Lee Escapes from Gettysburg | HistoryNet MENU
General Robert E. Lee's army retreats from Gettysburg across the Potomac River. Painting by Edwin Forbes.

Lee Escapes from Gettysburg

By Tim Rowland
7/22/2015 • America's Civil War Magazine

THE GETTYSBURG CAMPAIGN didn’t end with the Battle of Gettysburg. In fact, as the Confederates withdrew, the great conflagration rekindled a dozen times over, in a series of microdramas that culminated in an anticlimactic showdown on the northern shore of the Potomac River as the South escaped what some on both sides had anticipated as a certain Armageddon.

The 10-day chase left everyone, from the president of the United States to the lowliest private, asking the same question: Had the Army of the Potomac’s commander, Maj. Gen. George Meade, pursued the battered Army of Northern Virginia with more gusto, could he have ended the war then and there?

Along with the central players, the Southern army’s retreat from Gettysburg produced an inordinate number of B-roll heroes and goats. It made winners of losers and losers of winners, burnishing some reputations and tarnishing others. The retreat will be remembered for its fiery cavalry battles, for ax-wielding civilians who chased the Rebels from their midst and for a pitched battle that broke out on the streets of a western Maryland city.

But mostly, soldiers remembered the retreat from Gettysburg for the rain.

The tempests, which began the day after the battle, defined much of the coming action—and inaction. They added a layer of misery to a hellish scene few would have thought could have gotten any worse. “There was so many wounded that it was impossible to attend to all of them,” Sgt. Calvin Haynes of the 125th New York Infantry wrote his wife. “Some of them laying 48 hours in a drenching rain.”

For days, the intermittent rains came down in sheets, turning roads to mush, saturating and souring woolen clothes and blankets and raising the level of the Potomac River, an obstacle the Rebels would need to negotiate if they were to return safely to their home turf.

On the final day of the battle, as the last survivors of Pickett’s desperate charge were dragging themselves back to the Confederate lines, Gen. Robert E. Lee quickly understood that his next moves would be of self-preservation for the Southern cause.

Lee’s reeling army braced for a counterattack that never came, much to the relief and bewilderment of the Confederates. “I have always believed that the enemy lost the greatest opportunity they ever had of routing Lee’s army,” wrote Col. Edward Porter Alexander, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s artillery commander.

But Meade’s troops weren’t that much better off. Three days of frantic combat had knocked the starch out of both sides. Many Union soldiers hadn’t been fed since July 1 as Independence Day dawned. If Meade were to give Lee a run for his money, the general’s troops would need food and his guns would need ammunition. But his supplies were 25 miles away in Westminster, Md., and the Confederates had previously destroyed the railroad bridges that led into Gettysburg.

Lee’s transportation issues were even more complex. His destination was the Potomac River town of Williamsport, Md., and a nearby pontoon bridge three miles downstream in Falling Waters. But these objectives were more than 40 miles from the battlefield, and on the other side of a rough climb over South Mountain—a 2,000-foot ridge that, as mountains go, is not high by today’s standards, but in the 19th century might as well have been the Rockies.

It would have been a difficult trip for a single carriage. Lee, however, was in charge of a movable city. He not only had to get his active soldiers, slaves and weaponry out of Pennsylvania, but also had to transport about 8,000 wounded men, thousands of prisoners, a sea of livestock and miles worth of supply wagons heavy with booty stripped from Pennsylvania farms.

And for all he knew, the entire force of the Army of the Potomac would be close on his tail as his men, animals and machines negotiated the tricky mountain passes of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Lee decided to send his wounded due west over South Mountain at Cashtown and down into the Cumberland Valley, where they would turn south toward Williamsport. His army, meanwhile, would move diagonally to the southwest, a somewhat shorter route that allowed him to screen his wagons, but involved an even tougher ascent of South Mountain at Monterey Pass.

 

There was so many wounded it was impossible to attend to all of them

For the job of leading the wagon train of the wounded, Lee turned to Brig. Gen. John D. Imboden, an independent cavalry officer who was somewhat suspect in the eyes of regular officers. Imboden was a career lawyer and politician with no military experience, who began his service with an artillery detachment and later raised a band of partisan rangers that had proved adept at raiding farms and railroads despite, according to Confederate brass, a lack of proper military training and discipline. Imboden’s privateers had been assigned to guard duty during the battle, but their credentials up to that point did include several daring and successful raids on the B&O Railroad and pro-Union farmers. Unfortunately for Imboden, sneaking around cutting telegraph wires and rustling cattle did not train an outfit for battle.

