Several years ago, my friend and fellow NPS ranger, Bill Halainen, along with a hiking friend, recreated the epic march of the Union 6th Corps to the Gettysburg battlefield on July 2. I asked Bill if he would contribute a post about his experience. This is his story of that long hike woven in with that of the soldiers who made the march nearly 150 years ago. As a note of introduction, Bill is a 33 year NPS veteran. He has been a ranger, park manager, and writer/editor, with a long time interest in military history and hiking.
D. Scott Hartwig
As dusk slowly settled over the countryside of western Maryland on the evening of Wednesday, July 1, 1863, the men of “Uncle John” Sedgwick’s Union Sixth Corps were enjoying the last of a much-needed day of rest.
It had been the first day without any significant marching since they’d crossed the Potomac four days before at Edwards Ferry. On that Saturday, they’d marched a dozen miles from the river to Poolesville, then camped for the night. That was just a warm-up, though, for the 63 miles they’d cover over the next three days – 18 miles from Poolesville to Hyattstown, 22 from Hyattstown to New Windsor, 23 miles from New Windsor to Manchester – in the Union Army’s strenuous efforts to catch up with the Army of Northern Virginia.
But there were no orders to march that Wednesday morning. Farm families and townsfolk from throughout the region came to see the spectacle of an encampment of nearly 16,000 men, the Union’s biggest corps. They were spread out in the fields around Manchester; their commander could be found at his headquarters at Fort Hill School on the south side of town.
It was, by all accounts, a pleasant day. The people from the countryside brought picnic
lunches with them, and there was much socializing under the hot summer sun. Others engaged in games of baseball and horseshoes, or simply lazed at their camping sites.
Despite the peaceful setting, there was an undercurrent of anticipation and not a little concern. The Union army was spread across northern Maryland, its corps spaced like the tips of fingers of a hand spread wide. Not knowing Lee’s exact location or intention, Meade had arrayed his corps across a broad front in order to be able to respond and concentrate quickly wherever trouble occurred. Wherever the fighting broke out, it was certain that quick, forced marches would be required by many of the corps.
Unbeknownst to the men of the Sixth Corps, units of the two armies had clashed that morning at Gettysburg, and the fight had quickly escalated into a pitched battle. By 4:30 that afternoon, Meade had concluded that Lee was committing his whole army to this fight, and accordingly sent orders to Sedgwick to march his corps to Gettysburg.
Darkness had fallen when Meade’s first messenger rode up the ridge to the Fort Hill School. Within minutes, Sedgwick had issued orders to the commanders of the 36 regiments of infantry and eight batteries of artillery, telling them to form up quickly and move out down the road to Westminster.
Thus began an epic march, one of the most extraordinary of the war. By the shortest route, from Manchester south to Westminster, then west down the Baltimore Turnpike through Union Mills and Littlestown to Gettysburg, the corps would have to cover 38 miles. And they would have to be there by midday on Thursday.
On a July 2nd anniversary of this march a few years ago, my friend Mike Hamilton and I struck out from Manchester in the early morning mists with the objective of following exactly the same route and arriving at the battlefield by 3 p.m., about the same time that Sedgwick’s exhausted but resolute men appeared behind the Round Tops to the exultant cheers of the rest of the Union army.
Our first thought had been to follow the march in “real time;” that is, to start in the late evening of July 1st and finish the following afternoon. But a reconnoiter of the route in its 21st Century configuration quickly disabused us of that idea – much of the route consists of two highways, Routes 27 from Manchester to Westminster and Route 97 from Westminster to Gettysburg, with steady traffic and little nighttime illumination. Rather than risk life and limb, we opted to start at dawn.
On June 30th, we drove separate vehicles to Gettysburg and left mine parked there near the chief ranger’s office. We then drove the route again, measuring distances and estimating stopping points. The forecast for the following day was for sunny and hot weather. Although the rolling terrain presented only a moderate challenge and there were frequent “watering holes” (convenience stores, fast food places), one point caused some concern. The road we’d be walking in the hottest part of the day, Route 97, had relatively few trees along the roadside through its entire length. It would be a hot one.
The distance was a challenge, but less formidable than might at first appear. Mike and I have walked many miles together and separately since we first became friends at the University of Massachusetts in the late 60s. Mike’s personal best was just under 50 miles in one day from his home in Silver Spring, Maryland, into Washington and back again. My own was 40 miles on a route from my home in the Poconos down to the Delaware River and into New York. We knew it would be a challenge, but also knew that the men of the Sixth Corps had done it in hot weather on a poor road surface, wearing woolen clothes and worn boots and carrying rifles and packs. If they could do it, so could we.
