A Sharpshooter’s Postscript to Gettysburg, Part 5: Imboden’s Train of Misery Transports the Confederate Wounded South

Part five in a series.

We welcome back guest author Robert M. Wilson.

Of the varied and often extreme challenges faced by the Army of Northern Virginia in its retreat from Gettysburg, the ordeals suffered on the wagon caravan carrying wounded soldiers to Virginia stand alone. In the early morning hours of July 4, General Robert E. Lee was busy laying plans for his army’s retreat from the battlefield. He summoned Cavalry officer Brig. General John D. Imboden to his headquarters and ordered him to organize a train of wagons to transport as many of the surviving casualties to and across the Potomac River. Wanting to keep the roads his infantry and their supply trains would travel free from congestion and backups on their journey to the river crossings in Williamsport, Maryland, Lee instructed Imboden to leave before his infantry marched out. Imboden’s wagons would take a 40+ mile route to the Potomac that ran northwest then west, over the Blueridge Mountains, then turned southward in Greencastle, Pennsylvania. The party was ordered to stop only to refresh the horses, at least until the wagons crossed the Potomac. The rest of the army travelled more direct routes to the east of Imboden’s party— shorter but rougher that the westerly route— acting as a screen against federal attacks on the lightly defended train.[i]

Preparations for the journey began in the early morning hours and continued into Independence Day afternoon and evening. Soldiers and non-combatants alike from a variety of units pitched in to gather the wounded and load them into a motley collection of transports consisting of Conestoga wagons and whatever ambulances were available. The majority of vehicles were Conestogas, vehicles well-known for their jarring ride and that in no way were suited to be used as medical transports over the rocky roads they would travel. Some of the more luxuriously appointed wagons had hay on their floors and canvas tops. Many, however, provided the wounded soldiers only wooden planks to lay on and/or little or no shelter from the heavy rains that would fall. Joining the company was a contingent of “walking wounded,” soldiers deemed well enough to travel on foot alongside the train’s escorts.[ii]

The caravan could only accommodate 8,000 of the more than 18,000 men wounded in the fighting. While some of the wounded had been captured and already were in Yankee care, there were thousands of suffering soldiers behind the Confederate lines that the train could not carry because they were too infirm to make the trip, or were not well enough to walk with it and there simply was no room left in the wagons for them. These men were left behind in barns and commandeered houses, to be cared for by Union physicians, members of the federal Sanitary Commission, and Southern Good Samaritans who might venture north to assist the wounded. (Civilians from the south indeed did travel to Pennsylvania to help.) [iii]

According to Gen. Imboden’s account of the preparations, as the “wagons, ambulances, and artillery carriages by hundreds—nay, by thousands were assembling”[iv] along the road they would take to Cashtown, the heavens opened up. This was no cooling and refreshing summer shower:

The rain fell in blinding sheets; the meadows were soon overflowed and fences gave way before the raging streamsAs the afternoon wore on there was no abatement in the storm. Canvas was no protection against its fury, and the wounded men lying upon the naked boards of the wagon bodies were drenched… Horses and mules were blinded and maddened by the wind and water, and became almost unmanageable. The deafening roar of the mingled sounds of heaven and earth all around us made it almost impossible to communicate orders, and equally difficult to execute them.”[v]

Somehow Imboden and the officers organizing the convoy prevailed over the chaos. The first wagons in the column started off at four that afternoon. Imboden stayed behind to manage operations and put the rest of the caravan on the road. When the last of his charges were being loaded, he began a ride to the head of the train, past the column of already travelling wagons that by many accounts stretched for 17 miles.[vi]

The route Imboden’s wagon train of the wounded took to Jonesport, MD. (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)

The route Imboden’s wagon train of the wounded took to Jonesport, MD. (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)

The general’s memories of the horrible sights he saw and the pitiful voices he heard while riding forward haunted him for the rest of his life. The rough ride would have been torture even for wounded passengers who had received the finest medical care available. In the rush to withdraw from the battlefield, however, many of the men bouncing along in the wagons had only received cursory attention from a doctor or nurse, or no care at all. Imboden shared his recollections of his long ride past the wagons:

For four hours I hurried forward… and in all that time I was never out of hearing of the groans and cries… Many of the wounded in the wagons had been without food for 36 hours. Their torn and bloody clothing, matted and hardened, was rasping the tender, inflamed and still oozing wounds… From nearly every wagon… came such cries and shrieks as these: ‘Oh God! Why can’t I die’! ‘My God! Will no one have mercy and kill me!’ ‘I am dying… My poor wife and children, what will become of you’?