But Imboden and his 2,000 horsemen were fresh and rested, which at that point was qualification enough.

By the afternoon of July 4, just as the skies were opening up, Imboden was completing the assembly of a ghoulish wagon train of broken men and spent animals that measured 17 miles front to back. Men suffering from hideous wounds were stretched out on the floorboards of thousands of Conestoga wagons—mobile torture chambers with no springs to absorb the jolts of rocky roads.

After the last wagon got under way, Imboden began a four-hour ride to the front, a grim trip that left the general clearly rattled. Making themselves heard above the storm, delirious men called out for their wives and mothers; those still in possession of their senses screamed in agony and begged for someone to put a bullet through their heads.

Imboden’s orders were to ride nonstop to Williamsport and cross the Potomac, pausing only long enough to refresh the horses before heading south to Winchester, Va. There was no time to stop for repairs; wagons that broke down or got stuck in the mud were abandoned, their grisly cargo hastily loaded into the next closest ride or left by the side of the road with the dim hope that they might be found and saved.

There was good reason for the urgency; the plodding procession was an easy target for Union attacks, be they military or civilian. Even with the bulk of Meade’s army awaiting orders back at Gettysburg, Union cavalry made a sport of harassing Imboden’s train. Brash young horsemen, including the young, dashing Ulric Dahlgren and Abram Jones, ambushed the wagons and sent horses and mules stampeding across the Pennsylvania farmlands.

The lightly defended train was also jeered by Pennsylvania residents, who delivered one last boot to the bottom of the bedraggled Southerners when men from the village of Greencastle, armed only with axes, managed to disable a few wagons with some well-placed hacks to the spokes.

Despite the disruptions, Imboden successfully arrived in Williamsport only to find the Potomac River flooded and impassible. Even more disastrous, a daring Union cavalry raid had destroyed the Confederate pontoon bridge. Trapped by the fast-moving current, and with access only to one small, inadequate ferry, Imboden realized his raiders, largely unschooled in the arts of conventional warfare, might be called on to fight.

Williamsport was an important transportation hub that had once been considered as a site for the nation’s capital. But nothing could have prepared it for the arrival of this macabre influx of man and beast. The smell of rotting human flesh, manure and the offal of butchered animals was attractive only to vermin, turkey buzzards and thick clouds of green flies.

By now, the rest of Lee’s army was also on the move. On the evening of July 4, protected by random gunfire, a 14-mile supply train had moved through Fairfield to the base of South Mountain, to be followed the next day by the army in full. Meade, however, had no solid intelligence on Lee’s plans, which made him reluctant to commit to an aggressive course of action.

But an aggressive course of action was exactly what the Lincoln administration had in mind. Washington had been ecstatic over the Union victory, and many Northerners, ignorant of the poor condition of Meade’s army, believed the surrender of the Confederacy was imminent.

Alfred Hamilton, assistant surgeon for the 148th Pennsylvania Infantry pointed out, however, that “The strife of the 2nd and 3d of July left them without physical ability to pursue Lee; hence the clamor of those who scented the battle afar off had no grounds for faulting Meade for permitting the escape of the enemy southward.”

Meade’s generals also recommended a cautious approach, and two days passed as the Army of the Potomac was given a chance to catch its breath. That left it to Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton’s cavalry to “harass and annoy” the Southerners in hopes of slowing Lee’s progress. These annoyances ran the gamut from minor vandalism to potentially game-changing battles, as happened on the summit of South Mountain in the pre-dawn hours of July 5.

 

Men and horses were jammed elbow to elbow and haunch to haunch

In 1863, the main road that wound its way through Monterey Pass greatly resembled what we might think of today as a Jeep trail. It passed a plush resort known as Monterey Springs, and for much of the way it was four times steeper than the steepest grade allowed on a modern highway, and barely the width of a wagon.

Just west of the grand hotel a second road joined the turnpike from the northeast. It was on this road that the lumbering supply train under the command of Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell slogged its way over South Mountain.

Union Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick was a hellbent-for-leather commander, who on the last day at Gettysburg had ordered Brig. Gen. Elon J. Farnsworth to lead a cavalry charge toward Devil’s Den. When Farnsworth protested that such a charge would be suicide, Kilpatrick ridiculed his subordinate and questioned his courage. Thus inspired, Farnsworth rode into the fray and immediately took five bullets to the chest.