The idea for the hike was mine. Originally trained as a historian, with a primary interest in military history, I’ve spent much of my 30 year career in the National Park Service in battlefield parks – the Little Bighorn in Montana, Yorktown in Virginia, Concord and Lexington in Massachusetts. Along with repeat visits to most of the eastern Civil War battlefields, I’ve visited Gettysburg numerous times, particularly during the years when a ranger friend lived there. I also participated as a ranger at the 125th anniversary commemoration of that battle, and was part of the National Park Service incident management team that coordinated the removal of the infamous tower in 2000 – one of the most gratifying experiences of my career.
Any student of the battle of Gettysburg who pursues that interest for any length of time is likely to eventually become curious about the maneuvering that went on before the battle. The topography of the Gettysburg area subtly fosters such an interest. More than any other Civil War site, its broad vistas and roads, rivers and ridges combine to draw attention to strategic movement. In some ways and from some perspectives, it almost seems like a giant sand table used for campaign exercises.
The dispositions of corps and divisions on the days before the battle emphasize that strategic perspective. The armies were spread over hundreds of miles of Maryland and Pennsylvania terrain. When the inevitable contact occurred, followed by decisions to concentrate, it became a classic race of the “firstest with the mostest.” The speed and stamina of troops and the topography, route and distances between points of origin and Gettysburg became critical factors in the outcome of the battle.
Earlier in 2002, I had the opportunity while returning from a business trip to follow Gen. John Buford’s division’s ride from Middletown, Maryland, to Boonsboro, Cavetown, and into Pennsylvania to Fountaindale. The trip had been a revelation, making it possible to see why Buford followed that route on the Union flank – the ability to see far out into the valley to the west from along the flank of South Mountain while simultaneously screening the army’s movement. Following the exact route, one not often traveled, also seemed to cancel time. During a stop at a silent spot, it was almost possible to hear horse hoofs and creaking leather. The past became immediate.
Intrigued, I contacted friend Scott Hartwig, ranger and historian at Gettysburg National Military Park, about possible avenues of approach. We talked about the Confederate routes from the Chambersburg area, about the First Corps’ short approach from Emmitsburg – and the legendary march of the Sixth Corps. Matching the challenge faced by those men proved irresistible.
* * * * *
“All day of July 1st, we lay under temporary shelters, the hot sun casting its rays upon us as we lay on our blankets, in the improvised shades, blessing the good fortune that afforded us the chance for rest after the many days of continuous marching,” wrote J.S.
Anderson of the 5th Wisconsin (Third Brigade, First Division, Sixth Corps).
While dining on coffee and hard tack in the cool of the evening, though, Anderson and his mates saw a mounted officer come galloping down the pike from the west, his horse covered with dust and foam and its flanks bloody from continued spurring. Within moments of his arrival at headquarters, Anderson writes, “all was hurry and confusion, the bugles sounded the assembly, and orderlies and staff officers were rushing in all directions…In an incredibly short space of time, the men were in line, knapsacks and accoutrements on, ready for the march.”
Like most soldiers, they had no idea of their destination, but were hoping for the best.
“There is a hope (among the men) which is more than half a belief that the destination may be Westminster, which is but ten miles away, and the men move out with a cheerful step,” wrote James Bowen of the 37th Massachusetts (Second Brigade, Third Division, Sixth Corps). “Presently a kind-hearted farmer, who is giving each boy in blue a cup of milk, announces that a battle has begun at Gettysburg, nearly 40 miles away, and it is natural to supposed that to be the destination of the corps. (The) step which has been light becomes heavy and mechanical, and the soldiers are transformed into mere machines, to plod on as steadily as possible in the interminable night.”
* * * * *
On the Morning of July 2nd, we parked Mike’s Explorer on a quiet side street in Manchester just as the sun was rising, deep red-orange through the mists rising from the cornfields to the east of town. We walked into town to the intersection of Route 27, the road south to Westminster, and the east-west Route 30, also known then and now as the Hanover Pike. The air was still cool and humid from the previous night, the town quiet. It was not hard to imagine the Manchester of 1863, as the largely 19th Century homes and the tree-lined streets still give it the feeling of a town from another time.
Those early July days of 1863 are commemorated by a Carroll County historical marker in front of the BB&T Bank. It notes that the Sixth Corps and General Sedgwick camped there, then says with considerable understatement: “On the night of July 1, the corps left Manchester and went into battle in Gettysburg the next day.”
