The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, General Robert E. Lee commanding, was stuck at Williamsport, Maryland, because the Potomac River was too deep to cross. Lee was therefore forced to wait until either the river receded or the Confederates built enough bridges to get across.
Cautiously approaching Lee’s army was Major-General George G. Meade’s Federal Army of the Potomac. Meade wrote his wife on July 11, “We are now in the immediate vicinity of the enemy and may expect at any hour to be engaged with him. He appears to be getting into a strong position, where he can act on the defensive. I shall be prudent & not act rashly.” A staff officer noted that Meade was “in very good spirits & I hope he may be the means of smashing Lee.”
By the 12th, Meade had finally placed his army in attack positions on the ridges opposite Lee near Williamsport. Major-General Oliver O. Howard’s Eleventh Corps held the right at Funkstown, while Major-General Henry W. Slocum’s Twelfth Corps held the left a few miles south. The Federal signal corps relayed information throughout the day on the strength of the enemy defenses.
Meade prepared to issue orders to attack, but a heavy thunderstorm postponed his plans. He telegraphed General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck late that afternoon, “It is my intention to attack them tomorrow, unless something intervenes to prevent it.” When President Abraham Lincoln saw the message, he cynically remarked, “They will be ready to fight a magnificent battle when there is no enemy there to fight.”
That night, Meade held a council of war with his top generals and announced that he intended “moving forward and attacking the enemy and taking the consequences; but that I left it to their judgment, and would not do it unless it met with their approval.” According to Meade’s chief engineer, Brigadier-General Gouverneur Warren, “I do not think I ever saw the principal corps commanders so unanimous in favor of not fighting as on that occasion.” Warren wrote that the consensus was that Meade had just won a tremendous victory at Gettysburg, and “he ought not to jeopard all he had gained by another battle at this time.”
Some of the generals supported an attack, but only after taking more time to regroup their units and assess the strength of Lee’s defenses. Meade became even more wary when a Confederate pretending to be a deserter came into the Federal lines and claimed that Lee’s men were entrenched and ready for a Federal assault.
The Confederates dug in behind their earthworks and trenches a few miles east of Williamsport, where they had waited five days for either a Federal attack or a lowering of the Potomac. Their defenses on the ridges near the river were very strong; Colonel E. Porter Alexander, top Confederate artillerist, wrote, “Oh! how we all did wish that the enemy would come out in the open and attack us, as we had done them at Gettysburg. But they had had their lesson, in that sort of game, at Fredericksburg and did not care for another.”
Lee notified President Jefferson Davis that the army would cross the next day if the river was low enough. Before the 12th, the rains had stopped and the river had fallen 18 inches. Engineers continued building makeshift pontoon bridges out of nearby warehouses and barns at Williamsport and farther downriver at Falling Waters. Lieutenant-General James Longstreet, overseeing the work being done at Falling Waters, recalled, “The rain fell in showers, sometimes in blinding sheets, during the entire night.” The falling Potomac threatened to rise again.
A place was found near Williamsport where the infantry could ford the river, and Lee issued orders for Lieutenant-General Richard Ewell’s corps, holding the army’s left, to cross there. Major-General Jeb Stuart’s cavalry covered while Longstreet on the right and Lieutenant-General A.P. Hill’s corps in the center crossed at Falling Waters.
Meade studied the Confederate dispositions throughout the 13th, sending his cavalry on various reconnaissance missions. At 5 p.m., he notified Halleck of the war council’s results and stated, “I shall continue these reconnaissances with the expectation of finding some weak point upon which, if I succeed, I shall hazard an attack.” Halleck quickly replied, “You are strong enough to attack and defeat the enemy before he can effect a crossing. Act upon your own judgment and make your generals execute their orders. Call no council of war. It is proverbial that councils of war never fight. Reinforcements are pushed on as rapidly as possible. Do not let the enemy escape.”
Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, who had little respect for Halleck, wrote in his diary, “The army is still at rest. Halleck stays here in Washington, within four hours of the army, smoking his cigar, doing as little as the army. If he gives orders for an onward movement and is not obeyed, why does he not remove to headquarters in the field? If this army is permitted to escape across the Potomac, woe be to those who permit it!” Meade spent the day gathering intelligence in expectation of “a great battle tomorrow.”
Heavy rain continued throughout the day, but the Confederate troops skillfully continued evacuating their defenses nonetheless, with each division leaving behind one regiment to serve as a rear guard. Campfires remained lit all along the line to hide the movement from the Federals. The Confederates also put “Quaker guns,” or logs painted black to resemble cannon, on the line facing the enemy.
Ewell’s men had to wade across the Potomac. One of his division commanders, Major-General Robert Rodes, recalled, “The water was cold, deep and rising, the light on either side of the river were dim, just affording enough light to mark the places of entrance and exit; the cartridge-boxes of the men had to be placed around their necks; some small men had to be carried over on the shoulders of their comrades; the water was up to the armpits of the full-sized men.”
Alexander later wrote: “But, oh, it was another awful night. I was now back with my battalion, and we were marching all night in the awful roads, in mud and dark, and hard rain, and though we had only three miles to go, we were still some distance from the bridge at sunrise… The whole night had been spent groping and pulling through the mud, a few feet at a time, and then waiting for the vehicle in front of you to move again. And men would go to sleep on their horses, or leaning in the fence corners, or standing in the mud… But the mule (Meade) had not yet caught up with the bear (Lee).”
Troops under Longstreet and Hill crossed on the bridges, but they still had to trudge through deep mud. Lee followed the men across at Falling Waters, and by dawn on the 14th, only a portion of Hill’s corps remained in the trenches to oppose the Federals.
- Clark, Champ, Gettysburg: The Confederate High Tide. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York: Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (Kindle Edition), 2011.
- Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee. Scribner, (Kindle Edition), 2008.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- 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.
- Sears, Stephen W., Lincoln’s Lieutenants: The High Command of the Army of the Potomac. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books, (Kindle Edition), 2017.
- Wert, Jeffry D. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
- Welles, Gideon, Diary of Gideon Welles Volumes I & II. Kindle Edition. Abridged, Annotated.