July 7, 1863 (Tuesday)
As General Lee’s Army retreated towards the Potomac River, elements of his own and General Meade’s Cavalry skirmished across the Pennsylvania and northern Maryland countryside. Jeb Stuart had split his division up into small brigades to both cover the immense Confederate wagon trains and to fend off probing Federal advances.
On the 6th, in Hagerstown, Maryland, Confederate cavalry and infantry barricaded the streets as Judson Kilpatrick’s Federal Cavalry launched an attack which raged among the buildings and houses of this small city. The Union cavalry flew into the town square, scattering Rebels as they went. Hagerstown was, like Maryland, divided in its sympathies. Civilians took up arms, fighting for whichever side they favored. When Confederate infantry joined the fray, Kilpatrick knew his time was up.
As war raged through the streets of Hagerstown, John Buford made an attempt to cut off the Potomac crossing at Williamsport. Union cavalry sent from Harper’s Ferry shortly after the battle at Gettysburg had destroyed Lee’s pontoon bridge at Falling Waters. He had planned on using this to escape, but now that it was gone, things got tricky.
If Buford succeeded in taking Williamsport, General Lee’s recrossing of the river would be nearly impossible. Guarding the crossing was Confederate cavalry under John Imboden. After arming even his teamsters, Imboden was greatly outnumbered by Buford’s troopers. But a retreat such as this had some strange advantages. Twenty-three pieces of artillery had found their way to Williamsport and after ammunition arrived by way of Winchester, it made things rather hot for Buford’s boys.
After leaving Hagerstown, Kilpatrick arrived at Buford’s side, but still there wasn’t much they could do against such fire power. And with the darkness falling on the night of the 6th, and Confederate infantry arriving, the chance had all but slipped away.
At dawn of this date, Imboden continued to ferry wagons and wounded across the river. Due to rains, it had swollen greatly, and only what could be set upon the ferry could be driven to the other side. With nothing to do aside from watch in disgust, Buford begged off, moving south towards Boonsboro.
While the cavalry skirmished, both Lee and Meade swiftly moved their armies towards the Potomac. General Lee, of course, wanted to ford the river at dawn of the 7th, but due to the inundating rains raising the level, he could not. His men quickly began to tear apart area barns to construct a new pontoon bridge. This would all take time, and if Meade hurried, he would have quite an opportunity on his hands as Lee’s army stood still.
Rather than just wait to be attacked, Lee understood that he might need to put up a stout defense. Another battle could be soon at hand and if he did not find good ground, he would be driven into the rushing waters of the Potomac. At dawn, General Lee’s engineers, including artillery commander E. Porter Alexander, began their survey.
“There was no very well defined and naturally strong line,” wrote Porter in his diary, “and we had to pick and choose, and string together in some places by make-shifts and some little work.” Their work would take three days, during which they weren’t bothered at all by Meade’s forces which sluggishly pursued the Rebels “as a mule goes on the chase of a grizzly bear – as if catching up with us was the last thing he wanted to do.”
That wasn’t completely true, of course. On the 7th, Meade established his headquarters at Frederick, Maryland, through which the XI Corps had just passed. Most of his army was centered south of Emmitsburg, just across the border. They were pushing for Turner’s Gap along the National Road across South Mountain, but would not make it until the following day. Buford’s Cavalry was on the other side of the Gap, but so was Lee’s entire army, having established itself at Hagerstown.
Meade had wanted to concentrate his army at Middletown, just up the Road from Frederick, but by the evening of this date, only the XI Corps had made it. With enough push, Meade might possibly throw two or three corps into the Rebel Cavalry and Alexander’s engineers, and cut off Lee’s crossing. Meade however, was new to command and not one to take chances.
Thus far in his week and a half as commander of the Army of the Potomac, Meade had been only on the defensive. Attacking Lee’s army wasn’t something he was looking forward to. He had served in the army from the start and knew what kind of defense Lee could put up. He most certainly remembered Antietam and did not want to see it again.
He had bested Lee at Gettysburg, but fully understood that the Confederates were not beaten. They were in retreat, but still held the power to decimate his Federal Army. It would take three days for Meade to file in before Lee, and two additional days to plan his next move. By that time, the Confederate defenses would be well established and deadly.1
- Sources: Retreat from Gettysburg by Kent Masterson Brown; Gettysburg by Steven Sears; The Gettysburg Campaign by Edwin Coddington; Fighting for the Confederacy by E. Porter Alexander. [↩]