A Sharpshooter’s Postscript to Gettysburg Part 3: Two Armies March to Very Different Drummers

Today we are pleased to welcome back Rob Wilson

Part of a series

Following the Battle of Gettysburg, the  Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac traveled on roughly parallel routes south to Williamsport, Maryland.  Not only did the two opposing forces journey on different roads— the Confederates on the western side of South Mountain and the Federals to the east, they stepped to very different cadences.

This digitally-enhanced version of the painting "Hancock at Gettysburg" by Thure de Thulstrup depicts the Union repulse of Pickett's Charge. This assault resulted in a costly defeat for Lee’s army and precipitated their retreat. Courtesy of Adam Cuerden

This digitally-enhanced version of the painting “Hancock at Gettysburg” by Thure de Thulstrup depicts the Union repulse of Pickett’s Charge. This assault resulted in a costly defeat for Lee’s army and precipitated their retreat. Courtesy of Adam Cuerden

Robert E. Lee’s attack on July 3 attack against Cemetery Ridge, known as Pickett’s Charge (although other generals in addition to General George Pickett led their division or brigades in the attack) had been an unmitigated disaster. Of the 15,000 men who charged uphill toward their enemy, an estimated 6,000 either didn’t come back or were wounded. Witnessing the results, Lee began to plan and implement a retreat. He had no other logical choice. After three days of fighting, 37 percent of the men under his command were casualties. The Confederates were in enemy territory, facing a foe that outnumbered them, low on supplies and ammunition and far from any base of supply or reinforcement.  Late that day and into the night they pulled back behind their defenses to prepare for their retreat.[i]

From his position on the high ground opposite Seminary Ridge, Federal commander Maj. Gen. George G. Meade cautiously watched and waited on Independence Day to see what Lee would do next. He had commanded the 5th Corps at the Battle of Chancellorsville just two months before, and remembered well how an effective surprise attack by Stonewall Jackson) had flanked a Union force there. He moved with caution. There was no follow-up attack on July 4, but there was skirmishing on both sides of the Emmitsburg Road. Various detachments of Union soldiers were sent out to probe and examine where their foes were and what they were up to. One advance by four companies of the 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters stole across the road and up the slope of Seminary Ridge near the Sherfy Peach Orchard. The men got to within 150 to 200 yards of the Confederate earthworks and held the position all day.[ii]

Wyman White was among the marksmen using their breech-loading Sharps rifles to outgun a detachment of Southern skirmishers and snipers. They pushed the Confederates from their cover behind a rail fence and into a cornfield. “We wished to drive them out of the corn but were not allowed to advance beyond the fence,” he wrote. There they remained all afternoon, taking some casualties and laying low “for if a man exposed himself he was sure to be hit by a rebel’s bullet.” And so it went across the battlefield, with exchanges of infantry fire— at times intense— and some artillery shelling, but neither side launching a major attack. While he rode through the field that day, Sharpshooter and brigade Assistant Adjutant General (AAG) George A. Marden wrote that a shell fragment glanced off his stirrup, bruising his foot and adding to his growing list of close calls. (See Part 1 of this series for an excerpt from the letter.) [iii]

Union operations on July 4, 1863. Companies of the 2nd Regiment, U.S. Sharpshooters proceeded west from the vicinity of The Peach Orchard (fifth arrow up from the bottom), crossing Emmitsburg Road to within 150 to 200 yards of Confederate lines. (Courtesy of Eric Wittenberg, J. David Pertruzzi and Michael Nugent, authors of One Continuous Fight: The Retreat From Gettysburg and the Pursuit of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, July 4-14, 1863, Savas Beatie Publishing 2013)

Union operations on July 4, 1863. Companies of the 2nd Regiment, U.S. Sharpshooters proceeded west from the vicinity of The Peach Orchard (fifth arrow up from the bottom), crossing Emmitsburg Road to within 150 to 200 yards of Confederate lines. (Courtesy of Eric Wittenberg, J. David Pertruzzi and Michael Nugent, authors of One Continuous Fight: The Retreat From Gettysburg and the Pursuit of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, July 4-14, 1863, Savas Beatie Publishing 2013)

 

