The Move to Pipe Creek

History lists any number of occasions where armies established strong defensive lines. Perhaps the two most notable were the parallel trench systems in northern France in WW 1 and the Shuri Line on Okinawa.

Prior to his dismissal, Union GEN Joseph Hooker had selected a series of ridges that roughly followed the course of Pipe’s Creek that ran NE to SW about halfway between the Maryland towns of Taneytown and Westminster from the town of Manchester in the east to Middleburg in the west [see the map]. At its center was the Baltimore Pike where it crossed the creek at Union Mills.

His overall plan was to block each of the major roads that Confederate forces would likely use to threaten Westminster and thereby Baltimore.

Part I: the advance to Pipe Creek

This ALT Hx essay picks up following the clash between BG Buford’s Union Cavalry and that of MG JEB Stuart just south of Gettysburg on 30 June 1863. Buford would have returned to Emmittsburg and reported that he had located the vanguard of Lee’s army. As he took command of the Army of the Potomac, GEN George Meade, Hooker published an order known as the Pipe Creek Circular. It provided details of how his various corps should consolidate and align at Pipe’s Creek.

On 30 June, the Fifth and Twelfth Union Corps were already in place there. Hancock’s Second Corps was moving up through Westminster with an expected arrival on the morning of 1 July. Knowing that Lee was undoubtedly consolidating his army at Gettysburg, Meade decided that he needed to do the same. From the onset, he had been concerned that Hooker had dispersed his forces too widely. Sixth Corps was off in the east screening against any unexpected movement by Early as he marched towards York and was over a day’s march away. Earliest expected arrival was late afternoon of 2 July. Sickles’ two divisions were not far past Taneytown and within easy return distance. First and Eleventh Corps were north and south of Emmittsburg, respectively; roughly a day’s march away.

With no alternative plan available, Meade decided to implement the Pipe Creek Circular: consolidate and form a blocking position to protect Westminster. The recall order went out late on 30 June with expected implementation at dawn on 1 July. And so it began, the race to occupy (Lee) or protect (Meade) Westminster.

By the afternoon of 1 July, the ridges overlooking Pipe Creek were a major construction site. Fifth and Twelfth Corps had their trenches and breastworks well developed. To get a head start on those for their neighboring corps, work parties shifted east and west and began digging positions for their fellow Corps. Third Corps was the first to arrive and take up their position on the left flank near Middleburg.

Westminster, Taneytown, Middleburg and Manchester were emptied of anything that resembled a digging implement; right down to farm plows that could help break ground for trenches. Second Corps was to be the designated reserve force. But as soon as they arrived in the late morning, work parties were deployed near Manchester to help prepare the ground for Sixth Corps who would arrive last. By late afternoon, First and Eleventh Corps were taking their assigned places in the middle of the Pipe Creek line astride the Taneytown Road. This would naturally be the second most important route of advance chosen by Lee to approach Westminster; the Baltimore Pike being the primary route.

Over about a course of 18 miles, tons of earth were being moved and piled. As soon as the cannons were unlimbered and positioned on the peaks, their horses were re-assigned to move trees that were being felled for breastworks or to break ground using plows. Time was of the essence and every available man and beast was giving a maximum effort.

To the north, Lee’s army was aligning itself for the push south to occupy Westminster. Having arrived first on the early morning of 1 July, Hill’s Corps simply rested and awaited the arrival of the rest of the army. Ewell’s Corps approached from the north and bivouacked along the Emmitsburg Road just south of town. Longstreet’s two divisions established themselves just south of Cashtown. Stuart consolidated his cavalry division on the BALTO Pike just south of town. At his evening command conference on 1 July, Lee set out a four pronged axis of advance to the south.

Ewell would depart first on 2 July, moving down the Emmitsburg Road. At about the same time, Hill would proceed directly towards Taneytown. As soon as McLaws’ last brigade closed on Longstreet’s Corps, they would move towards Fairfield then turn east to approach Emmitsburg from the west. Since Stuart could move the fastest, he would await the arrival of Pickett’s division in the afternoon. Pickett would be his reserve infantry support. As soon as he was notified that Pickett was approaching, Stuart would advance towards Littlestown.

Throughout the day of 2 July, 10 Confederate divisions were on course to clash with 7 Union Corps; all in all, each side had about 100,000 men with Meade holding a slight advantage in men bearing arms versus those in a support role.

As he arrived at Taneytown, Hill got the first notice of the Pipe Creek Line as his scouts reported on the line of troops digging in in both directions as far as they could see. Hill decided to stop in and around the town to secure supplies, probe the Union lines and await Lee’s orders. Each of the four prongs of the advance had been instructed to wait for the full force to consolidate before taking any decisive action.

Even though he departed Gettysburg much later, Stuart arrived at Littlestown at about the same time as Ewell arrived at Emmitsburg. Each had advanced with caution, not knowing if or where they might encounter a Union blocking force. But there were none to be seen.

Fortunately for the Union Sixth Corps, they had passed through Littlestown just about noon on 2 July and had turned south en route to their right flank position near Manchester. They would be the last of the units to arrive. Luckily, that right flank position would not be a target for the Army of Northern Virginia.

When Stuart’s scouts reported on Union troops having moved through Littlestown, he was tempted to pursue and attack their rear columns. But once again, he subverted his ego to Lee’s orders and encamped south of Littlestown to await Pickett who was still hours behind. Lastly, Longstreet married up with Ewell near Emmitsburg and the two commanders set off to Taneytown to find Lee’s HQ and receive their orders for 3 July.

Once Lee was sure that all the pieces in his chess game were moving (Pickett being the last), he set off down the Taneytown Road in the trail of Hill’s Corps. He’d predetermined that he’d establish his HQ near Taneytown, behind Hill’s lines and assess the situation that evening. Except for Stuart’s near miss meeting with Sixth Corps, Hill was the only one to have sighted the enemy that day. His scouts had determined that First and Eleventh Corps were astride the Taneytown-Westminster Road occuping breastworks on the ridges running roughly east and west. Stuart had probed as far as the mill sitting on the creek at the foot of the ridge line. This was appropriately known as Union Mills but he had yet to ascertain which units were on those ridge lines. Pickett’s infantry was still the better part of a day’s march away. The overall strength and alignment of the Army of the Potomac was still unknown.

Since it seemed that the Taneytown-Westminster Road was the focal point of the Union line, Lee ordered Ewell to Taneytown to support Hill while Longstreet would swing his two divisions south then east to approach Middleburg which would be the likely left flank of the Union line. Stuart and Pickett would proceed along the Baltimore Pike until they made contact with the Union force blocking that road.

So 3 July for the Confederates would be a day of probing and scouting to determine the length and breadth of the Union line. Lee would also use that time to begin to position his artillery on the peaks facing the Union line. For their part, the Union soldiers continued to improve their fortifications. More trees were felled and some of the mill buildings were dismantled to provide wood to shore up the trenches and breastworks. Artillery batteries all along the line worked to build parapets around their guns and to develop firing plans for the inevitable attack.  

To be continued in Scenario 27d.

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