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The Battle of Hanover Begins
"We had apparently waked up a real hornet's nest." - John Esten Cooke, Stuart's Staff
When the 1,600 residents of Hanover, Pennsylvania, began their day on June 30, 1863, they had no way of knowing that the little York County town's moment in the limelight of history had arrived. Momentous events were unfolding all around them, and two of the major players and their commands were about to pay Hanover a visit.1
Judson Kilpatrick's division of 3,500 sabers screened the Army of the Potomac's front and center as it trekked north in pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia. Kilpatrick's specific task was to locate Confederate Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell's Second Corps, which was believed to be moving east from Chambersburg.2 Kilpatrick did not know that Stuart had camped the previous night at Union Mills, Maryland, just seven miles southeast of his own men at Littlestown. The reason rested with David Gregg and his Second Division. Gregg was operating east of Kilpatrick, but was not advancing as rapidly as the little Celt's command and so did not detect Stuart's presence. John Buford's First Division was riding west of Kilpatrick, heading for the South Mountain's Monterey Pass above Fairfield. Buford's troopers had their own date with destiny the next day on the fields west of a small town called Gettysburg.
A native of New Jersey, Judson Kilpatrick graduated as a member of West Point's May 1861 class. He opened his Civil War career as an infantryman and was the first Federal Regular officer to be wounded. In December 1861, Kilpatrick became colonel of the 2nd New York Cavalry.3
When General Pleasonton reorganized the Army of the Potomac's mounted arm in an unprecedented shake-up of its hierarchy, he insisted that Kilpatrick be promoted to brigadier general of volunteers, effective June 14, 1863.4 The twenty-seven year-old Kilpatrick, dubbed "Kill-Cavalry" by admirers and detractors alike, took command of his newly formed Third Division that same day.5
Stuart intended to ride for Littlestown until he learned Federal cavalry occupied the area. With that news in hand, Stuart opted instead for a move to Hanover, hoping to slip by any Yankee horsemen and link up with Ewell's infantry near the Susquehanna. However, what the gray cavalier did not know was that Kilpatrick's command was also making for Hanover.
Colonel John Chambliss took the advance of Stuart's column on the Hanover Road.7 He sent mounted details along other roads to collect serviceable horses and supplies and watch for the Federals everyone now knew were operating in the vicinity.8 The six guns of the horse artillery, as well as the captured wagons, followed Chambliss. Behind the wagons marched Wade Hampton's Brigade, which had the odious burden of guarding the cumbersome vehicles.9 Fitz Lee's Brigade was given the important task of guarding the column's left flank and rear, and would soon be sent farther west to a position between the Littlestown and Hanover roads.10
The column advanced fitfully northward. The horsemen, groggy from lack of sleep and with some dozing as they rode, had no idea of their destination. Although they had not yet recovered from twenty-four hour stints in the saddle, unexpected skirmishing, and dangerous patrols in unfamiliar country, they remained steadfast in their resolve. Colonel Beale of the 9th Virginia, in particular, believed he knew why the ride into Pennsylvania was taking place: "The time had come to pay back in some measure the misdeeds of [Northern] men who, with sword and fire, had made our homesteads heaps of ruin."11 Beale's son, Lt. George W. Beale, Company C, 9th Virginia, described the Southerners' feelings in a more somber tone when he wrote his mother a few days later. "Both men and horses being worn out," he explained, "all of us regarded the prospect of a fight with no little regret and anxiety."
Under young Herbert Shriver's guidance, Stuart covered a few miles on the main road before turning Chambliss's and Hampton's brigades (as well as the wagon train) onto a secondary parallel route running over Conewago Hill and into Hanover. Locals aptly referred to it as the "back road" into town. The road rose and fell with each mile, a virtual roller coaster track up and down several considerable hills. This leg of the journey was particularly grueling for the wagons. Each steep incline brought the heavy-laden wagons nearly to a halt, with curses and shouts heard up and down the train as teamsters whipped and threatened the stubborn mules to press on. Despite the best efforts of man and beast, the gap between the head of the wagons and the rear of Chambliss's Brigade (held by the 13th Virginia Cavalry) grew wider. Chambliss, however, kept a steady pace. Later that morning the troopers in his advance guard reached a small group of buildings along the road known locally as Gitt's Mill, a sleepy rural grist mill named for Josiah W. Gitt.
As the main column rolled and rode northward, Fitz Lee's troopers rode along the Littlestown Road. They followed it northwest for a time before turning east onto a secondary road paralleling Stuart's route. This allowed Lee to screen the vulnerable left flank of the long moving column, the side closest to the suspected location of the enemy. Like Stuart, Lee operated small detached patrols on side roads and farm lanes to keep a sharp eye out for any wandering bluecoats anxious to locate the Confederate horsemen. Early in his march Lee's efforts paid off when one of his patrols discovered important news about Kilpatrick's cavalry-the enemy column was riding right into Stuart's intended path. Lee fired off a dispatch to his chieftain, warning him of the danger ahead:
On March, Nine A.M.
GENERAL-A citizen direct from Littlestown informs me that General Kilpatrick, with four regiments-of which the First Virginia, Fifth [sic] Vermont and Fifth New York are three, and six pieces of artillery-left that place this morning for Hanover. The road that I am on strikes the Littlestown and Hanover road at McSherrysville [sic] road, not a half mile from Hanover.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Unfortunately for the Southerners, the courier bearing the dispatch was captured and Stuart never received the warning. If he had, he would have realized that Kilpatrick had already left Littlestown and that the opposing columns were about to converge. Stuart's intent to bypass Kilpatrick by taking the alternate route to Hanover was instead carrying him directly toward the enemy.12
The Union cavalry was much more dispersed than Stuart's compacted columns. As Capt. James H. Kidd of the 6th Michigan Cavalry put it, "Kilpatrick's command was badly scattered" that morning.13 From the division's bivouac at the Richfield Estate in Frederick, Maryland, Kilpatrick issued orders early on June 29 that divided his command's ride north. Only the First Brigade of the division, commanded by newly promoted Brig. Gen. Elon J. Farnsworth, was with Kilpatrick in camp at Littlestown that night. The 1st and 7th Michigan regiments of the Second Brigade, led by an equally freshly minted brigadier general named George A. Custer, were dispatched with orders to reach Emmitsburg, Maryland, on the 29th, and then ride northeast across the Mason-Dixon Line to hook up with Kilpatrick the next day.14 Custer's remaining pair of regiments, the 5th and 6th Michigan, had been performing arduous scouting duty in and around Gettysburg. Kilpatrick ordered these Wolverines to rejoin him at Littlestown no later than daylight on June 30.15