Major-General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, hoped to trap General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia 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 July 23, 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 the Third Corps in the lead. The corps was now led by Major-General William French, who replaced Major-General Daniel Sickles after Sickles had lost a leg at Gettysburg. On the 23rd, French sent skirmishers through the gap to determine Confederate strength. All of French’s divisions arrived later that day and 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 troops coming up from 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. French had an entire corps with others coming up in support, but he had been stalled for hours by a single Confederate brigade, thereby allowing much of Lee’s army to pass through the Blue Ridge. Another opportunity to destroy the Confederates was lost, and Meade endured harsh criticism for entrusting such an inexperienced commander as French to lead such an important operation.
But Meade was not yet aware 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 found that 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 had prevented it. 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 spread 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.”
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- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
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- 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.