I have often imagined what it must have been like to have lived in Gettysburg during the days leading up to the battle. Those fateful days left lasting impressions on the citizenry of Gettysburg. Many wrote accounts and recollections. Some gave interviews to newspaper reporters, published books or simply passed down their stories via oral histories. If you will, take a moment to imagine what it was like during those fateful days when people heard “The Rebels are coming, the Rebels are coming” over and over.
In early June 1863, Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia began an invasion of the North. By mid-June, elements of his army had crossed the Potomac River into Maryland. Gettysburg resident Nellie E. Aughinbaugh recalled that “the Confederates were raiding north of the Mason-Dixon Line and had reached Chambersburg.” On June 26, Confederate troops from Gen. Jubal Early’s Division arrived in Gettysburg and occupied the town. According to Robert McClean, a boy living in town in 1863, Early’s men entered the town via Chambersburg Street, the officers brandishing their swords and the troops firing their guns into the air. The spectacle was to be enjoyed “as they would a wild west show,” recalled 10-year-old Gates Fahnestock. Early made demands on the town for sugar, coffee, flour, salt, bacon, onions and whiskey. He also ordered the delivery of 1,000 pairs of shoes, 500 hats and $5,000 in cash. The town fathers could meet only a portion of the demand and feared what the Confederate reaction might be. Accounts differ considerably about the behavior of Confederate soldiers. Tillie Pierce recalled them “searching and ransacking in earnest.” According to The Sentinel of July 2 and July 9, the Rebels made a clean sweep of the whiskey stores discovered. “They would cheerfully throw out a barrel of flour to make room for a barrel of whiskey.”
On the night of June 26, a Confederate band set up shop in the town square and played Dixie. Residents were none too pleased. Early’s soldiers left Gettysburg on the morning of July 27, on their way to York. On the evening of June 29, it was said the people of Gettysburg could see Confederate campfires flickering on the eastern slopes of South Mountain.
Many of the residents were still not convinced of the danger. Sallie Broadhead disagreed. “This morning the Rebels came to the top of the hill overlooking the town on the Chambersburg Pike and looked over our place,” she wrote in her diary entry for June 30. It begins to look, added Sallie, “as though we will have a battle soon and we are in great fear.” The men Sallie saw were from Confederate Gen. Pettigrew’s Infantry Brigade. This force had been sent forward to reconnoiter the town and search for supplies. When Pettigrew spotted Gen. Buford’s Federal Cavalry riding into town, he withdrew to his camp at Cashtown, as per his orders not to engage. When people spotted Buford’s troopers coming up, they gave them a warm and enthusiastic welcome. Men, women and children lined both sides of Washington Street waving, cheering and singing patriotic songs. Buford allowed the young boys to follow along as the horses were lead to water and quieted the worst fears of the town’s population. The citizens were unaware that two armies—numbering 170,000—were so near their town.
The morning of July 1 dawned quietly, and by 7 a.m. it was cloudy and 72 degrees. By 8 a.m., the largest and most costly battle of the Civil War had erupted. The citizens would no longer need to worry about rumors and reports.
The War had come to Gettysburg.