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 streams… As 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 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]
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…
[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
[vi] Wittenberg et al, One Continuous Fight, 6-7
[viii] Guelzo, Gettysburg, 436; Foote, Stars in Their Courses, 270
[ix] Welch, Battle of Gettysburg Finale; Wittenberg et al, One Continuous Fight 92-95