Marching Into History

The activities of Civil War soldiers often were announced by drum rolls. So maybe a drummer pounding the call for “Assembly” 150 years ago today sent my great-grandfather, William Crooks Dry, and hundreds of other Confederate soldiers in the 52nd North Carolina Infantry scrambling into formation.

In his 1882 Civil War memoir Detailed Minutiae of Soldier Life, Carlton McCarthy described the flood of questions that popped into soldiers’ minds when they were ordered to assemble to begin a march. “Orders to move?” McCarthy wrote. “Where? When? What for? – are the eager questions of the men as they begin their preparations to march. Generally, nobody can answer, and the journey is commenced in utter ignorance of where it is to end.”

By the summer of 1863, William had recovered from a wound he’d received at the Battle of Goldsboro Bridge six months earlier and returned to duty with the 52nd. The unit had been moving since early April, when they boarded a train in Kinston, North Carolina that took them to Taylorsville, Virginia. The 52nd moved again in early June, this time to take up positions on the banks of the Rappahannock River a few miles downstream from Fredericksburg.

On June 10, the 52nd was ordered to a nearby train station where they were to board a train to Hanover Junction, north of Richmond, to relieve a unit under the command of General John Corse.

But that turned out to be one of those “hurry up and wait” orders that have annoyed soldiers since the beginning of time. After sitting for hours waiting for the troop train, the 52nd’s orders to Hanover Junction were rescinded. The unit under General Corse would remain in place. The 52nd’s commanders received new orders to report to General James Johnston Pettigrew, and by nightfall they were back in their camp on the Rappahannock.

The train that never arrived would change the lives of the men in the 52nd.

While the 52nd had been traveling from North Carolina and encamping on the Rappahannock, General Robert E. Lee had been dodging attempts by the Confederate government to detach some troops from his Army of Northern Virginia to be sent west, where Union General Ulysses Grant was threatening the vital Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Lee also had been asking for more men, but he wasn’t telling Confederate leaders in Richmond why he wanted those extra troops. He was quietly formulating a plan, and that plan did not involve keeping his army sitting in encampments in and around Fredericksburg.

“As far as I can judge there is nothing to be gained by this army remaining quietly on the defensive,” he noted in early June 1863.

Lee knew that the South simply did not have the resources to fight a long war against the North. Their enemy had a huge advantage in supplies and manpower, and could win simply by forcing the Confederacy to use up its scant resources.

In Lee’s mind, the best way to relieve pressure on Confederate armies to the west would be to put pressure on Union forces in the east. And the best way to do that was to take the war to the enemy. So in June 1863, Lee started moving his army northward.

It was a high risk, high reward plan. If he could march boldly onto his enemy’s turf, draw a large Union army into a major battle and decisively defeat that army as he’d done at Chancellorsville, Virginia only a few weeks earlier, it might throw such a fright into Northern civilians that they’d demand peace talks aimed at ending the war.

If another Confederate general had proposed to march into Pennsylvania and dare his enemy to come after him, he might have been called a reckless fool. But Lee’s troops were on a winning streak, so to speak, and he was certain that his men could make his gamble pay off.

“There never were such men in an army before,” he said. “They will go anywhere and do anything if properly led.”

And after watching Virginia be chewed up by two years of war, many of Lee’s men were eager to give their enemy a taste of military carnage. “Let their bones be laid waste – their lands destroyed, their towns laid in ashes, and then they will be disposed to make peace,” said William Blount, a lieutenant in the 47th North Carolina Infantry.

So on June 14, 1863, as William and thousands of other Confederate soldiers began what Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. later described as “one of those dreadful summer marches,” there undoubtedly was much speculation about where they were going. And while William knew that his brother Thomas was in the 5th North Carolina Infantry, it’s doubtful that he would’ve known that his brother’s unit was part of the same massive troop movement.

None of the men moving northward on those dusty unpaved roads in the heat of that long-ago summer knew their journey would end spectacularly at a quiet little crossroads town in Pennsylvania called Gettysburg.

NOTE: Sources for this essay included Lee Moves North, by Michael A. Palmer; Fifty-Second Regiment, a regimental history by John H. Robinson, Adjutant; Detailed Minutiae of Soldier Life, by Carlton McCarthy; and exhibits at the Gettysburg National Military Park museum. The photo of the gatehouse entrance to a cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania was made by Frank Gutekunst a few weeks after the battle in July 1863. The image is from the website The Gettysburg Compiler.

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