Tag Archives: John Buford

Northern Virginia: Lee’s Offensive Ends

October 15, 1863 – Major General George G. Meade’s Federal Army of the Potomac continued its withdrawal, preventing General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia from turning its right flank and rear.

Federal Maj Gen G.G. Meade and Confederate Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Meade telegraphed his superiors following yesterday’s victory at Bristoe Station: “The enemy, after a spirited contest, was repulsed, losing a battery of five guns, two colours, and 450 prisoners.” These prisoners divulged “that (A.P.) Hill’s and (Richard) Ewell’s corps, reinforced to a reported strength of 80,000, are advancing on me, their plan being to secure the Bull Run field in advance of me.” Meade figured that Lee planned to “turn me again, probably by the right… in which case I shall either fall on him or retire nearer Washington.”

The Federals continued withdrawing northeast to prevent Lee from turning their right flank or getting into their rear. Lee expected Meade to make a stand on the old Bull Run battlefield, but Meade withdrew even further. Confederate cavalry informed Lee that the Federals were building defenses on a line from Chantilly to Fairfax Court House.

Major General Jeb Stuart’s Confederate cavalry probed the Federal line. They then tried attacking a Federal wagon train, but Brigadier General John Buford’s Federal troopers drove them off. The remaining Confederates wrecked track on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad so it could not supply Meade’s Federals.

Lee saw no advantage to attacking Meade in his present position because, if successful, he would just push Meade back into the impregnable Washington defenses. Lee hoped to at least forage for supplies in the area since his wagon train was nearly empty and Federals had destroyed the railroad bridge over the Rappahannock River. But when Lee learned that there were no supplies to be had, he was compelled to withdraw.

Heavy rain fell on the 16th, and when Lee did not try turning Meade’s right again as expected, it indicated that the Confederate army might not be as strong as the prisoners claimed. President Abraham Lincoln sensed this and wrote General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck:

“If Gen. Meade can now attack him (Lee) on a field no worse than equal for us, and will do so with all the skill and courage, which he, his officers and men possess, the honor will be his if he succeeds, and the blame may be mine if he fails.”

Halleck forwarded the message to Meade, which amounted to an implied offer that Meade would receive no blame if he attacked and failed. But since it was not a direct order, Meade replied, “It has been my intention to attack the enemy, if I can find him on a field no more than equal for us. I have only delayed doing so from the difficulty of ascertaining his exact position, and the fear that in endeavoring to do so my communications might be jeopardized.”

When the rains stopped on the 17th, Lee began withdrawing in the mud from Manassas Junction toward the Rappahannock fords. Lee was not willing to wait for Meade to attack. Stuart’s cavalry screened the movement, with Stuart riding with Major General Wade Hampton’s division through Gainesville and Haymarket, and Major General Fitzhugh Lee’s division falling back toward Manassas Junction and Bristoe Station.

The Confederates arrived at the Rappahannock around noon on the 18th after a grueling march through the mud and began crossing that night. Meade was unaware where Lee’s army had gone; he speculated that Lee might head toward the Shenandoah Valley once more. Halleck told him of reports that Lee was advancing on Harpers Ferry, adding:

“If Lee has turned his back on you to cross the mountains, he certainly has seriously exposed himself to your blows, unless his army can move two miles to your one. Fight him before he again draws you at such a distance from your base as to expose your communications to his raids. If he moves on Harpers Ferry, you must not give him time to take that place before you go to its aid. Of course, it cannot hold out long if attacked by his main force.”

Meade replied that his cavalry reported “the enemy as having withdrawn from Bristoe, supposed toward the Rappahannock.” However, Meade still could not confirm this, and so he told Halleck that he would stay put “until I know something more definite of position of the enemy.”

Halleck fired back, “Lee is unquestionably bullying you. If you cannot ascertain his movements, I certainly cannot. If you pursue and fight him, I think you will find out where he is.” Meade considered this message condescending and wrote an angry reply:

“If you have any orders to give me, I am prepared to receive and obey them, but I must insist on being spared the infliction of such truisms in the guise of opinions as you have recently honored me with, particularly as they were not asked for. I take this occasion to repeat what I have before stated, that if my course, based on my own judgment, does not meet with approval, I ought to be, and I desire to be, relieved from command.”

