This article was written by Richard F. Welch and originally appeared in the July 1993 issue of America’s Civil War magazine. It is archived on Historynet.com.
“It was all my fault this time. Form your ranks again when you get back to cover. We want all good men to hold together now.”
With these words, General Robert E. Lee exhorted the broken remnants of George Pickett’s and Joseph Pettigrew’s divisions to regroup as they staggered back from the hail of Union gunfire on Cemetery Ridge outside the village of Gettysburg, Pa. For three long days, Lee had hurled his army against the Federal positions, storming their right, left and center in turn. Although badly mauled, the Army of the Potomac under Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade held firm and ultimately drove back the Rebel fury.
After the bloody repulse known as Pickett’s Charge, Lee’s army was spent, incapable of further offensive operations. Maintaining a prolonged defense in central Pennsylvania was now impossible, and the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia had only one choice left open to him — retreat. Nevertheless, Lee would not move hastily and determined to remain in the field for 24 hours to prepare his retreat, especially the transportation of his wounded.
At 5 o’clock on the afternoon of July 3, Lee recalled the divisions of Brig. Gen. Evander Law and Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws from their positions near the two Round Top hills. Meade then ordered a reconnaissance in force by Maj. Gen. George Sykes’ V Corps, which came under fire from Confederate batteries, forcing its withdrawal. This brief skirmish probably served to strengthen Meade’s conviction that he must proceed with caution against his still-dangerous foe.
Both armies had been badly bloodied. The Army of the Potomac began the battle with 83,289 men. In three days it suffered total losses in killed, wounded and missing of 17,684 men, or 21.2 percent.
All the army’s corps except the VI had long casualty lists. The I and III Corps were so badly decimated that they were ultimately combined into the II Corps. Of Meade’s initial corps commanders, Maj. Gen. John Reynolds was dead and Maj. Gens. Daniel Sickles and Winfield Scott Hancock were both seriously wounded.
Lee had brought 75,054 men across the Potomac into Pennsylvania. His unsuccessful attempts to punch a hole through the Union lines had cost him 22,638 casualties, or 30.2 percent of his total force. The heavy loss of field-grade officers at Gettysburg would prove a drag on the Army of Northern Virginia for the remainder of the war.
Meade would later be severely criticized for his failure to launch a counterattack on the broken Confederates. No doubt the chaotic circumstances in his own army — as well as a healthy respect for Lee’s — convinced Meade that an immediate counterattack was too dangerous to undertake. Nevertheless, immediately after the failure of Pickett’s Charge, Lee’s line was in tatters, and both Lee and Lt. Gen. James Longstreet fully expected a strong Federal counterattack. As he was being taken from the field with a serious wound, Hancock, commander of the Federal II Corps, wrote a message to Meade stating, If the VI and V Corps have pressed up, the enemy will be destroyed. However, when he arrived on the scene, Meade was satisfied with having turned back the Confederate assaults, and whatever chance a counterattack had of destroying the Army of Northern Virginia rapidly vanished.
On July 5, after Lee had withdrawn from Gettysburg, Meade wrote his wife his assessment of the battle and set down his reasons for not launching an attack: It was a grand battle, and is in my judgment a most decided victory, though I did not annihilate or bag the Confederate Army. This morning they retreated in great haste into the mountains, leaving their dead unburied and their wounded on the field. They awaited one day, expecting that flushed with success, I would attack them, when they would play their old game of shooting us from behind breastworks. This time, Meade pointed out, he refused to play their game.
During the night of July 3-4, Lee continued the rearrangement of his lines, withdrawing Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell’s corps from Culp’s Hill, which then joined Lt. Gens. A.P. Hill’s and James Longstreet’s corps in a generally straight defensive line on Seminary Ridge. Most accounts describe Lee riding alone among his army long into the night. He finally met up with Brig. Gen. John D. Imboden, who was to provide the cavalry escort for the wagon train of wounded. General, this has been a hard day on you, Imboden said to his commander. Yes, Lee replied, it has been a sad, sad day to us. Lee lauded the performance of Pettigrew’s and Pickett’s men and added: If they had been supported as they were to have been — but for some reason not fully explained to me were not — we would have held the position and the day would have been ours. Too bad, too bad. Oh, too bad.
