June 1863 was a warm month in northern Virginia, and some days were downright suffocating. As the armies plodded northward, man and animal alike suffered from the intense heat and choking dust. Scores fell out of the ranks, exhausted and overheated, but the armies pushed onward. By the 25th of the month, the bulk of the Army of Northern Virginia was north of the Potomac River, living off the bounty of the lush farms and supplies uncovered in Union warehouses. The columns marching north on dusty roads passed wagons head south filled with raw materials confiscated in Pennsylvania while food, medicine and feed for horses were added to the corps’ baggage and commissary trains. So far, Lee’s advance had been lightly opposed and apparently nothing stood in the way of the Confederates’ incursion into “Yankeedom”.
On June 26, General Robert Rodes’ Division marched into the town of Carlisle, the seat of Cumberland County, a modest town with numerous stores and businesses with an impressive Greek-revival court house in the town square. Nearby was the US Army’s Carlisle Barracks, of which several of Rodes’ officers were well acquainted with having been stationed there or passed through it when they had been in Federal service prior to the war. Now the barracks were empty of personnel but supplies had left behind, ready for the taking.
The march northward from Waynesboro had gone so rapidly that Rodes was allowed to let his division rest for a day in the town before moving toward the next objective and his soldiers took advantage of the respite to acquire supplies and visit the barracks. Notoriously, a cache of good quality whiskey was discovered and many of the high ranking officers took advantage of the confiscated refreshment, the celebration lasting quite late into the evening hours. Others rested their tired feet, washed their dirty shirts, or attended to other chores. Seated near the camp of Doles’ Brigade, Lt. John Gay of the 4th Georgia Infantry only had one sheet of dust-covered paper to scribble a quick letter to wife:
June 27th, 1863
Without the least opposition our troops took possession of this place yesterday afternoon. It is a beautiful town of about five thousand inhabitants, several colleges, a number of fine churches & a regular Barracks for the U.S. Army. Our brigade is encamped in a beautiful park, encircling perhaps one of the oldest male colleges in the U.S. as it was founded in the year 1783. It is the “Dickinson College”. The (civilians) insist exercises were in progress when we arrived & I presume they did not like the audience, as they were discontinued immediately. This is the first place I have been to in the state where the women wear clean clothes & look really nice. Some of them are quite pretty but I don’t think I shall fall in love with any one here, so you need not be afraid. (page 2) Today is Sunday & we have stopped to eat. Don’t know when we will leave or whither we will go, but I assume we will proceed toward Harrisburg. Eighteen miles more will take us to [section indiscernible] which is the capital of Pa. I sincerely hope we will capture it. There we will probably be revenged for the burning of Jackson, Miss & Dorian, Ga. I received this morning a letter from you dated the 20th. You have no idea how much delighted I was to hear from you. The news was all quite interesting, but I regret to hear that Gus & Anna have to resort to such [indiscernible; letter damaged]. You must excuse short letters for this is the very last bit of paper I have & I know not when I shall get more. Love to all & a heart brimming full of love to my dear little (wife). I would give any thing to see her this evening. Write often and may God bless you. Yours & ever,
One hundred-plus miles away and south of the Potomac River, the 7th Maine Infantry was likewise settled into a restless bivouac. Like Lieutenant Gay, Lt. Colonel Selden Connor had also tried to consistently write letters home but his attention had been focused on his duties, both day and night. The Sixth Corps was the last to leave their camps near Falmouth and trailed the rest of the Army of the Potomac as it cautiously marched through northern Virginia. The Third Division under Major General John Newton occupied Fairfax Courthouse and then moved toward Warrenton, the three brigades bivouacking in a large semi-circle to protect the rear of the army. Rumors of Confederate guerillas and mounted raiders made the men a bit jumpy but nothing of great interest threatened the peaceful camps. The men were grateful for the rest and looked after cleaning clothes and taking care of those tired feet.
Head Qtrs 7th Maine Vols
Camp near Bristoe Station
Va. June 25, 1863
My dear father,
We have had hard work since we broke camp at Falmouth. We marched to Fairfax C.H. and after a stay of a day or two there our division was ordered to this point, about eight miles from Centerville in the direction of Warrenton. I came into camp yesterday from picket duty on the fords of Broad Run and the Occoquan. Our division with two batteries is here all alone, the nearest force being at Centerville. The rest of the 6th Corps is at Fairfax still. It is a beautiful country about here; (page 2) the celebrated “Plains of Manassas” contain some as fine barns as I ever saw. After eating hard bread on my horse for about a week I had a dinner yesterday that I could appreciate- roast lamb, green peas and lettuce. The boys are feasting on cherries which are abundant. I can’t imagine what our single division is put out here for, unless as a sort of picket; we have but four thousand men in all. Our movements are as much of a mystery to us as to people generally; probably Hooker is waiting for Lee to develop his plans a little further.
The army is in good spirits and in fighting shape. My men are well, but they need shoes and clothing badly. We expect a supply today. (page 3) I am in first rate health, only I’m annoyed by a sort of prickly heat contracted during the marches. We have had no mail for a week. I did expect to get home this summer, but the prospect now looks a little dubious. I hear nothing from Col Mason lately. Did I write you that Col. Rodney Mason visited us when we lay on the Rappahannock? My regiment was just behind the hill which skirts the north bank of the river. Gen. Sedgwick’s quarters were in an exposed position on the hill. Towards night the hill was lined with spectators viewing the broad plains on the other side of the river, our forces at work on the entrenchments there and (page 4) the “rebs” beyond. It was a very pretty sight. The Col. and I joined the crowd of lookers on about Gen. Sedgwick’s tents. He admired the scene very much. “Why” said he, “we don’t have such pretty fighting ground as this out west. We have to fight among the bushes and in the swamps. How I’d like to see a little fight here, this is so fine a place to look from.” Just then a battery of the enemy’s opened on us and lodged half a dozen shells within fifty feet of us. We got out of range very suddenly, the Col. remarking that the “practical advantages of that position were not apparent.”
With much love to all, I am your aff. Son
Within the week, both soldiers would be on the battlefield of Gettysburg, thrown into a desperate and deadly struggle. Gay and Connor would survive the battle but the ordeal that both would face as they marched southward to the Potomac River and Virginia would test more than just their soldierly qualities. Those letters coming in part 3, to be continued.
Historian, Gettysburg National Military Park