Thursday, October 27, 2011

The “High Water Mark” of the Confederacy

The phrase “high water mark of the Confederacy” is traditionally applied to Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg. It’s meaning is that before the assault there was hope for a Confederate victory and after the charge was repulsed the “tide had been turned” and the South was rolled back like the tides to their eventual capitulation. However, if we look at the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania from strictly a geographical perspective, then the “high water mark” would have to be the farthest penetration north by Confederate military forces. That point just happens to be very near my home in Mechanicsburg – Camp Hill area of Cumberland County. So, after procrastinating for some months I finally got out early on a Sunday morning to go see how these locations are remembered. For a complete history of Civil War events in Cumberland County, visit www.cumberlandcivilwar.com.


During the Gettysburg Campaign in the summer of 1863, Confederate General Richard Ewell moved his corps north from Chambersburg through the Cumberland Valley lead by General Albert Jenkin’s cavalry brigade.   Faced with overwhelming odds, the Union forces in Carlisle withdrew to defend the approaches to Harrisburg.  On June 28, 1863, Mechanicsburg, about ten mile east of Carlisle, was the northernmost town to surrender to Confederate forces.  The Rupp House, just outside of Mechanicsburg at the time, was occupied as headquarters for General Jenkins.  A monument commemorating Jenkins and his Confederate cavalry is now located at the location (an office building at 5115 Trindle Road in Mechanicsburg).

Union forces set up defenses on the west side of the Susquehanna to protect the approaches to Harrisburg, about five miles northeast of Mechanicsburg.  Under the command of Major General Darius Couch built two earthwork forts on Washington Heights (then known as Hummel’s Heights) in today’s community of Lemoyne, overlooking Harrisburg across the Susquehanna River.  Fort Washington was the main fortification was located in an area around Cumberland Road between Walnut and Indiana Avenues.  (I found no commemoration of the fort, but it’s a nice neighborhood.)  A few blocks west was built a smaller, forward position that was dubbed Fort Couch.  Honoring Fort Couch is a large monument and remains of the earthworks set aside in a small park at 8th Street and Indiana Avenue.  This park is surrounded by residences on all sides and there is no dedicated parking.  Unfortunately with the urban growth you can’t see the approach that General Couch would have seen, but you can certainly appreciate the military significance of the positions on Hummel’s Heights.

Pennsylvania State Historic Markers commemorating the northernmost skirmishes are a little harder to spot if you are whizzing by in your car.  Two small engagements took place between Mechanicsburg and Lemoyne.  On June 28, General Jenkins sent a small force to engage Union militia units that fled Mechanicsburg as the Confederates entered the town.  The Union troops set up a battery of artillery and a hasty defense at Oyster Point, a tavern located on Market at 31st Street in Camp Hill.  The Confederates returned the next day with a larger force, but could not dislodge the Yankees.  The engagement at Oyster Point was probably a diversion to cover Jenkins reconnaissance of the river crossings to Harrisburg from Slate Hill in New Cumberland.  The state marker was hard to spot.  It was a foggy morning and the sign was hidden behind some trees.  I’ve probably driven past it at least eight times without ever noticing it before.

On June 30th two New York militia regiments supported by a battery of Pennsylvania artillery engaged two Virginia cavalry regiments around the McCormick farmhouse, just north of Mechanicsburg along the Carlisle Pike.  This engagement became known as the skirmish at Sporting Hill.  There is a state marker at the corner of Sporting Hill Road and the Carlisle Pike.  It’s a busy intersection, but you can pull into the parking lot of the “Ye Old Ale House” and walk out to the corner to read the marker.  Sporting Hill was the northernmost engagement in the Gettysburg Campaign, and as such can be called the high water mark of the Confederacy.  In fact, Pennsylvania historian Robert Grant dubbed it so in his article “Highwater 1863: The Confederate Approach to Harrisburg” in Pennsylvania History, 1963 (placed online courtesy of ExplorePAHistory.com).

Sporting Hill can be considered a Union victory, in that the Confederates left the field.  But in all fairness, their hurried departure was due to Ewell’s orders to move his corps to Gettysburg, the famous battle kicking off the next day.  The Cumberland County Visitors Bureau has produced an excellent self-guided tour brochure/map for “The Civil War on the West Shore.”  It is available in pdf for download.  Get the full feel of the Gettysburg Campaign by taking this tour.  It’s worth it. 

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