On July 1, 1863, a Union officer’s hard-nosed response kept J.E.B. Stuart away from Lee for six hours
At about dusk, an exhausted Confederate officer, accompanied by a bugler holding a flag of truce, passed a few frightened but curious citizens as they rode into Carlisle, Pa., in search of the town’s Union commander. They did so to deliver Brig. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee’s ultimatum: Surrender or the shelling would resume. Unfortunately for Fitz Lee, he was not facing an easily rattled local militia officer. Brigadier General William F. “Baldy” Smith was an experienced, combative former Army of the Potomac corps commander, who had no intention of surrendering Carlisle. So he sent the messenger back to Lee with his response—reported as either “shell away” or “if he wanted the town he must take it.” Whether it was bluff, bravado, or genuine confidence, “Baldy” Smith’s decision to defend Carlisle had a number of ramifications that extended beyond July 1, 1863—the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg.
Major General J.E.B. Stuart’s ride into Pennsylvania following the Battle of Brandy Station in June 1863 was beset by bad luck from the start. Whether it was the unexpected presence of the Union 2nd Corps blocking his preferred crossing point on the Potomac River or a bold charge by 95 Delaware cavalrymen at Westminster, Md., Stuart encountered one obstruction after another. Each delay kept his three brigades from rejoining General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. The situation became even more critical on June 30 when Stuart’s command collided with Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick’s Union cavalry at Hanover, Pa. The two sides punched it out all day in and around Hanover until darkness brought an end to the fighting.
Heading east, Stuart pressed his command as hard as he dared to put some distance between it and the Union cavalry. Unaware that Kilpatrick had opted not to mount a pursuit, Stuart’s command moved toward Jefferson and then north to Dover, which it reached in the early morning darkness of July 1. Granted four hours of desperately needed rest, many troopers fell to the ground and slept with their reins in their hands.
Desperate to make contact with R.E. Lee’s army, Stuart roused his men and chased reports that Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell’s Second Corps was at Carlisle, roughly 25 miles northwest of Dover. Fitzhugh Lee’s Brigade led the way, with Colonel John Chambliss following and Brig. Gen. Wade Hampton’s Brigade still in the rear at Dillsburg. While the rumor was true, it was dated; Ewell had been in Carlisle on June 30 but had marched southward toward Gettysburg. Even Brig. Gen. Albert Jenkins’ cavalry brigade, which rode through the town in Ewell’s wake, was long gone. Thus, Stuart would find no friendly force at Carlisle. The town, however, was occupied.
Called out in response to the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania, “Baldy” Smith rushed his force of mostly inexperienced Pennsylvania and New York militia units (along with a 120-man contingent from the veteran 1st New York Cavalry and some artillery) to the Harrisburg area on June 26. For the next four days, his men maintained positions along the Susquehanna River, opposite Harrisburg and stretching some 30 miles westward to Sporting Hill, guarding the Pennsylvania & Northern Central Railroad bridges. The green troops held their own during two days of skirmishing with Jenkins’ cavalry brigade before the Confederates moved off on June 30.
After Jenkins departed, Smith ordered his small cavalry force to cross the Susquehanna and head west to occupy Carlisle, as part of a cautious pursuit of Ewell’s command. His two infantry brigades followed the next morning, July 1. Bogged down by administrative duties, Smith was unable to set out for Carlisle until 3:30 p.m. Although neither he nor Stuart’s Confederate cavalry knew it, the race to Carlisle had begun.
The New York cavalrymen entered the town about 10 a.m., followed by an advance contingent of Colonel William Brisbane’s brigade of Pennsylvania emergency troops. By the time Brig. Gen. John Ewen’s New Yorkers reached town about 3 p.m., the locals had prepared a reception for them. After intermittent occupation by Confederate forces the past few days, they showed their appreciation for the Union militia by receiving them with “prepared refreshments of bread, biscuits, cake, meat, fruit, and coffee.”
While some troops enjoyed the hospitality in Carlisle, Smith, riding through a mass of stragglers, received reports that a large Confederate cavalry force was in the vicinity. Before he reached town, he ordered scouts to patrol the approaches to Carlisle. The reports were confirmed when he heard artillery fire as he neared town. While inaccurate, the Confederate fire scattered “soldiers running hither and thither to find their regiments; men, women, and children running about, each trying to find a place of safety.”
It was not long after that first barrage that Stuart ordered Fitz Lee to send in the flag of truce demanding Smith’s surrender, threatening to indiscriminately shell the town if he did not. Even though Smith was isolated from any timely assistance and believed he was outnumbered, he told the Confederate commander that he had no intention of surrendering. In fact, Smith, who reached the town before the surrender demand arrived, had already deployed his infantry in defensive positions on the eastern edge of town.
Unwilling to waste men so tired that many slept despite the cannon fire, Fitz Lee sent a second surrender demand, receiving a similarly curt reply. Frustrated by the obstinate Smith, but knowing he could not pry him away from the town, Stuart ordered the shelling resumed and the U.S. Cavalry barracks and the town’s gas works burned. About midnight, Lee sent a captured Union officer to Smith with a third futile surrender demand, which Smith predictably refused. By then, surrender demands were moot. Not long after Lee’s troopers played arsonist, two of Stuart’s officers brought news of Robert E. Lee’s whereabouts along with orders to join him at Gettysburg.
About 1 a.m., Stuart ordered Lee to stop the shelling and prepare for a night ride south to Gettysburg. At 3 a.m., the horse artillery sent three final rounds into Carlisle as the cavalrymen, “reeling in their saddles from exhaustion,” disappeared into the darkness. It was an anticlimactic end to what had been a frustrating delay at Carlisle. Smith, his men, and Carlisle’s citizens rejoiced at the Confederate cavalry’s departure. On July 2, Smith concentrated his forces in Carlisle, his combat role in the campaign effectively over.
Despite not inflicting any casualties and consuming less time than other impediments that Stuart encountered, “Baldy” Smith’s defense of Carlisle had an impact greater than the evening’s actions. He kept Stuart’s exhausted and hungry cavalrymen at bay for more than six hours, rejuvenated the harried local population, and resurrected his military career. In October, he was given a fresh start as the Department of the Cumberland’s chief engineer. An impressed Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant later assigned Smith to command of the 18th Corps, Army of the James, in March 1864, which Smith led until he was relieved in July. That ended his active participation in the war. Even after serving at the divisional and corps levels, Smith is probably just as remembered for his actions on that fateful July 1, 1863.
James R. Jewell, Ph.D., is professor of history at North Idaho College in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.
This story appeared in the May 2020 issue of America’s Civil War.