We must now return to Virginia, Lee continued. As many of our poor wounded as possible must be taken home. As Lee gave Imboden his orders, he added: The duty will be arduous, responsible and dangerous, for I am afraid you will be harassed by the enemy’s cavalry. How many men do you have? Imboden replied that he had 2,000 men and 23 cannons available for the task.
On the 4th, as both armies stared at each other in stunned silence and exhaustion, messengers rode back and forth across the lines. Lee held about 4,000 Federal troops prisoner and asked for an exchange. Meade declined, reasoning that guarding and feeding 4,000 prisoners during the retreat would work against the Confederates. Lee ordered his troops in front of Seminary Ridge to go through the motions of entrenching to deceive Meade as to his true intentions. Willing away the sense of despair and disappointment that had characterized his mood the night before, Lee affected an outward show of confidence. On greeting Longstreet, whose corps had borne the brunt of the fighting on the second and third days of the battle, Lee called out, Well, here is my old war horse. To Longstreet he repeated his remarks at the failure of Pickett’s Charge: It is all my fault. I thought my men were invincible.
While Lee was preparing his retreat, Meade issued General Orders No. 68, congratulating his men for their performance during the battle. His message concluded, Our task is not yet accomplished and the commanding general looks to the Army for greater efforts to drive from our soil every vestige of the presence of the invader.
Although Meade clearly showed signs of strain from the burden of command in a crucial campaign, he ordered Maj. Gen. William French, stationed at Frederick, Md., to proceed to the ford at Falling Waters, near Williamsport, and destroy the pontoon bridge there. Meade apparently had some hope of trapping Lee north of the Potomac and assumed another major battle would be fought outside Virginia. Nevertheless, he only began his pursuit on July 5, a day after Lee’s withdrawal, leading with the relatively unbloodied VI Corps.
As both the Federal and Confederate armies commenced their race to the Potomac, they left a terrible scene of death and pain. Thousands of bodies lay blackened, bloated and festering in the sun. Before leaving Gettysburg, Meade contracted with a local resident, Samuel Herbst, to organize able-bodied citizens to bury the dead. Additionally, Pennsylvania militiamen, who had been ordered out to meet the emergency of Lee’s invasion, were pressed into the grisly work, fashioning hooks from bayonets and pulling bodies into shallow graves by their belts. There were still more than 21,000 wounded in Gettysburg, 14,500 Northerners and 6,800 Southerners. Since another battle with Lee was expected, most of the Army medical units marched off with Meade, leaving only 106 medical officers, about one-third of whom were operating surgeons. Volunteer nurses from the U.S. Sanitary Commission arrived to help, and fresh food and vegetables purchased from local sources also aided the convalescence of those who were not too seriously hurt.
Of course, in both burials and medical treatment, Northern soldiers received care first. According to some accounts, it took surgeons five days to complete their amputations, while Rebel soldiers lay dying. Not that Confederate soldiers were purposely treated callously — when a torrential rain began on July 4, hundreds of Southern wounded lying near a field hospital in danger of drowning were carried to higher ground by Northern soldiers. There were also instances of Southern women coming north to tend wounded Confederates and being permitted to carry our their mercy missions unhindered.
Some idea of the horrific conditions at Gettysburg in the wake of the battle can be gathered from the account of Cornelia Hancock, a New Jersey Quaker, who arrived to nurse the wounded: A sickening, overpowering, awful stench announced the presence of the unburied dead on which the July sun was mercilessly shining, and at every step the air grew heavier and fouler until it seemed to possess a palpable, horrible density that could be felt and cut with a knife. At a field hospital the first sight that met our eyes was a collection of semi-conscious but still living human forms, all of whom had been shot through the head and were considered hopeless….Yet a groan came from them and their limbs tossed and twitched.
