At the beginning of July, 1863, Union newspapers were abuzz with reports of Lee’s invasion. Headlines in the New York Times fell under the bold-print category “REBEL INVASION”: “Important Intelligence Regarding the Movements of Lee”; “Sudden Withdrawal of His Forces Before Harrisburgh”; etc. The Philadelphia Inquirer worried over the safety of the state capital, posting maps of the town and speculated positions of the enemy army. Lee was on the move again, everyone seemed to know, but no one knew where. (The Times, for its part, assured readers that, “The present position of our army cannot be stated, but the public can rest assured that it is rapidly forcing conclusions with the enemy.”) A great battle, all felt, was imminent. All they had known so far of Lee’s invasion were skirmishes and rumors.
When the front page deadline for the July 2 paper came and went, all the Inquirer knew of the previous day’s battle was that it had occurred: “General Meade Fighting Lee, Near Gettysburg,” it proclaimed, in the fourth headline, sandwiched between “General Lee’s Head-Quarters at Dover, York County, Pennsylvania” and “HEAVY CANNONADING HEARD AT HARRISBURG.” Details of the first day’s fighting came only in time to be printed, at 5 am, on page 4. This news came not from reporters or sources on the front, but via the New York Times. It contains only the barest of information—fighting outside Gettysburg, two corps involved, Major General Reynolds killed—spread across five sentences.
The Inquirer did know something Robert E. Lee did not: the whereabouts of J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry. Like Lee, the Inquirer knew that Stuart wasn’t at Gettysburg; like the general, it found out on the evening of July 1 that he had been repulsed near Hanover. But the paper—and its source, the Army of the Potomac—had a sense of the direction in which Lee’s eyes and ears had fled. All Lee could do was send the two troopers who informed him of the Hanover incident back out to find their commander and bring him where he was desperately needed.
Something was happening over there, everyone seemed to know (or to sense)—but what it was remained unclear. Even the claims to the greatness and magnitude of the newly-begun fight come across as speculative, even hopeful. There were two great armies on the loose, after all, and they were bound to run into each other sometime.