      …During this one night I realized more of the horrors of war than I had in all the two preceding years.[vii]

To the misery Imboden’s passengers faced, add Union cavalry attacks that his own cavalrymen had to fight back. These hostilities were complemented by a party of 30 to 40 bold axe-swinging civilians in Greencastle, Pennsylvania, who rushed the train to chop wheel spokes and disable a dozen or so wagons and steal horses before they were driven off.[viii]

Confederate Cavalry General William E. (“Grumble”) Jones, here still a colonel in 1862, helped orchestrate the defense of a supply train at Monterey Pass and organized the ferrying of the wounded over a raging Potomac River at Williamsport. Photographer unknown - The Photographic History of The Civil War in Ten Volumes: Volume Four, The Cavalry. The Review of Reviews Co., New York. 1911. p. 78., Public Domain. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7485109

Confederate Cavalry General William E. (“Grumble”) Jones, here still a colonel in 1862, helped orchestrate the defense of a supply train at Monterey Pass and organized the ferrying of the wounded over a raging Potomac River at Williamsport. Photographer unknown – The Photographic History of The Civil War in Ten Volumes: Volume Four, The Cavalry. The Review of Reviews Co., New York. 1911. p. 78., Public Domain. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7485109

Despite their brush-ups with federal cavalry and the angry mob in Greencastle, as well as the terrible travelling conditions, the first wagons in the caravan of the wounded began arriving at Williamsport about 2 p.m. the following day, on July 5. Cavalry general “Grumble” Jones— mentioned in the previous post for the important role he played in delaying a federal attack on another Confederate wagon train at Monterey Pass– rode into the town with his small escort detail before Imboden arrived. Like the soldiers accompanying the wounded, Jones had been on the move since the previous day. He saw the pontoon bridge that might have aided the Confederates escape had been destroyed, meaning that the Potomac River, “madly rushing by carrying logs and trees at a terrific rate,” would essentially trap Lee’s army until it receded or a new bridge was built. He orchestrated an evacuation of the wounded across the river on two flat-bottomed ferries that were pulled along a wire by pulleys. The ferries could accommodate only a few wagons at a time and it took nearly two full days to complete. Imboden entered the increasingly wagon-clogged streets of Williamsport that afternoon. Jones rode off to seek reinforcements for the strategically important town’s scanty defensive force. He knew well that Williamsport falling into Union control would block his army’s access to a river crossing into the relative safety of Virginia would be blocked. The result of that likely would be the very kind of confrontation with the Army of the Potomac on its own ground that Lee’s outnumbered and undersupplied army was retreating to avoid.[ix]

To be continued…

END NOTES

[i] Allen C. Guelzo, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion (New York: Random House Vintage Civil War Library, 2014) 430-431, 436-437; Gen. John Imboden, “The Confederate Retreat From Gettysburg” in Clarence Buel and Robert U. Johnson, “Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Vol. IV (1888, reprinted 1982), quoted in “Lee’s Retreat from Gettysburg, 1863”, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/pfgtburg2.htm; For a fuller text of Imboden’s recollections of the “march of pain” visit http://www.emmitsburg.net/archive_list/articles/history/civil_war/imboden_memoirs.htm

[ii] Eric Wittenberg, J. David Prtruzzi 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) 5-7; 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; 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

[iii] Gettysburg casualty figures compiled by HistoryNet, http://www.historynet.com/gettysburg-casualties; Welch, Battle of Gettysburg Finale, http://www.historynet.com/battle-of-gettysburg-finale.htm; Rowland, Lee Escapes from Gettysburg, http://www.historynet.com/lee-escapes-from-gettysburg.htm