There was hardly a tent to be seen. Earth was the only available bed during the first hours after the battle….A long table stood in [the] woods and around it gathered a number of surgeons and attendants. This was the operating table, and for seven days it literally ran blood. A wagon stood near, rapidly filling with amputated legs and arms. Then, wholly filled, this gruesome spectacle withdrew from sight and returned for another load.
Lee directed his army to move across South Mountain to Hagerstown and then to Falling Waters. The wounded in their wagon train left first, at 4 o’clock on the afternoon of the 4th. The trail of pain stretched 17 miles. The wounded were accompanied by about 5,000 able-bodied men who were hurrying back to Virginia as rapidly as possible. Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s corps was in the van between Imboden and the rest of the army. He was continually harassed by cavalry and got involved in a nasty night fight at Monterey Pass, where the flashes of the muskets were answered with bolts of lightning. Ewell lost his wagons and about 1,500 men, but fought off the Federals.
The mood of the retreating Confederates was one of both disappointment over the failure of battle and anger over their inability to pay the Yankees back in kind for the repulses the Northerners had meted out to them. Driven by forced marches, they soon added exhaustion to their mixture of emotions and sensations. Napier Bartlett, a Louisiana artilleryman, later recalled the feelings of pressure, apprehension and relief that so many experienced: When we were permitted at length to lie down under the caissons or in fence corners and realized that we had escaped the death that had snatched away so many others, we felt too well satisfied at our good fortune.
So important was our movement that no halt for bivouac, though we marched scarcely two miles an hour, was made on our route from Gettysburg to Williamsport — a march of over forty miles. The men and officers on horseback would go to sleep without knowing it, and at one time there was a halt occasioned by all the drivers…being asleep in their saddles. In fact, the whole army was dozing while marching and moved as if under enchantment or a spell — asleep and at the same time walking.
During the retreat, Lee ordered the impressment of horses to replace those lost in battle or those too jaded for further service. The Rebels paid for the horses either in Confederate currency or by giving the owners a written description of the animals confiscated, signed by a Confederate officer. These could be, and were, used by citizens to file a claim with the U.S. government for their losses.
For the hundreds of wounded, conveyed in springless wooden wagons, the retreat proved especially horrifying. The torrential rains that began on the 4th added to the misery of the torn men being hurried south to the safety of Virginia. Imboden issued orders prohibiting a halt, and stationed sentinels every third of a mile. During the first night of the retreat he rode to the head of the column and later recalled that in four hours he was never out of the hearing of the groans and cries of the wounded and dying. Scarcely one in one hundred had received adequate surgical aid….Many of the wounded in wagons had been without food for 36 hours….except for the drivers and the guards, all were wounded and utterly helpless in this vast procession of misery. During this one night I realized more of the horror of war than I had in all the two previous years.
At dawn on July 5, 30 to 40 civilians at Greencastle, Pa., attacked the wagon train and smashed the wheels of 12 wagons with axes. Imboden’s cavalry drove them off, but the Southerners were forced to fend off hit-and-run attacks from Federal cavalry detachments throughout the day. In the late afternoon Imboden’s command reached Williamsport. There they found the Potomac running exceedingly high. Some attention could finally be given to the wounded. Local residents were ordered to take them in while burial squads sought grave sites for those who had not survived the journey. Two flatboats were pressed into service taking the wounded across the swollen river. Those who could walk were ordered to proceed on foot to Winchester. Each flatboat could carry 30 wounded men, and each trip across the river took 15 minutes. It took 40 anxious hours to transport 10,000 wounded to the Virginia shore.
The next morning, about 7,000 Union cavalry arrived from Frederick and appeared before Imboden’s lines. Although he was outnumbered, Imboden’s position was strong, and he bluffed boldly. After arming his teamsters and organizing the wounded who were still able to fight, he anticipated Brig. Gen. John Buford’s attack against the easier terrain on his own right. He ordered the troops on his left to fire, and then withdrew them behind the cover of high ground and redeployed them on his right. Consequently, the Federal attacks on his strengthened right flank were beaten off.
