When Meade assumed command on the 28th, the Army of the Potomac was in and around Frederick, Maryland, a little more than 90,000-strong, organized into seven corps: I Corps under John Reynolds, II Corps under Winfield Scott Hancock, III Corps under Daniel Sickles, V Corps under George Sykes, VI under John Sedgwick, the unlucky XI under Oliver Howard, and XII Corps under Henry Slocum. Although the men had been badly led and whipped many times now, there was no defeatism in the ranks. They had a steely self-confidence in their fighting abilities. If men with shoulder straps had lost their nerve at crucial moments, the men with muskets had not. They “have something of the English bull-dog in them,” one Rebel thought. “You can whip them time and again, but the next fight they go into, they are… as full of pluck as ever.” The army Meade inherited was a good one; the situation he inherited, though, was dangerous. Longstreet and Hill were now forty miles north of him at Chambersburg. Ewell was even farther north, part of his corps at York in position to burn the railroad bridge over the Susquehanna just to the east, and part at Carlisle in position to turn east also, seize the capital at Harrisburg and break the main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad. It would take some hard marching just to catch up to the invaders. In this effort, Meade had one signal advantage beyond the fact that his men could cover ground as well as Rebels. He knew where Lee was by way of the good offices of Pleasonton’s troopers who had been probing for Lee’s army all along the way. Lee, however, didn’t know where Meade was because Stuart had ridden temporarily out of the war. Now it fell to the columns of blue infantrymen to move north with all deliberate speed. This June happened to be uncommonly hot and dry, and the men drove relentlessly on in the choking dust. Heat exhaustion killed some, and left thousands of others straggling on the road, desperate to keep up the killing pace. The experience of the 20th Maine was fairly typical of the army as a whole: they tramped 150 miles in six sweltering days just to reach the battlefield. Those that survived the battle now imminent never forgot that march as long as they lived.
Not until after dark on June 28 did Lee learn by way of one of Longstreet’s scouts (a spy more properly) that Hooker’s army, now Meade’s, was north of the Potomac, pushing toward South Mountain, and looking for a fight. His own army was scattered all over the pleasant southeast Pennsylvania countryside, from Chambersburg in the west to York and Harrisburg in the east. It was imperative that he concentrate his army immediately, preferably east of South Mountain. If character–Joe Hooker’s–had a hand in shaping fate at Chancellorsville, now elemental geography would serve to shape it in Pennsylvania. Just halfway between Chambersburg and York stood Gettysburg, a quiet, prosperous, little market town where ten good roads converged. Lee now sent riders to the dispersed elements of his army with this direction: concentrate in the neighborhood of Gettysburg. Hill and Longstreet were to swing east to Cashtown. Ewell’s orders were to fall back south from Carlisle, occupying either Cashtown or Gettysburg at his own discretion. There were two aspects of these instructions that disturbed Ewell somewhat. First, he was being ordered to fall back just as his northernmost division–Jubal Early’s–was about to march in triumph on the capital of Pennsylvania. Second, he was being asked to exercise his own discretion, a freedom he had never experienced under Stonewall Jackson. Lee’s additional instructions, however, were not discretionary: if he ran into the enemy in strength, he was not to bring on a general engagement until Hill and Longstreet were on hand. On the morning of June 29 the scattered elements of the Army of Northern Virginia were on the march headed for the Cashtown-Gettysburg area.
Although Lee could breathe a little easier knowing his army was on the way to being reunited, the continuing absence of Stuart disturbed him, and he asked constantly for news of his mysteriously vanished cavalry chief. Meade’s army was out there to the east and south somewhere, and Lee had a good measure of respect for Meade’s fighting abilities. “General Meade will commit no blunder on my front,” Lee assured his staff, “and if I make one he will make haste to take advantage of it.” Just how to find him, however, was the first problem. If Meade didn’t find him soon, he told a division commander, “we must go in search of him.” In the end, that was more or less how the two armies collided. The lead division of A. P. Hill’s corps–Henry Heth’s–had already reached Cashtown, eight miles west of Gettysburg. In Gettysburg, it was rumored, was a supply of shoes that Early’s men had neglected when they passed through the town on their way to York the week before. Heth wanted those shoes for his footsore soldiers, and on the last morning of June he sent Johnston Pettigrew’s brigade east to see to it. Instead of shoes, however, Pettigrew found Yankee troopers just west of the town. Aware of Lee’s instructions not to bring on a general engagement until the whole army was at hand, and ignorant of Federal strength in the town, Pettigrew turned back to report to Heth and Hill. Hill of course was a driver. (Just as Longstreet represented the defensive instinct, Hill embodied the offensive.) It was Hill who had driven his Light Division from Harper’s Ferry to the field at Antietam precisely in time to stave off disaster. Presuming that the only Yankees in Gettysburg were an outpost of cavalry and, further, that the main body of Meade’s army was still back in Maryland, Hill saw no reason to rein in Heth. “If there is no objection,” Heth told Hill, “I will take my division tomorrow and go to Gettysburg and get those shoes.” Said Hill: “None in the world.”
Meade was in fact in Maryland, but not far away. His headquarters were in Taneytown, just south of the Pennsylvania line. More to the point, six of his seven corps were within a day’s march of Gettysburg. Meade, however, was not just then at all certain what he wanted to do with his army. Upon first assuming command, he had assured Henry Halleck that he intended “to find and fight the enemy,” falling on some part of Lee’s army with the whole of his. Now he was not so sure. Admitting to feeling much “oppressed with a sense of responsibility and the magnitude of the great interests intrusted to me,” Meade thought he would fall back and take up a strong defensive line on the south bank of Pipe Creek below Taneytown and, like Hooker before him, wait to be attacked. His engineers were in fact laying out a line there on the morning of July 1 when events began to slip out of control on the Chambersburg Pike just west of Gettysburg.