Halleck tried to diffuse the tension by writing the next day that “if, in conveying these wishes, I have used words which were unpleasing, I sincerely regret it.” Meade would not be so lucky as to be relieved of command. But by the end of the 18th, he decided to go by his cavalry’s reports and move south to try finding Lee near the Rappahannock.

Meanwhile, Stuart and Hampton approached Groveton, where they were attacked by Brigadier General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s Federal horsemen. The Confederates withdrew toward Gainesville, where they took up strong defensive positions and waited for Fitz Lee’s troopers to arrive. When Fitz Lee arrived later that night, Stuart approved his plan to feign a move toward Warrenton while attacking Kilpatrick’s left flank as it crossed Broad Run.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 334; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 10435; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 794-95, 797-98; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 360-62; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6452-64; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 422-24; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 87-88

Northern Virginia: Another Flanking Maneuver

October 12, 1863 – General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia attempted another flanking maneuver after Major General George G. Meade’s Federals fell back.

Federal Maj Gen G.G. Meade and Confederate Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

By the morning of the 11th, Meade had correctly identified that Lee intended to move his Confederates around the Federal right flank and rear to either give battle or drive Meade back toward the Potomac River. President Abraham Lincoln, anxious for updates, asked Meade, “How is it now?” Meade replied, “I am falling back to the Rappahannock (River). The enemy are either moving to my right and rear or moving down on my flank, I can not tell which, as their movements are not developed. I am prepared for either emergency.”

Brigadier General John Buford’s Federal cavalry clashed with Major General Fitzhugh Lee’s troopers who had stayed behind to screen the Confederates’ northern advance. Buford received Meade’s order to fall back around 9 a.m., and as he did so, Fitz Lee pursued. Buford made a stand, trying to keep the enemy from interfering with the Federals’ withdrawal across the Rappahannock.

That morning, Federal infantry evacuated Culpeper Court House, heading north to block Lee’s supposed attempt to attack either their flank or their rear. Brigadier General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s Federal cavalry skirmished with Major General Jeb Stuart’s horsemen northwest of Culpeper, as Kilpatrick tried screening the withdrawal.

Lee’s infantry marched north to the Sperryville pike, then turned east toward Culpeper, where Lee hoped Meade would be. However, most of Meade’s army had already crossed the Rappahannock by that time. As Buford held off Fitz Lee and Kilpatrick held off Stuart, the remaining Federals got across. By the time the Confederate infantry met up with the cavalry, the Federals were gone.

The Confederates held positions northeast of Culpeper, but Lee missed his opportunity to attack Meade’s right and rear. He wrote President Jefferson Davis that he was “determined to make another effort to reach him.” Lee began planning to conduct another flanking maneuver, this time moving the army to Warrenton, and then to Manassas Junction.

The Confederates moved out of Culpeper on the 12th and headed for Warrenton, behind the Federal army. Lee relied on the strategy he had used in the Second Bull Run Campaign of August 1862 by sending Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps on a wide, westward swing around the Federals while Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps moved northward along the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. Lee informed Davis, “I am still moving with the view of throwing him (Meade) further back toward Washington.”

Lincoln wrote Meade, “What news this morning?” Meade, unaware that Lee was trying another flanking maneuver, sent three corps, along with Buford’s cavalry, to Brandy Station to identify Lee’s positions. Thus, his army was divided as he was in danger of being outflanked.

As Meade learned from nearby residents that Lee was moving toward Manassas Gap, he awaited word from Brigadier General David Gregg, whose cavalry division was on the Federal right. Meade reported to Washington:

“I hope during the night to get some information from him (Gregg) to confirm or disprove this report, now derived only from soldiers’ talk with citizens. In the meantime, it is proper you should be advised of this report, because, if true, Lee may get between me and Washington, and you may be annoyed then.”

That night, Gregg informed Meade that Lee was trying to turn the Federal right once more. Meade reported “that the enemy have forced the passage of the river at Sulphur Springs… There is no doubt the whole of Lee’s army is crossing on my immediate right. If I am not attacked tomorrow, I shall move toward him and attack him.” Meade issued orders for his army to concentrate at Fayetteville and east of Warrenton during the night.

