The citizens of Hanover, Pa., were elated when Union cavalry rode into town the morning of June 30, 1863. The sight of Brig. Gen. Hugh Judson Kilpatrick’s 4,000-man 3rd Cavalry Division relieved their concern about the proximity of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army, which was fanning out across Pennsylvania.
In the mid-19th century, Hanover was a prosperous south-central Pennsylvania farming community, and the star-shaped town extended from Center Square along five elongated streets. Its population had grown to about 1,600 by 1860.
Unbeknownst to the townspeople, as well as the Union cavalry, however, Rebel Maj. Gen. “Jeb” Stuart was moving north from Union Mills, Md., with three cavalry brigades, totaling nearly 5,000 men. Brig. Gens. Wade Hampton and Fitzhugh Lee, and Col. John Randolph Chambliss led Stuart’s three brigades.
By 10 a.m., the advance elements of the Union cavalry column had cleared town, except for the 5th New York Regiment of Brig. Gen. Elon John Farnsworth’s brigade, which was resting at Center Square and on the public common. Lt. Col. William P. Brinton’s new and untested 18th Pennsylvania Regiment, with the arduous task of guarding the column’s ambulances and supply train, was bringing up the rear and was now approaching town.
Just as the 18th Pennsylvania neared Hanover, Stuart’s lead elements under Chambliss came up on high ground to the south of town. Chambliss immediately ordered the 13th Virginia Regiment to attack down the Westminster Road, followed by a battalion of the 2nd North Carolina charging through fields and alleys to strike the 18th’s flank as it fled down Frederick Street toward the square.
The battle of Hanover had begun!
When reports of fighting reached Farnsworth, who had moved on to New Baltimore, a mile to the north, he immediately turned two regiments around and led them back to the action. Meanwhile, the brunt of the battle struck the 5th New York, still dispersed around the center of town.
Maj. John Hammond’s New Yorkers quickly re-formed and counterattacked the rampaging North Carolinians. The result was a melee of close-quarters combat and bloodletting in and around the Center Square.
The attack occurred while many citizens were in the streets, greeting and feeding Union soldiers. The sound of gunfire and an exploding shell sent them scrambling for cover.
Farnsworth arrived with reinforcements in time to drive the Confederates out Frederick Street and down the Westminster Road. Much of the fighting was hand-to-hand in small mounted groups, using sabers, pistols and carbines.
When Stuart and his aides tried unsuccessfully to rally the retreating Rebels, they were left exposed to the charging Federals. They fled toward a field of high grass and narrowly avoided capture by leaping their mounts across a wide gully.
Kilpatrick, who had left town earlier, quickly returned and moved to the head of the column. Arriving during a lull in the fighting, Kilpatrick established headquarters at the Central Hotel on the square.
Both sides were now poised for action; however, Stuart wanted to avoid further contact, because he urgently needed to join Lee’s main invasion force. After dark, Stuart withdrew toward York, which was in the opposite direction from Lee’s army, which was just west of the nearby town of Gettysburg, where the war’s greatest battle would begin the next day.
Kilpatrick’s aggressive action at Hanover essentially caused Stuart to miss the critical first two days of the battle, which hindered Lee’s ability to gather intelligence about the enemy. Thus, the unheralded cavalry battle of Hanover had an important impact on the Confederate defeat at the hands of the Union forces at Gettysburg.
To commemorate the event, Hanover citizens erected an equestrian statue in Center Square, representing a cavalryman on picket duty. The monument inspired a writer to pen this grateful sentiment: “The town is free and shall remain; a picket guards the crimsoned square.”
For further reading, see “Prelude to Gettysburg: Encounter at Hanover” by the Hanover Chamber of Commerce, as well as “Cavalry on the Roads to Gettysburg: Kilpatrick at Hanover & Hunterstown” by George A. Rummel III.
My next article will discuss the impact of intelligence operations on the outcome of the Battle of Gettysburg. Union scouts and agents gathered information that undermined Gen. Robert E. Lee’s efforts to gain a victory.
Tom Ryan is the author of the multiple award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” and “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War.” Signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books, at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach and at Allison’s Card Smart in Milford. Contact him at email@example.com or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.
By Tom Ryan
Special to the Coastal Point