Exploration of old earthworks defending Hanover Junction during the Gettysburg Campaign: Part 1

Confederate raiders from Virginia and Maryland attacked Hanover Junction on Saturday, June 27, 1863, during the Gettysburg Campaign, chasing off elements of the 20th Pennsylvania Volunteer Militia.

I have frequently in the past about Lt. Col. Elijah V. White and his “Comanches” of the 35th Battalion, Virginia Cavalry and their raid on Hanover Junction, Pennsylvania. Recently a representative from the county parks system (a geologist), a docent at the Hanover Junction Rail Trail Museum, one of his friends, and I spent a glorious spring afternoon with a landowner near Hanover Junction searching for signs of the campsite and entrenchments of the Union militia troops which guarded Hanover Junction during the Gettysburg Campaign. We found several depressions which appeared man-made and could have been traces of old rifle pits. Each was large enough for 4-5 men, assuming indeed that is what we found. They were regularly spaced, and followed the military crest of the heights above the old junction.

We search in vain for any signs of a formal campsite, although the farmer who owned the land in 1863 filed a damage claim after the Civil War delineating his losses to the soldiers occupying his land. We did find evidence of linear mounds of earth which could have been eroded remnants of earthworks, again in the general location where historical accounts suggest the 20th PVM had their fortifications.

Here are a few photos. This is private land, and we had special permission to tramp it with the land owner present. Do not, we repeat, do not enter his property without permission. It is well posted with no trespassing signs.

This deceptively low ridgeline is to the east of Codorus Creek and Hanover Junction. It is much higher than it appears.

Union militia retreated through these fields from Hanover Junction to the fence-lined road which existed at the camera position back in 1863. Today this road is now Maple Street. The York County Heritage Rail Trail and the bridge over the Codorus Creek can be discerned in the distance.

The area has been plowed extensively since the Civil War, and most of the earthworks are long gone. There are traces still remaining, however, in the woods. This view looks west toward the Codorus Creek at a spot near what appears to be a very straight line of moved earth which could suggest old earthworks.

York County Parks representative Jeri Jones stands in what appears to us to be one of the segments of the old Civil War entrenchments which are known to have been constructed in this vicinity by Lt. Col. William H. Sickles’s battalion of the 20th Pennsylvania Volunteer Militia. The photo does not capture the ground well enough for the earthen wall (now less than a foot high) to be evident.

Another section of what appears to be a 15-yard long linear section of earthworks. Again, they are more evident in person than in the photo. We are not definitively saying that these are the PVM’s earthworks, but they are very similar to known earthworks I have tramped past frequently at Cold Harbor and Fredericksburg. There are what appears to be advance rifle pits further down the slope toward the valley below.

Another long, linear depression with a mounded wall on the side facing Hanover Junction. This depression is about 2 feet wide and now perhaps a foot deep. Lt. Colonel Sickles had about 250-300 men in the fortifications on the heights overlooking Hanover Junction. A Confederate observer, Capt. Frank Myers, of the 35th Battalion later wrote a very brief account of the Skirmish of Hanover Junction.

“The battalion marched to Hanover Junction, where they had been about eight hundred [less than 300 in reality] Yankee infantry, but who retired to their fortifications, about two miles off, as the ‘Comanches’ advanced, nor did the latter deem it prudent to attack them; so after skirmishing with them a short time they passed by…”  – F. M. Myers, The Comanches (Baltimore, Md.: Kelly, Piet & Co., publishers, 1881), p. 198.

Another section which appears to have once been dug out.

We are preparing to leave the hillside locations and return to the valley below, where the militia made their initial stand against the Rebel cavalry. They soon retired up the hill to the fortifications and watched in vain as the enemy soldiers burned rolling stock at Hanover Junction, the railroad bridge, a turntable, and other equipment, as well as destroying switches and telegraph lines. The path in the foreground leads down into the valley.

We have descended the heights into the Codorus Creek valley. In 1863 there was a line of wooden fencing stretching across this position (see the second photo in this series for a wartime view). I am standing approximately where the fence across the field would have intersected with the fences lining the old dirt road (now Maple Street).

The earthworks we believe we located are very similar in size and layout, with rifle pits, to what we found in an earlier expedition to other sites guarded by the militia (Reynolds Mill Station, the Howard Tunnel, etc.).

I gave the landowner signed copies of my books Flames Beyond Gettysburg (which tells the story of the raid on Hanover Junction) and Civil War Voices from York County, Pa. as a way of saying thanks for all of his hospitality and assistance in locating the scattered positions along the ridge line at key vantage points.

Here are a few links to selected previous blog posts by Scott Mingus related to the defense of Hanover Junction.

To read much more on the raid on Hanover Junction, pick up a copy of Flames Beyond Gettysburg  at amazon.com.