Toward evening, Imboden received a note by courier from Maj. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee and his cavalry detachment, stating: Hold your own. We will be with you in half an hour. Word of the approach of reinforcements resulted in cheers rising up along the entire Confederate line. The Northern cavalry, probably aware of the approach of Confederate cavalry, withdrew when Imboden thrust his line forward. The skirmish had cost each side about 125 prisoners. But, more important, Imboden had saved not only his wounded charges but a strong defensive position for Lee’s army. The next day, July 7, Longstreet’s corps marched into Williamsport, and the Confederates continued transforming their lines into the most formidable position possible.
Meade, operating on the edge of physical exhaustion and acutely aware of his own losses, started his cautious southward pursuit after noon on July 5, with the relatively intact VI Corps in the vanguard. Meade did not follow Lee directly but had the Army of the Potomac use three separate routes into Maryland. He then ordered his troops westward to Catoctin Mountain for a rendezvous at Middletown before sending them back across South Mountain to face Lee at Williamsport.
Meade’s gingerly pursuit of the mauled Confederates gave rise to increasing concern at the highest level of the government at Washington. President Abraham Lincoln, believing that a decisive moment in the war was at hand, grew uneasy and frustrated with what he took as Meade’s unwillingness to finish the job so boldly begun at Gettysburg. On July 6, after reading Meade’s proclamation to his troops at the government telegraph office, Lincoln returned to the White House and penned a note to Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck, who was functioning as a de facto chief of staff. I left the telegraph office, Lincoln wrote, a good deal dissatisfied. You know, I did not like Meade’s phrase ‘Drive the invaders from our soil.’
Halleck, who usually conveyed Lincoln’s concerns to Meade, informed the general that he had been promoted to the Regular Army rank of brigadier general. He also forwarded a letter from Lincoln confirming news of Vicksburg’s surrender and concluding with the president’s observation, Now if General Meade can complete the work so gloriously prosecuted thus far, by the literal or substantial destruction of Lee’s army, the rebellion will be over. Halleck added a characteristic combination of praise and exhortation to quicken the pace of Meade’s pursuit. On July 7, he telegraphed Meade: You have given the enemy a stunning blow at Gettysburg. Follow up and give him another before he can cross the Potomac. When he crosses, circumstances will determine whether it will be best to pursue him by the Shenandoah Valley on this side of the Blue Ridge. There is strong evidence that he is short of artillery ammunition and if vigorously pressed he must suffer.
Halleck was essentially correct. In the short run Lee had to remain at Williamsport until the Potomac dropped enough to rebuild the pontoon bridge the Federals had destroyed. Lee himself observed that he would have to accept battle if the enemy offers it whether I wish it or not. Nevertheless, his position was strong, and there remained the possibility that he might be tempted to move out from his entrenchments and seek to regain the initiative. But in addition to the pressure caused by the presence of his large number of wounded, Lee’s decision to move south owed much to the difficulties of drawing supplies from Virginia. Living off the enemy’s land had not proved feasible with Federal cavalry and Pennsylvania militia constantly harrying his foragers. Consequently, the Confederate general’s options were circumscribed by his need to support his men and animals. After the failure at Gettysburg, this could only be done in Virginia. But in the meantime, the river’s height made further retreat impossible, and Meade, however slowly, was steadily approaching while reinforcements were being hurried to the Army of the Potomac from Washington.
Meade’s pursuit seemed unreasonably slow not only to Lincoln and Halleck but also to some Confederates. Edward Porter Alexander, Longstreet’s artillery chief, later compared Meade’s march to a mule [who] goes on the chase of a grizzly bear. As if catching up with us was the last thing he wanted to do. Meade was cautious, but he was not unwilling to fight. He stated his belief in the inevitability of a battle and his own condition in a July 8 letter to his wife: I think we shall have another battle before Lee can cross the river….For my part, as I have to follow and fight him, I would rather do it at once in Maryland than follow into Virginia….From the time I took command till today, now over ten 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. Indeed I think I have lived as much in this time as in the last thirty years.
