Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Retreat From Gettysburg

Lee’s retreat from Gettysburg in July 1863 was a success, as far as escaping from a hostile army after a defeat can be considered a success. The Confederate Army made it to the Potomac on the July 7th. The swollen river unfordable with the pontoon bridge destroyed, that was to have allowed them safe transit. Nonetheless, a pontoon bridge was reconstructed and the swollen Potomac River’s level dropped. The Army of the Northern Virginia would make its way across the Potomac on the night of July 13 and morning of the 14th  and live to fight on for another 22 months.

The Confederates on their retreat from Gettysburg were harassed by Union Cavalry but the six corps of the Union Army didn’t engage the Confederates in battle. The Confederates were allowed escape. General Meade was roundly criticized by the President, General-In-Chief Halleck, and any number of contemporary military officers at the time.

A true assessment of the 10 days of this retreat is an impossibly daunting task. The contingent variables of a vast army and its venue that have to be considered are legion. It's quite easy blaming Union General Meade.

A day after the third day of Battle of Gettysburg, July 4th 1863, the armies held their positions. Lee’s Army would have loved to have the Union charge entrenched positions. Meade refused to come down off Cemetery Ridge, content to stare down the Confederate forces. To have locked the Confederates in battle on the 4th may have been the key to holding Lee’s army in place and destroying him or become a tragic bloody blunder for the Union.

Lee was hoping they would attack. The futility of frontal attack was amply demonstrated in December 1862 at Fredericksburg where Lee’s army repulsed Burnside’s Union troops numerous times. Some called the effort at repeated attacks butchery. The assault executed by Pickett’s charge against entrenched positions on Cemetery Hill at Gettysburg on July 3rd becomes all the more mysterious.

After a day of waiting on the night of the 4th  and morning of the 5th  Lee’s Army began to slip away. It would march southwest over South Mountain at Monterey Gap, some 16 miles away. Elevations along South Mountain, a 70 mile long mountain from Maryland to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, were between 1500 to 2000 feet; they would be insurmountable by an army except to force passage at the gaps like Monterey that measured 1000 to 1300 ft in elevation. The ultimate destination of the Confederate army was Williamsport, Maryland some 30 miles away southwest on the Potomac River with Virginia beyond. Hill’s Corp didn’t leave the Gettysburg Battlefield until July 6th along with the 4,000 Union prisoners of war, guarded by Pickett’s Division.

As stated, Lee’s Army of the Northern Virginia was given ten days to escape across the Potomac. The army was allowed to wait for the swollen Potomac River to recede after torrential rains and the pontoon bridge previously built on the passage north below Williamsport, destroyed on the 3rd , be re-constructed. Meade, newly appointed, feared failure more than he craved success. He cautiously approached a still dangerous Army of the Northern Virginia, retreating to Virginia.

Previously, 15-20 mile long reserve quartermaster and subsistence train had left for Fairfield late July 3rd.  It contained thousands of head of cattle and sheep pillaged from the Pennsylvania countryside. The Confederate Army was constantly foraging for food stuffs and livestock, nominally paid with worthless Confederate script. It was a critical part of the reason that the Army of the Northern Virginia had journeyed into Union country. Virtually every imaginable item was subject to pillage: Clothing, grain, livestock, horses, etc.

The supply and ordinance trains of each of the three Confederate army corps would be as long as 30 miles. They slowly trudged their way towards the Monterey Gap. On the night of July 5th torrential rains poured out of the sky. The Union Cavalry was sent to reconnoiter and harass the retreat. A night battle in virtual pitch black was fought at the Monterey Gap with General “Kill” Kilpatrick’s Calvary division in pursuit. The Monterey Gap was defended by a tiny contingent of Confederate Calvary led by Captain Emack. General George Custer was the vanguard of the division in the dark and the downpour at the entrance of the road up the gap. They were shocked when Emack’s handful of Calvary began to fire on them. Emack held them up five hours. Eventually,  1st West Virginian Cavalry led by Major Capehart and his 640 contingent broke through. Some 1,300 Confederates and 250 wagons were captured.  

There were other determined but largely ineffective attacks made by the dispersed Union Cavalry in the week running up to Lee’s departure across the Potomac. General Kilpatrick attacks Hagerstown on July 6 including General Custer’s Michigan Brigade. The Confederates rally their wounded led by General Imboden along with Stuart’s cavalry to repulse them.

On the same day General Buford’s Cavalry attacked Williamsport, the site of the crossing of Lee’s army a week later. Once again Confederate wounded were called to defend themselves. A late afternoon flank attack by Confederate Fitz Lee’s cavalry brigade forced a Union retreat.

On July 6th General Meade sent out the 6th Corps under General Sedgwick in reconnaissance in strength, ordered not to engage the Army of Northen Virginia. They march 5 miles down the Fairfield road toward South Mountain. They encounter Confederate rearguard at Granite Hill. They can see Lee’s wagon train backed up in the distance. A skirmish line is sent out and is met with a bayonet charge by the 26th Georgian of General Ewell’s 2nd Corps. They scurry back to Granite Hill. The narrow Fairfield pass is up ahead past the town. Sedgwick determines battle at the narrow pass would give Lee a decided advantage. This is entirely true; once Lee goes into the mountains he has the advantage of terrain. This would be in contrast to battle the Confederate Army at Gettysburg on July 4th before Lee can break off. Lee relished an attack. 

