July 14, 1863 (Tuesday)
“But the mule had not yet caught up with the bear.” – E. Porter Alexander
The darkness of night tightly clung to the sky, gripping gray clouds of rain, and dragging them west, away from the rising sun. General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, crossing the Potomac near Williamsport and Falling Waters, was not yet fully across the river.
“But, oh, it was another awful night,” remembered Confederate artillerist E. Porter Alexander. “I was now back with my battalion, and we were marching all night in the awful roads, in mud and dark, and hard rain, and though we had only three miles to go, we were still some distance from the bridge at sunrise. […] The whole night had been spent groping and pulling through the mud, a few feet at a time, and then waiting for the vehicle in front of you to move again. And men would go to sleep on their horses, or leaning in the fence corners, or standing in the mud. […] But the mule had not yet caught up with the bear.”
It was just after sunrise when Alexander, trudging through the thick and relentless mud, heard the alarm. Federal Cavalry were coming quick upon them.
Union General George Meade had caught wind that Lee’s Army was pulling out of their entrenchments and making a break for the Potomac crossings. Having decided not to make a full scale attack out of a healthy bit of learned respect of Lee’s defenses, Meade ordered Judson Kilpatrick’s division of cavalry to reconnoiter the Confederate left – which had been the first to evacuate their works.
By 3am, it was boots and saddles with orders to be upon the enemy at 7am. The lead was given to George Armstrong Custer’s brigade of Michiganders, who approached the Rebel works with caution. From their vantage point below, they could see what appeared to be batteries of artillery in lunettes connecting rifle pits. But the closer they moved, the clearer it became. These were not real guns, but “Quaker Guns” – logs painted black and placed in position to appear as cannons from afar.
With nothing actual to stop them, Kilpatrick’s and Custer’s troops spurred on, crossing the Rebel defenses, and galloping hard in hopes to catch up with the retreating enemy before he crossed the river. They moved west towards Williamsport, which appeared to all reasoning to be a ghost town. Though the streets were empty, the first dawn lights exposed General Richard Ewell’s Confederates in a line of battle, artillery placed and at the ready. They were, however, on the other side of the river. Kilpatrick was too late.
This infuriated the Federal cavaliers, who were then ordered to round up Rebel skulkers. As the morning whiled on, Kilpatrick received word that the Confederates were still crossing three miles downriver at Falling Waters. Leaving a regiment behind, they stormed south.
But as much as they tried, the wretched conditions of the road greatly slowed their pace. Horses sank up to their knees at some points and men straggled badly. It wasn’t until after 11am when the muddy column first emerged before the Rebel rear guard. In some places along the river, fog still hung with steadfast resilience. The veil was thin enough for Kilpatrick and Custer to see the Confederate line on the ridge a mile before them, but too thick for the Rebels to know for sure who had just emerged from the woods.
General Henry Heth commanded the Confederate rear guard atop the ridge between the woods and the crossing at Falling Waters. His men were sprawled out upon blankets, their muskets stacked and unloaded, while the pickets were only a short distance to the front. Through his field glasses, he saw the Federal cavalry emerge, but could not tell if they were friend or enemy. General James Pettigrew, commanding two of Heth’s brigades joined him and together they resolved that the cavalry was their own – probably Fitz Lee’s Brigade, which had passed that way not too long before.
The longer they looked, the more convinced they were that it was indeed Fitz Lee. After all, why would an entire brigade of cavalry show itself so clearly to infantry and artillery? So sure were they that when Kilpatrick ordered the Stars and Stripes unfurled and the colors shown brightly over the empty space between them, Heth and Pettigrew believed it to be Fitz Lee, in all his “culpable braggadocio” displaying his catch.
Two companies of these mysterious riders broke off and began to charge the Rebel line. This made no sense at all to Heth. Still certain that it was not the enemy, Heth called out, “Wheel into line and damn them, split their heads open!”
But closer they came. At less that 200 yards, some infantrymen, perhaps thinking Heth had lost it, opened fire. Thinking better than to actually split the heads of his comrades, Heth screamed for them to hold their fire. And as the seconds passed away, the empty space between the charging Michiganders and the unsuspecting Rebels drew smaller and smaller until even Generals Heth and Pettigrew understood they were being attacked.
As a brigade moved forward to receive the Yankees, the sounds of sudden battle spooked Pettigrew’s horse. The animal reared and fell hard, pinning the General to the ground. The Michigan Cavalry swirled through the Confederate lines, among the artillery, shouting at all to surrender. They gathered still surprised the unarmed Rebel prisoners and flags from several regiments. Men were slashed with sabers and trampled under hooves.
With the exception of the brigade that had gone forward, the rest of Heth’s Division was about to be routed by a couple hundred cavalry. But soon, and with much prodding from General Pettigew, who was now on foot, the lines reformed and finally loaded their muskets. Now they could fight, and fired volley after volley into the enemy.