The Confederates continued moving toward Manassas Junction and Washington on the 13th, with Hill’s corps in the lead. Lee accompanied Ewell on the march, where he received word that Federals were burning supplies at Warrenton Junction. Lee saw this as an opportunity to cut the Federals off at Bristoe Station, farther up the railroad line.

Stuart scouted ahead of the Confederate infantry and reported to Lee, “I believe you can reach the (Federal) rear if Hill is up.” Stuart and two of his brigades got trapped between the Federals at Auburn and Warrenton Junction. Stuart later reported, “In this predicament, I was not long in deciding to conceal my whereabouts, if possible, from the enemy.” Stuart and his men hid for the night in a small valley, while couriers slipped between the Federal lines to report the Federals’ whereabouts to Lee.

At day’s end, Lee’s army was just nine miles from the Federal rear.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 333; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 787, 789; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 359-60; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6405-17; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 420-21; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 80, 87-88

Northern Virginia and the Confederate Strategy Conference

August 31, 1863 – General Robert E. Lee attended a conference with President Jefferson Davis at Richmond to discuss upcoming Confederate strategy in Virginia and elsewhere.

Brig Gen John Buford | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

In northern Virginia, Federal troops of Major General George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac continued working to secure their positions by driving Confederates away from the crossings on the Rappahannock River. Brigadier General John Buford, leading a Federal cavalry division, had been ordered to clear the area around Kelly’s Ford of enemy troops. Buford instead sent troops from XII Corps across at Kelly’s and rode upriver to Rappahannock Station. After sorting out the miscommunication, Federal engineers finally arrived and laid a bridge across the river, enabling Buford’s horsemen to cross.

As Buford rode out to confront any nearby Confederates, he encountered stiff resistance from Brigadier General Wade Hampton’s brigade of Major General Jeb Stuart’s cavalry near the Brandy Station battlefield of June 9. Lee reported that Stuart himself was “in the front with the brigade the whole day.” Buford reported, “By keeping my men well in hand, I managed to drive him back to within 1 1/2 miles of Culpeper, where I met a heavy force of infantry belonging to A.P. Hill’s corps.”

Buford ordered a withdrawal, recounting, “The fight was very handsomely executed, there were several charges, and sabers were used with success.” From the Confederate prisoners taken, Buford learned that Hill’s corps was at Culpeper, while the main part of Lee’s army was south, near Gordonsville. Based on this skirmish, Lee stated, “It was now determined to place the army in a position to enable it more readily to oppose the enemy should he attempt to move southward.”

By the 4th, the Army of Northern Virginia had taken positions along the Rapidan River, while the Army of the Potomac remained north of the Rappahannock. Both armies were roughly where they had begun the Gettysburg campaign, with Federals occupying the area where Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson had begun the Second Bull Run campaign a year ago.

The forces remained stationary for the time being, except for sporadic skirmishes and raids. On the 6th, John S. Mosby and his Confederate partisans captured a Federal wagon train at Fairfax Court House, making off with the supplies without a Federal pursuit.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

When Lee suggested bolstering his army with more men, President Davis replied, “It is painful to contemplate our weakness when you ask for reinforcements.” Lee’s army contained about 58,000 effectives, having been reinforced by 3,000 men from Major General Samuel Jones’s West Virginia command and augmented by the return of some stragglers and those slightly wounded.

However, the men lacked necessities such as food and shoes, and horses lacked grain and equipment. Disrupted rail lines affected the delivery of what little supplies could be gathered. And Lee’s chief of ordnance wrote that all ammunition delivered by Richmond must be tested before distribution because some of the artillery shells did not fit the guns.

Near month’s end, Davis summoned Lee to a series of conferences in Richmond to “prepare the army for offensive operations.” While the armies in Virginia were stalemated, the Federals were getting closer to capturing the vital port city of Charleston, and they were closing in on Chattanooga and Knoxville as well. And across the Mississippi, Federals were poised to capture Little Rock and threaten the Texas coast.

Lieutenant General James Longstreet, interim army commander in Lee’s absence, later wrote, “I called General Lee’s attention to the condition of our affairs in the West. I suggested that he should adhere to his defensive tactics upon the Rapidan, and reinforce from his army the army lying in front of (General William) Rosecrans–so that it could crush that army, and then push on to the West.”

