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, heading for Pennsylvania, behind the cover of South Mountain. This move, according to Gen. Lee's plan would accomplish several objectives; it would move the stage of the war to northern soil, giving Virginia a much needed respite, the Army could then provision itself from his enemy's resources and, an invasion into Pennsylvania might 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 ability of the Army of Northern Virginia to defeat the Army of the Potomac. Based primarily on this confidence, Gen. Lee intended to locate terrain favorable to him, then by threatening eastward toward Harrisburg and Philadelphia, draw the Army of the Potomac out to give him battle on ground he had selected, where they would be at a disadvantage. Defeat of the Union Army on its own soil might possibly have caused the war-weary north to sue for peace, or it might 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. During the last few days in June this plan had resulted in the Army of Northern Virginia being strung out across 50 miles of south central Pennsylvania from Chambersburg to York, and beyond. To counter the Confederate move, and unbeknownst to Gen. Lee, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, had marched the Army of the Potomac north from the Rappahannock River to locations around the city of Frederick Maryland. Although each commander did not yet know the exact whereabouts or distribution of his enemy's forces, the stage had now been set for the battle of Gettysburg.
On 28 June, 1863, Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, then in command of the Union V Corps, headquartered near Frederick, was awakened at about 3:00 a.m. by Col. James Hardee and informed that Gen. Hooker had been relieved, and that he had been placed in command of the Army of the Potomac. Along with the order placing him in command was a letter from Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck informing him of the dual role of the Army of the Potomac:
"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 Pipe Creek Line ran east to west across the northern portion of Carroll County Maryland, from Manchester to just northeast of Middleburg, and placed the Union Army across all the major routes of approach from the Gettysburg area to Baltimore and Washington, D.C. According to the Pipe Creek plan, Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick's VI Corps would anchor the right flank in Manchester. Maj. Gen. Henry Slocum would command two corps (his own XII Corps and the V Corps then under command of Gen . George Sykes) in the center of the line just south of Union Mills, and Maj. Gen. John Reynolds would command the left wing consisting of three corps (his own I Corps, the III Corps under command of Gen. Daniel Sickles, and the XI Corps under command of Gen. Oliver Howard) in the vicinity of Middleburg. Gen. Winfield Hancock's II Corps would be held in reserve in the vicinity of Uniontown. Gen. Meade's headquarters, at that time in Taneytown Maryland, would be moved to Frizzellburg which is located near the midpoint of the Pipe Creek Line, and about three and a half miles to the rear. This was perhaps an ideal headquarters location as good roads connected Frizzellburg with the front line, Taneytown, and Westminster via direct routes.
It is ironic that within hours of issuing the Pipe Creek Order on 1 July, events already unfolding at Gettysburg would compel Gen. Meade to nullify it by ordering a general advance toward Gettysburg. Because these two orders were issued so closely together, and were contradictory, Gen. Meade was later criticized for being indecisive. It is easy to understand how the contradictory orders would appear to be indecisive, but they were most likely just the opposite, and represent decisive directions based on hour-by-hour reports coming out of Gettysburg. Although the Corps commanders were given the Pipe Creek Order and were in the general vicinity of intended positions, only Gen. Sedgwick had reached his actual position, that being Manchester. But even he had not begun placement of troops before being ordered to Gettysburg. It is quite possible in fact that Gen. John Reynolds, due to his position and early death, never even knew of the existence of the Pipe Creek plan.
As the armies searched for each other through the hills of western Maryland, and southern Pennsylvania, both commanding generals had developed their plans with a key element in common; each hoped to be able to locate ground favorable to their armies, fortify that position, then lure the other out hopefully to spend itself in attacks against his entrenched forces. This was the lesson learned six months previous at Fredericksburg, and it was still fresh. For this purpose the Pipe Creek Line was Gen. Meade's intended position, and the Army of the Potomac would be placed along its length. It is important to bear in mind that at the very time that he was developing the plan for the line, Gen. Meade was implementing it by marching the various corps toward their positions. Knowing that the bridge across the Susquehanna River at Wrightsville (near what is presently the Pa. Rte. 30 bridge) had been burned, he knew that the Confederate Army could not cross the river. So, somewhere off to the north, he knew he would find the Army of Northern Virginia. Then, should the Army of Northern Virginia be successful in opening engagements, elements of the Army of the Potomac would fall back to prepared positions along the Pipe Creek Line and there await attack. Since the Pipe Creek Line was not specifically planned for offensive operations, Gen. Meade would again come under criticism for having planned for a fallback position, his critics would say, in anticipation of a defeat. This criticism was unjustified since any plan for military operations should provide for just such a position. As we shall see, the Pipe Creek Line was in possibly every respect perfectly suited for its purpose as a base of operations from which offensive, defensive, or simply holding operations could be conducted.
