July 8, 1863 – General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia prepared for a battle while still stranded on the Maryland side of the Potomac River.
The Confederates remained delayed at Williamsport as engineers and troops scrambled to build makeshift bridges to cross the Potomac. From Hagerstown that night, Lee assured President Jefferson Davis that army morale was still high, and a battle may need to be fought if the Federals attacked before the Confederates crossed the river. Lee also urged Davis to send General P.G.T. Beauregard’s “army in effigy” from Charleston to feign an attack on Washington, which would draw Federal attention away from Lee’s retreat. Lee wrote:
“I hope Your Excellency will understand that I am not in the least discouraged, or that my faith in the protection of an all-merciful Providence, or in the fortitude of this army, is at all shaken. But, though conscious that the enemy has been much shattered in the recent battle, I am aware that he can be easily reinforced, while no addition can be made to our numbers. The measure, therefore, that I have recommended is altogether one of a prudential nature.”
Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, wrote his wife from his headquarters at Frederick: “From the time I took command till today, now over 10 days, I have not changed my clothes, have not had a regular night’s rest and many nights not a wink of sleep, and for several days did not even wash my face and hands, no regular food, and all the time in a great state of mental anxiety.” Meade then informed General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck:
“My army is assembling slowly. The rains of yesterday and last night have made all roads but pikes almost impassable. Artillery and wagons are stalled; it will take time to collect them together… I wish in advance to moderate the expectations of those who, in ignorance of the difficulties to be encountered, may expect too much. All that I can do under the circumstances I pledge this army to do.”
Halleck, prodded by President Abraham Lincoln, expressed impatience with Meade’s seeming reluctance to pursue Lee more vigorously. He wrote, “There is reliable information that the enemy is crossing at Williamsport. The opportunity to attack his divided forces should not be lost. Push forward and fight Lee before he can cross the Potomac. The President is urgent and anxious that your army should move against him by forced marches.”
Meade responded, “My army is and has been making forced marches,” with troops reporting that they were “short of rations and barefooted.” This did not satisfy the administration because the army had such an overabundance of supplies that some were being returned to Washington.
Halleck assured Meade that Lincoln appreciated his great victory at Gettysburg, but, “If Lee’s army is so divided by the river, the importance of attacking the part on this side is incalculable. Such an opportunity may never occur again… You will have forces sufficient to render your victory certain. My only fear now is that the enemy may escape.”
By the 9th, a large part of the Federal army had crossed South Mountain to Boonsboro, eight miles southeast of Williamsport. Meade arrived at Middletown and wrote Halleck:
“This army is moving in three columns, the right column having in it three corps… I think the decisive battle of the war will be fought in a few days. In view of the momentous consequences, I desire to adopt such measures as in my judgment will tend to insure success, even though these may be deemed tardy.”
Halleck responded, “Do not be influenced by any dispatch from here against your own judgment. Regard them as suggestions only. Our information here is not always correct.” He then wrote Meade the next day, “I think it will be-best for you to postpone a general battle till you can concentrate all your forces and get up your reserves and reinforcements… Beware of partial combats. Bring up and hurl upon the enemy all your forces, good and bad.”
Meanwhile, Confederate troops and wagons conveying their wounded still remained on the banks of the Potomac, unable to cross due to the high water. That night, a Confederate officer who had escaped Federal captivity at Gettysburg reached Lee’s army and reported that Meade was advancing toward Hagerstown. Lee began preparing for what he expected to be a Federal attack.
The Federals inched closer to the Confederate positions, carefully probing to assess their strength. Meade reported on the 10th, “These positions, they are said to be intrenching.” Moving down the Hagerstown Pike, Meade informed his superiors that he would “advance cautiously” to “develop more fully the enemy’s force and position.”
Lee concentrated his army at Williamsport that day and wrote Major General Jeb Stuart, commanding the Confederate cavalry, “We must prepare for a vigorous battle and trust in the mercy of God and the valor of our troops.” He then wrote Davis, “With the blessing of Heaven, I trust that the courage and fortitude of the army will be found sufficient to relieve us from the embarrassment caused by the unlooked-for natural difficulties of our situation, if not to secure more valuable and substantial results.”
Skirmishing erupted between Federals and the Confederate rear guard, with Brigadier General John Buford’s Federal horsemen nearly running out of ammunition before Major General John Sedgwick’s VI Corps arrived to drive the Confederates off. This delaying action gave Lee more time to prepare for what could have been his last stand.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Clark, Champ, Gettysburg: The Confederate High Tide (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 152-53, 156; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 305-07; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 585-86, 589-90, 641; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 326; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6292; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 381-83; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q363