Davis suggested keeping Longstreet in Virginia and sending just Lee to Tennessee to take over General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee. Lee opposed both proposals, instead arguing that the best way to take Federal pressure off the threatened points was to go on the offensive against Meade. Lee wrote Longstreet on the 31st, “I can see nothing better to be done than to endeavor to bring General Meade out and use our efforts to crush his army while in the present condition.”

The talks continued into September.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 313, 315, 317; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 594, 708; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 339; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6327, 6361-70; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 394, 397; 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), p. 671

The Gettysburg Aftermath: The Armies Settle Back in Virginia

July 28, 1863 – Both the Federal Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia settled into position, as Major General George G. Meade was dissuaded from attacking and General Robert E. Lee submitted his official report on the Battle of Gettysburg.

Federal Maj Gen G.G. Meade and Confederate Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

By the 28th, Lee had evaded all Federal efforts to trap and destroy his army, skirting around Meade’s southern flank and moving east to safety near Culpeper Court House. Meade, having missed opportunities to destroy Lee’s army in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and now Virginia, moved his army to Warrenton. He reported that he had 105,623 officers and men, including about 13,500 cavalrymen, present for duty. Lee had about 59,178 officers and men, including some 9,000 horsemen.

Confederate scouts correctly located each of Meade’s seven corps in the Warrenton area, but they could not determine their sizes. Lee reported to President Jefferson Davis, “Although our loss has been so heavy, which is a source of constant grief to me, I believe the damage to the enemy has been as great in proportion. This has shown by the feeble operations since.”

He forwarded intelligence to Davis that Meade was being reinforced, adding that “their means are greater than ours, and I fear when they move again, they will much outnumber us.” Lee proposed possibly withdrawing behind the Rapidan River, which was where Meade believed he already was. Lee wrote, “The enemy now seems to be content to remain quiescent,” while “prepared to oppose any offensive movement on our part.”

Lee was wrong. Washington continued prodding Meade into launching another offensive, with General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck reminding Meade that “Lee’s army is the objective point.” Meade replied on the 28th, “I am making every effort to prepare this army for an advance.” He continued, “I am in hopes to commence the movement tomorrow, when I shall first throw over (the Rappahannock River) a cavalry force to feel for the enemy, and cross the infantry as fast as possible.”

However, Meade added, “No reliable intelligence of the position of the enemy has been obtained,” and the Confederate “pickets” along the railroad to Fredericksburg “seem to be mere ‘look-outs’ to warn him of my approach.” Various reports placed Lee’s army at Gordonsville, Culpeper, Cedar Mountain, Staunton, and even beyond the Rapidan on its way to Richmond.

Meade told Halleck, “My plan is to advance on the railroad to Culpeper and as far beyond as the enemy’s position will permit.” He sought to cut the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, Lee’s supposed supply line to Richmond, to determine “the practicability of maintaining open such a long line of communication.”

Later that day, Meade received word that Lee’s army was at Culpeper Court House. He also forwarded a report that “Lee has been re-enforced by D.H. Hill, reported with 10,000 men, and that he intends to make a stand at Culpeper or in its vicinity.” While it was true that Lee was at Culpeper, Major General D.H. Hill had not reinforced him (Hill had instead gone to reinforce General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee). Nevertheless, Meade planned to advance on the 29th, even if his army was not ready, if only to appease his superiors’ call for immediate action.

But now that Lee had reached Culpeper, President Abraham Lincoln no longer saw the need for Meade to immediately attack. The president wrote Halleck on the morning of the 29th, stating that Meade’s plan “causes me to fear that he supposes the Government here is demanding of him to bring on a general engagement with Lee as soon as possible. I am claiming no such thing of him.”

Lincoln had pressed Meade to attack in Pennsylvania and Maryland, but now the Federals were back in Virginia, where Lee had consistently defeated the Army of the Potomac. Lincoln told Halleck, “If he (Meade) could not safely engage Lee at Williamsport, it seems absurd to suppose he can safely engage him now, when he has scarcely more than two-thirds of the force he had at Williamsport, while it must be that Lee has been re-enforced.”

Lincoln continued, “True, I desired General Meade to pursue Lee across the Potomac, hoping, as has proved true, that he would thereby clear the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and get some advantage by harassing him on his retreat,” despite Halleck telling Meade at the time that he had greatly dissatisfied the president. Lincoln concluded, “I am unwilling he should now get into a general engagement on the impression that we here are pressing him.”