Strategically, the location of the line perfectly fulfilled Gen. Halleck's order as it provided the Army of the Potomac with an excellent position between the Army of Northern Virginia, and Baltimore and Washington. Its latitude, a few miles south of the Mason-Dixon line, was far enough north of Baltimore and Washington to intercept a southward attack well before those cities could actually be threatened. There were in the region three primary routes of approach for a possible southward movement by Gen. Lee; the Hanover Pike, the Littlestown Pike, and the Taneytown Pike. The Hanover Pike, between Baltimore and Hanover, Pa. was on the easternmost end of the line and runs directly through Manchester, the location of Gen. Sedgwick's 18,000 man VI Corps. The Taneytown Pike, between Taneytown and Westminster was near the west end of the Pipe Creek Line. This would be defended by what Gen. Meade referred to as the left wing of the Army, three corps under Gen. John Reynolds. The Littlestown Pike is located about midway between the other two roads and is a direct route from Gettysburg to Littlestown to Westminster to Baltimore. It passed through the center of the Pipe Creek Line which would be defended by two corps under Gen. Slocum placed in the vicinity of Union Mills, about midway between Littlestown and Westminster.
Charges would later be made against Gen. Meade, primarily by Gen. Daniel Sickles for what he contended was Meade's planning of the Pipe Creek Line as a fallback position (rather than as a base for offensive operations), and for the apparent conflict between the Pipe Creek Order and the order to advance to Gettysburg, and for his failure to follow up the victory at Gettysburg by pursuing, and possibly destroying, the Army of Northern Virginia. Given the nature of events in progress at the time, and the speed at which they were unfolding, Gen. Meade planned both well and thoroughly for the use of his Army in fulfilling his dual orders from Gen. Halleck. The Pipe Creek Line and the Pipe Creek Order both provided Gen. Meade the option to assume the offensive. Even though the line was never fully developed as he envisioned, it was in fact the offensive which he later took based on the recommendation of his corps commanders. In an ironic twist to the charges later leveled at Gen. Meade, if the Pipe Creek Line would have been needed as a fallback position, Gen. Meade might possibly have been hailed as a genius for the development of his Pipe Creek plan.
To appreciate the reasons behind his selection of the Pipe Creek Line, an examination of its location and topography must be made. Big Pipe Creek, in Carroll County Maryland, flows almost due westerly from Manchester toward Taneytown. Near Taneytown it swings southwest, then again west toward the Monocacy River. About one mile from the Monocacy River it is joined by Little Pipe Creek from the south. After the confluence of Big and Little Pipe Creeks, the stream is called Double Pipe Creek. These portions, Little Pipe Creek and Double Pipe are beyond the west end of the planned Pipe Creek Line and do not figure significantly into the plan. The Pipe Creek Line was so called because it made use of the hills which run generally parallel to, and just south of Big Pipe Creek. Topographically, the line is a natural tangle of hills and ridges which rise up to heights varying from just less than 100 ft. to over 200 ft. above the creek. The hills themselves provided a strong natural defense, particularly along the easternmost two-thirds of the line. These would have required attacks to be launched, most likely, along the three major approach routes or at gaps, in attempts to breach the line. In preparation for any major offensive toward the south, Gen. Lee would have certainly probed at the line to determine its strength. He would likely have concluded that the steep, tangled nature of the topography along the easternmost portion of the line would not be suitable for the full-scale offensive necessary to break the line. The topography changes however in the vicinity of Taneytown. The landscape becomes broader, and the hills are not as steep. Add to this the fact that there are several possible routes of approach from the Gettysburg / Chambersburg area toward Taneytown, and it becomes easy to see how the battle of Gettysburg might well have been the battle of Taneytown.
The Pipe Creek Line also had in its favor several tactical advantages. Its heights offered not only a formidable natural barrier, they also provided vantage points for lookout posts and signal stations. There was also a good road network immediately behind, and roughly parallel to, the Pipe Creek Line itself. These would have allowed for rapid movement of troops and communications to various points along the line. These roads parallel to the line were intersected at fairly regular intervals by other roads, all of which provided direct links to Westminster. The City of Westminster lies about eight miles to the rear of the line and had a good road network and a direct railroad connection to Baltimore. This provided Gen. Meade with a nearby supply depot as well as a staging area for the prompt movement of troops, supplies, and information.
These considered, it is understandable why Gen. Meade was hesitant to abandon the Pipe Creek Line. In fact it was his reluctance to abandon it which kept him at his headquarters in Taneytown on 1 July. Until receiving word from such dependable subordinates as Gen. Reynolds and Gen. Hancock that the events in Gettysburg had grown out of control necessitating the move north, Gen. Meade held to his plan that the battle should be fought along the Pipe Creek Line. It is interesting to note that on the key common element in their plans, finding favorable ground, Gen. Meade had found his, and developed a plan for its use not only before Gen. Lee had, but before the armies had actually even located each other.
