The Pipe Creek Line
Ronald A. Church


        In a study of the events culminating in the battle of Gettysburg, General Meade's Pipe Creek Line is seldom given more than a footnote. Little if any consideration is given to the question of how the Army of the Potomac came to be placed as it was, in so perfect a location as to be able to advance troops to Gettysburg, and provide for them a strong fallback position, while at the same time protecting Baltimore and Washington. The answer to this question is the Pipe Creek Line.
        Upon assuming command of the Army of the Potomac Gen. George G. Meade would begin to move his army north and east from Frederick to some position from which he could operate against the invading Confederate Army. The position he would find became known as the Pipe Creek Line. The purpose of this article is to take a look at Gen. Meade's Pipe Creek Line and try to answer several questions about it :

Where was it located?
Why was that specific location so important?
How would the Army of the Potomac be positioned along the line?
Why was it so important, even for the critical few hours that it actually existed?

I. Setting the Stage

        During the month of June 1863, flushed with enthusiasm after their recent victory at Chancellorsville, Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia was on the move north, behind the cover of South Mountain. Passing through Maryland into Pennsylvania Gen. Lee would, for the second time, move the focus of war in the east into northern territory. According to Gen. Lee's plan this move would accomplish several objectives; it would give war torn Virginia a much needed respite, and would allow the Army of Northern Virginia to provision itself from his enemy's resources. The invasion into Pennsylvania might also cause the Federal government to shift troops from the west possibly loosening the grip of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's siege on Vicksburg. But probably foremost in Gen. Lee's mind was his confidence in the soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia, this confidence was equally matched by the soldiers own confidence in Lee. Gen. Lee steadfastly believed that if he could find and prepare ground which was to his advantage, the Army of Northern Virginia in the pitched battle would defeat the Union Army on its own soil. This, Lee reasoned might possibly have caused the war-weary north to sue for peace. It might also have been the military stroke needed to demonstrate to Great Britain and France, the strength of the Southern will for independence. This Lee hoped might gain their recognition, and perhaps their support. With these as possible fruits of a successful campaign, and with morale at it's highest, in early June Gen. Lee moved his newly reorganized army northward. During the last few days in June, this movement had resulted in the Army of Northern Virginia being strung out across 50 miles of south central Pennsylvania from south of Chambersburg to York, and briefly to the banks of the Susquehanna River.
        Gen. Lee's overall plan was simple; the strategy was offensive, but his tactics and the battle, would be defensive. He would locate terrain favorable to his army, then by threatening eastward toward Harrisburg and Philadelphia, or southward toward Baltimore and Washington, draw the Army of the Potomac out to give him battle on ground he had selected and prepared. Union frontal assaults against prepared confederate entrenchments, and confederate control of the high ground had brought about a Union debacle at Fredericksburg. Gen. Lee hoped to be able to bring about a repeat of this signal Union defeat somewhere on northern soil.
        To counter the Confederate move, Union Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker marched the Army of the Potomac north from the vicinity of Falmouth, Va. on the Rappahannock River to the vicinity of Frederick Maryland. Although Gen. Lee was aware of the movement of the Union Army he was not aware that by late June it had crossed the Potomac River. This deft move by Gen. Hooker put the Union Army of the Potomac much farther north than Gen. Lee thought it to be. During this time Confederate cavalry commander Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart was separated from the Confederate army on his mission to scout the Army of the Potomac and report back to Gen. Lee on it's strength and whereabouts. Due to Stuart's separation, and inability to communicate with his commander during the critical last two weeks of June, Lee was unaware of the nearness of his adversary. So on June 28, with the Union Army in the vicinity of Frederick, and the Confederate Army spread out from south of Chambersburg to the Susquehanna River, the stage was set for the battle of Gettysburg.
        In the early hours of June 28, two events; one in the Union Camp and one in the Confederate, would set this stage in motion. The first event came at about 3:00 a.m. when Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade, then in command of the Union V Corps, headquartered near Frederick, was awakened by Col. James Hardee. Col. Hardee delivered to Meade an order relieving Gen. Hooker and placing him in command of the Union Army. Along with the order placing him in command was a letter from General-In-Chief Henry W. Halleck informing him of the dual role of the Army:

Your army is free to act as you may deem proper under the circumstances as they arise. You will, however, keep in view the important fact that the Army of the Potomac is the covering army of Washington as well as the army of operation against the invading forces of the rebels. You will, therefore, maneuver and fight in such a manner as to cover the capital and also Baltimore, as far as circumstances will admit....."L.

