Confederates Trapped at Williamsport

The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, General Robert E. Lee commanding, was in the process of retreating back to Virginia following the Battle of Gettysburg. The Federal Army of the Potomac, led by Major-General George G. Meade, stayed in its defenses on a line running from Culp’s Hill in the north to the Round Tops in the south.

A violent thunderstorm opened the 5th of July that slowed the Confederate withdrawal considerably. Lieutenant-General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps was in the lead, followed by the First Corps under Lieutenant-General James Longstreet. The Second Corps, led by Lieutenant-General Richard Ewell, began moving out around 2 a.m. It took Ewell’s men 14 hours to get to Fairfield, less than nine miles away. The army continued moving through the heavy rain toward Hagerstown, Maryland. News of the Confederate surrender at Vicksburg reached the troops and made this march even more demoralizing.

The Confederate wagon train and Brigadier-General John D. Imboden’s cavalry guard passed through Cashtown, west of Gettysburg, and then turned south to Greencastle. Federal cavalry troopers attacked the train, capturing 176 wagons before Confederate artillery eventually drove them off. Residents of Greencastle used axes, saws, and other tools to destroy the spokes and wheels of 12 Confederate wagons before being dispersed. By the night of the 5th, the head of the train reached Williamsport, on the Potomac River. But the tail was still 31 miles behind.

Meade dispatched Major-General John Sedgwick’s Sixth Corps around midday to determine whether Lee had withdrawn. The Federals cautiously probed forward, skirmishing with Confederates at Cunningham’s Crossroads. The Confederates disengaged and continued their withdrawal, camping west of Fairfield for the night. Sedgwick could not determine if Lee was retreating or just finding better ground to give battle once more.

Meanwhile, news of the Federal victory at Gettysburg was spreading throughout the North. A headline in the New York Herald read, “VICTORY! VICTORY! THE DYING STRUGGLES OF THE REBELLION.” The New York Times exulted, “SPLENDID TRIUMPH OF THE ARMY OF THE POTOMAC.” The Philadelphia Inquirer proclaimed, “VICTORY! WATERLOO ECLIPSED!!”

Maj-Gen G.G. Meade | Image Credit: Wikipedia

Meade was widely praised for his leadership. He wrote his wife, “The Confederates awaited one day expecting that flushed with success, I would attack them when they would play their old game of shooting us from behind breastworks.” But he was much more guarded in writing to his superiors: “I wish in advance to moderate the expectations of those who, in ignorance of the difficulties to be encountered, may expect too much.”

Another general receiving much praise was Major-General Daniel Sickles, who lost a leg on the second day of fighting at Gettysburg. Sickles was convalescing in Washington where he was visited by President Abraham Lincoln. Being a former politician himself, Sickles “certainly got his side of the story of Gettysburg well into the President’s mind and heart that Sunday afternoon,” which omitted the fact that he moved his Third Corps out ahead of the rest of the army without authorization and was nearly annihilated because of it. Sickles blamed this not on himself, but on Meade.

On the morning of the 6th, heavy fog prevented Meade from learning anything about where the Confederates were except that they had reached Monterey Pass, southwest of Fairfield. At 8:30 a.m., Sedgwick wrongly reported that the path to the Confederates was strongly defended, and he did not wish “to dash my corps against it.”

Meade sent the Federals along three routes into Maryland, then west across the Catoctin Mountains to meet at Middletown. From there, they still needed to cross South Mountain to reach the Confederates. Meade telegraphed General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, “As soon as possible, I will cross South Mountain and proceed in search of the enemy.”

Herman Haupt, top Federal railroad engineer, met with Lincoln after leaving the Potomac army the previous day. Haupt told the president that Meade had given him the impression “that there would be no advance of any considerable portion of the army for some days…” This added to Lincoln’s disappointment that Meade did not pursue and confront the Confederates more aggressively.

Imboden repelled an attack by Brigadier-General John Buford’s 3,000-man Federal cavalry division that morning, and the arrival of Major-General Jeb Stuart’s Confederate cavalry drove the Federals off. Longstreet’s advance units reached Hagerstown around 5 p.m. Riding with them, Lee learned that the ambulance train had reached Williamsport. But Federals had destroyed a pontoon bridge below the town, and the rains had swelled the Potomac to the point that it could not be forded. The Confederates were in danger of being trapped on the wrong side of the river.


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