July 12, 1863 (Sunday)
Five long days had passed since General Robert E. Lee secured the Potomac River crossing at Falling Waters, Maryland. The retreat from Gettysburg had been a grueling affair, marked by heavy rains, terrible roads, and lightning attacks by the Federal cavalry. But as soon as each infantry unit neared the crossing, they were thrown into the superbly crafted earthworks scraped into the adjacent ridges by Confederate engineers.
As each day passed, General Lee’s defenses grew stronger and more imposing. “Oh! how we all did wish that the enemy would come out in the open and attack us, as we had done them at Gettysburg,” remembered E. Porter Alexander from James Longstreet’s artillery. “But they had had their lesson, in that sort to game, at Fredericksburg and did not care for another.”
Though most of the soldiers longed to see Meade’s boys attack in long, Fredericksburg-like lines, General Lee hardly welcomed it. After the defeat at Gettysburg, what he needed most was a retreat into Virginia. But the same rains that had turned the roads to thick paste had swelled the Potomac River and prevented their crossing. He would have to wait until it fell before making the attempt. In that span of time, however, the possibility of a Federal strike grew ever nearer.
Alexander contended that “Meade showed no disposition to attack us,” though that was untrue. Meade had approached very cautiously. It wasn’t until the 10th that he noted the Confederate works. In a letter to General-in-Chief Henry Halleck in Washington, he wrote of the extensive, nine mile long defensive lines of the enemy, extending north from Falling Waters. “These positions,” related Meade, “they are said to be intrenching.” Meade’s Army, however, was in no position to attack – not yet. But the longer he waited, the less possible a successful attack would be. Nevertheless, Meade told Halleck that he would “advance cautiously” and “develop more fully the enemy’s force and position.” With that knowledge, he would then decide what should be done.
On the 10 and 11th, Meade cautiously advanced his corps along the Hagerstown Pike to Sharpsburg, inching them ever closer to Lee’s defenses. Before them probed the cavalry, searching almost blindly for signs of the Rebel position.
Federal troopers under John Buford tangled with Jeb Stuart’s Cavalry just west of Funkstown as the lines drew closer. The fighting was hot and Buford was nearly out of ammunition before infantry reinforcements from John Sedgwick’s VI Corps relieved them. Little came from the scrape.
By this date, the 12th, Meade’s Army was still settling into position south of Hagerstown. The Union right was anchored by O.O. Howard’s XI Corps at Funkstown, while the left was held by the XII Corps under Henry Slocum, several miles south. The line, built upon ridges paralleling the Rebel position, was strong enough, but few expected Lee to attack.
It was also on this day that Stuart’s Cavalry retired to the left of the Confederate line, finally exposing the position to Union pickets and scouts. Through the morning, Federal signal station across the valley relayed the daunting details and took keen notice that Lee’s men were still digging trenches.
General Lee’s line firmly clung to Salisbury Ridge, a few miles east of Williamsport. The left of the nine-mile front was occupied by Richard Ewell’s Corps, the middle by A.P. Hill’s, and the right by James Longstreet’s. There was a slight curve to it, giving the Confederates the benediction of interior lines. Hardly any wonder why the soldiers were begging for Meade to make his attack.
On the afternoon of this date, Meade realized his time was running out. The rains had stopped several days prior and word came in that the Potomac was falling at a rapid rate – eighteen inches in the past twenty-four hours. Lee, he predicted, would probably make his crossing tomorrow or perhaps the next day. Reports had already come in that the Rebels were already crossing supply wagons and the wounded. If Meade wanted to stop Lee from escaping, he would have to strike quickly.
By this time, Lee had already begun work on the pontoon bridge spanning the Potomac at Williamsport, while another was constructed at Falling Waters. The bridges were for the artillery and supply wagons. The infantry would have to ford the river, which was now around four feet deep. Though hardly shallow, the waters had receded enough to begin crossing troops the next day if the darkening sky produced no more rain.
Though the specifics were unknown of Meade, he knew he had to act swiftly. “It is my intention to attack them tomorrow, unless something intervenes to prevent it,” wrote Meade to Halleck in the late afternoon. He had been under a great deal of understandable pressure from Washington to follow up his victory at Gettysburg by bagging Lee’s entire army.
That evening, he called together his corps commanders, telling them that he wanted to attack Lee the next morning. The officers were split. Some agreed with Meade, but other thought better. They had seen the reports coming in from the scouts and cavalry. Lee’s positions were more than imposing. Attacking would be tantamount to suicide. Their descriptions apparently convinced most of the others. When the vote was cast, it was seven against two for calling off any assault.
With most of this lieutenants against his wishes, Meade felt that he could not in good conscience order the attack. Lee, it seemed, was about to escape and there was precious little Meade or anyone could do about it.
Perhaps the weather wanted some say in the matter. Lee’s plans to begin crossing the next day needed the cooperation of nature. The Potomac River was lowering and would continue to do so as long as the rains did not fall.
“The rain fell in showers, sometimes in blinding sheets, during the entire night,” recalled James Longstreet, who had been ordered by Lee to personally oversee the crossing at Falling Waters. This churned the roads to knee-deep quagmires, sinking wagons to their axles.
Through the night of the 12th and into the 13th, Confederate ambulances burdened with wounded, wagons hauling supplies, trains of ammunition and thousands of slaves, including many who had previously been free and living in Pennsylvania, crossed the pontoon bridge at Falling Waters. By morning, they were hardly half across.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 27, Part 1, p89, 91; Part 3, p657; Fighting for the Confederacy by E. Porter Alexander; Gettysburg by Stephen Sears; Retreat from Gettysburg by Kent Masterson Brown. [↩]