On the same day, Halleck telegraphed Meade — incorrectly — that Lee was crossing at Williamsport. The opportunity to attack his divided forces should not be lost, Halleck urged. The president is urgent and anxious that your army should move against him. Meade replied that the Potomac was still high and Lee was crossing slowly. He blamed the heavy rains for slowing his march and impeding the concentration of his forces. He told Halleck he preferred battle in Maryland rather than Virginia. The next day, July 9, as the bulk of the Army of the Potomac reached Boonsboro, eight miles southeast of Williamsport, Meade telegraphed Halleck: I think the decisive battle of the war will be fought in a few days….I desire to adopt such measures as in my judgement will tend to insure success, even though these may be deemed tardy.
The Confederates used the time Meade had given them to good purpose, and their position, as Meade had anticipated, was formidable. Moreover, the Army of Northern Virginia had already recovered its combative spirit. The Reverend Alexander Falk of St. James College near Williamsport visited the Confederate bastion and heard many officers of the highest rank confide that they ardently wanted to be attacked. Now we have Meade where we want him, they claimed. If he attacks us here, we will pay him back for Gettysburg. But the Old Fox is too cunning. That this was no idle boast for the benefit of visitors is borne out by the memoirs of Porter Alexander, who remembered: 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.
While Meade considered what to do, Lee was increasingly anxious to get his army back to the safety, supplies and reinforcements in Virginia. While at Williamsport he took time to write his wife about his concerns and tribulations: Had the river not unexpectantly risen, all would have been well with us. But God in his all-wise providence ruled otherwise, and our communications have been interrupted and almost cut off. The waters have subsided to about four feet, and if they continue, by tomorrow I hope our own communications will be open. I trust that a merciful God, our only hope and refuge, will not desert us in this hour of need.
After having finally concentrated his army to his satisfaction, Meade convened a council of war, ignoring Halleck’s famous admonition that councils of war never fight. Of the corps commanders and senior officers present at the meeting, only three voted for immediate attack: Brig. Gen. James Wadsworth, who had succeeded the slain John Reynolds to the command of I Corps; Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard, commander of the hard-luck XI Corps; and cavalry brigadier Alfred Pleasonton. Lieutenant Frank Haskell, a II Corps staff officer, wryly observed that in the event of an attack, only Wadsworth and I Corps would be likely to see much action. Although the majority voted against attack, Meade, for once exercising Lincolnian decisiveness, ordered one anyway. He was a day too late.
By the 13th, the Potomac had fallen and one of Stonewall Jackson’s old quartermaster officers, Major John Harman, had rigged a pontoon bridge from disassembled houses and a warehouse. The sections of the bridge were constructed at the source of the supplies and then floated down to the site, where the bridge was quickly thrown across the river. The bridge, described by Lee as a good one, was rickety and swaying, but it held.
The Confederate army began crossing the Potomac in the early morning hours. Longstreet’s corps went first, followed by A.P. Hill’s. The river had fallen enough that Ewell’s corps could ford the river at Williamsport. The roads between Falling Waters and Williamsport had been transformed into quagmires by the frequent heavy rains. The wagons were mired in mud, and the men had to keep their hands on the backs of their file leaders to know when they were to move or halt. Major General Robert Rodes of Ewell’s corps remembered that the men scrambled down the steep bank of soft and slippery mud. The water was cold, deep and rising. Some small men had to be carried over by their comrades. The water was up to the armpit of a full-sized man.
Although Union cavalry were aware of Lee’s crossing by 3 a.m., no attack came until after dawn. Meade then ordered his horsemen to carry out a reconnaissance in force. Major General Henry Heth’s division, acting as Lee’s rear guard, was still on the Maryland side when they were hit by Buford’s and Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry, with George Armstrong Custer’s brigade driving the attack home. Several hundred prisoners were taken and Maj. Gen. Joseph Pettigrew, who had survived the carnage of Pickett’s Charge, was killed. But Lee was across the river, and the Gettysburg campaign was over.
