July 14, 1863 – General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia tried escaping to Virginia, while Major General George G. Meade’s Federal Army of the Potomac finally advanced.
By dawn on the 14th, Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Confederate corps was safely across the Potomac River and on Virginia soil. Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s corps had begun crossing the river at Falling Waters, leaving Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s corps in the center of the Confederate line alone to fend off a potential Federal attack.
Federal cavalry reported movement within the Confederate defenses at 3 a.m., but Meade ordered no general attack. He ordered a cavalry reconnaissance in force to start at 7 a.m. instead. Two cavalry divisions led by Brigadier Generals John Buford and H. Judson Kilpatrick rode to Williamsport and found the earthworks empty, with trenches guarded by “Quaker guns.”
Meanwhile, Longstreet’s men crossed the Potomac at Falling Waters, and Hill’s troops followed. Two divisions bringing up the rear were still about a mile from the bridge when the Federals slowly approached through the thick mud around 11 a.m.
Buford’s troopers charged from the north while Kilpatrick dispatched just two squadrons to take on Major General Henry Heth’s division from the east. Heth’s men fended off this limited attack using rifles, axes, fence rails, and anything else they could find. Kilpatrick then sent more men into the fray, and they combined with Buford’s advance to overwhelm the Confederates.
The Federals took 719 prisoners, along with two heavy guns and three battle flags. They also mortally wounded the popular Brigadier General James J. Pettigrew, who lingered with a stomach wound until succumbing on the 17th. Lee lamented that “the Army has lost a brave soldier and the Confederacy an accomplished officer.”
The Federals sustained 125 casualties (40 killed and 85 wounded). They tended to exaggerate their success in this engagement, possibly to downplay the fact that they failed to prevent the rest of Lee’s army from escaping back to Virginia. The Confederates removed the bridge around 1 p.m. to delay a Federal pursuit.
Meade finally ordered his army to advance, with four corps approaching Williamsport and two corps closing on Falling Waters. But the Federals found only empty trenches and earthworks, with the enemy rear guard crossing the river into Virginia. When Meade reported that the Confederates had escaped, President Abraham Lincoln said, “Great God! What does it mean?… There is bad faith somewhere… Our Army held the war in the hollow of their hand & they would not close it.”
Lincoln vented his frustration to his secretary, John Hay, “We had them within our grasp. We had only to stretch forth our hands and they were ours. And nothing I could say or do could make the army move.” Later that day, the president abruptly ended a cabinet meeting, saying he could no longer concentrate on the topics being discussed.
General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck notified Meade, “I need hardly say to you that the escape of Lee’s army without another battle had created great dissatisfaction in the mind of the President, and it will require an active and energetic pursuit on your part to remove the impression that it has not been sufficiently active heretofore.” Meade quickly responded:
“Having performed my duty conscientiously and to the best of my ability, the censure of the President conveyed in your dispatch of 1 p.m. this day, is, in my judgment, so undeserved that I feel compelled most respectfully to ask to be immediately relieved from the command of this army.”
Halleck assured Meade that Lincoln did not want to relieve him of command, and the original message “was not intended as a censure, but as a stimulus to an active pursuit.” That night, Lincoln wrote a long letter to Meade:
“I have just seen your dispatch to Gen. Halleck, asking to be relieved of your command, because of a supposed censure of mine. I am very–very–grateful to you for the magnificent success you gave the cause of the country at Gettysburg; and I am sorry now to be the author of the slightest pain to you. But I was in such deep distress myself that I could not restrain some expression of it…
“You fought and beat the enemy at Gettysburg; and, of course, to say the least, his loss was as great as yours. He retreated; and you did not, as it seemed to me, pressingly pursue him; but a flood in the river detained him, till, by slow degrees, you were again upon him. You had at least 20,000 veteran troops directly with you, and as many more raw ones within supporting distance, all in addition to those who fought with you at Gettysburg; while it was not possible that he had received a single recruit; and yet you stood and let the flood run down, bridges be built, and the enemy move away at his leisure, without attacking him…
“Again, my dear general, I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee’s escape. He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war. As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely. If you could not safely attack Lee last Monday, how can you possibly do so South of the river, when you can take with you very few more than two thirds of the force you then had in hand? It would be unreasonable to expect, and I do not expect you can now effect much. Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasurably because of it.
“I beg you will not consider this a prosecution, or persecution of yourself. As you had learned that I was dissatisfied, I have thought it best to kindly tell you why.”
Lincoln eventually realized that Meade had done his best. He had taken command of the army just four days before it fought its greatest battle, and there had been many losses and much suffering among the ranks since then. Moreover, had Meade attacked at Williamsport before the evacuation, he most likely would have suffered a terrible repulse like that at Fredericksburg last December. As such, Lincoln never signed or mailed this letter.
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