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1863: The Rifles invade Pennsylvania

By Dr. Walter G. Howell

While General U. S. Grant carried out his campaign in Mississippi from May to June of 1863, General Robert E. Lee proposed to Confederate President Jefferson Davis that an invasion of the North and a decisive defeat of Joe Hooker’s Union army would show France and England the Confederate State of America was a viable government and should be recognized. The two European powers had shown pro-Confederate sentiments, but had not formally recognized the Confederate government.
Once the Union army in Mississippi encircled the Confederates at Vicksburg and began the siege, Lee advanced the argument that an invasion of Pennsylvania would force President Lincoln to divert Union forces from Vicksburg if Washington City itself were threatened.
Jefferson Davis agreed to the attack on the North; and, in June, Lee marched northward through Maryland into Pennsylvania. President Lincoln authorized a second Union army to be commanded by General George Meade, a subordinate of Hooker. Hooker resigned in protest, and Meade became commander of the Union Army that set out in pursuit of Lee.
By the end of June, two large armies were in Pennsylvania: Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, numbering seventy-thousand Rebel soldiers, and Meade’s Army of the Potomac, with ninety-five thousand Yankee soldiers. Lee’s army passed by the small college town of Gettysburg on July 1, when he learned the town had a supply of shoes his army desperately needed. Lee ordered a brigade to turn back to Gettysburg and “liberate” the shoes. As the Confederate brigade reached Gettysburg, they encountered a larger Union force that was searching for Lee’s army.
The two advance units began fighting, and both Lee and Meade were alerted to the presence of the other. Fighting on a small scale continued that day, as both Union and Confederate armies converged on Gettysburg. By nightfall, the Union Army had taken strong defensive positions to the east of Gettysburg at Cemetery Ridge, Cemetery Hill and the Little Round Top Hill.
Captain William Lewis had thirty-eight Mississippi College Rifles in formation when the 18th Mississippi Infantry camped three miles outside Gettysburg on the night of July 1. The 18th was part of a Mississippi brigade of three regiments commanded by General William Barksdale of Columbus, Mississippi. His brigade was part of an army corps commanded by General James Longstreet.
Longstreet’s corps took position on General Lee’s right flank opposing the Little Round Top Hill on the morning of July 2. In the late afternoon, Longstreet attacked along the Emmetsburg Road, toward a field called the Peach Orchard, occupied by Union soldiers.
General Barksdale rode in advance of his brigade and was mortally wounded in the saddle. His horse carried him back to the Confederate lines, where he later died.
Longstreet’s corps forced the Union soldiers back to the Little Round Top, where they made a defensive stand. Despite repeated Rebel attacks, the Union soldiers held the hill; and, when nightfall came, the fighting came to a close. Longstreet’s soldiers withdrew to the Confederate line.
During the fighting at the Peach Orchard, Rebel soldiers saw two Confederate generals walking in the rear of the Rebel line, talking and taking notes. Generals Lee and Longstreet were discussing possible artillery positions for the fighting the next day. One Rebel soldier warned the generals they were in danger and should go back to their headquarters. Lee and Longstreet withdrew.
The Mississippi College Rifles did well on July 2 at Gettysburg. They lost their brigade commander, but the company had no casualties that day. General Longstreet later spoke of Barksdale and the Mississippi brigade at Little Round Top: “They did the best three hours of fighting ever done by any men on any field.”


Editor’s note: 2011 marked the beginning of the sesquicentennial observation of the American Civil War.
This is the eighteenth in a series of pieces by Dr. Walter Howell, recently named the City Historian, that will follow the movements of the Mississippi College Rifles, the fate of Clintonians involved in the fighting and other events on the home front.

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