We cinched up our packs and headed south, first following a winding street through town that paralleled the modern highway and appeared to have been part of its predecessor. One of the challenges a modern walker faces in attempting to follow historic routes is figuring out where the original roads went before they were realigned, straightened and widened to accommodate automobiles. Road names sometimes help, such as “Old Westminster Road” or “Old Route 27”; at other times, it’s necessary to deduce from clues, including topography (old roads, for instance, curved a lot on hills in order to make ascent and descent easier for horses with wagons), evidence of points where the old road formerly merged with the current highway, and the presence of old houses along the roadside.
A virtue of modern Route 27 is its wide shoulders and easy grades, making walking both easier and safer. We made good time, about four miles per hour, as we headed south through the rolling farmlands. At several points, we were able to pick up the old alignment, which got us away from the roar of traffic and the generally mild but ever-present stench of exhaust. It also generally meant trees up close to the roadside and long stretches of shade. Although it was early morning, it was already getting hot.
* * * * *
According to contemporary estimates, the Sixth Corps column was about ten miles long, meaning that the tail was just leaving Manchester while the leading elements were already east of Winchester. The Sixth Corps, as of June 30, 1863, consisted of 15,697 men, with a commensurate number of wagons, ambulances, and artillery batteries. The figures make it clear why the column was so long.
The men marched silently down the dusty road to Winchester. “There is no moonlight, and only a pale glimmer of stars, half obscured by clouds,” writes Bowen. “But the long column presses forward and never halts, for if it stops the men will drop into heavy slumber and may be left behind in the darkness.”
The intense heat of the day had dissipated, but not entirely. “It was a typical July night,” said Andrew Bennett of the First Massachusetts Light Battery. “The sultry air retaining the mid-day heat, there was an uncomfortable closeness.”
* * * * *
About seven miles south of Winchester, near its juncture with the Hampstead-Mexico Road, Route 27 bears off on a slightly more southwesterly heading and the two-lane Old Manchester Road heads straight into town – clearly the historic road. Some of the old houses along the street were there on that night, as the soldiers marched into town. As we looked up at the porches and windows, it was not hard to imagine townspeople in their nightclothes, whispering to each other or perhaps cheering the boys onward.
If Manchester had more than a little of the feel of a town from the 19th Century, the section of Westminster we passed through was every bit a part of the 21st. We parted ways with Old Manchester Road and ended up at the very busy intersection of Route 27 and Routes 97 and 140, which run together at that point. From east to west, all we could see were malls, fast food places, gaudy signs, traffic lights, and several lanes of traffic in each direction.
Following a brief pit stop for more Gatorade and water at a 7-11, we headed west on 97/140, being careful to keep close to the edge of the narrow shoulder, as the cars and commercial vehicles raced by only a few feet away. Not far from the center of town, we came to the point where Route 97 – the Baltimore Pike – branches off, heading toward Gettysburg. But we kept on heading toward Taneytown on Route 140 in order to follow the road that the Sixth Corps first took that night, before a change of orders arrived.
* * * * *
General Meade’s original orders to Sedgwick directed him to move the Sixth Corps from Manchester to Taneytown via Westminster. A second message, received during the march, gave Sedgwick discretion regarding routes. His decision was to continue on the road to Taneytown. But in the early hours of the morning, while Sedgwick was riding ahead of his men on the Taneytown road, a third message arrived from Meade, directing him to march to Gettysburg by the Baltimore Pike. Sedgwick turned about, found a crossroad and led his men up to the pike.
“At this point he would have saved distance if he had pushed ahead to Taneytown and proceeded from there to Gettysburg,” says historian Edwin Coddington in The Gettysburg Campaign, “but he agreed with Meade that the pike was better for fast marching, and he decided it was worth the extra distance to get on it.”
For the men marching silently in the long column, this was a cause for groans and grumbling. “The night is well advanced, and the leading brigade has been toiling for miles along a narrow road, when a shouting aide presses through the struggling footmen” to tell them they’re on the wrong road, says Bowen. “Presently the head of the column comes slowly back, those who have dropped to sleep are roused, the regiment countermarches and plods back over the three or four miles that have taken so much of the soldiers’ vital force all in vain. Two or three hours have been lost and six or eight miles of ground covered that the general historian will make no account of when he tells the story of the night.”
* * * * *
As we headed out of Westminster, walking along the shoulder of Route 140, we came upon a revealing indicator of the dramatic change in countryside from the rural farmland of the Civil War era to one of the contemporary upscale bedroom communities for the distant cities now made accessible by interstates. To the north of the road stood an old farm that, judging from its age, had been there since before the war. But there was a collapsed barn and disintegrating silo in back of the neat, compact home, and the back fields sprouted with four-bedroom homes on newly-paved streets rather than with corn and wheat.
