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Gettysburg Retreat: Cavalry in the Spotlight

By Jay Wertz
8/29/2018 • Civil War Times Magazine

The 10-day retreat of the Army of Northern Virginia that began on July 4, 1863, is a virtually forgotten part of the Gettysburg story. Naturally, this has led to a lean amount of interpreted points of interest about its history. Most of the sites are in an area of western Maryland that is primarily associated with the Battle of Antietam and related actions. In addition, the Battle of Gettysburg itself has such allure for historians and enthusiasts that it significantly overshadows what happened in the immediate aftermath. However, the successful withdrawal into Virginia of Lee’s hobbled but still powerful army and the failure of Northern forces to destroy or trap his force led to almost two more years of war. For that reason, the retreat is finally beginning to receive the attention it is due.

This is the third of a three-part “In Their Footsteps” series on the role of Union and Confederate cavalry during Robert E. Lee’s second invasion of the North. The first part (August 2005) traced points of interest connected with the opposing cavalry forces as they crossed the Potomac River and battled their way to Gettysburg. The second part (July 2006) covered the cavalry engagements that took place during the three-day battle, extending from the opening confrontation on July 1 between Union cavalry and Confederate infantry to the significant clashes on the sites now known as the East and South Cavalry Battlefields on the afternoon of July 3.

This final installment will chronicle the important role the cavalries played in Lee’s retreat and the Federal pursuit, ending with the Rebel army’s final stand along the Potomac on July 14 before it slipped back into Virginia.

Our tour starts at Gettysburg and ends in the vicinity of Martinsburg, W.Va. From there, one also can explore nearby battlefields in Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley or simply enjoy the lush scenery and abundant recreational resources of the Appalachian foothills. A car is necessary since there are no regular bus tours tracing the retreat. It takes about a day to drive the route, depending on the time of year and the time devoted to side trips. Because there are many opportunities for cycling side trips, some travelers may wish to bring along their bikes.

Take Pa. 116 west from Gettysburg to Fairfield. (The cavalry battle that took place here on July 3 is described in the August 2005 installment.) Continue south on Pa. 116 from Fairfield to Pa. 16, turn right and travel west for 3.1 miles. Veer right onto Old Waynesboro Road and into Fountain Dale.

On July 4, Lee’s wagon trains began moving west out of Gettysburg ahead of his troops, with heavy thunderstorms adding to the misery of the departing army. The hospital train, guarded by the cavalry of Brig. Gen. John D. Imboden, headed northwest toward Cashtown. The procession of the wounded was hounded by Colonel J. Irvin Gregg’s brigade from Brig. Gen. David McMurtrie Gregg’s 2nd Division and other Union cavalry units that had been scattered when Brig. Gen. Robert Milroy was driven from Harpers Ferry during the Second Battle of Winchester in mid-June. The Rebel supply trains, followed by a majority of the infantry and artillery, headed west through Fairfield.

Major General George Meade began formulating a plan to cut off the retreat by way of Middletown, Md. A small Federal force was also advancing east from West Virginia via Hancock, Md., but the Army of the Potomac’s cavalry was the principal instrument of pursuit.

The 3rd Division, under Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick, was the first to engage the retreating Rebels. At Emmitsburg, Md., his two brigades were joined by Colonel Pennock Huey’s brigade from the 2nd Division, which had been guarding the cavalry train in Maryland during the Gettysburg battle. Late on July 4, Kilpatrick caught up with the train on the road to Monterey Pass, held by a single Napoleon and a few troopers of Company B, 1st Maryland Cavalry, under Captain George Emack.

The cavalry brigades of Brig. Gens. Beverly Holcombe Robertson and William “Grumble” Jones, which Lee had left in Maryland to guard the South Mountain passes, were sent to confront Kilpatrick; however, only a few could get through because the long wagon train blocked the way.

The brigades of Brig. Gens. George Custer and the late Elon Farnsworth (now under Colonel Nathaniel Richmond’s command) dismounted and fought their way to the hilltop against stubborn resistance by Emack, Jones and the few troopers able to get through to help. Custer then led a mounted charge on the trains of Maj. Gen. Robert Rodes’ Division. The running battle during a downpour in the early morning hours of July 5 netted Kilpatrick about 250 quartermaster and ambulance wagons and nearly 1,400 prisoners, mostly teamsters and wounded troops.