Once Lee left and marched in the mountains the opportunity of engaging his army is lost. Afterwards, Meade fears being caught and repulsed in the mountains and hesitates.

One complication, the  supply depot for the Union Army was 24 miles away at Westminster, MD. Surprisingly, the Union army lacked supplies and short on food. General Meade had to determine if Lee was going to make a stand at South Mountain or retreat into Virginia to determine where the supply depots should be. The latter would dictate he’d be moving the supply depot east to Frederick, Md.


General Meade had taken leadership only 3 days before the Battle of Gettysburg. He had lost two experienced corps commanders in General Reynolds, I Corp, killed on first day of Gettysburg, offered the leadership of the Army before Meade but turned it down and General Hancock, II Corp, who was wounded on the 3rd day at Picketts’ Charge.

Most importantly, Meade was directed to protect Washington at all costs; this meant making certain to always interpose the Army of the Potomac between it and the Confederate Army. Thus the route to Williamsport was in fact longer (50 miles) for the Union Army than pursuit down the Cumberland Valley, Lee’s route.

Following Lee’s route (30 miles) was out of the question, ignoring all the logistic hurdles that it would have involved. It was only after it was reported that Lee’s Army was moving beyond South Mountain past the Monterey Gap did General Meade decide to begin the pursuit. Remember the Union Army is marching to the east of South Mountain to Frederick, Maryland (some 37 miles march from Gettysburg), equidistant from Williamsport. The long way around.

Meade with his staff arrives at Frederick on July 7th. The Union Cavalry once again is stymied by Confederate Cavalry at Funkstown, Maryland on the 7th a few miles southeast of Hagerstown.

 Confederate Cavalry commander Jeb Stewart forces action at Boonsboro, Maryland farther east and the Union Cavalry stops them on July 8th.  Formidable infantry 6th and 11th Corps began to arrive late in the evening of July 8th, having made forced marches of some 30 miles the day before. Boonsboro measures twenty two miles southeast from Williamsport, Maryland.

Mid-day July 7th the last corps of the Army of Northern Virginia passes through Hagerstown, Maryland just seven miles northeast of Williamsport, MD. They were about to beat the Union Army to Williamsport. The cavalry fights following the battle at Gettysburg allow Lee’s army space and time.

With the adoption of the rifled musket, lethal at 400 yards, infantry regiments have no problem defeating mounted cavalry. Infantry regiment of five hundred to fifteen hundred of men can get off thousands of accurate shots by the time they are to have been run down by the mounted horsemen. Horsemen had been the most daunting element on the battlefield for well over two thousand years, no longer. This is meant to say the failure of Meade to pursue with infantry insures Lee’s ability to reach Williamsport and fortify the army behind trenches and redoubts.

On the July 10th another skirmish was fought at Funkstown as the Union Army begins to move forward towards Williamsport. All the while the Confederates are constructing miles of formidable fortifications around Williamsport, which Mead will be very hesitant to assault.
Most of the Army of the Potomac was present by July 11th near Williamsport and waited with reluctance to attack Lee’s nine mile long fortifications.

On the morning of July 12th General Custer and his Michigan Cavalry brigade recaptured Hagerstown, some seven miles northeast of Williamsport. The Confederates are firmly ensconced behind fortifications by this point.

General Meade struggles to make a decision to attack Lee’s heavily fortified position around Williamsport. The Union Army hesitates as the Army of Northern Virginia is behind several miles of trench and breast works around Williamsport. The Confederate Army could afford to wait for the Potomac River to recede and upon the re-construction of a pontoon bridge.

General-In-Chief Henry Halleck at Washington, D.C. throughout the week continued to urge prompt action against Lee before his army was lost across the Potomac. Meade offered that troops after forced marches were short on rations and marching barefoot, accounting for the dilatory pursuit.
Lee would be able to secure retreat across the river on 13th and morning of the 14th. The Union made a tardy stab at the remnants left waiting to cross on the 14th. General Pettigrew commanded the very last remnant of the troops crossing back over to Virginia. A participant on July 3rd of the renowned Pickett’s charge, he was mortally wounded by a last minute Union Cavalry charge, thinking they were one of his own. Virtually, all the Army of Northern Virginia was able to escape to safety.

It would take General Grant to engage in a grinding war of attrition to conclude the war in April 1865. That took twenty two months and it ended with defeat of the Southern means to war and the destruction of its economy. With that effort in mind one could surmise that destruction of the Army of the Northern Virginia before the Potomac in July of 1863 would not have been an altogether straightforward task as so many have speculated.

As already mentioned, Meade’d barely been commander of the Army of the Potomac for a week by July 4th. Commanding and coordinating tens of thousands of troops is a daunting task in itself; now the leader has to decide to commit additional thousands to their deaths or possible lifelong disability. Virtually anyone placed in that position of responsibility would shudder at the thought. In no other venture are decisions laden with so much consequence. In business you lay off some people or close some stores or factories, when circumstances go awry. Even medical personal providing life and death care have the responsibility of one individual not thousands.

The irony of war is losses of thousands today may save many more later, but then it might just mean you’ve needlessly sent those thousands to their deaths for naught.

Map of the Gettysburg Retreat:
Map by Hal Jespersen, www.cwmaps.com.