Then the recriminations and second-guessing began. Following Lee’s withdrawal, Meade inspected the Confederate positions and congratulated himself on not attacking blindly, feeling that it would have been a Gettysburg in reverse. Others were less satisfied. The same day, Halleck sent Meade another telegram: I need hardly say that the escape of Lee’s army without another battle has 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.
Lincoln himself was distressed enough to pen a personal missive to his general: [Lee] was in your easy grasp, and to have closed up on him would, in connection with our other successes, have ended the war. As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely….Your golden opportunity is gone and I am distressed immeasurably because of it. Having written those bitter lines Lincoln thought the better of it and never sent them. He did, however, vent his frustrations with Simon Cameron, his secretary of war, writing: I would give much to be relieved of the impression that Meade, Couch, Smith and all, since the battle of Gettysburg, have striven only to get Lee over the river, without another fight.
Feeling totally ill-used and harried by uncomprehending politicians, Meade responded to Halleck by asking to be relieved of command. Halleck (and undoubtably Lincoln, for whom he was acting) backed off. Whatever Meade’s limitations, he had won a great victory and driven the invading Rebels back to Virginia — no small feat. Halleck replied that his comments regarding the president’s disappointment at the escape of Lee’s army were not intended as a censure, but as a stimulus to active pursuit. He added, It is not deemed a sufficient cause for your application to be relieved.
Meade, however, was barely mollified and fully vented his spleen in a letter to his wife: My army (men and animals) is exhausted; it wants rest and reorganization; it has been greatly reduced and weakened by recent operations, and no reinforcements of any practical value have been sent. Yet in the face of all these facts, well known to them, I am urged, pushed and spurred….This has been the history of all my predecessors, and I clearly saw that in time their fate would be mine. This was the reason I was disinclined to take the command, and it is for this reason I would gladly give it up.
One of Meade’s predecessors, who himself had been charged with insufficient military energy, sent the first letter of congratulations to reach Meade. I don’t know that, George McClellan wrote, situated as I am, my opinion is worth much to any of you — but I can trust in saying that I feel very proud of you and my old army.
The Battle of Gettysburg was a major defeat for the South. Lee’s army, dangerous as it was until the very last, would never again have the punch — in numbers, morale, quality and quantity of officers — that it took into Pennsylvania in June 1863. Whether or not Meade could have made the wound he had inflicted a mortal one remains one of the great unanswerable questions of the war. Lincoln clearly oversimplified matters when he said that Meade had Lee in his grasp. The Army of the Potomac was itself grievously hurt at Gettysburg. Yet, with its superior resources, a more energetic pursuit might have bagged more prisoners and equipment before Lee got behind his entrenchments at Williamsport.
The odds of a successful Union frontal assault at the crossing, however, are problematic. Meade — too late — was willing to risk it even though most of his senior officers were against such an attack. Porter Alexander’s ultimate assessment comes remarkably close to Lincoln’s: If [Meade] had [attacked] he would not have had an easy task, though with his superior resources and forces, and the rare chance of ruining us which success would have given, he certainly should have tried it for all he was worth.
Meade had another option — throw a force across the Potomac, block Lee, and force the Rebels to fight their way through the Federal Army’s defenses. Meade might have been thinking of such a gambit when he ordered forces from Frederick to Falling Waters on the 4th. All that resulted from that order was the overly cautious cavalry attack on Imboden’s wagon train of wounded. As it was, Lee had no opposition on the Virginia side of the river and rightly saw it as a sanctuary and supply area.
The annihilation or capture of the Army of Northern Virginia was too much to hope for, considering the quality of its men and officers, as well as the resiliency of the Southern soldiers’ fighting spirit. Yet inflicting further serious losses on the Southern army would not have been beyond the capabilities of the Army of the Potomac and its commanders. Wounded as it was, the Army of Northern Virginia survived to refit and fight again. In the end, Lincoln was at least partly right. The rebellion would go on and the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia would rip each other apart on many other battlefields before a more aggressive commander finally drove the Confederates to bay in April 1865. His name was U.S. Grant — not George Gordon Meade.