Halleck passed this message on to Meade, who responded the next day: “The impression of the President is correct. I have been acting under the belief, from your telegrams, that it was his and your wish that I should pursue Lee and bring him to a general engagement, if practicable.” Meade clarified that he had not failed to attack at Williamsport, Lee had just retreated before the attack began; he also declared that, contrary to Lincoln’s estimation, the army was at full strength, not two-thirds the size it was at Williamsport.

Meade wrote that his army’s current position was vulnerable to flank attacks, therefore it should advance against Lee before Lee advanced first. Halleck shared Meade’s message with Lincoln, then replied that the Federals should stay north of the Rappahannock for now. More troops might be needed from the army if the northern draft riots got any worse, Halleck explained.

Meade responded, “In my judgment, if there were no other considerations than the relative strength and position of the two armies, I should favor an advance.” But Halleck and Lincoln insisted that Meade stay put for now. To do so safely, Meade needed to secure the Rappahannock crossings in his front. Brigadier General John Buford’s cavalry and XII Corps cleared Confederates away from Kelly’s Ford on the 31st, and they moved upriver to clear Rappahannock Station the next day.

Confederates patrolled the region between Rappahannock Station and Fredericksburg, guessing that if a Federal attack came, it would come from that area. On the last day of July, Lee submitted his official report on the Battle of Gettysburg to Davis, reiterating that the soldiers were not responsible for the defeat:

“The conduct of the troops was all that I could desire or expect, and they deserved success so far as it can be deserved by heroic valor and fortitude. More may have been required of them than they were able to perform, but my admiration of their noble qualities and confidence in their ability to cope successfully with the enemy has suffered no abatement from the issue of this protracted and sanguinary conflict.”

Davis, who had been despairing over the major defeats at Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Port Hudson, Jackson, and Tullahoma this month, confided in Lee near month’s end:

“General Johnston, after evacuating Jackson, retreated to the east, to the pine woods of Mississippi, and if he has any other plan than that of watching the enemy, it has not been communicated… this war can only be successfully prosecuted while we have the cordial support of the people. In various quarters there are mutterings of discontent, and threats of alienation are said to exist, with preparation for organized opposition. I have felt more than ever before the want of your advice during the recent period of disaster. If a victim would secure the success of our cause I would freely offer myself.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 569, 647; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 335; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6327; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 392

The Gettysburg Aftermath: Meade Tries Cutting Lee Off

July 19, 1863 – General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia hurried to get through the Blue Ridge, and Major General George G. Meade’s Federal Army of the Potomac hurried to cut them off.

On the 15th, President Abraham Lincoln issued 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…”

Confederate Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

That same day, Lee rested his Confederates 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 captured from Pennsylvania.

Lee wrote his wife that the army “has accomplished all that could be 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 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 up the Valley and endeavor to attack him as far from his base as possible.”

The Federals completed their three-day crossing of the Potomac on Sunday the 19th. They quickly advanced south up Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley toward the Confederates past the Blue Ridge. 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 Richmond.

Maj Gen G.G. Meade | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

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 two other divisions under Brigadier Generals John Buford and David Gregg to cover Manassas and Gregory’s gaps. Meade also dispatched XII 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.

Buford sent a brigade under Brigadier General Wesley Merritt to cover Manassas Gap, which arrived to secure it before the Confederates. Merritt’s Federals clashed with the 17th Virginia, 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 took 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 pushing 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 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 III 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.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 309-11; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 593-94, 627; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 333; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6316, 6327; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 386-89

The Gettysburg Aftermath: Falling Waters

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.

Brig Gen John Buford | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

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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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Clark, Champ, Gettysburg: The Confederate High Tide (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 156-57; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 69-75; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 19096; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 309; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 9476-87; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 626; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 329-30; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 535-36; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 384-85; 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), p. 666-67; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 253, 307-08, 579

The Gettysburg Aftermath: Lee Prepares for Battle

July 8, 1863 – General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia prepared for a battle while still stranded on the Maryland side of the Potomac River.

