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