Seasonal walking tours of the battle at Monterey Pass are available (see contact information at the end of the column), but the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is developing a more detailed examination of the conflict as it attempts to get its Civil War Trails (CWT) program underway. Nearby Fountain Dale is where Custer’s 1st Michigan ventured north of the Emmitsburg–Waynesboro Turnpike—present-day Old Waynesboro Road—toward Fairfield and briefly clashed with Robertson’s 5th North Carolina near the present-day Fountain Dale firehouse. The advance up the mountain by Kilpatrick’s main force was contested by Emack’s small command along the turnpike, near the crest of the hill where the Holy Memorial Presbyterian Church is now located. Fighting occurred around Monterey House, a resort hotel that has been replaced by a modern one-story home on the southeast corner of Charmian Road and Monterey Lane. Five hundred yards to the west and set back on the south side of Charmian Road is the still-extant tollhouse that was used as a hospital after the battle.

A short distance on the right is the Lions Club’s Rolando Woods Park. Custer attacked the wagon train in this area. The sunken lane emerging from the wooded area near the park’s kitchen was the original road trace.

Reenter Pa. 16 just west of the park. From Monterey, continue west about six miles on Pa. 16 to the intersection with Midvale Road in Rouzerville. Turn left (south) on Midvale Road, which becomes Md. 418 upon crossing the Maryland state line. Kilpatrick burned some of the captured Rebel wagons in this area. Ringgold (formerly Ridgeville) is where he rested briefly before retiring to Smithsburg. Travel south from Ringgold on Md. 64 to reach the Raven Rock Road intersection.

In Smithsburg the Unionist townspeople fed and serenaded the hungry, tired troopers, preparing a barbeque with captured cattle. One trooper described that reception following hard fighting as “an oasis in the desert.” Kilpatrick, however, was wary that Stuart’s cavalry remained a threat. He posted lookouts and placed his three brigades facing east. Stuart’s force rode from Gettysburg via Emmitsburg through a little-used pass in South Mountain at Raven Rock. At about 5 p.m. on July 5, the Confederates advanced on Huey’s brigade, which was guarding the northernmost pass. The Rebel horse artillery unlimbered on high ground and began shelling the Federal positions, with shots also falling in Smithsburg.

Kilpatrick brought other units to Huey’s aid, but Stuart had Colonel John R. Chambliss’ brigade flank Huey to the north. Kilpatrick then withdrew his forces and the captured ambulances to Boonsboro, leaving Stuart in possession of the field and the town.

Md. 77 now runs through the mountain pass that Stuart’s cavalry used. East of Smithsburg along Raven Rock Road is where Kilpatrick’s troopers organized their defense. The Federal artillery was placed in what is now a housing development on E. Water Street. An orchard now sits on the ground east of Md. 66, which was occupied at the time by the Confederate horse artillery. The battle is described by Maryland CWT tablets a mile west of the center of Smithsburg on W. Water Street (Md. 66) in Veterans Park. Several homes in Smithsburg sustained damage when they were shelled by the Confederate guns. A brick home at 25 E. Water Street still displays a shell from that action. The Bell house, now the Smithsburg Branch Bank in the center of town, was used as a hospital during the engagement.

Proceed northwest on Md. 77 to Leitersburg. A Maryland CWT marker at 21600 Ringgold and Md. 418 north of Leitersburg describes a raid on the Confederate trains here by the 1st Vermont cavalry, sent just before dawn on July 5 to find the head of the Confederate column. The Vermont horsemen were led from Monterey Pass by a young civilian, C.H. Buhrman. The entire Confederate army passed Leitersburg on the road from Waynesboro to Hagerstown. On July 10, a force under Union Colonel John B. McIntosh skirmished with local Rebel militia near here.

From Leitersburg, drive southwest on Md. 60 to Hagerstown. Kilpatrick, upon arriving in nearby Boonsboro, received reports that a Confederate wagon train was moving to Hagerstown. At the same time, Brig. Gen. John Buford’s three brigades were marching on South Mountain from the east, headed for Williamsport. A detachment of cavalry from the VIII Corps had destroyed the Confederate pontoon bridge at Falling Waters, creating an opportunity to trap the retreating Rebels in front of the rising Potomac. The Confederate prisoners from Monterey Pass were sent to Frederick, and Kilpatrick advanced on Hagerstown via Funkstown. Upon learning of Buford’s approach, Kilpatrick rode back to Boonsboro to inform Buford of his plans. They decided to have each column continue to its objective, then try to join forces.

Stuart sent elements of two brigades to contest the Federal advance on Hagerstown while keeping the rest of his troopers to the east, hoping to flank Kilpatrick. Four regiments of Union cavalry, supported by artillery, kept Confederate Colonel Milton J. Ferguson’s men tied up while Richmond’s brigade advanced up Potomac Street, which the Rebels had barricaded.

In the van of the Federal cavalry was the 18th Pennsylvania and the adventurous Captain Ulric Dahlgren. He had made contact with Kilpatrick in Boonsboro after staging successful raids in Pennsylvania’s Cumberland Valley during the Battle of Gettysburg.

