July 23, 1863 – Major General George G. Meade’s Federal Army of the Potomac missed another opportunity to destroy General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.
Meade hoped to trap two-thirds of Lee’s army west of the Blue Ridge in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s Confederate First Corps had pushed east through Chester Gap, and Meade was unaware that by the morning of the 23rd, Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps did the same. Hill left a brigade at Manassas Gap to defend against a possible Federal attack on Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps, which was following Hill.
Meade dispatched three corps to Manassas Gap, with III Corps in the lead. The corps had been led by Major General Daniel Sickles, but Sickles lost a leg at Gettysburg and was replaced by Major General William French. On the 23rd, French sent skirmishers through the gap to determine Confederate strength. All of French’s divisions arrived later that day, and they began moving through the gap. Captain C.H. Andrews, commanding the Confederate brigade assigned to hold them off, later wrote:
“They threw forward two regiments of cavalry and six of infantry as skirmishers. A line of battle of three brigades was formed in rear of these skirmishers. To each of these brigades was attached a battery of artillery. In rear of their line of battle, 15 regiments of infantry in column of regiments were formed in support and reserve.”
The Federals drove the Confederates back two miles toward Chester Gap, where the rest of Lee’s army was trying to pass east. The Federals charged a second time, and, according to Andrews, “We resisted them to the utmost of human capacity.” A third charge finally broke the thin Confederate line, sending the troops back into a skirmish line formed by arriving troops of Major General Robert Rodes’s division.
Rodes later reported that the Federal officers “acted generally with great gallantry, but the men behaved in a most cowardly manner. A few shots from Carter’s artillery and the skirmisher’s fire halted them, broke them, and put a stop to the engagement.” Rodes called the Federals’ conduct “decidedly puerile.”
French ordered his men to fall back. They secured Manassas Gap, but they could not prevent the Confederates from continuing their move farther south through Chester Gap. A single Confederate brigade had stalled an entire Federal corps for hours, enabling much of Lee’s army to pass through the Blue Ridge. Another opportunity to destroy the Confederates was lost, and Meade received harsh criticism for entrusting French, an inexperienced commander, to lead such an operation.
But Meade had not yet received word that most of Lee’s army had gotten away. At 10 p.m., he wired General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, “There are reasons for my considering it probable that but a small portion of his army has passed on. I shall attack his position covering Chester Gap tomorrow at daylight.”
By that time, Ewell had led his corps farther south, to Thornton’s Gap, and moved east through the Blue Ridge without resistance. French’s corps advanced into the Shenandoah Valley to Front Royal and discovered the Confederates were gone. A disappointed Meade reported to Washington:
“I regret to inform you that, on advancing this morning at daylight, the enemy had again disappeared, declining battle, and though an immediate advance was made and Front Royal occupied, nothing was seen of him but a rear guard of cavalry with a battery of artillery. I then ascertained that for two days he had been retreating with great celerity…”
Longstreet’s corps arrived at Culpeper Court House, south of Meade, as Meade’s Federals began assembling at Warrenton. Lee wrote to President Jefferson Davis that he had intended to move east of the Blue Ridge before the Federals crossed the Potomac, but various issues prevented that. Lee sought to heal his battered army as both he and Meade began moving back into their old camps.
This ended the fateful Gettysburg campaign. As details of the Confederate defeat began spreading throughout the South, some began doubting Lee’s leadership abilities. On Sunday the 26th, the head of the Confederate Bureau of War, R.G.H. Kean, wrote in his diary:
“Gettysburg has shaken my faith in Lee as a general. To fight an enemy superior in numbers at such terrible disadvantage of position in the heart of his own territory, when the freedom of movement gave him the advantage of selecting his own time and place for accepting battle, seems to have been a great military blunder. (Moreover) the battle was worse in execution than in plan… God help this unhappy country!”
Josiah Gorgas, Confederate ordnance chief, lamented in his diary:
“Events have succeeded one another with disastrous rapidity. One brief month ago we were apparently at the point of success. Lee was in Pennsylvania, threatening Harrisburgh, and even Philadelphia. Vicksburgh seemed to laugh all Grant’s efforts to scorn… Port Hudson had beaten off Banks’ force… Now the picture is just as sombre as it was bright then… It seems incredible that human power could effect such a change in so brief a space. Yesterday we rode on the pinnacle of success; today absolute ruin seems to be our portion. The Confederacy totters to its destruction.”
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 312; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 642; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 334; Hubbell, John T., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 472; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 390-91; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 665