July 12, 1863 – Major General George G. Meade prepared his Federal Army of the Potomac to attack, but General Robert E. Lee prepared his Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to withdraw.
Lee’s Confederates continued trying to cross the Potomac River and return to Virginia, while Meade’s Federals cautiously pursued them. 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 XI Corps held the right at Funkstown, while Major General Henry W. Slocum’s XII 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 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 seven corps commanders, where he announced that he intended to attack the next day. He held a vote on the matter, but just two of the seven supported his plan. The other five favored 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 was ready for a Federal assault.
Lee’s men 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 led by Major J.A. Harman 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.
The bridges were finally laid, and the Confederate wagons and artillery began crossing through the night and into the 13th. 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 with Major General Jeb Stuart’s cavalry covering 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.”
Heavy rain continued throughout the day, but the Confederate troops began skillfully 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.
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