My current town of Williamsport, MD has been preparing for a number of years for this very weekend – the commemoration of the retreat of the Army of Northern Virginia after the Battle of Gettysburg 150 years ago. With the swollen Potomac River, Lee’s army was more than a bit pinned down on the north shore in the town and surrounding area of Williamsport.

The interest in this aspect of the Civil War has grown significantly in recent years. Antietam historian Ted Alexander spoke of this, saying that a few years ago there was but a simple work by fellow Antietam Battlefield Guide John Schildt; but now there are two extensive studies on the retreat, bus tours, and varied micro-studies, etc.

IMG_0736[1]The weekend kicked off in the Springfield Barn on Friday night with a panel discussion by Ted Alexander along with four of those who have contributed to these more extensive examinations: local historians and writers Steve French and George Franks, along with “One Continuous Fight” authors Eric Wittenberg and J.D. Petruzzi. The panel was moderated by local newspaper columnist and historian (and personality) Tim Rowland.

Let me share some notes from this discussion that gave an overview of the retreat:

The Close of the Battle at Gettysburg:

Unlike 1862, Lee has a well-equipped army in 1863. Whereas his men had about 30% smoothbore muskets at Antietam, now it is only about 10%.  Many Confederates had new uniforms. But Lee has not just 3.5 miles to go to cross the Potomac (as at Shepherdstown), but rather about 50 miles to cover. There will be fighting for 10 days. The cavalry is critical for both sides. For most of the War prior to this time, Confederate cavalry has been superior, but now, the Union’s forces are really beginning to blossom.

Regarding the Weather:

It often seems like in the aftermath of Civil War battles there are huge storms, as if nature is sending a cleansing. The rain begins after Pickett’s Charge and continues with downpours off and on for days, and we see this running narrative of the muddy road and difficult travel conditions … particularly affecting a Confederate wagon train ranging from 11 to 17 miles long.

The Beginning of the Retreat:

Brigadier General J.D. Imboden is given the task of getting the train of wounded to Williamsport to cross the Potomac. He was a Staunton, VA lawyer who had an independent command of a group of rangers … who joined the Confederate Army – serving directly under R.E. Lee.  He arrives at Gettysburg on the 3rd and does not participate in any fighting. Imboden starts at 4:00 on 7/4 and some first wagons arrive at Williamsport at 2:00 on 7/5 to find the river flooded. Along the way, the trains of wagons have many breakdowns, and many wounded are left behind. There are skirmishes along the route – south of Greencastle and at Cearfoss in particular. The pontoon bridge at Falling Waters has been destroyed by Union cavalry. Imboden asks Williamsport citizens to help with the wounded.

The Situation in Williamsport

The predominant loyalty in town was Unionist, though Confederate sympathies were not rare. Williamsport has already suffered much in the war from both sides. Imboden promises to not quarter his soldiers in town if the citizens will help with the wounded. We should picture this army in the area of about 60,000 soldiers with thousands of animals – horses and beef cattle. It must have been horrific, as the average horse/mule produces 14 pounds of manure a day … and this is July.

He who commands and controls the mountain passes and networks of roads (and Hagerstown) will ultimately control the crossings … and so this sets up a continuous situation of cavalry fights. On the 4th and 5th, Kilpatrick attacks Ewell’s wagons in the battle of Monterrey Pass. Other Confederates are retreating out of the more northern Cashtown Pass. It takes a couple of days for Meade to believe confidently that there is a general retreat in the works.

Why was this not a Bigger Affair? …

This retreat has been so oft overlooked until recent years because there was nothing of the drama of a Pickett’s Charge. Rather, it consists of a series of smaller engagements. For example, JEB Stuart attacks Union forces in the Battle of Boonsboro to pin them down, not to win the engagement itself. This is a common theme – the outcomes are not important – the goal is to keep the Union forces at bay until Lee is ready to receive an attack.

Newspapers both north and south at this time are anticipating the climactic battle of the War, but it did not turn out that way. Eric Wittenberg listed the following four reasons…

1.  The Union Army gave up the opportunity to interdict the line of retreat early on – a failure to be laid at the feet of Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrick.

2.  Lee had 3.5 days to build defensive lines that would make Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg look like a speed bump.

3.  Meade had three Corps commanders gone, affecting the infrastructure of his command: Reynolds was killed, and Sickles and Hancock wounded. French, Hays and Newton were simply not going to bring on a similar aggressive fight.

4.  Lincoln had given explicit instructions, as always, to keep the army between the enemy and Washington.

Ted Alexander added to these: The Union Army is quite worn out. Meade had force marched them from Virginia and through Maryland to beat Lee to Gettysburg. They were ragged and low on ammunition, and all-in-all not really much better off than the Confederates.  Beyond that, with the rain, the conditions of the Marsh Run and fields across which they would need to attack would have been through a sort of natural moat.

Eric again spoke of the condition of the Union cavalry that the command of which had fallen upon Alfred Pleasanton – simply beyond his skills – who served for a week as an absent leader. Most units were functioning without command as their role is undefined with few orders.

Should Meade be Blamed? …Summary by the group: 

Meade could not be expected to have better ordered the situation to have really turned out better than it did. He deserves credit for Gettysburg and will be more remembered by the general public for that than for any failures in the retreat. If he had attempted more, he might have had it go against him and negate his victory in Pennsylvania. Lincoln, with his criticism of this being McClellan all over again, is sitting “inside the beltway,” being critical without understanding the problems in the actual theatre, also bearing the false hope of a “knock-out blow.”

Eric rendered the final thought that you can make the argument that the retreat from Gettysburg did not really end until the forces of both sides were back upon the Rappahannock again – where Meade becomes very aggressive, being told by Halleck to stand down for a variety of other exigencies (draft riots, service time expiring, etc.).

The Army of Northern Virginia would make their escape on this day of July 14, 150 years ago today.

Here is a link to the web page of the retreat activities:


About Randy Buchman

I live in Western Maryland, and among my too many pursuits and hobbies, I regularly feed multiple hungry blogs. I played college baseball, coached championship cross country teams at Williamsport (MD) High School, and have been a sportswriter for various publications and online venues. My main profession is as the lead pastor of a church in Hagerstown called Tri-State Fellowship. And I'm active in Civil War history and work/serve at Antietam National Battlefield with the Antietam Battlefield Guides organization. Occasionally I sleep.

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