a pontoon bridge and on it crossed over into Maryland again and encamped near Poolesville.

June 28th 1863

At daylight this morning we moved on and passing through Poolesville, Barnesville, and in sight, and in fact quite near to Sugarloaf Mountain. We encamped near a place called Percy’s Mills.

June 29th 1863

Still on the move and after the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad we passed through New Market and a place called Ridgeway and camped at Mount Airy.

June 30/63

This morning we were detailed as rear guard, and as we have had rain and the roads were muddy, we had a hard march through Mount Vernon and Westminster to our camp near Manchester. The Rebel Cavalry hover in our rear all day.

To be continued next week…


Rhodes, Elisha H. edited by Robert H. Rhodes. All For the Union: The Civil War Diary and Letters of Elisha Hunt Rhodes. Orion Books, NY: 1985.

Dooley, John. edited by Joseph T. Durkin. John Dooley, Confederate Soldier: His War Journal. University of Notre Dame Press, IN: 1963.

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