Union operations on July 4, 1863. Companies of the 2nd Regiment, U.S. Sharpshooters proceeded west from the vicinity of The Peach Orchard (fifth arrow up from the bottom), crossing Emmitsburg Road to within 150 to 200 yards of Confederate lines. (Courtesy of Eric Wittenberg, J. David Pertruzzi and Michael Nugent, authors of One Continuous Fight: The Retreat From Gettysburg and the Pursuit of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, July 4-14, 1863, Savas Beatie Publishing 2013)

Rather than respond to the harassing skirmishers, most of the Southerners spent the day behind their lines, preparing for the retreat, and keeping a cautious eye out for a larger Union attack that never happened. Lee would fight a defensive battle if he had too, but his main objective was to outrun his Federal pursuers, get his army across the river into Virginia, refit, reinforce and then fight again. [iv]

Wary of traffic jams on the rough and narrow roads to Williamsport, Lee dispatched the first column of the retreat in the morning darkness of July 4. It included wagons of supplies and herds of Pennsylvania livestock commandeered during the invasion. Gen. Pickett and his division— or what was left of it after the July 3 fighting— departed to guard the Union soldiers captured and destined for prison camps. A 17-mile long train of wagons bearing 8,000 wounded, organized and escorted by Brigadier General John D. Imboden and his cavalrymen, started its 40 plus mile journey to Williamsport that afternoon. Lee ordered Imboden to stop the caravan only to refresh his horses. The remainder of the cavalry units were dispersed to protect the supply trains, screen for potential Yankee attacks, and keep the various mountain passes secure from the Federals. The infantry columns left the night of July 4 and before sunrise the next day, taking two more direct routes to Williamsport and bivouacking at night.[v]

Intermittent downpours, high winds, muddy roads, challenging climbs over the mountains and Yankee cavalry attacks made for miserable and dangerous journey for all. Then there was the relentless pace of the march. A Louisiana soldier named Napier Bartlett escorting the wagons carrying wounded described a movement with “no halt for bivouac… [T]he whole army was dozing while marching and moved as if under enchantment or a spell.” Though difficulty slowed the Southerner’s progress, the first wagons in Imboden’s train of the wounded made it to Williamsport in less than 30 hours, arriving the afternoon of July 5. [vi]

 John D. Imboden was chosen to organize and command a wagon train to carry the wounded back to Virginia.

John D. Imboden was chosen to organize and command a wagon train to carry the wounded back to Virginia.

 

By contrast, the main Union pursuit would not begin until July 7. Meade assigned his offensive operations to the cavalry on July 4. Despite the ongoing skirmishing that day on the battlefield, there were hints of a Confederate withdrawal in the making. The general’s orders, articulated to commander Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, were to circle behind the enemy “and harass and annoy him as much as possible in his retreat.”[vii] Meade called his Corps commanders and some other officers together that night for a “council of war” to discuss next steps. By accounts, Meade set an apprehensive tone. At the end of the night, the commanders by a vote of five to three decreed that the army should “remain twenty-four hours longer in our position,” a non-voting senior officer in favor of attacking Lee later said. Those officers seemed to feel that “we had quite saved the country for the time” and that all gains might be placed in jeopardy “by trying to do too much.”[viii]

Meade sent his 6th Corps on a reconnaissance mission on July 5 with instructions to shadow any withdrawing Confederates.[ix] Most of the Federals remained encamped on the field of their victory for the next two days, resting when they could, making preparations to march again and, in the words of a Sharpshooter captain, “succoring the wounded and burying the dead.”[x]

Beyond Meade’s caution, there were logical reasons for the slower pace. The Army of the Potomac was battered and tired. By battle’s end the army had taken 23,000 casualties, twenty eight percent of its force. Men such as Lt. Marden, whose 3d Corps had lost the highest percentage of its officers in the fighting called their unit “the 3d Corps as we understand it.” Adding the Union side’s woe was a lack of supplies. Despite their victory, many of the men and their officers were going hungry. Marden wrote he had gone for two days without food. The shortages impacted even the army command. On Independence Day, an officer on Meade’s staff who hadn’t eaten for a day and a half took it upon himself to commandeer food for himself, the general and his comrades. The meal came from the picnic baskets of townspeople who had come out to tour the parts of the battlefield away from the scattered skirmishing.[xi]

And so, for the time being, the Army of the Potomac moved at a slower pace than their Southern counterpart. Marden and his brigade marched out of Gettysburg July 7. By the end of that day, the Army of Northern Virginia had reached Williamsport. In the process they had skirmished with Union cavalry, holding off an attack in Hagerstown, Maryland. At Williamsport, they found their passage blocked by the rising river and the Confederates began the construction of defensive works. Behind their fortifications they would await the Union onslaught until they were able to cross the Potomac..[xii]

To be continued….

