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Battle of Carlisle: The Prelude to Gettysburg

Through Carlisle to Gettysburg

When most people think of the Civil War and the state of Pennsylvania, Gettysburg usually comes to mind. After all, it was an epic battle that was a crucial turning point. But prior to that period, there was another battle fought in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. This less well-known skirmish took place on the very same day as Gettysburg did.

Carlisle housed military barracks, and when they were set on fire, the situation escalated. For the record, the Carlisle Barracks are the second oldest active base in the nation. This is also the area that houses the U.S. Army War College. The grounds became an encampment for militia from the northeast, specifically New York and Pennsylvania.

Confederate General Stuart moved up through Maryland and into Pennsylvania in search of supplies. There was another motive, and that was to find a specific group of soldiers. Instead, they came upon the militia in Carlisle. Rather than attacking the entire town, they first focused on the barracks, as they weren’t prepared for another full battle and were exhausted from earlier weeks.

Rather than knowing they were militia at the barracks, they assumed they were from the Army of the Potomac. On finding the truth, they demanded the town surrender. But General Smith of the militia refused.

Cumberland County Courthouse

Cumberland County Courthouse - Its Pillars Still Bare the Scars of Cannon Fire from the Shelling of Carlisle, PA

That obviously didn’t go over well. In turn, General Stuart started to bomb and fire upon the town. This continued on until they realized a much larger scale war effort was taking place in Gettysburg. The damage of bombing and buildings set fire left an impact, but the Gettysburg battle drew the general’s attention. In the end, this pulled them out of the area and saved the town from further damage.

Of particular interest is the fact that this was a battle fought with horse artillery, which is with cannons pulled by horses in a calvary.

As for Carlisle’s history, it was originally settled in 1757, and was a focal point for people crossing the Alleghanies—such as settlers and traders. The barracks themselves when built were good for storage up to a point, as there was no easy water access to move items further along, and they were forced to rely on roadways. Once the Civil War ended, the Carlisle Barracks went back to training Calvary recruits.

One of the important facets of the Carlisle battle during the Civil War is the timing. Due to it taking place during the Gettysburg fighting, it may have hindered Lee’s chance of winning, as Stuart didn’t make it on time to meet up with him. Rather, they’d been fighting in Carlisle, then broke off to join the Gettysburg fight. Would the outcome have been different if they’d arrived and met up with Lee’s troops? One will never know, but the July 1st battle in 1863 certainly left an impact on the small town of Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

Due to the history and some buildings surviving the attacks, today they commemorate them with bronze plaques to showcase the history. They started this endeavor in 2013, due to the 150th anniversary of the Civil War in an effort to bring forth the impact on the town, showing that some of the architecture endured while others were burnt to the ground or shelled. The project commemorates that at least 60% of the original building still stands.

Cumberland Valley offers a self-guided tour of the area, and shows the different locations and buildings impacted. The gasworks building and lumber yard were set on fire, after the confederates had been in the town for three days. The self-guided tour highlights areas such as Dickinson College and the Cumberland County Courthouse, as well as a Civil War Memorial. You’ll also learn about the Carlisle Market House where the confederate soldiers demanded food and supplies.

If you plan to visit, be sure to download the brochure with map and detailed information about each stop here.

During the battle, over 20 men succumbed to the war. 18 were of the northern side, while 8 were from the confederate side.

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