The Church Militant
By Richard J. Sommers
Summer is a season of rest and relaxation for many — but not for soldiers. Fair weather has meant fighting weather throughout history, including the Civil War. Indeed, summer 1863 saw campaigning come to Carlisle, right into our churchyard. In late June, General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army invaded western Maryland, then Pennsylvania. Its vanguard under General Richard S. Ewell continued along the Cumberland Valley. Greencastle, Chambersburg, and Shippensburg successively submitted to the Secessionists. By June 27, the Graycoats neared Carlisle.
The small garrison had evacuated Carlisle Barracks two days earlier. A New York National Guard brigade observing Ewell prudently from afar also departed, June 25. The Confederates thus met no resistance entering Carlisle via Walnut Bottom Road. The cavalry brigade continued eastward on Trindle Road to scout the route to Harrisburg. Four of Ewell’s brigades occupied Carlisle Barracks and Dickinson College. Another brigade kept watch down the Baltimore Pike (Route 34, south). The Stonewall Division, meantime, remained west of town along the Valley Pike (Ritner Highway) on the farm now owned by Bob and Joan Line.
These brigades spent four days around Carlisle. They collected supplies, destroyed the railroad, visited town, even worshipped in churches on Sunday the 28th. Rev. Conway Wing of our church later remarked that “when the town was in possession of the enemy this congregation was especially obnoxious to them.” From Carlisle, the Confederates intended to attack Harrisburg and its crucial railroads. Just hours before they could strike, they received orders to rejoin Lee’s army farther south in order to fight the principal Federal army. The Stonewall Division headed back along the Valley Pike, June 29. The next day Ewell moved south to Heidlersburg. By July 1, he was heavily engaged at Gettysburg.
A separate battle raged here in Carlisle that July 1. The Harrisburg garrison had skirmished with Ewell’s cavalry on the West Shore, June 28-30. By July 1, those troopers were gone, en route to Lee’s army. In their wake, a New York National Guard brigade and a Pennsylvania Militia brigade raced each other along the Harrisburg Pike to Carlisle. Veteran soldiers knew better than to hurry on a hot, humid day, but these inexperienced troops exhausted themselves racing. Grateful to see even bedraggled, tired Bluecoats after four days of Southern occupation, townsfolk welcomed them with a picnic in the Farmers’ Market (where the new courthouse now stands) and all across the square, including our churchyard.
These festivities faded in late afternoon as more troops arrived via York Road: “Jeb” Stuart with a Confederate cavalry brigade. After raiding from Virginia since June 25, Stuart expected to join Ewell in Carlisle. Instead, he found a Yankee division there. Equally surprised, the Federals relinquished their repast and manned buildings along East High Street. Later they deployed along Bedford Street, facing east, with their right flank anchored on the readymade rampart of the town cemetery wall. Their skirmishers ranged along East Street. Two cannons unlimbered in front of First Church facing east on High Street; two more aimed north up Hanover; the remaining two later covered South Hanover.
Neither side wanted battle. The weary raiders were too tired to storm the town. The inexperienced Unionists would defend Carlisle but would hardly sortie against Stuart. Instead, each side bluffed. Stuart demanded surrender. The Northern commander, General William F. Smith, refused. Stuart sent notice to evacuate civilians since he would bombard Carlisle into submission. He began shelling the town, but the Philadelphia battery’s three effective countershots forced his guns to regroup eastward, probably to high ground where Pizza Hut or Carlisle Plaza now stands. Stuart kept shelling and skirmishing into the night, but neither side charged. First Church still bears honorable battlescars from this bombardment.
Overnight Stuart occupied Carlisle Barracks, unopposed. (The post lay outside Smith’s lines). This Army installation was a legitimate military target, so Stuart burned most of it. Also that night, he finally learned Lee’s location. He disengaged from Carlisle, mounted, and rode to Gettysburg. When Thursday dawned, the Butternuts were gone. The victorious Federals still held Carlisle.
Some Civil War battles were named for churches, most notably Shiloh. Other battles raged around houses of worship, such as Dunker Church at Antietam. So it was with the epic Battle of Carlisle, fought right in First Church’s front yard.