[iv] Imboden, “The Confederate Retreat,” 3:423, quoted in Wittenberg et al, One Continuous Fight, 7

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Wittenberg et al, One Continuous Fight, 6-7

[vii] Imboden, “The Confederate Retreat,” quoted in “Lee’s Retreat from Gettysburg, 1863”, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/pfgtburg2.htm

[viii] Guelzo, Gettysburg, 436; Foote, Stars in Their Courses, 270

[ix] Welch, Battle of Gettysburg Finale; Wittenberg et al, One Continuous Fight 92-95

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6 Responses to A Sharpshooter’s Postscript to Gettysburg, Part 5: Imboden’s Train of Misery Transports the Confederate Wounded South

  1. Greg A says:

    While I appreciate the refresher on the retreat from Gettysburg, I think that the title of this group of articles is misleading. I was looking for some fresh perspective from a new source (Marden the sharpshooter) on the retreat– it was mentioned in part 1 that there were 47 pages of unpublished letters that subsequent posts would “draw heavily” on– and parts 1 and 2 had brief snippets–yet in parts 3, 4 and 5 there is nothing from Marden. Hoping that subsequent posts will include more from Marden!

    • Rob Wilson says:

      Your point is well taken, Greg. And I will be sharing a lot more of Marden’s experience and perspective, especially in Part 7 and what follows that, up to the fighting at Monterey Pass in Virginia. As this series developed, I gravitated into examining the retreat and the powerful stories involving and honoring the experiences of others– both Union and Confederate soldiers.

      Rob Wilson

  2. wdonohue1 says:

    Since both my great grandfather and great uncle suffered through long wagon rides to DC hospitals, this well-written article served not only to appreciate the sufferings of the Gettysburg wounded but those of my relatives.

    • Rob Wilson says:

      Thanks so much for your comment. One of my hopes in writing in this blog is to underscore the human costs of war and the extraordinary physical suffering of the wounded, both from combat wounds as well as illness and contagious diseases. My great grandfather witnessed and wrote about the suffering he witnessed of wounded on the battlefield and within the hospitals he visited– to visit with Union soldiers and on at least one occasion wounded Confederate prisoners– which I plan to examine in future blog posts.

      Rob

  3. Meg Groeling says:

    Well done! Lee comes in for a lot of criticism considering his dead & wounded at G’burg, just as Meade comes in for his share about not following Lee immediately. I think both men did the best they could, considering their armies were shot to bits, the weather was terrible (something that, I feel, never gets the respect it deserves as part of battlefield decisions!), there were simply not enough doctors for a mega-casualty such as that battle–my God! Those men–ALL of them–did their best. Just as one’s heart is in one’s mouth during the aerial crane shot of the wounded in Gone With the Wind, my heart is broken reading about those terrible wagons of wounded soldiers leaving PA as quickly as possible, dying in droves because of . . . well . . . just dying in droves.

    The immediate aftermath of Gettysburg is one of the saddest times for both armies. Alas, the price of victory.

    • Rob Wilson says:

      Well said Meg. You make excellent points. And the weather! It’s hard to wrap one’s mind around what it must have been like wearing the same wool uniform day after day on 10, 20 and even 30 mile marches day after day and heat, rain and mud on those spring and summer campaigns, then fighting for one, two or three days, then marching off again.

      It seemed like it was raining more often than not when my ancestor was on campaign. I leave you with what he wrote about federal withdrawal from the field at the Battle of Malvern Hill, an event I plan to examine further in future posts:

      “Then it began to rain. What a storm. It never rained harder. The roads before dusty, became the slickest kind of mud. Slower and slower went the column. Men worn out with want of sleep and fatigue slipped in the mud like drunken men. The immense train of artillery could hardly be moved. The longer we rode the harder it rained and the worse the road became. I had a rubber blanket on yet I was wet through… Horses and mules lay down in traces and never kicked again. I rode out to find a place large enough to place an ambulance on… I at last found a spot of grass twenty feet square. There was no water save what the heaven was pouring down. I held my cup under the corner of the ambulance and caught enough for some coffee.”

      Rob

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