Someone told me once that over 90% of visitors to battlefields rarely leave their vehicles – they stay on the Park Roads and take a published auto tour, and/or listen to a tour tape/CD. Probably true. I see that at Gettysburg quite often. Anyone like me, who visits battlefields on a regular basis, spends just as much time (if not more) off the NPS land and on surrounding private property and public roads off the battlefield. At Gettysburg, in my case, this is doubly true – and over the past several years I’ve probably spent more time on areas surrounding the battlefield than on the public land itself.
This past weekend I gave a Gettysburg tour to a group of friends made up of members of an online discussion group owned by my good friend and writing colleague Eric Wittenberg. It’s called the Civil War Discussion Group (CWDG). I’ve given other tours previously to this group, such as one on Brig. Gen. John Buford’s cavalry’s defense during the early morning of July 1, the first day of the battle. Because the cavalry’s delaying action that day mostly took place between Knoxlyn/Wisler Ridge a few miles west of the town, to McPherson Ridge, most of the area is actually off the battlefield. By it’s very nature, the study of Civil War cavalry takes one outside public battlefield boundaries.
The tour I gave Saturday morning was about the clash between John B. Gordon’s Confederate brigade and Pennsylvania militia forces on the afternoon of June 26, 1863, just west of Gettysburg. It’s an action hardly studied, and accounting of it (always brief) appear in only a few books and fewer articles. However, it’s always been fascinating to me because it took place over the identical ground that Buford’s action happened a few days later, and involved one of my favorite Confederate units, Lt. Col. Elijah V. White’s 35th Battalion of Virginia Cavalry.
That morning, Jubal Early’s division of Ewell’s corps marched from Chambersburg Pa, burnt down Thaddeus Stevens’ ironworks in Caledonia, then proceeded east to Cashtown. Hearing that some type of militia was in Gettysburg, Early decided to divide his force. Taking 3 of his brigades north toward Mummasburg (led by Col. William French’s 17th Virginia Cavalry), and sending Gordon and White directly ahead to Gettysburg, Early hoped to get the militia squeezed in a pincers. Local militia usually broke and ran in the face of veteran Southern troops, and Early figured he could gobble up the whole lot of whoever was in the town.
Well, he figured right.
Also that morning, Col. William Jennings led the 760 raw and untested men of his 26th Pennsylvania Militia a few miles west of Gettysburg on the Cashtown Pike (modern Rt. 30) to Marsh Creek, where he thought he could delay or stop a suspected Confederate advance on the town. Protecting the Gettysburg and Cumberland Valley areas was paramount to Maj. Gen. Darius Couch’s aims in protecting the important artery from Confederate invasion. Couch was in command of all the state’s militia – only about 8000 had signed up by that time to meet the emergency, and he had no choice but to send greenhorn, inexperienced troops to the field to face Southern veterans.
Along with Jennings and the 26th was Capt. Robert Bell’s Adams County Cavalry Company, a local militia cavalry unit made up of citizens from the Gettysburg area. Bell had about 75 troopers with him, all of whom, like the 26th Pa, had never leveled a bead on another human being. There were also a few townsmen along, toting shotguns and the like. They set up camp at the Marsh Creek crossing of the pike, not knowing what to expect.
About 2pm, Jennings and Bell rode to the top of a small hill near the Samuel Lohr farm, where they could see about two miles west down the Cashtown Pike. Immediately they spotted Gordon’s long column trudging toward them, with Lige White’s ragamuffin cavalry leading the way. Jennings and Bell rode back to the militia camp, and without so much as raising a gun, Jennings ordered everyone to bug out.
A real footrace that would have made Monty Python proud, folks – remember the line “Run Away! Run Away!”?
Jennings and Bell gathered up all their men, and headed north then west, heading back toward town on the Mummasburg Road, leaving a few dozen of the militia pickets and some of Bell’s troopers just west of Marsh Creek as a burnt offering for White and Gordon. Seeing the bluecoats, Lige White ordered a charge. Lt. Harrison Strickler of White’s Company E spurred their mounts into the pickets, snatching up every one. Not a shot was fired, and one of White’s men later snickered about how willing the pickets were to surrender. The fleeing soldiers along the Mummasburg Road were soon run over by Early’s other brigades and the 17th Virginia Cavalry, grabbing up more of the men.
I took the folks out Rt. 30 west of town where the militia had set up camp, and where a small marker today commemorates their, well, service. The marker, which looks an awful lot like a large tombstone (deliberately or not) is hardly ever noticed today. Of the 25 or so people in the group, I think only 1 or 2 others had ever even seen it before then. I spoke about the action for about 45 minutes, emphasizing that we’re far off the beaten path of the battlefield, and that the area we were on had seen a lot of action on June 26 and then, with Buford’s defense, on July 1.
We then drove back to town and out the Baltimore Pike a few miles to where two cavalry monuments, also hardly noticed, sit on the north side of the Pike. Two of Bell’s cavalrymen, William Lightner and George Washington Sandoe, got away from White’s assault and tried to sneak away by following the low ground of Rock Creek up to the Baltimore Pike. Thinking it was safe, they came out to the road. One of White’s men, however, saw them. Lightner got away, but Sandoe shot at the southerner. White’s man shot Sandoe, killing him instantly, making Sandoe the first casualty at Gettysburg in the campaign. The two monuments at the spot were placed by the 21st Pennsylvania Cavalry (Co. B) which Bell’s company later joined. One monument is to the company, the other to the memory of Sandoe. Again, few people in the group had ever seen the monuments or heard the story of Sandoe.
I then drove the folks 5 miles south on the Taneytown Road to the small hamlet of Barlow, Pa to the Mt. Joy Cemetery where the 20-year old Sandoe was buried. Since many Federals marched to their date with destiny at Gettysburg along that road, many of them would have seen Sandoe’s fresh grave – portending the fate of some 5000 of them over the ensuing days and weeks. Sandoe has a new headstone now, complete with an engraving of the emblem of the cavalry – crossed sabers. Sandoe left behind a pregnant wife. She’s not buried with him there, and is not interred in the area that I know of – perhaps she left some time later and remarried, trying to put such a tragic past behind her. She and George had only been married 3 months when he was killed.
The tour was certainly off the beaten path at Gettysburg – none of the events took place on the actual battlefield itself. I remarked to the group that the 2 1/2 hours or so that we’d spent during the tour was probably the most attention ol’ George had received in a hundred years.
Here’s to you, George, and Bell’s Cavalry and White’s troopers. Studying you takes me to the obscure locales and rarely-trodden earth where interesting events, all but forgotten today, deserve more study.