Retreat from Gettysburg

July 4 - 14, 1863


All day on July 4, 1863, following the savage three days of battle that occurred in and around the town of Gettysburg, Pa., the two opposing armies sat on opposing ridges and looked anxiously at the other's position across the intervening mile. Union Gen. George G. Meade issued congratulations to his army for its repulse of a determined Confederate attack of the day before. "Our task is not yet accomplished," Meade told his men, "and the commanding general looks to the army for greater efforts to drive from our soil every vestige of the presence of the invader." Meade sent out skirmishers to probe the Confederate lines but, knowing the Rebel army had never before been dislodged from a defensive position, refused to order an attack.

The Rebels would have welcomed a Union attack on their very defensible lines -- and the opportunity to repay the Yankees for the terrible losses the Southern army had suffered in its magnificent attack of the day before. But Confederate commander Gen. Robert E. Lee was most concerned with making a safe retreat back to Virginia. To retreat in the face of the enemy was always the most hazardous of maneuvers for a Civil War army, and Lee gave very explicit instructions to his officers on how the withdrawal was to be executed.

The army was to hold its position on Seminary Ridge on the 4th while the wagon train carrying more than 10,000 wounded men moved to the northwest, taking a relatively easy route through South Mountain to Chambersburg. The wagons would then move southwest to complete the 40-mile journey to Williamsport, Md., at the Potomac River. After the wagons had a head start, the rest of the army would march southwest through a more rugged pass in South Mountain and reunite with the wounded at Williamsport. Part of Gen. Jeb Stuart's cavalry would screen the army by riding south toward Emmitsburg and then cross the mountains and rejoin the marching columns.

At 4:00 P.M. during a blinding rainstorm, Gen. John D. Imboden, with 2,100 cavalrymen and 23 cannon, began escorting the 17 mile long column of wagons and ambulances, carrying the army's wounded and supplies, departing the battlefield on a roundabout journey toward the Potomac River. After sunset Gen. Ambrose P. Hill's III Corps began its retreat, followed by Gen. James Longstreet's I Corps, and at 2:00 A.M. on the 5th Gen. Richard S. Ewell's II Corps pulled out and followed the rest of the army toward Virginia. All that was left of the Southern force at Gettysburg was about 7,000 men who were too badly wounded to make the journey and had to be left to the care of Union surgeons.

The rain continued all night and the next day, as the wagons continued lumbering over the muddy roads. In spite of harassing attacks by small parties of Union cavalry, the wagons started arriving at Williamsport on the afternoon of the 5th, where Imboden found that the swollen river made the ford impassable. Learning the next morning that 3,000 Union cavalrymen were approaching, Imboden deployed the wagons in a semicircle, armed the drivers, and managed to repulse the Union attacks until nightfall, when a Rebel cavalry brigade arrived and drove away the Yankees.

Fascinating Fact: Twenty-two percent of the soldiers who had marched with Lee into Pennsylvania did not make the return trip to Virginia.