A long day’s tramp to Gettysburg, part 1

While some Union soldiers stretch and yawn, one man (left) shakes his fist at the five drummer boys rattling reveille in a camp. A similar wake-up call probably sounded across the 19th Maine Infantry camp at Monocacy Junction, Maryland, early on Monday, June 29, 1863. (Harper’s Weekly)

As Part 1 noted, Pvt. John Day Smith would always remember Monday, June 29, 1863, when the 19th Maine Infantry Regiment “set out on the longest day’s march in its history.”

From Litchfield in Androscoggin County, Smith belonged to Co. F, which would provide a rogue’s gallery of regimental historians long before the last 19th Maine veteran died in the 20th century. Led by Col. Francis Edward Heath, the 19th Maine was assigned to the 1st Brigade (Brig. Gen. William Harrow) of Brig. Gen. John Gibbon’s 2nd Division of II Corps.

Hancock “The Superb,” a.k.a. Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, had taken command of II Corps on June 10. Soon afterwards the Army of the Potomac pulled away from its Rappahannock River lines to pursue Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia, Maryland-bound down the Shenandoah Valley.

Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock took command of II Corps on June 10, 1863. He inherited the 19th Maine Infantry Regiment in doing so. (Library of Congress)

The 19th Maine boys tramped north through Virginia, crossed the Potomac River on a pontoon bridge, and camped June 28 at Monocacy Junction, outside Frederick. Lee’s Confederate veterans now prowled southern Pennsylvania east to York and north to the Susquehanna River opposite Harrisburg, the state capital.

Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade, the brand new Army of the Potomac commander, steered his seven infantry corps and his Cavalry Corps to find the Confederates and figure out where they were headed. He wanted II Corps to “set out early in the morning” of June 29 “and proceed to Uniontown” in Maryland, Day said.

“Early in the morning” meant real early, perhaps as the eastern horizon first brightened. Marching in the cool of the day, the infantry could hopefully reach the next bivouac before the sun, heat, and humidity took their toll.

Meade’s orderly evidently took a wrong turn, because Hancock did not receive his marching orders “until between eight and nine o’clock in the morning,” Day noted.

Already packed, if not rarin’ to go, the 19th Maine boys stepped off almost immediately on this “hot, sultry morning,” he recalled. Fortunately for Smith et al, the 2nd Division led the II Corps column. At least the Maine boys would not eat too much dust.

Modern Mainers grouse eternally about the frost heaves and potholes (particularly bad in winter 2018-19) that plague our asphalt roads. We do not appreciate the fact that our roads are paved.

Throughout the war, Maine boys complained and bellyached ad infinitum about the alternating dust and muck of Virginia’s roads, primarily dirt except for macadamized roads like the Valley Pike. Sunshine and heat dried out the dirt, and thousands of tramping feet raised dust clouds often so thick that soldiers could not see more than a few files in front of or behind them.

The settling dust obscured uniform colors: Blue and gray assumed the same hue during road marches.

The 2nd Division kicked up tons of dust, but the 19th Maine lads suffered its effects less than the 1st and 3rd Division men marching behind them.

In late morning “the Division came to a considerable creek [located north of Frederick], which could be crossed by fording knee-deep,” Day said. Soldiers found “a timber thrown across the creek at the side of the road, hewn on top.”

Union infantrymen ford a wide creek while marching toward Corinth, Mississippi. On the left, one soldier is removing his pants, shoes, and socks before entering the water. On the right, soldiers relax while sitting on logs; one soldier has turned his footwear upside down to drain out the creek water. (Alfred Mathews, 31st Ohio/Library of Congress)

Men could cross the timber single file, but doing so “would impede the march of the men, and strict orders were given that the men should ford the creek,” according to Smith.

Soldiers had a choice. Some “scurried to the side and ran over the log crossing,” he said.

Others, especially the men farther back in the divisional column, “removed their shoes and stockings and rolled up their trousers,” Smith said. He explained that the veterans knew if they waded a stream fully clad, “marching with one’s shoes filled with water, over a dusty road, in the middle of a hot June day … would result in blistered feet and disabled men.”

With the 19th Maine and the 1st Brigade marched the 1st Minnesota Infantry of Col. William Colvill Jr. Pestered (like Francis Heath) by a division staff officer riding “back and forth near the crossing place” and urging “the officers to compel their men to ford the creek,” Colvill ordered his men to do so.

However, they “interpreted … the order to mean for them to do as they pleased, which they proceeded to so,” Smith reported. Many Minnesotans raced across the timber bridge.

Unable to stop and take off their shoes and socks because “an army was upon our backs,” the 19th Maine boys forded the creek. According to 2nd Lt. George R. Palmer of Camden and Co. I, “on reaching the northern bank of the stream[,] the soldiers intuitively caught the new high step. The sole of the foot was raised to the rear, and the high the step the better the drainage and the smaller the number of parboiled feet at supper time.”

Once over the creek, the 2nd Division tramped onward. Then the staff officer rode past while “returning to the head of the Division,” Smith noted.

The men of the 19th Maine, 1st Minnesota, and 15th Massachusetts Infantry “joined in groaning at and hooting the staff-officer,” said Smith, probably a contributor to the audible criticism. The officer turned back, decided “the First Minnesota was the chief sinner, and placed Colonel Colvill under arrest.”

Colvill would not be released from arrest until the moment that his country needed him at Gettysburg in late day on July 2.

The 19th Maine tramped onwards into the afternoon on June 29.

Source: John Day Smith, The History of the Nineteenth Regiment of Maine Volunteer Infantry 1862-1865, Great Western Printing Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1909, pp. 55, 61-63

Next week: The march to Gettysburg extends into the night

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.