July 21, 1863 (Tuesday)
Not wanting to get too far ahead of General Lee’s Confederates, George Meade decided to rest his army. The day previous, he succeeded in capturing several passes across the Blue Ridge Mountains, denying James Longstreet’s Corps a decided advantage. Meade was cautious, worried that if he pushed too far ahead of Lee, the enemy would play hell on his lines of communication back to Washington.
But General Lee wasn’t thinking about that at all. Lee’s main (but not only) concern was keeping Meade from cutting off his lines of communication with Richmond. He needed to cross the Rappahannock River as soon as possible, unless some opportunity provided itself to him.
Having been turned back the previous day, General Longstreet rushed his corps south to Front Royal. He knew that if the Federals held Ashby’s Gap to the north, it wouldn’t be long until they held Manassas and Chester Gaps, east of Front Royal. To arrive at the gaps, his troops would have to cross the Shenandoah River. The problem, however, was that the river was flooded and bridges had to be laid. This all took time.
Though Meade’s Army was at rest, his cavalry was still on the move. Two of John Buford’s brigades were hurrying as they could to fill the Gaps. Wesley Merritt’s Brigade had been dispatched to the more northerly Manassas Gap, while William Gamble’s Brigade was to cover Chester Gap, several miles south. Both brigades had to cover about twenty miles.
The Confederate bridge laying wasted no time. As soon as the planks were laid, he threw General Montgomery Corses’ Brigade from George Pickett’s Division. Corse’s men had been left behind near Hanover Junction when Lee’s Army moved north to invade Pennsylvania (which left Pickett incredibly bitter). To his credit, though Lee had at first ordered Corse to remain behind, he called him to join Pickett towards the end of June. It was Richmond’s order that kept Corse’s men from joining the invasion. On the retreat, however, Pickett again wanted Lee to recall Corse, but Lee refused until the middle of the month when he finally rejoined his division.
Since Pickett’s Division was largely slaughtered at Gettysburg, Corse’s arrival was a godsend. Longstreet rushed him forward to cover the gaps. General Corse crossed the makeshift bridge and left a regiment behind to cover Manassas Gap, while he marched with the rest of his brigade to Chester Gap.
Unfortunately for the 17th Virginia, the single Confederate regiment marching towards Manassas Gap, they were too late. Wesley Merritt’s Cavalry had already secured it and crossed to its western side. The fighting was quick, but the Rebel spirit impressed General Merritt. “The [17th Virginia] regiment is about 600 strong,” he reported back to Buford, “which of itself in this country is enough to hold my entire brigade in check, as I cannot use my artillery to advantage. The wounds inflicted on the men of my brigade are very severe, and the arms captured from the enemy are the Springfield rifle.”
The prisoners he took informed him that Longstreet was at Front Royal. Previous to this, all were convinced that all of Lee’s army was still in the Winchester area – twenty-five miles north. “I will feel them again to-morrow,” wrote Merritt in closing.
General William Gamble, commanding the other Federal cavalry brigade sent by Buford was itself too late. A mile before they reached Chester Gap, Corse’s Rebel pickets, who were already up and over the pass. Six squadrons of Federals dismounted and pushed the Confederates back towards the crest of the mountain. The closer they got, the more they could see what they were up against.
Not only was there a bit of Rebel cavalry, but also infantry and six pieces of artillery, holding the Gap. Unable to contend with a force at size, and having no other support nearby, Gamble ordered his brigade to fall back, unlimber his own artillery and wait it out. Unlike Merritt, he did not promise to attack the next day, but also unlike Merritt, he wouldn’t have to – Longstreet would oblige.
General Meade was not yet convinced that Lee had left Winchester, but come the next day, he would begin to figure it out.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 27, Part 1, p98, 149, 194, 929, 937, 944-945; Part 2, p362; Part 3, p885, 910, 940, 983. [↩]