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Union soldier recalls march through Hanover area during Gettysburg Campaign

Post-war view of Hanover’s Centre Square (author’s postcard collection)

The Hanover, Pennsylvania, area saw plenty of traffic and action during the Gettysburg Campaign in late June 1863. On June 27, Virginia and Maryland Confederate cavalry under Lt. Col. Elijah V. White raided the town for supplies and horses before heading to sack Hanover Junction. Three days later, J.E.B. Stuart’s division of Rebel cavalry fought a pitched battle in the streets of Hanover against part of H. Judson Kilpatrick’s Union division. On July 1, the Fifth Corps of the Army of the Potomac camped near Hanover en route to Gettysburg.

Here is one soldier’s remembrance of his brief time in southwestern York County. He was Lt. Col. James Gwynn of the 118th Pennsylvania Infantry.

Rousing cheers, demonstrative shouts, ringing enthusiasm greeted the good old Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The unfurling of colors and rolling of drums at one o’clock in the afternoon indicated the crossing of the line. There was a firmer step, better closed ranks, more determined countenances. Beyond there had been some cavalry fighting. The fences were down and the bodies of dead horses scattered about; those branded C.S.A. the more numerous. Rumors were rife of the close presence of the enemy, and stories of a battle to be momentarily expected. Information, none of it of value, was eagerly seized and distributed with frightful exaggeration.

The broad, level acres of York [County], in Pennsylvania, took the place of the rolling lands of Carroll in Maryland. The rich soil, too productive to permit the timber to stand, was almost entirely cleared of the forests, and patches of woodland were rare. The great red barns, cosey spring-houses, and large, roomy stone mansions were indicative of the successful results of good, substantial tillage.

Hanover, a town of considerable size and of flourishing business, was intended as the destination of the day’s march. Its railway depot, extensive warehouses, large stores, substantial dwellings, were the evidence of its enterprise, thrift and comfort. One of the oldest settlements in southern Pennsylvania, it had long been a centre for the gathering and distribution of the prolific yield of the surrounding country. Its broad streets were the terminals of excellent turnpike roads leading to all neighboring important towns. Its main railway outlet, with branches from Gettysburg and Littlestown, was by the Northern Central to Baltimore and Harrisburg, its own branch tapping that line at Hanover Junction. Here, on the outskirts, the column halted at four o’clock in the afternoon, with something of a conviction that it was for an all night’s rest. Immediately, in wonder and astonishment at this sudden visitation by such a mass of men, apparently all the people from far and near gathered for a more familiar acquaintance with their uninvited guests—as one of them not inaptly expressed it, for a more intimate association ‘with these travel-stained, dusty, walking arsenals, licensed to do murder at their chieftain’s bidding.’

They were deferential, respectful to the rifle and bayonet, and at first cautious and hesitating about a near approach to them. But upon being assured that the arms were not dangerous unless used to do harm, they became interested in their mechanism and evinced some degree of boldness. But the most attractive feature was the fair ladies of the vicinage. Their tastes ran wholly to culinary affairs, and they were delighted by the explanations and ocular demonstrations, as some of them styled it, of the primitive, original and uncouth way in which the soldier prepared his limited diet. The most fascinating and agreeable among the officers were at pains to convince them of the excellent social, intellectual and moral standing of the officers and men of the regiment. As ragged and dirty a specimen of a soldier as happened in view was pointed out as the son of the Rev. Dr. Henry Boardman, Philadelphia’s most distinguished Presbyterian divine, and it was suggested if he was of such excellent stock, it might be well imagined how high the better appearing ranked in the social scale. This twitting pleasantry was apparently accepted as verity, and as the citizens seemed reluctant to leave, it was assumed they were agreeably entertained as well as instructed.*

The conviction that the stoppage was for the night was erroneous. It had been a busy day at Gettysburg, some eighteen miles away. General Reynolds had been killed and the 1st and 1 1th Corps, after excellent fighting, had been badly worsted by the more rapid concentration of the enemy. All the army was ordered there with the greatest speed human endurance could sustain. The great battle had opened, upon the determination of which hung the success or failure of the invasion. So at nine o’clock, guided by the shimmer of a brilliant moon, the column headed toward the then quaint old-fashioned borough, now the famous historic battle town of Gettysburg.

*A member of the 1st Michigan, writing respecting this march, says: “The night march from Hanover, with women and children handing food and water to our veterans, is another picture never to be forgotten by us; and when they said: ‘Don’t let them come any further, boys,’ the response, ‘We will not, we will not.’ came from our Michigan men with a meaning which they exemplified in their next day’s fighting.”