Next: The Confederate wounded suffer as their wagon train pushes south and the Union cavalry makes a bid to capture Williamsport and cut Lee’s access to river crossings.

 END NOTES

[i]  Allen C. Guelzo, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion (New York: Random House Vintage Civil War Library, 2014) 430-431; Gettysburg casualty figures, http://www.historynet.com/gettysburg-casualties

[ii] U.S.S.S. report of Lt. Col. Casper Trepp (July 29, 1863), Berdan Sharpshooters website, http://www.berdansharpshooters.com/links.html, retrieved Nov. 15, 2015; Eric Wittenberg, J. David Pertruzzi and Michael Nugent, One Continuous Fight: The Retreat From Gettysburg and the Pursuit of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, July 4-14, 1863 (El Dorado Hills CA; Savas Beatie 2013), 35

[iii]  Wyman S. White (Ed. Russell C. White) The Civil War Diary of Wyman S. White: First Sergeant, Company F, 2nd United States Sharpshooters (Baltimore: Butternut and Blue, 1993); George Augustus Marden, Civil War letters, July 5, 1863 (Courtesy of Rauner Library Special Collections, Dartmouth College, Hanover NH)

[iv] Guelzo, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion, 430-431; 436-37; Tim Rowland Lee Escapes from Gettysburg, July 2014, “America’s Civil War” Republished online at http://www.historynet.com/lee-escapes-from-gettysburg.htm Retrieved June 30, 2016

[v] Rowland, Lee Escapes from Gettysburg; Wittenberg, One Continuous Fight, 51-52

[vi]  Guelzo, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion, 430-431, 436-437; Richard F. Welch, Battle of Gettysburg Finale, “America’s Civil War” magazine, July 1994, re-published online at http://www.historynet.com/battle-of-gettysburg-finale.htm, Retrieved June, 10 2016; Rowland, Lee Escapes from Gettysburg

[vii] Wittenberg et al, One Continious Fight,  53

[viii] “Testimony of Maj. Gen G.K. Warren” in Report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, 4:367, quoted in Guelzo, Gettysburg, 434-435

[ix] Guelzo, Gettysburg, 435

[x] C.A. Stevens, Berdan’s Sharpshooters In The Armoy Of The Potomac 1861-1865 (St. Paul, MN: Price McGill Co., 1892 , 347  

[xi] Shelby Foote Stars in Their Courses: The Gettysburg Campaign June-July 1863 (New York: The Modern Library 1994) 277; Marden, Civil War letters, July 5, 1863; Wittenberg et al, One Continuous Fight, 30-31

[xii] Rowland, Lee Escapes from Gettysburg”; Guelzo, Gettysburg, 436-37

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3 Responses to A Sharpshooter’s Postscript to Gettysburg Part 3: Two Armies March to Very Different Drummers

  1. frank gioia says:

    i was under the impression the army of northern virginia crossed at williamsport maryland and sheperdstown virginia and the federals crossed at edwards ferry near leesburg virginia.

    • Imboden, Pickett, and Ewell move across the Potomac at Williamsport. Ewell’s corps was forced to wade across. The remainder crossed at Falling Waters.

      Meade shifted Gregg’s division to Harper’s Ferry and ordered them across there. He then moved the bulk of the army to Sandy Hook and Berlin, Maryland and crossed at those points.

    • Rob Wilson says:

      Hi Frank. As Kris points out, the last Confederates to leave forded at Williamsport. I’ll write more about that, and the other events of the dramatic exit of the Army of Northern Virginia (including the attack of Union cavalry on Lee’s rear guard and the mortal wounding of Brig. Gen. J. Johnston Pettigrew, who had survived a minor wound during the July 3 attack on the Union center led by Pickett.) For the definitive account of Lee’s retreat up to Falling Waters see “One Continuous Fight: The Retreat From Gettysburg and the Pursuit of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, July 4-14, 1863” by Eric Wittenberg, J. David Pertruzzi and Michael Nugent, (El Dorado Hills CA; Savas Beatie 2013).

      Rob

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