Rather than flee, the Federal cavalry formed up and charged the Rebel line, quickly riding among them. The Confederates turned fired muskets into clubs and were able to beat some of the Yankees off their horses. Other found axes and made for more grisly work.
During the melee, General Pettigew spied a Union corporal taking shots from behind the corner of a nearby barn. He ordered a few of his men to direct their fire towards the corner, but apart from chipping away some of the wood, the Yankee continued to ply his trade. In an act more foolish than brave, Pettigrew pulled his own pistol and began to cross the short distance to deal with the Yankee himself. And not surprisingly, the Yankee fired first. The bullet tore through Pettigrew’s gut and exited near the base of the spine. He fell to the ground in a bloody mass.
A private in the 26th North Carolina who saw the killing became enraged that his commander had been shot. He took aim, had the Yankee in his sights, but his gun misfired. Filled with adrenaline and revenge, he picked up a large stone, sprinted over to the Yankee and threw it at his head. The connection was made, and when the Yankee was upon the ground, the Rebel private was upon him, stone again in hand. With repeated blows, over and over the rock was smashed into the skull of the murderous Yankee, bashed into the bloody ground.
The general fighting soon fizzled to an end. The Rebels had lost a relative handful of men, including the mortally wounded General Pettigrew. The attacking cavalry lost 40 killed, including their Major, and eight-five wounded.
As the last of Lee’s men crossed the Potomac, the pontoon bridge was cut and their escape made good. As they did, elements of General Meade’s Union Army saw them off. Meade had advanced his I, V, VI and XI Corps towards Williamsport, while the II and XII moved upon Falling Waters to the south. He had finally decided to risk an attack, but it was too late.
“I need hardly say to you that the escape of Lee’s army without another battle had created great dissatisfaction in the mind of the President,” wrote General-in-Chief Henry Halleck upon receiving Meade’s word that the Confederates had crossed, “and it will require an active and energetic pursuit on your part to remove the impression that it has not been sufficiently active heretofore.”
Meade was furious and shot back a reply: “Having performed my duty conscientiously and to the best of my ability, the censure of the President conveyed in your dispatch of 1p.m. this day, is, in my judgment, so undeserved that I feel compelled most respectfully to ask to be immediately relieved form the command of this army.”
Halleck replied that the President’s disappointment “was not intended as a censure” and he assured Meade there was no need for him to be relieved. Still, Lee’s Army had escaped and only a quick response would cut the enemy off from Richmond. Meade would begin crossing his Army of the Potomac at Harpers Ferry on the 17th. By then, Lee’s Army would have a fine head start into the Shenandoah Valley. Before long, they would again be facing each other across the Rappahannock River.
Later, on the night of the 14th, President Lincoln sat down at his desk and composed a letter to General Meade, explaining his own swirling emotions concerning the entire Gettysburg Campaign.
I have just seen your dispatch to Gen. Halleck, asking to be relieved of your command, because of a supposed censure of mine. I am very–very–grateful to you for the magnificent success you gave the cause of the country at Gettysburg; and I am sorry now to be the author of the slightest pain to you. But I was in such deep distress myself that I could not restrain some expression of it. […] You fought and beat the enemy at Gettysburg; and, of course, to say the least, his loss was as great as yours. He retreated; and you did not, as it seemed to me, pressingly pursue him; but a flood in the river detained him, till, by slow degrees, you were again upon him. You had at least twenty thousand veteran troops directly with you, and as many more raw ones within supporting distance, all in addition to those who fought with you at Gettysburg; while it was not possible that he had received a single recruit; and yet you stood and let the flood run down, bridges be built, and the enemy move away at his leisure, without attacking him. […]
Again, my dear general, I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee’s escape. He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war. As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely. If you could not safely attack Lee last Monday, how can you possibly do so South of the river, when you can take with you very few more than two thirds of the force you then had in hand? It would be unreasonable to expect, and I do not expect you can now effect much. Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasurably because of it.
I beg you will not consider this a prosecution, or persecution of yourself As you had learned that I was dissatisfied, I have thought it best to kindly tell you why.
The President then placed it in an envelope and then in a desk drawer. He never delivered it to General Meade, in fact, he never signed it. Perhaps simply venting his feelings to the page was enough for Lincoln to gather himself and press ever onwards. The campaign was, more or less, at an end.1
- Sources: Fighting for the Confederacy by E. Porter Alexander; Retreat from Gettysburg by Kent Masterson Brown; Gettysburg by Stephen Sears; Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 27, Part 1, p92-94; Letter from President Lincoln to George G. Meade, July 14, 1863, as appearing in the Library of Congress. [↩]