Harrison delivers his report on Union Army
June 28, 1863
Longstreet nodded. He watched, he waited… “What have you got?”
“I’ve got the position of the Union Army.”
Longstreet nodded, showing nothing. He had not known the Union Army was on the move, was within two hundred miles, was even this side of the Potomac, but he nodded and said nothing. The spy asked for a map and began pointing out the positions of the corps.
“They’re coming in seven corps. I figure at least eighty thousand men, possibly as much as a hundred thousand. When they’re all together they’ll outnumber you, but they’re not as strong as they were; the two-year enlistments are running out. The First Corps is here. The Eleventh is right behind it. John Reynolds is in command of the lead elements. I saw him at Taneytown this morning.”
These words, taken from the opening chapter of Michael Shaara’s novel “The Killer Angels,” illustrate the crucial interaction between Gen. James Longstreet and his spy, Henry Thomas Harrison. Longstreet was so concerned by the information Harrison reported, he sent him straight to his commander, Gen. Robert E. Lee. Harrison’s report on the night of June 28, 1863, would change the course of history.
In fact, everything Harrison reported that night was news to Longstreet, and therefore to Lee. As Edwin Fishel reports in his book, “The Secret War for the Union,” “Up to this time Lee had thought that the enemy was still in Virginia, for to him it was unthinkable that the Army of the Potomac could have crossed into Maryland without his receiving prompt notice of the movement from Stuart.”
The Confederate generals were in the dark because their Cavalry Commander, Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, had not reported back to Lee as directed. The only intelligence Lee had to go on at this critical moment was the report of an unsavory spy.
Harrison, as he was known then and for decades following the war, was a 31-year-old amateur actor. He had joined the 12th Mississippi Infantry in 1861 but was discharged the same year. Shortly thereafter, he became a spy for the Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon, who sent him to Longstreet in April 1863.
Longstreet gave Harrison some gold coins and sent him to Washington to bring back “information of importance.” He did not even give the spy instructions on how to find the Confederate army, just indicated that a smart man would be able to figure it out. Longstreet likely never expected to see him again. And Harrison accepted the challenge.
Believing that the Union army was far away in Virginia, and with Stuart’s cavalry nowhere to be found, Lee had issued orders to his three corps commanders earlier in the day on June 28. Ewell, who had divisions in Carlisle, Mechanicsburg and York, was to advance directly on Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Longstreet was to march north from Chambersburg to support Ewell. Hill was ordered to move east from Chambersburg to the Susquehanna River, cross it, and seize the railroad.
These orders would have spread his army thin and left it vulnerable. Hill’s corps would have been on its own, out of supporting range, as it marched directly across the marching routes of the Army of the Potomac. Harrison’s report, however, finally gave Lee a vision of the northern army’s positions. They were concentrated around Frederick, Maryland, and moving north. He had time to react. He quickly rescinded his earlier orders and instructed his corps commanders to concentrate their troops in the Cashtown-Gettysburg area. This decision was pivotal, as it led to the two armies coming face-to-face for the Battle of Gettysburg.
Harrison’s report was raw, unpolished. It was almost impossible for the generals to believe. But absent of any other intelligence, they could not afford to ignore it. By acting on this intelligence, Lee may have saved his spread-out army from piecemeal destruction at the hands of the concentrated Union forces. The rest of the story of the Battle of Gettysburg is a fascinating study on leadership, decision-making, and the value of intelligence. But on this day, Harrison provided the actionable intelligence that his commander so desperately needed.