Not far from the farm on the north side of 140 was Meadow Branch Road, which our map showed us was the cutoff that Sedgwick took, bringing his troops up to the Baltimore Pike. We headed up the road, climbing slowly up a moderately steep rise but appreciating the shade provided by the woods on the east side. When we’d gone a mile or so, we reached an opening and looked out at – an airport. The road that once went straight through is now cut in two, with the Carroll County Regional Airport in between. We passed on historical accuracy in favor of avoiding getting run down by landing aircraft and looped around the east side of the airport, coming to the pike about a half mile east of where the Sixth Corps reached it.
By now it was midday, and the temperature was in the mid-90s. Although we’d covered 14 or 15 miles, we still had a long stretch of Route 97 between us and Gettysburg. And this was the section of the road that we’d previously noted as being almost completely open, with only scattered pockets of trees and shade. Moreover, the road was becoming hotter than the air.
* * * * *
Much of the road we were now walking in the hot afternoon sun had been covered by the Sixth Corps between 3 a.m. and sunrise. Although the night had started out sultry, it was by now cooling down.
“The night was cool, the road smooth and clear, and we marched silently and swiftly along,” reported Anderson. “Suddenly from away towards the head of the column was heard the strains of a band, breaking through the stillness of the night. The men caught the cadence of the music and fell into the marching step. The band was playing the ‘Old John Brown’ Battle Hymn, and as they reached the chorus, first a score of voices, joined the words to the music, then a hundred, then a thousand and soon ten thousand voices rolled out the battle song. ‘Glory, Glory Hallelujah, His soul is marching on.’”
Bennett offers a similar description of the spirit of the Sixth Corps during those pre-dawn hours. “The march was made with unflagging energy all night, and there was no relaxation of effort when the sun of the 2d of July appeared to light another day’s conflict on that field to which we were hastening. Now was the test of physical vigor – to keep the ranks and make the requisite time, wipe away the perspiration, grin, and endure. So, for an hour after sunrise, men and horses well stood the test. Then there was a brief rest to answer the calls of nature, after which regiments and batteries were speeding on….”
* * * * *
By early afternoon, Mike and I had covered another seven miles of up and down terrain and arrived at Union Mills, a tiny crossroads in a shady valley along Pipe Creek – as pleasant an oasis today as it undoubtedly was then. We stopped in a shaded picnic area near the creek in Union Mills Homestead Park for lunch, some rest and respite, and a chance to attend to the beginnings of blisters on hot and aching feet.
Nearby in the park was a restored historic mill which had occupied the site since 1797. According to a state historic commission marker at the edge of the highway, the grassy, well-watered valley had twice served as a camping spot in the Gettysburg campaign. Stuart’s cavalry camped there on June 29, and Barnes’ division of the Fifth Corps was there the night after. A nice long sleep there seemed like a good idea, but we pressed on.
The seven miles from Union Mills to Littlestown was a succession of hills and valleys, memorable primarily for the occasional vistas that looked out over farmlands and the oppressive direct sun bearing down on us. About half way down this stretch of highway, though, we came upon a brown and white sign partly hidden under a tree in front of a farmhouse, announcing that we were crossing the Mason-Dixon Line. A few paces further on was a sign welcoming us to Pennsylvania.
This was a highpoint for some of the men of the Sixth Corps as well. As the men of the 93rd Pennsylvania reached the Mason-Dixon Line, they realized that they were returning to their home state. The colors were unfurled and the soldiers marched across the line singing “Home, Sweet Home.”
By now, the sun had risen on the marching column and the day soon became hot and humid. The sorry condition of the road added to their miseries.
“About 11 o’clock we reached that part of the pike over which the troops in advance of us
had passed with their artillery and trains the day and night previous,” writes Anderson, “and the road was covered with dust three or four inches deep, which rose in great clouds and nearly stifled us. There was no music and no singing now, we were fast reaching the limit of human endurance. Men reeled and staggered along as if they were drunken. Ever and anon a rifle or musket would fall clattering on the stony pike, as the man who carried it collapsed and sank in a quivering heap in the midst of the roadway. He would be seized and dragged to the roadside, his musket laid beside him and his comrades would resume their places in the ranks and struggle on.”
