Tuesday, June 30, 1863
After an eventful two days of probing Harrisburg's defenses, Confederate General Albert G. Jenkins had received the welcome orders to stand down. Lieutenant General Richard Ewell's two Confederate infantry divisions currently in Carlisle, numbering some 15,000 men, would be marching on the state capital on the morning of June 30, 1863, or so Jenkins had been told. But later on, the fateful orders from Robert E. Lee arrived for Ewell to turn back and link up with other Confederate forces near Gettysburg.
Inexplicably, Jenkins had not been informed; he merely withdrew a short distance west to the cover of Silver Spring Creek, where he and his men waited for Ewell's troops to overtake them and perhaps undertake an assault on Harrisburg's defenders. In the meantime, Union General Darius Couch had reports from scouts of Ewell's new course, and he decided to turn the tables, probing to find, and perhaps cut off, Jenkins. For the mission he chose the inexperienced General John Ewen and his similarly green regiment of New York State National Guardsmen. Like Ewen, most of these New Yorker were businessmen and store clerks from the streets of New York, and few had ever been tested in battle.
In the early afternoon, some Union cavalrymen had clashed with Jenkins' outer picket posts. Jenkins panicked as he learned simultaneously that Ewell was no longer supporting him in Carlisle. He dispatched his largest regiment with some 500 men to Carlisle to protect his retreat route. Fearing a large Union force would soon be bearing down on him from the east, Jenkins ordered Lieutenant Colonel Vincent Witcher and a motley assembly of 300 men and two cannons to "hold the enemy in check at all hazards."
Marching sluggishly on the Carlisle Pike, Ewen's 1,400 New Yorkers did not arrive at Sporting Hill until around 3:30 p.m. on the afternoon of June 30. Once there, they were welcomed with a volley of musketfire from 50 Confederates taking cover in Moses Eberly's barn (see map). Witcher and his main contingent of Confederates had positioned themselves in the rear in Gleim's grove (see map). Pinned down on the Carlisle Pike, two companies of New Yorkers were moved into the woods near the Confederate position (along present-day Van Patten Drive). Later, Ewen deployed his full brigade, with about 400 men south of the Pike, and even more north of the Pike, directly fronting the barn. Several men, including a drummer boy, were wounded in the northern wing. Witcher's Confederates held their own, remarkably, until a Philadelphia artillery unit, commanded by Captain Henry Landis (brother-in-law of General John Reynolds of Gettysburg fame) arrived. They commenced to load their piece fuze-first (essentially backwards), but were stopped, given a brief lesson, and their first shot struck the barn square in the center. The bothersome Confederates evacuated the barn and eventually left the field after a brief artillery duel. Some 16 dead Virginians were left on the field of battle, and Witcher brought 20-30 wounded with him, some of whom died on the retreat. Ewen's New Yorkers suffered no fatalities, but 11 men were slightly wounded.