Pennsylvania-born Confederate major describes the 1863 Battle of Hanover
The Central Hotel on the center square of Hanover, Pennsylvania, served as Union headquarters during much of the June 30, 1863, Battle of Hanover. Photo courtesy of the York County Heritage Trust.
Major Henry Brainerd McClellan (1840-1904) served on the staff of famed Confederate cavalry general J.E.B. Stuart during the Civil War. He was a first cousin of controversial Union general and 1864 Democratic presidential nominee George B. McClellan. Major McClellan, a 23-year-old Philadelphian whose brother was a Union staff officer, rode with Stuart through York County, Pennsylvania, during the 1863 Gettysburg Campaign.
He left a brief account of the Battle of Hanover and the subsequent ride through the countryside through Dover to Carlisle. McClellan was one of a handful of Pennsylvania-born Confederate officers to return to their native state during the Gettysburg Campaign.
The following excerpt comes from McClellan’s post-war book The Life and Campaigns of Major-General J.E.B. Stuart (Boston, Mass.: 1885).
“For the first time since the 24th an abundance of provisions for men and horses was obtained at Westminster; and moving the head of his column to Union Mills, on the Gettysburg road, Stuart rested for the remainder of the night. Here he ascertained that the enemy’s cavalry had reached Littlestown, seven miles distant, on the same evening, and had gone into camp.
At this day we can see that it would have been better had Stuart here destroyed the captured wagons. Up to this time they had caused no embarrassment, for the necessary delay in destroying the railroad and telegraph on the previous day had given ample time for the movement of the train. But now the close proximity of the enemy suggested the probability of a collision on the morrow, and the separation of the brigades by the wide interval which the train occupied was a disadvantage which might well have caused its immediate destruction. But it was not in Stuart’s nature to abandon an attempt until it had been proven to be beyond his powers; and he determined to hold on to his prize until the last moment. This was unfortunate. Kilpatrick’s division, at Littlestown, was only seven miles from Hanover. His march would of course be directed upon that point early the next morning. To reach the same place Stuart must traverse more than ten miles; but an early start and an unimpeded march would have placed him in advance of his adversary.
As it was he struck the rear of Farnsworth’s brigade at about ten o’clock on the morning of the 30th, in the town of Hanover, and scattered one regiment, the 18th Pennsylvania Cavalry, inflicting upon it a loss of eighty-six officers and men. The 2d North Carolina Cavalry, temporarily commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel W. H. Payne, of the 4th Virginia Cavalry, made this attack, which, if it could have been properly supported, would have resulted in the rout of Kilpatrick’s command. But Hampton was separated from the leading brigade by the whole train of captured wagons, and Fitz Lee was marching on the left flank to protect the column from an attack by way of Littlestown. There was nothing at the front but Chambliss’ small brigade; and before anything could be brought to the assistance of the 2d North Carolina, General Farnsworth rallied his regiments, and drove the North Carolinians from the town. In this charge Lieutenant-Colonel Payne was captured.
The road upon which this fight occurred debouches from the town of Hanover toward the south, and at a distance of perhaps three hundred yards from the town makes a turn almost at right angles as it ascends the hill beyond, enclosing a piece of meadow land, through which flows a little stream, whose steep banks form a ditch, from ten to fifteen feet wide and from three to four feet deep. Stuart, with his staff and couriers, occupied this field, on the side next to the enemy. When the 2d North Carolina broke and retreated under Farnsworth’s charge, this party maintained its position for some moments, firing with pistols at the flank of the enemy, who pursued the North Carolina regiment on the road.
The position soon became one of extreme personal peril to Stuart, whose retreat by the road was cut off. Nothing remained but to leap the ditch. Splendidly mounted on his favorite mare Virginia, Stuart took the ditch at a running leap, and landed safely on the other side with several feet to spare. Some of his party made the leap with equal success, but not a few horses failed, and landed their riders in the shallow water, whence by energetic scrambling they reached the safe side of the stream. The ludicrousness of the situation, notwithstanding the peril, was the source of much merriment at the expense of these unfortunate ones. [Editor’s note: to see photos of what remains of this ditch today, see John Krepps’ guided tour on the Gettysburg Daily)
Upon the repulse of the 2d North Carolina Stuart retired to the hills south and east of Hanover, which gave him such commanding position that the enemy declined further advance. Hampton, on his arrival, was moved to the right, and by means of his sharpshooters dislodged the enemy from that part of the town. Fitz Lee in moving up on the left had encountered a part of Custer’s brigade, and captured a member of Kilpatrick’s staff and a number of other prisoners. In the mean time the wagons had been placed in close park, and preparation had been made to burn them should the necessity arise. But Custer’s brigade, which had at first been placed on Kilpatrick’s left, was subsequently moved to his right, and Hampton’s success having relieved Stuart’s right, he now determined to send Fitz Lee forward with the train, through Jefferson toward York, Pa., hoping thus to gain information which would guide his future movements.
It was, however, late in the afternoon before this could be effected, and not until night had fallen did Stuart deem it prudent to withdraw from Kilpatrick, who still maintained his threatening position in front of Hanover. Kilpatrick showed no disposition to hinder Stuart’s withdrawal, or to pursue him on the following day. He had been roughly handled during the short engagement at Hanover, and himself acknowledges an aggregate loss of 197. He moved as far northward on the next day as Abbottstown, and sent a detachment, under Lieutenant-Colonel A. J. Alexander, which followed Stuart’s trail as far as Rossville, but neither of these movements came within Stuart’s observation.
During the night march to Jefferson the wagons and prisoners were a serious hindrance. Nearly four hundred prisoners had accumulated since the parole at Cooksville. Many of these were loaded in the wagons; some of them acted as drivers. The mules were starving for food and water, and often became unmanageable. Not infrequently a large part of the train would halt in the road because a driver toward the front had fallen asleep and allowed his team to stop. The train guard became careless through excessive fatigue, and it required the utmost exertions of every officer on Stuart’s staff to keep the train in motion.
The march was continued through the entire night, turning northward at Jefferson. When Fitz Lee reached the road leading from York to Gettysburg he learned that Early had retraced his steps, and had marched westward. The best information which Stuart could obtain seemed to indicate that the Confederate army was concentrating in the vicinity of Shippensburg. After a short rest at Dover, on the morning of the 1st of July, Stuart pressed on toward Carlisle, hoping there to obtain provisions for his troops, and definite information concerning the army. From Dover he sent Major A. R. Venable, of his staff, on the trail of Early’s troops, and at a later hour of the day Captain Henry Lee, of Fitz Lee’s staff, was sent toward Gettysburg on a similar errand. Stuart had reached Carlisle before either of these officers could return with a report. He found the town in the possession of the enemy.”