        The second event came later in the morning when a spy for Gen. Longstreet, known as Harrison, brought word that the Union Army was not in Virginia, but was in fact only about thirty five miles south, in Frederick Md. We can only imagine what must have raced through Gen. Lee's mind upon receipt of this information. For such important information to have come from a spy rather than from his trusted cavalry commander, must have caused Gen. Lee much anguish in these critical hours. It was possibly to the great good fortune of the Confederate army that Gen. Meade was probably not yet fully aware of the extended, therefore vulnerable, distribution of the Confederate forces. The possibility of a plunge northward in force by the Union army to cut the Confederate army in two remains one of the great what ifs of the Civil War.

II. Gen. Meade's Battle Plan - The Pipe Creek Line
(Regional Map of The Pipe Creek Line )

        Gen. Meade went immediately to meet with Gen. Hooker to obtain intelligence, however scant, on the whereabouts of the Army of Northern Virginia, and that same day, June 28, saw the Union Army marching northeastward from Frederick. In order to hasten their passage, the soldiers in blue used every road that would take them in a northeasterly direction, the direction they had to go in order to interpose themselves between the Army of Northern Virginia and Washington. This movement resulted in five of the seven Union Army Corps being in Carroll County, Md. on the eve of the battle of Gettysburg. Although the Union Corps commanders did not know it at the time, they were heading in the general direction of a twenty mile long row of hills along the south side of Big Pipe Creek. This would later be known as the Pipe Creek Line. So great was the emergency of these moments that Gen. Meade was still in the process of formulating his plans for the Pipe Creek Line even as he directed movements of the various corps toward their intended positions along it. Events that followed on June 29 and 30 resulted in the issuance by Gen. Meade on July 1 of the order known as the Pipe Creek Circular (also called the Pipe Creek Order). The purpose of the Circular was to inform his corps commanders that the Pipe Creek Line would be the Union Army's line of defense and operations for the impending engagement, and that the Army of the Potomac was to concentrate there.
        Once in position, six of the seven Union Corps would be placed on the heights just south of Big Pipe Creek. Here, they had the advantages of both high ground and good roads, giving Meade the ability to maneuver and to fight either offensively or defensively. Here also, they would be squarely across the three major routes of approach from south central Pennsylvania to Baltimore and Washington. Thus, the Pipe Creek Line fulfilled both parts of General Halleck's dual orders; it provided a strong base for operations "......against the invading forces of the rebels........", and it covered the approaches to Baltimore and Washington.

III. Why Did Gen. Meade Choose The Pipe Creek Line?
(Detailed Map of the Pipe Creek Line)

        The Pipe Creek Line was named after a stream called Big Pipe Creek which flows generally east to west across the north central portion of Carroll County Maryland. Just east of Taneytown (pronounced Tawnytown) the creek turns southward then again westward forming a wide arc approximately 3 miles south of Taneytown . Along the south side of Big Pipe Creek is a row of hills which range in height from just under 100' to over 200' above the creek. It was along these hills that Union Army would be placed, this was the Pipe Creek Line. From its easternmost end in Manchester to the westernmost end just north of Middleburg, the Pipe Creek Line was approximately 20 miles long. The easternmost half of the Pipe Creek Line lies approximately three and a half miles south of, and roughly parallel to, the Mason- Dixon Line (about 16 miles south of Gettysburg on the Littlestown Pike).
        From the area where the Confederate army was known to be, there were three possible routes of approach to Washington and Baltimore. The first, and easternmost of the three The Hanover Pike (now Md. Rte. 30) runs directly between Hanover, Pa. and Baltimore, Md. and passes through Manchester, Md. The range of hills which comprise the Pipe Creek Line runs directly through Manchester. Manchester therefore became the easternmost end of the Pipe Creek Line. Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick's 15,000 man VI Corps was the largest single corps in the Army of the Potomac, and under the Pipe Creek plan the VI Corps would anchor the Union Army's right flank in Manchester, and would block the Hanover Pike route of approach to Baltimore. The VI Corps marched from the vicinity of New Windsor on June 29, and on June 30 it reached Manchester.
        The second possible route of approach for Gen. Lee was the Littlestown Pike (presently Md. Rte. 97 and Pa. Rte. 94). This was, and is, the road from Gettysburg to Baltimore, passing through Littlestown Pa., Union Mills Md., Westminster, and Reisterstown. This road passed through the heart of the Pipe Creek Line. Under the Pipe Creek Plan, Maj. Gen. Henry Slocum would command two corps; his own XII Corps and the V Corps then under command of Gen . George Sykes, totaling over 21,000 soldiers. Where the Littlestown Pike crossed the hills just south of Union Mills was a key position in the Pipe Creek Line because the Littlestown Pike was most direct route from Gettysburg to Baltimore. Once in position, Gen. Slocum would connect his right to the left of Gen. Sedgwick's IV Corps in Manchester, and would extend his left along the Pipe Creek Line westerly toward Taneytown. On June 30, Gen Barnes' Division of Gen. Sykes' V Corps had reached Union Mills, and Gen. Slocum's XII Corps was only several miles farther north at Littlestown, Pa.
        The third and westernmost of the three possible approach routes was the Taneytown Pike. The Pike runs from Taneytown directly to Westminster where it joins the Littlestown Pike then continues on toward Baltimore. To defend this route would be the strongest concentration of Union forces. Maj. Gen. John Reynolds would be in command of what Gen. Meade called the left wing. This would consist of three corps; his own I Corps, the III Corps under command of Gen. Daniel Sickles, and the XI Corps under command of Gen. O. O. Howard, totaling over 32,000 soldiers. Gen. Reynolds' headquarters would be located where the Taneytown Pike crossed the Pipe Creek ridge, about three miles south of Taneytown. On June 30 the I and XI Corps were in the vicinity of Emmitsburg (about 8 miles west of Taneytown) and the III Corps had passed through Taneytown and reached Bridgeport (about 4 miles west of Taneytown).
        Under the Pipe Creek plan Gen. Hancock's II Corps would be held in reserve in the vicinity of Uniontown. Gen. Meade's headquarters, which on June 29 was located in Taneytown, would be moved to Frizzellburg which is located near the midpoint of the Pipe Creek Line. This was an ideal headquarters location as good roads connected Frizzellburg with the front line, Taneytown, and Westminster via direct routes. The artillery reserve would also be at Frizzellburg.
        Topographically, the Pipe Creek Line is a natural tangle of ravines and ridges, particularly the eastern half of the line. These in themselves provided a strong natural defense rendering much of the line unsuitable for the full-scale offensive necessary to break the line and defeat the Union Army. The topography changes however in the vicinity of Taneytown. The landscape becomes broader, and the hills are not as steep making the terrain more favorable to large scale military operations. In addition there are several possible routes of approach from the Gettysburg / Chambersburg area toward Taneytown, these would have allowed the Confederate Army to concentrate there from several directions. These facts were not overlooked by Gen. Meade in his planning of the Pipe Creek Line. It was because of them that he had planned for his strongest concentration of force, three corps under Gen. John Reynolds to be positioned here. Considering the gentler nature of topography and the existing road network in the vicinity of Taneytown, it becomes easy to see how if Gen. Meade had had his way, the battle of Gettysburg might well have been the battle of Taneytown.
        The Pipe Creek Line also had in its favor several tactical advantages. Its heights offered not only a formidable natural barrier, they also provided vantage points for lookout posts and signal stations. There was also a good road network immediately behind, and roughly parallel to the Pipe Creek Line. These would have allowed for rapid movement of troops and communications to various points along the line. These roads parallel to the line were intersected at fairly regular intervals by other roads, all of which provided direct links to Westminster. The City of Westminster lies about eight miles to the rear of the line and had a good road network and a direct railroad connection to Baltimore. This provided Gen. Meade with a nearby supply depot as well as a staging area for the prompt movement of troops, supplies, and materiel. Another important and sometimes overlooked advantage of the Pipe Creek Line would have been the ability of Union troops to follow up a victory in the impending battle. From the Pipe Creek Line around Taneytown, a defeated Confederate Army would likely have had to use the same circuitous route to get back to Virginia, as when it came north. The Union Army however could have moved directly west across the Catoctin Mountain (using what is today Md. Route 77) intercepting the Confederate Army in the vicinity of Hagerstown. To be able to effectively block the primary route of retreat would likely have forced a second major battle. A battle in which the Union Army would again have the advantage of good roads and favorable terrain.

IV. Abandonment of the Pipe Creek Line

        With his plan thus complete, by June 30 five of the seven Union Army corps were in Carroll County and were already operating in the vicinity, and generally to the north of, their designated positions. On the following day, July 1, Gen. Meade would officially issue the Pipe Creek Circular giving all of the details to his subordinate commanders who would bring the Pipe Creek Line to life. But it was not to be.
        Confederate Gen. Heth advancing east toward Gettysburg met Union Gen. Buford's cavalry. The general engagement which both Gen. Heth and Gen. Buford had been cautioned not to bring on, was already under way. From the very first the Battle of Gettysburg took on a life of its own, and the speed of events there especially on July 1, would outpace the ability of either commanding general to control them.
        Gen. Meade was fully aware of the military value of the Pipe Creek Line, and of his orders to protect Baltimore and Washington. So he was doubtless aware that to abandon the Pipe Creek plan and move General Sedgwick's VI Corps northwest toward Gettysburg was to uncover the easternmost approach route to Baltimore. This, he was understandably hesitant to do. In fact, he would not do it until every possibility of using the Pipe Creek Line as the primary position of operations against the Confederates was gone, and then only with the recommendation of no one less than Gen. W. S. Hancock. By the afternoon of July 1 the Confederates were gaining the upper hand in Gettysburg and were pushing the Yankees through the town and up the slopes of Cemetery Ridge. Here, on Culp's Hill and Cemetery Ridge was ground that the Union army could defend, and Gen. Hancock sent to Gen. Meade his analysis of the advantages of those positions in Gettysburg. Gen. Hancock returned personally to meet with Gen. Meade at Meade's headquarters in Taneytown to again discuss moving the entire army to Gettysburg. But Gen. Meade had already ordered that movement. At approximately 6:00 p.m. on July 1 he issued orders for the abandonment of the Pipe Creek Line and issued new orders for a general advance on Gettysburg.

V. The Aftermath

        It was true irony that within hours of issuing the Pipe Creek Order on 1 July, events already unfolding at Gettysburg would compel Gen. Meade to countermand it by ordering a general advance toward Gettysburg. Because the issuance of the Pipe Creek Circular, and Meade's subsequent order countermanding it, were issued so closely together, and were contradictory, Gen. Meade was later criticized for being indecisive during those critical hours. It is easy to understand how the contradictory orders might indicate indecisiveness on Meade's part, but they were in fact just the opposite, they represented quick and decisive reaction to the events under way in Gettysburg.
        Since the Pipe Creek Line was not specifically planned for offensive operations, charges would later be made against Gen. Meade, primarily by Gen. Daniel Sickles for what he contended was Meade's planning of the Pipe Creek Line as a fallback position (rather than as a base for offensive operations). Sickles would charge that Meade had actually designed the Pipe Creek Line in anticipation of a Union defeat, and blamed him for the apparent conflict between the Pipe Creek Order and the subsequent order to advance to Gettysburg, and for his failure to follow up the victory at Gettysburg by pursuing, and possibly destroying, the Army of Northern Virginia. Examination of those charges is beyond the purpose of this article, but any credible plan for military operations must provide for a fallback position. Therefore, criticism of Meade for providing such a position is unjustified.
        The Pipe Creek Line itself and the Pipe Creek Order both provided Gen. Meade the option to assume the offensive. Even though the line was never fully developed as he envisioned, it was in fact the offensive which he later took based on the recommendation of his corps commanders. In an ironic twist to the charges later leveled at Gen. Meade, if the Pipe Creek Line would have been needed as a fallback position, Gen. Meade might possibly have been hailed as a genius for the development of his Pipe Creek plan. It is also interesting to note that on the key common element in their plans, finding favorable ground, Gen. Meade had found his, and developed a plan for its use not only before Gen. Lee had, but before the armies had actually even located each other
        In reviewing maps and documents of the Union troop movements through Carroll County on the days preceding the battle of Gettysburg there are several interesting things to bear in mind. The name is used for three different towns which are relatively close to each other; Uniontown, Union Bridge, and Union Mills. These names existed for those places prior to the Civil War and are still the names of the towns. Also, there are three Pipe Creeks; Big Pipe Creek, Little Pipe Creek, and Double Pipe Creek. Little Pipe Creek joins Big Pipe Creek (near the town of Detour) and from this confluence to the Monocacy River, the stream is called Double Pipe Creek. Since these names are so similar, and the places so close together, it is quite possible that some maps and documentation might refer to specific places, yet actually mean someplace else. Considering the similarity in names, the confusion which people new to the area might have, and the circumstances they were under at the time, it is easy to understand how mistakes in location could be made.
        It is well to consider that this position, so perfectly suited to its purpose, could not only be identified but a plan developed for the distribution of an entire army along the line, and the placement of several corps begun, all in the space of less than three days! The turn of events at Gettysburg on 1 July would compel Gen. Meade to abandon the line. Due to that, the efforts made by Gen. Meade, his engineers, and subordinate commanders to bring the Pipe Creek Line to life in so short a time are often unnoticed. But it is undeniable that the Pipe Creek Line plan played a significant part in the battle of Gettysburg, though it actually lived only from the time the Pipe Creek order was issued on 1 July, until the time it was countermanded, perhaps only several hours later. It was the movement of troops toward their intended positions along the Line during those last few days of June, which gave Gen. Meade the ability, albeit with some hesitation, to shift his entire army north toward Gettysburg at the critical moment.
    A different perspective on this might be that the Pipe Creek Line did in fact fulfill its primary purpose by providing the staging area for the Army of the Potomac before Gettysburg.

Touring the Pipe Creek Line today is an enjoyable experience even though there are no monuments to mark its location. The tangled nature of the topography has rendered large portions of the area unsuitable for major development, so a lot of what is seen today is much the same as then. Many of the original road traces still remain, some of which are still unpaved. The Pipe Creek Line crosses the Littlestown Pike just south of Union Mills where part of Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry camped on the 29 June, and Union Gen. Sykes V Corps camped the very next night. The mill itself is still operational, and the Union Mills Homestead has a colorful history as well as a beautiful natural setting. Continuing west to Taneytown and beyond, you enter an area known for the reddish color of its earth. The ancestral home of Francis Scott Key is named "Terra Rubra" (Red Earth) and is located only a few miles west of the end of the Pipe Creek Line.


Author's note

        The information in this article regarding location and topography of the Pipe Creek Line is based on the writer's personal knowledge of the area. The military information was compiled largely in bits and pieces from a variety of texts none, save one, of which seemed to give proper recognition to Gen. Meade and his staff for their outstanding work regarding the Pipe Creek Line. That one is Frederic Shriver Klein's book Just South of Gettysburg. It was Dr. Klein's book which prompted my closer look at the Pipe Creek Line, and subsequently, this article. Just South of Gettysburg details many interesting local stories, and provides a close look at those critical three days for the Union Army prior to the battle of Gettysburg.
        Also recommended is Western Maryland - Springboard Of The Union Army To Gettysburg by Warren D. Wenger. This is a paperback which provides excellent maps and descriptions of Union troop movements through western Maryland before the battle of Gettysburg.
        Both books are available at the Carroll County Historical Society, 210 East Main Street, Westminster Md. 21157. Telephone 410-848-6494.

Copyright : R. Church, 1997
First edition: Aug. 1997
Second edition: Apr. 1999

This Page last updated 04/17/03