It is well to consider that this position, so perfectly suited to its purpose, could not only be identified but a plan developed for the distribution of an entire army along the line, and the placement of several corps begun, all in the space of less than three days! The turn of events at Gettysburg on 1 July would compel Gen. Meade to abandon the line. Due to that, the efforts made by Gen. Meade, his engineers, and subordinate commanders to bring the Pipe Creek Line to life in so short a time are often unnoticed. But it is undeniable that the Pipe Creek Line plan played a significant part in the battle, though it actually "lived" only from the time the Pipe Creek order was issued on 1 July, until the time it was countermanded, perhaps only several hours later. But it was the movement of troops toward their intended positions along the Line during those last few days of June, which gave Gen. Meade the ability, albeit with some hesitation, to shift his entire army north toward Gettysburg at the critical moment.
In a study of the events culminating in the battle of Gettysburg, the 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.
A different perspective on this might be that the Pipe Creek Line did in fact fulfil its primary purpose by providing the staging area for the Army of the Potomac before Gettysburg.
HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF THE POTOMAC,
Taneytown, July 1, 1863.
From information received, the commanding general is satisfied that the object of the movement of the army in this direction has been accomplished, viz, the relief of Harrisburg, and the prevention of the enemy's intended invasion of Philadelphia, &c., beyond the Susquehanna. It is no longer his intention to assume the offensive until the enemy's movements or position should render such an operation certain of success.
If the enemy assume the offensive, and attack, it is his intention, after holding them in check sufficiently long, to withdraw the trains and other impedimenta; to withdraw the army from its present position, and form line of battle with the left resting in the neighborhood of Middleburg, and the right at Manchester, the general direction being that of Pipe Creek. For this purpose, General Reynolds, in command of the left, will withdraw the force at present at Gettysburg, two corps by the road to Taneytown and Westminster, and, after crossing Pipe Creek, deploy toward Middleburg. The corps at Emmitsburg will be withdrawn, via Mechanicsville, to Middleburg, or, if a more direct route can be found leaving Taneytown to their left, to withdraw direct to Middleburg. General Slocum will assume command of the two corps at Hanover and Two Taverns, and withdraw them, via Union Mills, deploying one to the right and one to the left, after crossing Pipe Creek, connecting on the left with General Reynolds, and communicating his right to General Sedgwick at Manchester who will connect with him and form the right.
The time for falling back can only be developed by circumstances. Whenever such circumstances arise as would seem to indicate then necessity for falling back and assuming this general line indicated, notice of such movement will be at once communicated to these headquarters and to all adjoining corps commanders.
The Second Corps now at Taneytown will be held in reserve in the vicinity of Uniontown and Frizellburg, to be thrown to the point of strongest attack, should the enemy make it. In the event of these movements being necessary, the trains and impedimenta will all be sent to the rear of Westminster.
Corps commanders, with their officers commanding artillery and the divisions, should make themselves thoroughly familiar with the country indicated, all the roads and positions, so that no possible confusion can ensue, and that the movement, if made, be done with good order, precision, and care, without loss or any detriment to the morale of the troops.
The commanders of corps are requested to communicate at once the nature of their present positions, and their ability to hold them in case of any sudden attack at any point by the enemy.
This order is communicated, that a general plan, perfectly understood by all, may be had for receiving attack, if made in strong force, upon any portion of our present position.
Developments may cause the commanding general to assume the offensive from his present positions.
The Artillery Reserve will, in the event of the general movement indicated, move to the rear of Frizellburg, and be placed in position, or sent to corps, as circumstances may require, under the general supervision of the chief of artillery.
The chief quartermaster will, in case of the general movement indicated, give directions for the orderly and proper position of the trains in rear of Westminster.
All the trains will keep well to the right of the road in moving, and, in case of any accident requiring a halt, the team must be hauled out of the line, and not delay the movements.
The trains ordered to Union Bridge in these events will be sent to Westminster.
General headquarters will be, in case of this movement, at Frizellburg; General Slocum as near Union Mills as the line will render best for him; General Reynolds at or near the road from Taneytown to Frizellburg.
The chief of artillery will examine the line, and select positions for artillery.
The cavalry will be held on the right and left flanks after the movement is completed. Previous to its completion, it will, as now directed, cover the front and exterior lines, well out.
The commands must be prepared for a movement, and, in the event of the enemy attacking us on the ground indicated herein, to follow up any repulse.
The chief signal officer will examine the line thoroughly, and at once, upon the commencement of this movement, extend telegraphic communication from each of the following points to general headquarters near Frizellburg, viz, Manchester, Union Mills, Middleburg, and Taneytown road. All true Union people should be advised to harass and annoy the enemy in every way, to send in information, and taught how to do it; giving regiments by number of colors, number of guns, generals' names, &c. All their supplies brought to us will be paid for, and not fall into the enemy's hands.
Roads and ways to move to the right or left of the general line should be studied and thoroughly understood. All movements of troops should be concealed, and our dispositions kept from the enemy. Their knowledge of these dispositions would be fatal to our success, and the greatest care must be taken to prevent such an occurrence.
By command of Major General Meade: