Part four in a series
Today, we are pleased to welcome back guest author Rob Wilson
The Union pursuit kept to a longer route towards Williamsport, east of Lee’s more direct lines to the river. 3rd Corps and Lt. Marden’s brigade travelled south to Emmitsburg, Maryland, on to Frederick, and from there turned west toward South Mountain. Bivouacking every night, they covered about 50 miles in three days. (By contrast, some wagons in Gen. Imboden’s Confederate column carrying the wounded covered their 40+ mile route to the Potomac—in a little more than 24 hours). After camping west of the pass over South Mountain on the night of July 9, the 3rd Corps soldiers rose early and marched to join the Army of the Potomac already facing Williamsport. As an Assistant Adjutant General (AAG) for Ward’s Brigade, 1st Division, 3rd Corps, Marden— who was privy to headquarters communications— learned that the perimeter of the Southern defensive line was estimated at only six miles away. The Federal forces, now moving with extreme caution, would take three days to cover that distance.[i]
Soldiers on both sides marched through horrific downpours to get to Williamsport, punctuated at times by thunder and lightning, must have seemed Biblical proportions to those versed in scripture. The turning of thousands of wagon wheels and plodding of tens of thousands of feet and hooves churned many portions of the roads into boot-sucking, horse-killing mud traps. There were slippery and tiring climbs up roads and through mountain passes. The Confederates faced the added challenge of marching through hostile Union territory under constant enemy threat. Thousands of Federal horsemen were looking for opportunities to attack, steal and destroy wagons and delay the retreating troops wherever they found them.[ii]
One of the significant and more dramatic of these assaults started late on the night of July 4, at South Mountain’s Monterey Pass, 40 miles north of the pass where Marden’s brigade crossed over the mountains. Under cover of the pitch-black night, small butternut detachments and a single artillery piece delayed for five hours the advance of the Union cavalry division led by Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick. The Federals, riding from the east, were ascending the steep road to the pass seeking to intercept the long wagon train of supplies and wounded they knew to be travelling south from Fairfield.[iii]
The Southerners would skirmish, hold up their enemy’s advance, then retreat, reform ranks higher up the road and make another stand along the narrow and steep three-mile way to the top of the pass. The confrontations grew fiercer and more frequent as the Union horsemen approached and passed over the road’s high point. Spearheaded by the 1st West Virginia led by Major Charles E. Capehart and followed by the Michigan Brigade of Brig. Gen. George A. Custer, the assault finally broke through on the west side of the pass about 3 a.m. on July 5. Custer and his men charged downhill to attack the wagons in the early morning blackness of July 5. When the chaotic engagement was finished, Kilpatrick’s men had captured or destroyed about 280 wagons and claimed to have taken 1300 prisoners. Capehart would receive the Congressional Medal of Honor after the war for his valorous actions that night. The loss could have much been worse for the Southerners. Thanks to the clever and persistent delaying tactics orchestrated by Gen. William “Grumble” Jones and Capt. George Emack, however, a small detachment that included some men of the Confederate 1st Maryland Cavalry Battalion had delayed the marauding cavalry division long enough for most of their 40-mile-long wagon train to pass on to the south.[iv]
In another contest, each side’s cavalry squared off against one another in Hagerstown, Maryland, on July 6. There, Major General J.E.B. Stuart’s troopers kept the crucial gateway to Williamsport open for approaching Confederate infantry columns by fending off an attempt by Kilpatrick’s division to occupy the town. The six hour battle, fought on the streets in the center of Hagerstown, has earned the distinction of being the largest urban mounted cavalry action of the Civil War. The confused fighting ended as the Southern infantry approached the town and Kilpatrick withdrew and rode on to Williamsport, where he would join an ongoing operations on the recently-arrived Confederate force commanded by Gen. Imboden that was defending the town and the essential river crossing points to Virginia.[v]
While they weren’t involved in as much fighting with Union cavalry, the wagon train carrying the wounded faced some wholly different challenges and dangers as they rolled along to the Potomac.
To be continued… Next, Imboden’s “train of misery” delivers the Confederate wounded to safety and his badly outnumbered force— trapped in Williamsport by the flooded Potomac— fights for survival.
[i] Shelby Foote Stars in Their Courses: The Gettysburg Campaign June-July 1863 (New York: The Modern Library 1994) 274-280; 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) 175-177
[ii] 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) 58; Rowland, Lee Escapes from Gettysburg, July 2014, “America’s Civil War” magazine
[iii] 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; Wittenberg et al, One Continuous Fight, 54-65
[iv] Wittenberg, One Continuous Fight, 54-65
[v] Harry Searles, Battle of Williamsport (2016) Retrieved June 10 from Ohio Civil War Central: http://www.www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=1042