Lee’s Invincibility is Broken

The Battle of Gettysburg decimated the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. One-third of the army was killed, wounded, or missing, including 19 of its 52 generals (five killed, 12 wounded, and two captured). Eight of its 37 brigades were virtually destroyed. As such, the army could no longer sustain itself in enemy territory, so late on July 3 the overall commander, General Robert E. Lee, began arranging for the long withdrawal back to Virginia.

Lee kept his troops on Seminary Ridge to give the wagon train time to start falling back on the 4th. Brigadier-General John D. Imboden’s cavalry brigade was assigned to guard the ambulances filled with wounded men. A thunderstorm delayed the movement, with the 17-mile wagon train finally starting around 4 p.m. and continuing through the night. The lack of springs in the wagon wheels made the long journey especially agonizing for the wounded. Those who died along the way were buried on the side of the road. The rest of the army remained on Seminary Ridge, defending against a possible Federal counterattack.

Orders were issued for the three Confederate army corps to be put in motion once the wagon train was safely away:

  • Lieutenant-General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps would lead the withdrawal
  • Lieutenant-General James Longstreet’s First Corps would follow Hill
  • Lieutenant-General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps would act as the rear-guard

The Confederates’ objective was to fall back into Maryland and secure the Potomac River crossings at Williamsport and Falling Waters.

Confederate Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Lee wrote a report for President Jefferson Davis and sent a messenger to Major-General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, under a flag of truce to request a prisoner exchange. This could have revealed the Confederate withdrawal to Meade, but Lee took that chance because he did not want to be slowed by taking nearly 4,000 Federal prisoners back to Virginia. Meade declined, stating that he had no authority from his government to negotiate such a deal.

Federal scouting parties reported that the Confederate left flank had fallen back, but the main army remained behind defenses on Seminary Ridge. Meade reported having just 51,414 officers and men present for duty, unaware that some 15,000 men were not counted because they had been separated from their commands during the battle. Four of the army’s seven corps sustained almost 90 percent of the casualties: the First, Second, Third, and Eleventh. The Fifth and Twelfth corps suffered minimal losses, and Major-General John Sedgwick’s Sixth Corps hardly saw any action in the three-day battle.

Maj Gen G.G. Meade | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Nevertheless, Meade had just three strong corps left in his army to do what the Army of the Potomac had never done before: drive the Confederates out of their defenses. He briefly considered advancing near Devil’s Den and the Wheat Field, but the afternoon thunderstorm convinced him to stay put. Had Meade known how shattered the Confederate army truly was, he might not have been so cautious.

Meade issued General Orders Number 68 congratulating the Federal army “for the glorious result of the recent operations.” However, Meade added, “Our task is not yet accomplished, and the commanding general looks to the army for greater efforts to drive from our soil every vestige of the presence of the invader.” The order was read to the men, but after what they had been through, few seemed happy about it. A soldier noted that the men, “with their lights and experiences, could not see the wisdom or the occasion for any such manifestation of enthusiasm… its business sense increased with age.”

President Abraham Lincoln received a copy of these orders and said, “I did not like the phrase… ‘Drive the invaders from our soil.’” Lincoln had always urged his generals to destroy the enemy, not merely drive them away, and to him it appeared that Meade simply wanted “to get the enemy across the river again without a further collision.” Lincoln told his secretary John Hay that this seemed like “a dreadful reminiscence of (the inactivity of George) McClellan.”

That night, Meade met with his corps commanders to assess the army’s condition:

  • Major-General John Newton of the First Corps (replacing John F. Reynolds, who was killed on the first day of battle)
  • Brigadier-General William Hays of the Second Corps (replacing Winfield Scott Hancock, who was wounded on the third day)
  • Major-General David Birney of the Third Corps (replacing Daniel Sickles, who was wounded on the second day)
  • Major-General George Sykes of the Fifth Corps
  • Major-General John Sedgwick of the Sixth Corps
  • Major-General Oliver O. Howard of the Eleventh Corps
  • Major-General Henry W. Slocum of the Twelfth Corps

The commanders voted five-to-two in favor of staying put “until we see what they are doing.” They unanimously rejected resuming the offensive. They also agreed that if the Confederates were indeed withdrawing, the Federals would pursue on a parallel route to stay between them and Washington. Brigadier-General Gouverneur Warren, chief Federal engineer who was present at the meeting, wrote that there was “a tone amongst most of the prominent officers that we had quite saved the country for the time, and that we had done enough; that we might jeopard all that we had won by trying to do too much.”

Confederate troops began pulling out that night, with Hill’s corps marching through blinding rain, followed by Longstreet’s. They slowly moved toward Williamsport, Maryland, where they would cross the Potomac and reenter Virginia. Wounded Federal prisoners were left behind. Lee sat upon his horse and looked back at Seminary Ridge as he rode off. He once again said that the defeat was “all my fault. I thought my men were invincible.”

As details of the battle reached Washington, President Lincoln recognized that the Federals had won a great victory. He happily issued a proclamation celebrating “a great success to the cause of the Union… on this day, He whose will, not ours, should ever be done, be everywhere remembered and reverenced with profoundest gratitude.” One D.C. resident noted, “I never knew such excitement in Washington.” Lincoln quickly looked to Meade to pursue and destroy Lee’s army.

News of the victory at Gettysburg soon combined with news of victory at Vicksburg to spark mass celebrations in the North. Church bells tolled in most major cities, with six authorizing 100-gun salutes in honor of the success. Prominent New York diarist George Templeton Strong wrote:

“The results of this victory are priceless… The charm of Robert E. Lee’s invincibility is broken. The Army of the Potomac has at last found a general that can handle it, and has stood nobly up to its terrible work in spite of its long disheartening list of hard-fought failures… Copperheads are palsied and dumb for the moment at least… Government is strengthened four-fold at home and abroad.”

Meanwhile, gloom pervaded the South, as people began realizing that their only hope for independence was either foreign intervention or a miraculous military turnaround. Captain Raphael Semmes of the commerce raider C.S.S. Alabama wrote about the defeats: “… Vicksburg and Gettysburg mark an era in the war… We need no better evidence of the shock which had been given to public confidence in the South, by those two disasters, than the simple fact, that our currency depreciated almost immediately a thousand per cent!”


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