As an owner of businesses on the main streets of Winchester, VA and Mechanicsburg, PA, it is interesting at this season of sesquicentennial commemorations to consider that some of the same Confederate troops would have passed our front doors 150 years ago in June of 1863. I don’t think they would have been very good customers, although they did “shop” in Mechanicsburg and paid in Confederate money.
Ewell’s Corps as the leading edge of the invading Army of Northern Virginia would have swept from Winchester, through Martinsburg, Hagerstown, Chambersburg and to Carlisle (essentially following the arc of modern Interstate 81). They would then move east toward an anticipated assault upon the Pennsylvania capital of Harrisburg. This would take them (cavalry forces leading) through Mechanicsburg on June 28, fighting the Battle of Sporting Hill (east of Mechanicsburg and three miles west of Harrisburg) on June 30th.
The leading cavalry forces of about 800 were under the command of former congressman Albert Jenkins – a Harvard grad with a beard so long it was reported that he would tuck it into his trousers so as not to interfere with him in battle. The Union defense was under General Darius Couch – who had much to worry about, in that all he had to work with were poorly-trained state militia forces from PA and NY (and some 70-year-old War of 1812 veterans).
The few militia in Mechanicsburg on the 28th rather quickly abandoned the place and headed east toward Harrisburg. Jenkins ordered the people of the town to supply food for his men, or he could allow them to gain it themselves … the people were very generous!
The goal of the cavalry was to reconnoiter the capital city of 14,000 inhabitants to view how “take-able” it was. While demonstrations were made on the 29th upon the direct path to Harrisburg (in modern Camp Hill), Jenkins and a group of about 60 swung to the south to get a view of the city from a hill about three miles distant. The infantry of Robert Rodes’ Division was preparing in Carlisle for the march east, a mission that Rodes said every man under his command was anxious to undertake. But circumstances to the south near Gettysburg were building, and an order came from Lee to Ewell to have his men march in that direction instead.
The Battle of Sporting Hill
Jenkins’ men were spread widely and an orderly retreat was going to be difficult – particularly were there to be a concentrated infantry attack. This skirmishing and fighting on the afternoon of the 30th was known as the Battle of Sporting Hill. Featuring some artillery fighting on each side, the Yankees managed to not have any fatal losses – with only 11 wounded. The Confederates numbered about 15-16 dead and 20-30 wounded. This was the northernmost engagement of the War.
Here is an excerpt from the journal of Lieutenant Hermann Schuricht of the 14th Virginia Cavalry:
June 30th.–Early in the morning I was ordered to report with my company at headquarters, and General Jenkins directed me to proceed at once with my company and one cannon of Jackson’s Battery to Mechanicsburg, to hold this town until ordered otherwise, and to destroy the railroad track as far as possible. I could learn nothing definite concerning the army and General Lee’s plans. General Rhodes, I was told, occupied Carlisle, and General Early, York –with the latter was White’s Cavalry–while General Imboden’s Brigade protected our line of communication with Virginia. Greatly flattered to be entrusted with an expedition, properly belonging to an officer of higher rank, I started my command to Mechanicsburg, and when we came in sight of the town I dispatched a patrol to reconnoitre. A small company of Federal cavalry had just occupied the place, but retreated upon our approach. Without delay I marched into town and posted my pickets. The place appeared to be evacuated by the inhabitants; they all kept indoors. I posted my command on an elevation east of the town, overlooking both the railroad and the turnpike, and ordered my men to demolish the railroad track. We were repeatedly interrupted in this work by the reappearance of Yankees, and had to keep up a lively skirmish all day. We also observed many and demonstrative people in the woods, some distance to our right, and I ordered Lieutenant Jackson to warn them off by some shots. At sunset a courier was sent from headquarters ordering me to leave Mechanicsburg after dark and fall back to Carlisle.