At times, however, Kilpatrick’s brashness had an upside, and in a blinding rain and knee-deep mud—on a night that was so dark that soldiers said they couldn’t see their hands in front of their faces—Kilpatrick hastened his troopers to the crest, hoping to catch the wagon train at the intersection before it slipped through the pass.

A scant but strategically placed defensive force near the top kept Kilpatrick at bay for hours, but when he finally broke through he was gratified to hear the wheels of passing wagons. Kilpatrick gave the order to charge, as his men strained their eyes in the blackness to try to figure out what it was they were supposed to be charging. Still, to a cavalryman, there is no sweeter word—in his excitement, Brig. Gen. George Armstrong Custer toppled from his mount and was nearly captured—and Kilpatrick’s men quickly isolated and captured 250 wagons and 1,300 men.

At that moment, Kilpatrick’s cavalry had driven a wedge between Lee’s supplies and his army, a point not lost on Maj. Gen. Abner Doubleday, a Union commander who had fought with distinction to that point in the war but had been passed over for a promotion by Meade.

Fleeing armies, Doubleday intoned, are treated either to a wall of steel or a golden bridge, and Meade was handing Lee the bridge. On the morning of July 5, Meade sent Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick’s VI Corps to shadow, but not engage, Lee’s army. With an obvious bone to pick, Doubleday wrote later that “In my opinion, Sedgwick should have made an energetic attack, and Meade should have supported it with his whole army…if Lee, instead of turning on Kilpatrick, had been forced to form a line against Meade, the cavalry, which was between him and his convoys of ammunition, might have captured [Lee’s ordnance] and ended the war.”

But the retreat remained in the hands of the cavalry, and on July 6 the brawling principals arrived in Hagerstown, Md., a commercial crossroads seven miles northeast of Williamsport. In what is dubbed as the largest urban mounted cavalry action of the war, city residents watched dumbfounded as a free-for-all erupted in the heart of their town. Men and horses were jammed elbow to elbow and haunch to haunch in the city streets for the better part of the day, as they frantically hacked at each other with their sabers or dismounted and engaged in Wild West-like gun battles on the front stoops and backyards of the citizenry.

With the arrival of Confederate infantry, Union cavalry was forced to retire from Hagerstown, a retreat that would be particularly damaging to the Federals’ hopes.

 

Had the river not unexpectedly risen, all would have been well with us

Back at South Mountain, as Lee marched through Monterey Pass, Meade—who was under orders to keep his army between Lee and the nation’s capital—set his sights on Middletown, Md., 40 miles to the south. For the time being, the two armies were running roughly parallel to each other, the Confederates on the west side of South Mountain, the Union on the east. The race was on. If Lee could get to the Potomac and either cross or have ample opportunity to choose some good ground and dig in, he would live to fight another day. But if Meade could move fast enough, he might trap a beaten and disorganized army against the banks of a flooded river that, wrote Union Col. Frank A. Haskell, “was boiling and swift and deep, a magnificent place to have drowned all the Rebel crew.”

Meade’s soldiers covered 30 miles or more a day, even in the rain and mud. “On July 5th the Second Corps took up the chase after Lee’s retreating army, through Frederick City without time to call on Barbara Fritchie,” quipped Alexander G. White of the 140th Pennsylvania Infantry. It was starting to look as if there might be a fight after all.

Meanwhile in Williamsport, the raging Potomac had Confederate officers in a near panic. As the Yankees closed in, it would be up to a handful of horsemen under Imboden and Brig. Gen. William “Grumble” Jones to hold off the bulk of the Union cavalry.

On the same day Kilpatrick was riding into Hagerstown, Brig. Gen. John Buford’s 1st Cavalry Division made a play for Williamsport, hoping to stampede the Confederate wagons into the muddy Potomac. A desperate, outmanned Imboden put weapons in the hands of teamsters, clerks and wounded men with working trigger fingers, and hoped for the best.

Buford, soon to be joined by Kilpatrick as he was retreating from Hagerstown, threw everything he had at Imboden’s patchwork force, only to be repulsed time and time again. As the afternoon waned, Imboden was reinforced by Brig. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry, which rendered Kilpatrick virtually ineffectual. Energized, the Southern forces began to push the Federals back toward Boonsboro, stopping only as darkness closed in. Three thousand men, many of whom might have been thought of as unfit for battle, had held off two full divisions of fine Union cavalry.

