I have been fascinated by the concept of a battle at Pipe Creek ever since I learned of the existence of that as an alternate plan. To me, Gettysburg was a fluke, brought on by the bold and rather insubordinate actions of BG Buford. Nothing in his orders for the day included an ambush of the Army of Northern Virginia! Seemingly, he and he alone chose Gettysburg as the place to fight. Granted, as each new general officer arrived in scene, they tended to agree that the configuration of contiguous hills that they now occupied was in some ways superior to the Pipe Creek line as detailed in Meade’s Circular. But it would seemingly have made more sense, tactically and strategically, to position the Army nearer its logistics depot at Westminster and at the same time to provide a solid blocking force straddling all of the major approaches to BALTO and WASHDC.
As the battle plan set in place by Buford actually evolved, it became necessary to send a major rescue force (two entire Union Corps) to extract his men. Alternately, Meade could have decided to ‘reward’ his impertinent, if not fully insubordinate, junior general with annihilation of his division and for Meade to have ordered the implementation of the Circular that each of his Corps commanders had in hand.
Let’s explore for the moment the probable course of events on 1 July 1863 IF Reynolds had pulled back from Emmittsburg rather than pushing into Gettysburg to rescue Buford.
By noon, Buford’s men were tiring and running low on ammunition. They had repelled repeated attacks by Heth’s Division who outnumbered them considerably. Pender was maneuvering his division to the south of Heth and by early afternoon would have been attacking Buford’s left flank in overwhelming numbers. Here to, the terrain that Buford occupied just outside the city was aligned only to allow him to easily defend attacks directly from the west. A flank attack by even one brigade of Pender’s division could have pushed deep into his flank if not surging directly into his rear areas. Even with more ammunition, it is doubtful that he could have held his line much past 2PM. The arrival of Rodes to the north would have sealed his fate. He’d have had no choice but to break contact and withdraw through the city in an attempt to escape to the south.
Even mounted, his men would have had a tough time reaching the Cemetery which he had designated as their rally point. Without artillery and with no re-enforcements in sight, he would have had no alternative but to withdraw towards either Taneytown or back to Emmittsburg. But the failure of Reynolds to arrive from Emmittsburg would likely have told him that Taneytown was the safer route. Should he wait for darkness or make the run south in the late afternoon? Any delay would have given Lee’s cavalry time to swing south and hem him in. Of course, he had no way of knowing that Stuart’s main cavalry force was not with Lee’s main body. At that point in time, they would have been his main threat. Pender’s infantry were unlikely to be able to move south fast enough to interdict his withdraw. By nightfall, he’d be there reporting to GEN Meade why and how he had lost a major portion of his cavalry division.
Seemingly, Lee had correctly deduced that the Union force opposing him that morning was only a cavalry division and he had full confidence that Hill’s Corps could ‘handle’ that challenge decisively. Without Reynolds’ intervention, he’d have been correct. By nightfall, he’d have two of his three Corps consolidated at Gettysburg. What then would be his next move? He would have known that Pickett’s division was not due to close on the rest of the Army until the next afternoon. That would complete his nine division, three corps Army. But, could he wait for the full Army to consolidate?
He still had no clear picture of the distribution of the Union forces. They had to be somewhere to the south, but exactly where? Did he need to move more quickly? Did he have the luxury of time to wait until the morning of July third before moving south on three axis or did he have to move on 2 July? Was Meade waiting for him to move south or was he moving north to engage? By now, Meade would know that most of his Army was in and around Gettysburg. Was Meade waiting or moving to attack? And where was Stuart and the cavalry?
There were four major roads south from the Cashtown / Gettysburg area. Two lead to Emmittsburg; one to Taneytown and the third and best highway was the BALTO Pike which passed through Littlestown before turning SW to Westminster. Meade could be using any or all of them to push his forces towards Gettysburg; after all he has seven corps that he could move independently as opposed to his three. Was Meade advancing in a pincer movement to trap him? Or was he waiting near his supply depot at Westminster? Why wasn’t Stuart there to provide the answers?
Meanwhile, as directed in the Circular, the Union Corps commanders were each marching via the most direct route to claim and establish their position in the Pipe Creek line of defense. Hundreds of wagons and artillery caissons were actually in the lead and moving back towards Westminster. Slowly each chess piece was sliding into place. By nightfall, on 1 July, five of the seven corps were in place with V and VI still marching.
How long did they have before Lee would attack? Surely he was coming, but from what direction would he approach? Cavalry units were out in front, screening the major roadways from the north, but there were as yet no reports of troop movements. The Pipe Creek salient was a strong position. Rarely in the history of warfare would an Army pack so many men – roughly 70,000 rifles – into so compact an area (about 3 miles) as did actually happen along the Union line at Gettysburg. The Pipe Creek line was closer to 18 miles long manned by that same Army. What it lost in density of muskets it gained in power with huge number of cannons interspersed on hills among the infantry. Each approach that the Rebels might use was pre-surveyed for artillery response allowing for the changing of ammunition types at precise points for the most effective anti-personnel effect. The proximity to the railhead at Westminster would also allow any critical supply needs to be filled rapidly via Baltimore. There had even been time for the Signal units to string telegraph wire from each Corps to Meade’s HQ at Frizzellburg and back to Westminster.
A major clash of Armies was in the offing.