Back Story: Baltimore was jittery as the Battle of Gettysburg commenced

Residents of Baltimore were naturally jittery as news swept through the city 150 years ago that Confederate and Union forces were about to meet in an epic battle unfolding in Gettysburg, a small Pennsylvania farming village.

And when it was over, it had forever changed the course of the Civil War and ended Gen. Robert E. Lee's advance and dreams of conquest in the North.

The Baltimore Sun reported on June 16, 1863, that 100,000 militia had been called up by President Abraham Lincoln "for the protection of the border from Rebel invasion."

"Whereas the armed insurgency combinations now existing in several of the States are threatening to make inroads into the States of Maryland, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio, requiring immediately an additional military force for the service of the United States," read a proclamation signed by Lincoln.

"There is much excitement here, and there are many rumors of rebel cavalry being seen at various points within twenty or thirty miles of the city," reported The Sun on June 17.

"There are many military movements in progress, and rumors of others, but they cannot be mentioned from prudential motives," reported the newspaper.

"The people of Baltimore feel that the effort of the Government to protect Washington will necessarily include Baltimore: but, nevertheless, there are encouraging evidences of a determination on the part of our people to rally at once to repel the invasion," observed The Sun.

Two days later, there was a skirmish at Chambersburg, Pa., and one at Harpers Ferry, W.Va., as The Sun reported "A Large Confederate Force Near Cumberland, Md."

Baltimore & Ohio Railroad passenger trains traveling west from Camden Station were halted at Mount Airy after reports were received of Confederate forces operating near Frederick, Sharpsburg, Willamsport and Hagerstown, reported The Sun on June 22.

With Baltimore bracing for the inevitable, by June 25 efforts were well under way to erect street barricades and dig trenches. An arriving conductor on a Northern Central passenger train from Harrisburg brought news that Union forces had "retired from Chambersburg to Carlisle," reported The Sun.

With the invasion of Pennsylvania well under way, York and Hanover fell under Confederate domination, while there were reports of skirmishes near Harrisburg.

After Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry division of 6,000 clashed with Union forces in Westminster on June 29, in a five-minute engagement known as Corbit's Charge, nerves tightened in Baltimore.

It culminated in a 11 p.m. ringing that night of bells and fire alarms — "a general alarm," reported The Sun — that was a call to arms as reports were received the Confederates were marching on the city, and a rally was held at Monument Square.

The stage was now set, and on the morning of July 1, the Battle of Gettysburg commenced. Even though the battlefield was nearly 50 miles from Baltimore, the artillery barrage was so intense that city residents described it as sounding like "distant thunder."

"The news of the battle of Gettysburg produced great excitement in Baltimore; the streets and newspaper offices were constantly thronged by crowds of people eagerly seeking the latest intelligence," wrote J. Thomas Scharf in his "History of Baltimore City and County Maryland," published in 1881.

The terrible reality of the battle soon became apparent as Confederate and Union wounded arrived in the city by trains of the Western Maryland Railway, with The Sun reporting on July 4 that about 600 enemy prisoners were removed from Patterson Park and incarcerated at Fort McHenry.

A large contingent of Baltimore surgeons and physicians traveled to Gettysburg to help treat the wounded, while the Sanitary and Christian Commissions sent a large amount of badly needed medical supplies.

The battle that finally ended July 3 had exacted a terrible cost on both sides, with more than 51,000 killed, wounded, captured or missing.

"The Union Army, after having sustained the attacks of the rebels for three days, and repulsing them with slaughter, was stationed in positions which gave it important advantages, either for commencing offensive movements or repulsing any aggression," reported The Sun on July 4.

"The good news from Gettysburg made all hearts rejoice; not so much that Baltimore was safe ... as that the country was safe, and the whelming tide of invasion was turned," wrote William Swinton in his 1880 history of the New York 7th Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

Baltimoreans were no doubt heartened by reports published in The Sun that the Pennsylvania Railroad and Northern Central Railway would have trains operating on their normal schedules by July 6.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

les by July 6.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com