Confederate Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

The Confederates remained delayed at Williamsport as engineers and troops scrambled to build makeshift bridges to cross the Potomac. From Hagerstown that night, Lee assured President Jefferson Davis that army morale was still high, and a battle may need to be fought if the Federals attacked before the Confederates crossed the river. Lee also urged Davis to send General P.G.T. Beauregard’s “army in effigy” from Charleston to feign an attack on Washington, which would draw Federal attention away from Lee’s retreat. Lee wrote:

“I hope Your Excellency will understand that I am not in the least discouraged, or that my faith in the protection of an all-merciful Providence, or in the fortitude of this army, is at all shaken. But, though conscious that the enemy has been much shattered in the recent battle, I am aware that he can be easily reinforced, while no addition can be made to our numbers. The measure, therefore, that I have recommended is altogether one of a prudential nature.”

Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, wrote his wife from his headquarters at Frederick: “From the time I took command till today, now over 10 days, I have not changed my clothes, have not had a regular night’s rest and many nights not a wink of sleep, and for several days did not even wash my face and hands, no regular food, and all the time in a great state of mental anxiety.” Meade then informed General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck:

“My army is assembling slowly. The rains of yesterday and last night have made all roads but pikes almost impassable. Artillery and wagons are stalled; it will take time to collect them together… I wish in advance to moderate the expectations of those who, in ignorance of the difficulties to be encountered, may expect too much. All that I can do under the circumstances I pledge this army to do.”

Halleck, prodded by President Abraham Lincoln, expressed impatience with Meade’s seeming reluctance to pursue Lee more vigorously. He wrote, “There is reliable information that the enemy is crossing at Williamsport. The opportunity to attack his divided forces should not be lost. Push forward and fight Lee before he can cross the Potomac. The President is urgent and anxious that your army should move against him by forced marches.”

Meade responded, “My army is and has been making forced marches,” with troops reporting that they were “short of rations and barefooted.” This did not satisfy the administration because the army had such an overabundance of supplies that some were being returned to Washington.

Halleck assured Meade that Lincoln appreciated his great victory at Gettysburg, but, “If Lee’s army is so divided by the river, the importance of attacking the part on this side is incalculable. Such an opportunity may never occur again… You will have forces sufficient to render your victory certain. My only fear now is that the enemy may escape.”

By the 9th, a large part of the Federal army had crossed South Mountain to Boonsboro, eight miles southeast of Williamsport. Meade arrived at Middletown and wrote Halleck:

“This army is moving in three columns, the right column having in it three corps… I think the decisive battle of the war will be fought in a few days. In view of the momentous consequences, I desire to adopt such measures as in my judgment will tend to insure success, even though these may be deemed tardy.”

Halleck responded, “Do not be influenced by any dispatch from here against your own judgment. Regard them as suggestions only. Our information here is not always correct.” He then wrote Meade the next day, “I think it will be-best for you to postpone a general battle till you can concentrate all your forces and get up your reserves and reinforcements… Beware of partial combats. Bring up and hurl upon the enemy all your forces, good and bad.”

Meanwhile, Confederate troops and wagons conveying their wounded still remained on the banks of the Potomac, unable to cross due to the high water. That night, a Confederate officer who had escaped Federal captivity at Gettysburg reached Lee’s army and reported that Meade was advancing toward Hagerstown. Lee began preparing for what he expected to be a Federal attack.

The Federals inched closer to the Confederate positions, carefully probing to assess their strength. Meade reported on the 10th, “These positions, they are said to be intrenching.” Moving down the Hagerstown Pike, Meade informed his superiors that he would “advance cautiously” to “develop more fully the enemy’s force and position.”

Lee concentrated his army at Williamsport that day and wrote Major General Jeb Stuart, commanding the Confederate cavalry, “We must prepare for a vigorous battle and trust in the mercy of God and the valor of our troops.” He then wrote Davis, “With the blessing of Heaven, I trust that the courage and fortitude of the army will be found sufficient to relieve us from the embarrassment caused by the unlooked-for natural difficulties of our situation, if not to secure more valuable and substantial results.”

Skirmishing erupted between Federals and the Confederate rear guard, with Brigadier General John Buford’s Federal horsemen nearly running out of ammunition before Major General John Sedgwick’s VI Corps arrived to drive the Confederates off. This delaying action gave Lee more time to prepare for what could have been his last stand.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Clark, Champ, Gettysburg: The Confederate High Tide (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 152-53, 156; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 305-07; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 585-86, 589-90, 641; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 326; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6292; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 381-83; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q363