By the time Mike and I reached Littlestown, we’d covered nearly three-quarters of the 38-mile route to Gettysburg and were very much feeling like Anderson and his comrades. Despite drinking enormous amounts of fluid, we were feeling dehydrated, exhausted and footsore. As we passed the center of town, where Route 97 intersects with Route 194, the Frederick Pike, we could see the road stretching out again into the distance. Just before it left the outskirts of town, there was a McDonald’s on the left. Despite his personal dislike for fast food chains, Mike opined that it was the most beautiful site he’d seen all day. We entered the air-conditioned paradise and gorged on ice cream and bottles of water, ignoring the customers who opted to sit several tables away from these two decidedly ripe old hikers.
The men of the Sixth Corps had no such luxuries, but Anderson relates the story of one act of compassion that afforded men of the column some relief. Some people at a farmhouse near the pike brought out tubs and pails of water for the men. “An old man and a boy were busy drawing water from the well and a portly matron and two handsome girls were keeping the tubs and pails filled with cool sweet water. Their faces were flushed and they trembled with the exertion. I said to the lady, ‘Madam, that work is very hard on you.’ She said, ‘God bless you, I don’t feel it. I have two boys somewhere among you and I would not want them or their friends to pass their mother’s house without at least a cup of cold water.’”
By early afternoon, the leading elements of the Sixth Corps were close enough to Gettysburg to hear the rumble of artillery and, when they passed over the crests of hills along the turnpike, see the white puffs of shells bursting above the trees in the distance. This provided the needed incentive to cover the last miles. As Anderson notes, “the sight acted on the men of the 6th Corps as the spur acts on the jaded horse.”
Even with the incentive, it seemed to many that they would never get there. “We went on and on until it seemed as though the road would never end, or as if the hills receded from us as fast as we were able to approach them.”
So it was with us. The last ten miles seemed like twenty, maybe thirty. The road was straight, black and hot. There was no cover, no place to hide from the sun (the air temperature by now was 100 degrees), nowhere to stop for refreshment. It was that time in any long march when the only action you can take is to focus on the next step.
At last, we came to the point where Route 97 crosses Route 15, just a couple of miles east of the Round Tops. Following a last stop at a 7-11 and the consumption of quarts of water, we pushed on down into the park, arriving at Cemetery Ridge around 5 p.m.
The effect that the arrival of the Sixth Corps had on the Union Army, about to engage in the terrible second day’s fighting on the union left, is best summarized by John Schildt in his Roads To Gettysburg: “(On) Little Round Top, a Union signal officer saw the dust and the column of troops. At first he was terrified, thinking it might be Confederate infantry, or worse yet, Jeb Stuart in the Yankee rear. But no. No. There was the Greek Cross. It was not the Rebs. It was ‘Uncle John’ and the Sixth. ‘Glory Be. Hallelujah. The Sixth Corps is coming. The Sixth Corps is coming…Along Cemetery Ridge, the news spread like wildfire. Cheers rocked the air. The Rebels must have wondered what was happening.”
“Other units, North and South, had made long forced marches on the Roads to Gettysburg,” concludes Schildt. “But they had covered thirty-seven miles in seventeen hours. An entire corps…made a march that has rarely, if ever, been surpassed in modern warfare…The men who made that march from Manchester to Gettysburg could proudly say…’I marched with “Uncle John” Sedgwick and the Sixth Corps on the Roads to Gettysburg.’”
Mike and I came away from this experience with a profound respect for toughness, tenacity and abiding faith of both the men of the Sixth Corps and, by extension, the other men of the Union and Confederate armies who made similar forced marches in order to meet their duty to country and comrades.
Although the accounts vary on the length of this march, ranging from 34 to 36 to 42, the reality is that nobody will ever likely know for certain precisely how much ground they marched. Our own measurement, checked and rechecked, was 38 miles, but the actual distance the troops covered is contingent on a number of unknown variables, including where a particular regiment started out from its encampment and the distance covered in doubling back after starting on the road to Taneytown.
What is more consequential is the level of effort made to cover so much ground in so few hours and arrive on the battlefield in time to provide Meade with the reserve needed to assure that the lines held on July 2 and that the Union would win the contest. If Semper fidelis had been a motto in use in that army, it certainly would have applied to those in the Sixth Corps.
A closing note: If you are interested in trying this hike yourself, we’ve a few words of advice to offer:
• Although making the hike on the anniversary of the original march added a dimension to the project, following this route on a blazing July day is a physical and potentially a medical challenge. Try it in May or September.
• Reconnoiter the route before you walk it so you’ll know where all the convenience stores and other potential sources of refreshment are located.
• Be prepared for a long day of traffic whizzing nearby and exhaust fumes in the air.
• Be careful! Although the shoulders are good along much of the roads, there are places where you have to walk narrow verges between traffic and guardrails.
• Bring Schildt’s Roads to Gettysburg with you, along with some good county maps.