The fight in Hagerstown was a house-to-house street battle. Some citizens of the town’s divided population entered the fray. The Confederates continued to give ground until reinforced by Brig. Gen. Alfred Iverson, whom Lee sent ahead when he realized there was imminent danger to his wagon trains. The tide of the battle began to turn for the South with the arrival of Iverson, as well as Brig. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry, which tore into Huey’s brigade and then Custer’s, guarding Kilpatrick’s left flank west of Hagerstown. The timely arrival of these reinforcements forced both Kilpatrick and Buford, in front of Williamsport, to withdraw through Jones’ Crossroads.

At 6 N. Potomac Street is the Hagerstown/ Washington County Visitor Center, which has two CWT tablets on one of its walls describing the Hagerstown battle. The Confederate barricade was placed across Potomac Street just north of Baltimore Street. Half-a-block north is St. John’s Lutheran Church, a landmark structure during the battle. Washington County Hospital sits on the location of Hagerstown Female Seminary, where troopers from the 1st Vermont, 5th New York and Elder’s battery held off Colonel Ferguson’s force.

At the northeast corner of Potomac and Washington streets, a marker relates the story of the $20,000 ransom paid by city fathers to a contingent of Lt. Gen. Jubal Early’s invasion force on July 8, 1864. At Zion Reformed Church, N. Potomac and Church streets, also extant during the battle, a sign indicates the position to which the Rebel cavalry withdrew until reinforced by Iverson. Confederate troopers fired from behind headstones in the church cemetery before Iverson’s arrival.

Leave Hagerstown on U.S. 11 South and drive to Williamsport. At Halfway Boulevard on U.S. 11 was the old turnpike tollgate, where Lee headquartered later in the campaign and Fitzhugh Lee challenged Custer’s cavalry on July 6.

Buford’s all-day ride on July 6 brought his forces up the Williamsport–Boonsboro Road in front of Williamsport. By then General Imboden had arrived at the head of the hospital train coming down the Williamsport– Greencastle Road and assumed the defense of Williamsport from Jones, who had been separated from his command at Monterey Pass and was organizing wagon crossings by ferry over the rain-swollen Potomac.

Imboden had few effective troops but received the cooperation of wounded officers in the hospital train in organizing teamsters, wagoners and wounded soldiers into what was wryly designated “Company Q.” Buford placed Brig. Gen. Wesley Merritt on the right and Colonel William Gamble on the left, with Colonel Thomas Devin in reserve, and the engagement began with skirmishing around St. James College about 5 p.m. Imboden brought a number of artillery pieces into a line and presented an imposing defense.

The Federals advanced slowly. The 3rd Indiana veered off to the left and captured 27 forage wagons on Downsville Road. But that would be the extent of the Union success. As Gamble’s men fought on the Williams farm, Merritt’s position became untenable when he and Custer could not link up and Lee’s cavalry forced them back. Merritt, followed by Gamble, withdrew under Devin’s rear guard. Buford and Kilpatrick fell back to Jones’ Crossroads in a tangled mess.

The events in Williamsport are primarily interpreted at the C&O Canal National Historical Park Visitor Center. Maryland CWT markers are located near the center. Park rangers can provide information about walking the towpaths, riding on canal boats and other activities. When the Potomac began to subside on July 13, Lee had cavalry and some infantry ford the river here and to the north of the mouth of Conococheague Creek. Prior to the crossing, many wounded stayed in town buildings that had been turned into hospitals, such as the Taylor House Hotel, now a commercial building, and the German Lutheran Church. Most of the wagons waiting to cross were parked in the bottoms west of the canal, now part of the national park.

On U.S. 11 east of Williamsport, a Maryland historical marker describes the battle. It is in front of a Catholic church that replaced one on the same site during the battle. This is the point to which Merritt advanced before Fitzhugh Lee forced him back.

Leave Williamsport to the southeast via Md. 68. At the intersection of Md. 68 near the I-81 crossing was the Williams farm. The so-called Wagoner’s Fight is interpreted by a Maryland CWT display in the Redman facility parking lot (Md. 68 and Md. 632 near I-81).

About a mile east of this intersection is St. James College. The current structures are post–Civil War. Beyond that, at the intersection with Md. 65, is Jones’ Crossroads, where Federal cavalry gathered to reorganize after retreating from Williamsport. There are CWT markers in the parking lot of the store on the southwest corner of this intersection. A Maryland historical marker on the northwest corner of the intersection describes how on July 12 Union cavalry under Huey as well as infantry skirmished with entrenched Confederate cavalry.

