The Pipe Creek Line

By Ronald A. Church

     In a study of the events culminating in the battle of Gettysburg, General Meade's Pipe Creek Line is seldom given more than a footnote. Little if any consideration is given to the question of how the Army of the Potomac came to be placed as it was, in so perfect a location as to be able to advance troops to Gettysburg, and provide for them a strong fallback position, while at the same time protecting Baltimore and Washington. The answer to this question is the Pipe Creek Line.

     Upon assuming command of the Army of the Potomac Gen. George G. Meade would begin to move his army north and east from Frederick to some position from which he could operate against the invading Confederate Army. The position he would find became known as the Pipe Creek Line. The purpose of this article is to take a look at Gen. Meade's Pipe Creek Line and try to answer several questions about it

     Where was it located? Why was that specific location so important? How would the Army of the Potomac be positioned along the line? Why was it so important, even for the critical few hours that it actually existed?

Copyright: R. Church, 1997 First edition: Aug. 1997 Second edition: Apr. 1999 Used with permission of the author

1. Setting the Stage

     During the month of June 1863, flushed with enthusiasm after their recent victory at Chancellorsville, Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia was on the move north, behind the cover of South Mountain. Passing through Maryland into Pennsylvania Gen. Lee would, for the second time, move the focus of war in the east into northern territory. According to Gen. Lee's plan this move would accomplish several objectives; it would give war torn Virginia a much needed respite, and would allow the Army of Northern Virginia to provision itself from his enemy's resources. The invasion into Pennsylvania might also cause the Federal government to shift troops from the west possibly loosening the grip of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's siege on Vicksburg. But probably foremost in Gen. Lee's mind was his confidence in the soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia, this confidence was equally matched by the soldiers' own confidence in Lee. Gen. Lee steadfastly believed that if he could find and prepare ground which was to his advantage, the Army of Northern Virginia in the pitched battle would defeat the Union Army on its own sod. This, Lee reasoned might possibly have caused the war-weary north to sue for peace. It might also have been the military stroke needed to demonstrate to Great Britain and France the strength of the Southern will for independence. This Lee hoped might gain their recognition, and perhaps their support. With these as possible fruits of a successful campaign, and with morale at it's highest, in early June Gen. Lee moved his newly reorganized army northward. During the last few days in June, this movement had resulted in the Army of Northern Virginia being strung out across 50 miles of south central Pennsylvania from south of Chambersburg to York, and briefly to the banks of the Susquehanna River. (See Map #1)

     Gen. Lee's overall plan was simple; the strategy was offensive, but his tactics and the battle, would be defensive. He would locate terrain favorable to his army, then by threatening eastward toward Harrisburg and Philadelphia, or southward toward Baltimore and Washington, draw the Army of the Potomac out to give him battle on ground he had selected and prepared. Union frontal assaults against prepared confederate entrenchments, and confederate control of the high ground had brought about a Union debacle at Fredericksburg. Gen. Lee hoped to be able to bring about a repeat of this signal Union defeat somewhere on northern soil.

     To counter the Confederate move, Union Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker marched the Army of the Potomac north from the vicinity of Falmouth, Va. on the Rappahannock River to the vicinity of Frederick Maryland. Although Gen. Lee was aware of the movement of the Union Army he was not aware that by late June it had crossed the Potomac River. This deft move by Gen. Hooker put the Union Army of the Potomac much farther north than Gen. Lee thought it to be. During this time Confederate cavalry commander Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart was separated from the Confederate army on his mission to scout the Army of the Potomac and report back to Gen. Lee on it's strength and whereabouts. Due to Stuart's separation, and inability to communicate with his commander during the critical last two weeks of June, Lee was unaware of the nearness of his adversary. So on June 28, with the Union Army in the vicinity of Frederick, and the Confederate Army spread out from south of Chambersburg to the Susquehanna River, the stage was set for the battle of Gettysburg.

     In the early hours of June 28, two events; one in the Union Camp and one in the Confederate, would set this stage in motion. The first event came at about 3:00 a.m. when Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade, then in command of the Union V Corps, headquartered near Frederick, was awakened by Col. James Hardee. Col. Hardee delivered to Meade an order relieving Gen. Hooker and placing him in command of the Union Army. Along with the order placing him in command was a letter from General-In-Chief Henry W. Halleck informing him of the dual role of the Army:

"Your army is free to act as you may deem proper under the circumstances as they arise. You will, however, keep in view the important fact that the Army of the Potomac is the covering army of Washington as well as the army of operation against the invading forces of the rebels. You will, therefore, maneuver and fight in such a manner as to cover the capital and also Baltimore, as far as circumstances will admit ......"

     The second event came later in the morning when a spy for Gen. Longstreet, known as Harrison, brought word that the Union Army was not in Virginia, but was in fact only about thirty five miles south, in Frederick Md. We can only imagine what must have raced through Gen. Lee's mind upon receipt of this information. For such important information to have come from a spy rather than from his trusted cavalry commander, must have caused Gen. Lee much anguish in these critical hours. It was possibly to the great good fortune of the Confederate army that Gen. Meade was probably not yet fully aware of the extended, therefore vulnerable, distribution of the Confederate forces. The possibility of a plunge northward in force by the Union army to cut the Confederate army in two remains one of the great "what ifs" of the Civil War.

The Pipe Creek Line and Why Meade Chose It