Boston reporter visits Hanover battlefield en route to Gettysburg
Charles Carleton Coffin was one of the best known war correspondents during the Civil War, but is little remembered today by the general public. He spent much of the war “imbedded” with the Union Army of the Potomac as a special correspondent for the Boston Journal. His fascinating human interest stories range from interviews with privates all the way up to generals. Coffin’s eye for detail, his vivid and descriptive prose, and his knack for finding the personal side to the war enthralled his readers.
Originally a free-lancer, after the First Battle of Bull Run, the Journal hired him for the significant sum of $25 a week. In turn, Coffin provided his editors for the rest of the war with a wealth of first-person accounts of camp life, long campaigns and dusty marches, eyewitness accounts of battles such as Gettysburg, and insight into the minds of the Federal commanders.
Some writers have dubbed him in retrospect the “Ernie Pyle of the Civil War” in deference to the famed WWII reporter. Unlike Coffin, Pyle did not survive his war.
Here is Charles Coffin’s account of passing through Hanover, Pennsylvania, in southwestern York County shortly after the June 30, 1863, cavalry battle between Confederate J.E.B. Stuart’s forces and a Union division under H. Judson Kilpatrick.
“The Picket,” an impressive statue in downtown Hanover, Pa., commemorates the Civil War Battle of Hanover.
Charles Coffin wrote in his post-war book, The Boys of ’61, or Four Years of Fighting. Personal Observation with the Army and Navy, his recollections of passing through Hanover as he accompanied the Union Fifth Corps to Gettysburg. His colorful description of his initial impressions of the battlefield of Gettysburg are well worth reading, for Coffin was one of the very few reporters to witness firsthand the fighting.
“On Tuesday evening, General [John F.] Reynolds, who was at Emmettsburg [sic], sent word to General Meade that the Rebels were evidently approaching Gettysburg. At the same time, the Rebel General Stuart, with his cavalry, appeared at Westminster. He had tarried east of the Blue Ridge till Lee was across the Potomac, — till Meade had started from Frederick, — then crossing the Potomac at Edwards’s Ferry, he pushed directly northeast of the Monocacy, east of Meade’s army, through Westminster, where ho had a slight skirmish with some of the Union cavalry, moved up the pike to Littlestown and Hanover and joined Lee.
Riding to Westminster I overtook General Gregg’s division of cavalry, and on Wednesday moved forward with it to Hanover Junction, which is thirty miles east of Gettysburg, There, while our horses were eating their corn at noon, I heard the distant cannonade, the opening of the great battle.
Striking directly across the country, I rejoined the Fifth Corps at Hanover. There were dead horses and dead soldiers in the streets lying where they fell. The wounded had been gathered into a school-house, and the warm-hearted women of the place were ministering to their comfort. It was evening. The bivouac fires of the Fifth Corps were gleaming in the meadows west of the town, and the worn and weary soldiers were asleep, catching a few hours of repose before moving on to the place where they were to lay down their lives for their country.”
“It was past eight o’clock on Thursday morning, July 2d, before we reached the field. The Fifth Corps, turning off from the Hanover road, east of Rock Creek, passed over to the Baltimore pike, crossed Rock Creek, filed through the field on the left hand and moved towards Little Round-top, or Weed’s Hill as it is now called.
Riding directly up the pike towards the cemetery, I saw the Twelfth Corps on my right, in the thick woods crowning Culp’s Hill. Beyond, north of the pike, was the First Corps. Ammunition wagons were going up, and the artillerymen were filling their limber chests. Pioneers were cutting down the trees.
Beaching the top of the hill in front of the cemetery gate the battle-field was in view. To understand a battle, the movements of the opposing forces, and what they attempt to accomplish, it is necessary first to comprehend the ground, its features, the hills, hollows, woods, ravines, ledges, roads, — how they are related. A rocky hill is frequently a fortress of itself. Bail fences and stone walls are of value, and a ravine may be equivalent to ten thousand men.
Tying my horse and ascending the stairs to the top of the gateway building, I could look directly down upon the town. The houses were not forty rods distant. Northeast, three fourths of a mile, was Culp’s Hill.
On the northern side of the Baltimore pike were newly mown fields, the grass springing fresh and green since the mower had swept over it. In these fields were batteries with breastworks thrown up by Howard on Wednesday night,– light affairs, not intended to resist cannon-shot, but to protect the cannoneers from sharpshooters. Howard’s lines of infantry wore behind stone-walls. The cannoneers were lying beside their pieces, — sleeping perhaps, but at any rate keeping close, for, occasionally, a bullet came singing past them. Looking north over the fields, a mile or two, we saw a beautiful farming country, — fields of ripened grain, — russet mingled with the green in the landscape.
Conspicuous among the buildings is the almshouse, with its brick walls, great barn, and numerous out-buildings, on the Harrisburg road. Beyond are the houses of David and John Blocher,–John Blocher’s being at the junction of the Carlisle and Newville roads. Looking over the town, the buildings of Pennsylvania College are in full view, between the road leading northwest to Mummasburg, and the unfinished track of a railroad running west through a deep excavation a half-mile from the college. The Chambersburg turnpike runs parallel to the railroad. South of this is the Lutheran Theological Seminary, beautifully situated, in front of a shady grove of oaks. West and southwest we look upon wheat, clover, and corn fields, on both sides of the road leading to Emmettsburg. A half-mile west of this road is an elevated ridge of land, crowned with apple-orchards and groves of oaks.
Turning to the southeast, two miles distant, is Round-top, shaped like a sugar-loaf, rocky, steep, hard to climb, on its western face, easy to be held by those who have possession, clad with oaks and pines. Nearer, a little east of the meridian, is Weed’s Hill, with Plum Run at its western base, flowing through a rocky ravine. From the sides of the hill, and on its top, great boulders bulge, like plums in a pudding. It is very stony west of the hill, as if Nature in making up the mould had dumped the debris there.
Between Round-top and Weed’s there is a gap, where men bent on a desperate enterprise might find a passway. Between Weed’s and the cemetery the ridge is broken down and smoothed out into fields and pastures. The road to Taneytown runs east of this low ridge, the road to Emmettsburg west of it. A small house stands on the west side of the Taneytown road, with the American flag flying in front of it. There are horses hitched to the fences, while others are nibbling the grass in the fields. Officers with stars on their shoulders are examining maps, writing, and sending off cavalrymen. It is General Meade’s head-quarters. When the Rebel batteries open it will be a warm place.”
Coffin’s lengthy account of the Battle of Gettysburg remains one of the best and can be read for free on-line at Google Books.