Kilpatrick’s inability to hold Hagerstown meant the streets were free and clear when Lee’s main army rode into town on the morning of July 7. In the book One Continuous Fight, historians Eric J. Wittenberg, J. David Petruzzi and Michael F. Nugent argue that U.S. Cavalry commander Pleasonton erred by attacking piecemeal, instead of consolidating his forces at Hagerstown. “If Pleasonton pulled together all three of his divisions between Cavetown and Hagerstown, he could block the Army of Northern Virginia’s route to the Williamsport river crossings,” they write. “By not massing his forces, Pleasonton let a golden opportunity slip through his fingers. The Army of the Potomac would never again enjoy the upper hand while Lee’s army remained north of the Potomac.”

Instead, Lee passed through Hagerstown unmolested and at his leisure carefully selected the ground for a defensive stand. When Lee got to pick the ground, he seldom lost.

Indeed, there would have been little drama left in the retreat at this point, had it not been for the pattern of daily thunderstorms that kept the Potomac at flood stage. As he impatiently waited for the water to recede, Lee wrote on July 12, “Had the river not unexpectedly risen, all would have been well with us; but God, in His all-wise providence, willed otherwise.”

 

Five days after the Battle of Gettysburg, as largely inconclusive cavalry battles continued outside the small villages east of Hagerstown, Meade’s infantry finally began to ascend South Mountain to within a few miles of Lee’s position.

His men had been marched hard down the Middletown Valley, and as a reward they now had to claw their way up and through the same gaps the Confederates had so fiercely defended only 10 months before, in the prelude to the Battle of Antietam.

Lee had used the time to find and fortify a splendid line of defense, which ranged from the outskirts of Hagerstown to the Potomac River, just west of Downsville. On July 12, as the armies settled into position, Meade called together his commanders and asked for their assessment of the situation. Missing from the council were several members of Meade’s first string. Maj. Gen. John Reynolds had been killed at Gettysburg and Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock seriously injured. The aggressive, if occasionally misguided, Maj. Gen. Dan Sickles was recuperating in Washington, absent his right leg. Those officers who remained were hesitant to commit to anything beyond tepid tests of Lee’s strength until July 14, the day they would finally attack.

Though Lee’s position was strong, it wasn’t a lock. His men were fast running out of food, and supplies of ordnance were only haltingly replenished by the lone ferry at Williamsport. His engineers feverishly worked to fashion a new pontoon bridge at Falling Waters, and on the night of July 13, all was ready. The rains picked up again that night, but by now the Potomac had receded just enough to be forded. Pounding rain and thunder helped drown the sound of Lee’s men and wagons as they splashed into fords and over the bridge—the Army of Northern Virginia had once again eluded the Federals’ grasp. The Union cavalry got in one last lick against the last wisps of the Confederate retreat, capturing 500 men and mortally wounding one of the South’s scholarly stars, Brig. Gen. James Johnston Pettigrew, commanding Henry Heth’s Division, at the Battle of Falling Waters. “If not one of the great generals, the South lost one of its great intellects,” historian George Franks III wrote. For the North, it was a small and bitter victory.

Although it was hardly the endgame the North desired, it cannot be overlooked that Meade held a seriously inferior position and was in command of a fatigued army. He easily could have lost his bird in the hand—the gains he had won at Gettysburg—with a reckless charge in pursuit of a second victory, and immortality, at Williamsport.

Many of his contemporaries didn’t see it that way.

On learning of Lee’s escape, Lincoln disparaged Meade in a letter to the commander that, after sleeping on it, the president decided not to send. Lincoln recognized that at this particular moment, Meade was the best he had.

As the Gettysburg Campaign petered out in the war-ravaged valleys of northern Virginia, Lincoln chose, publicly at least, to congratulate the general on his success at Gettysburg and not focus on subsequent failures. Still, this one stung. While a number of historians today believe Meade did about the best he could given his multiple limitations, it seemed to Lincoln and the nation that the North’s one great chance to end the war that summer had become mired and lost in the Maryland mud.

 

Tim Rowland is a regular contributor to America’s Civil War and the author of Strange and Obscure Stories of the Civil War (Skyhorse Publishing, 2011).

This article was originally published in the July 2014 issue of America’s Civil War magazine.

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