On July 15, President Abraham Lincoln scheduled a “Proclamation of Thanksgiving” for August 6. The day was to be spent expressing gratitude to God for “victories on land and on the sea so signal and so effective as to furnish reasonable grounds for augmented confidence that the Union of these States will be maintained, their Constitution preserved, and their peace and prosperity permanently restored…”
That same day, General Robert E. Lee rested his Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in the Bunker Hill area, north of Winchester and about 20 miles from the Potomac River. He directed his men to thresh nearby wheat, ground it up, and ration it among themselves along with the beef taken from Pennsylvania.
Lee wrote his wife, “The army has labored hard, endured much & behaved nobly. It has accomplished all that could have been reasonably expected. It ought not to have been expected to perform impossibilities, or to have fulfilled the anticipations of the thoughtless and unreasonable.” He expressed hope that the official campaign reports would “protect the reputation of every officer,” and he would not blame subordinates for the defeat at Gettysburg. Lee instead blamed himself for expecting too much from the men.
Federal cavalry clashed with some of Lee’s troops moving through Halltown and Shepherdstown, but the rest of the Federal army could not cross the Potomac because it had risen too high once more. Meade directed three corps to march to Harpers Ferry, and the other four corps to go six miles downstream to Berlin. The men built bridges and finally began crossing the river on the 16th.
As Lee continued reorganizing his army, he wrote President Jefferson Davis, “The men are in good health and spirits, but want shoes and clothing badly… As soon as these necessary articles are obtained, we shall be prepared to resume operations.” Lee shared reports that Federals were about to cross the river at Harpers Ferry, and he told Davis, “Should he follow us in this direction, I shall lead him (southward) up the Valley and endeavor to attack him as far from his base as possible.”
At Washington, President Abraham Lincoln held a cabinet meeting on the 17th where, according to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, some “remarks on the great error of General Meade in permitting Lee and the Rebel army with all their plunder to escape led the President to say he would not yet give up that officer. ‘He has committed,’ said the President, ‘a terrible mistake, but we will try him farther.’ No one expressed his approval, but (Secretary of State William) Seward said, ‘Excepting the escape of Lee, Meade has shown ability.’ It was evident that the retention of Meade had been decided.”
But grumblings about Meade’s leadership persisted. Correspondent Adams Hill used his friend, Brigadier-General James Wadsworth, as his primary source in a New York Tribune article that accused Meade and his top generals of vacillation following their council of war on July 12. Wadsworth asserted that Lee escaped because the Federal high command had “no idea the enemy intended to get away at once.”
Major-General Oliver O. Howard, commanding the Eleventh Corps in the Potomac army, countered by writing on behalf of the top army commanders who supported Meade. General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck also expressed his support for Meade. Lincoln took these reports and declared, “A few days having passed, I am now profoundly grateful for what was done, without criticism for what was not done. Gen. Meade has my confidence as a brave and skillful officer, and a true man.”
For Meade’s part, he was determined to continue an aggressive pursuit of Lee’s Confederates despite their successful crossing of the Potomac. The Federals completed their three-day crossing on Sunday the 19th and quickly advanced south up the Shenandoah Valley. Meade experienced supply problems upon his return to Virginia, but these would not stop him. He wrote his wife, “The Govt. insists on my pursuing & destroying Lee. The former I can do but the latter will depend on him as much as on me–for if he keeps out of my way, I can’t destroy.”
Lee directed Lieutenant-General James Longstreet’s First Corps to cross the Shenandoah River and seize Ashby’s Gap, “should nothing occur to arrest your progress.” Lee hoped to secure as many gaps in the Blue Ridge as needed to move east and protect the Confederate capital of Richmond.
Meade hoped to block Lee’s eastward movement by seizing the gaps first. He directed a cavalry division under Brigadier-General H. Judson Kilpatrick to occupy Ashby’s Gap, and the other two divisions under Brigadier-Generals John Buford and David Gregg to cover Manassas and Gregory’s gaps. Meade also dispatched the Twelfth Corps to hold Snicker’s Gap between Manassas and Gregory’s.
The Federals reached Ashby’s Gap before Longstreet, who resolved to move instead to Front Royal, farther south. Lieutenant-General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps followed Longstreet on the 21st, and Lieutenant-General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps followed Hill two days later. Meade moved south cautiously, guarding against a possible Confederate thrust northward into his rear that could cut his communication and supply lines to Washington.
One of Buford’s brigades led by Brigadier-General Wesley Merritt got to Manassas Gap before the Confederates. Merritt’s Federals clashed with Longstreet’s leading regiment on the 21st. Merritt reported, “The regiment is about 600 strong, which of itself in this country is enough to hold my entire brigade in check, as I cannot use my artillery to advantage. The wounds inflicted on the men of my brigade are very severe, and the arms captured from the enemy are the Springfield rifle. I will feel them again to-morrow.”
Buford’s other brigade, led by Colonel William Gamble, rode to cover Chester Gap farther south but discovered that Confederates already held it. This indicated to Meade that the main part of Lee’s army was no longer threatening his rear at Winchester, but rather trying to reach the Rappahannock River. The Confederates tried to push through Chester Gap on the 22nd, while Gamble’s troopers held positions a mile and a half east. Gamble reported:
“When the head of the enemy’s column came within easy range, we opened fire on it with artillery and the carbines of the dismounted men so effectually that his column, with his wagon train, halted and fell back out of our range, his advance guard and skirmishers being still engaged with ours, and continued firing, we holding our position, and preventing the head of Longstreet’s corps from moving forward from the Gap from 8 a.m. till 6 p.m.”
Longstreet sent Major-General George Pickett’s battered division south to outflank Gamble, who wrote that he was compelled to withdraw “when the enemy brought five regiments of infantry around out of sight in the woods, and, approaching my left flank, drove in our skirmishers.” This opened the gap, enabling the Confederates to pour through and cross the Blue Ridge on their way east.
At 2 p.m. the next day, Gamble reported that “the rebel army, with strong flankers, is still passing on this road. There is no doubt that the rebel army is pushing toward Culpeper on both sides of the mountains as fast as it possibly can, and I hope our army will act accordingly.”
Sensitive to charges that he had not shown enough aggression after the Battle of Gettysburg, Meade ordered the Third Corps, now commanded by Major-General William French (after Major-General Daniel Sickles was wounded at Gettysburg), to attack the Confederates at Manassas Gap. Longstreet may have pushed through Chester Gap, but Meade hoped to trap Hill and Ewell before they could follow suit. If Meade succeeded, the destruction of Lee’s army would be within his grasp.
- Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), Never Call Retreat: Centennial History of the Civil War Book 3. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1965.
- 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.
- 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.
- Welles, Gideon, Diary of Gideon Welles Volumes I & II. Kindle Edition. Abridged, Annotated.