Continue on Md. 68 to Boonsboro. On July 8 Lee sent Stuart forward to delay the Federals here as he and his engineers were directing the construction of fortifications on what would become the Williamsport line behind March Creek. As Federal infantry and artillery were beginning to cross South Mountain, Stuart attacked along the National Road, with Jones’ troopers opening the fight by midmorning. That evening Buford’s men, reinforced by Custer, pushed Stuart back across Beaver Creek. The action, however, bought Lee much-needed time.

A CWT tablet in front of Shafer Park, on Alt. U.S. 40 in Boonsboro, interprets the action here. Meade established a headquarters north of Boonsboro. A CWT marker at Devil’s Backbone Park, on Md. 68 north of Boonsboro, provides more information. The result of Meade’s council of war here on July 13 was a decision not to attack Lee’s fortified and formidable Williamsport line. Instead, well ahead of their supply base, the Union troops began to entrench.

Return to Alt. U.S. 40 and drive northwest to Funkstown. On the morning of July 10, following the repulse of Stuart at Boonsboro and Beaver Creek, Buford advanced his cavalry, joined later by a brigade of VI Corps infantry, to Funkstown. Stuart pressed two Georgia regiments from Longstreet’s corps into service to aid his cavalry troopers and horse artillery. Union cannons shelled the Confederate line, and shots fell on the town. By dark the Confederates withdrew into Funkstown after sustaining heavy casualties. The Federals, however, did not advance to disrupt the construction of Rebel fortifications west of Funkstown.

The CWT markers for the battle are in the Lions Club parking lot on Alt. U.S. 40, just north of the I-70 exit. Several buildings in town were used to treat Confederate wounded, including the German Reformed Church, the Chaney house (now an antique shop) and the Keller house, all on Baltimore Street. At the Keller home, Confederate Major H.D. McDaniels, later governor of Georgia, was treated for a serious abdominal wound.

From Funkstown take Oak Ridge Drive west to Md. 632, turn left and drive south to Downsville. Turn right on Natural Well Road to the intersection with Falling Waters Road. Turn left and follow this road to its end in the C&O NHP.

As his army was establishing the Williamsport defensive line, Lee also ordered the construction of a pontoon bridge. The bridge was assembled at Falling Waters, a bend in the river that marked a well-used crossing point before and during the war. On July 13, Lee had the remaining wagons, artillery and some infantry march down the C&O towpath to cross at Falling Waters. Other units followed a road from the direction of Downsville. Lee left a rear guard in place— the divisions of Maj. Gens. Heth and Pender, then commanded by Brig. Gens. James J. Pettigrew and James H. Lane, respectively.

Early on the morning of July 14, Kilpatrick reconnoitered Williamsport and observed the empty trenches and the last of the cavalry crossing the river. He rode along the river and found the rear guard’s position at Falling Waters. Custer wanted to dismount and advance cautiously, but Kilpatrick ordered a mounted charge by the 6th Michigan. In the opening melee, the much-admired General Pettigrew—whose substantial role in Pickett’s Charge on July 3 is often overlooked— was mortally wounded. More of Kilpatrick’s men, joined by Buford’s troopers, pressed the rear guard, but the Confederates stiffened, and the two Rebel divisions made it across the river.

The interpretive signs for Falling Waters are on the C&O Canal towpath and can be reached only by foot. The two divisions of the rear guard occupied the ground in the horseshoe bend of the river within the current national park. From this area, drive north on Falling Waters Road, then northwest on Md. 63 and Md. 68 to Williamsport. Cross the river on U.S. 11 South. About 11⁄2 miles south of where I-81 crosses U.S. 11 is a turnoff to the left for a narrow road called Encampment Avenue. Under the railroad bridge here a stream drops over a rocky ledge that gives Falling Waters its name. It is on the West Virginia side of the river, where Lee’s wagons and men came off the bridge and moved to the nearby Valley Turnpike.

Once Lee had succeeded in getting his army across the Potomac, Meade’s strategy also had to change. He ordered his infantry, artillery and some cavalry across the Potomac on pontoon bridges laid at Berlin, Md. (present-day Brunswick). A sign at the MARC railroad station in Brunswick describes the crossing and the town’s importance as a Federal logistics center. A section of the C&O Canal is also visible at this point.

On July 15 and 16, General Gregg’s three brigades crossed the Potomac at Harpers Ferry and engaged Confederate cavalry on the road to Charles Town and in Shepherdstown.

So how was Lee able to escape with nearly all of his army intact? The Federal pursuit was daunting, with cavalry dogging his every move under Buford, Kilpatrick and Custer. Ted Alexander, NPS historian at Antietam National Battlefield, has long studied Lee’s retreat route. Alexander attributes Lee’s getaway to Stuart’s excellent screening of Lee’s retreat, during which he sparred with Federal cavalry and kept most of Meade’s army at bay.

 

Originally published in the July 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here

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