July 5, 1863 (Sunday)
General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was strung out along the Fairfield Road southwest of Gettysburg. It was led by A.P. Hill’s Corps, which had been the first to leave the battlefield, marching through the night of the 4th-5th. Rain had fallen since the battle ended and the roads had turned to thick, clay-like mud.
Though the battle lasted three long and bloody days, as the last of Confederate General James Longstreet’s men limped back from their failed attack on July 3rd, nobody knew the conflict was over. On the 4th, amidst plans to make a retreat back to Virginia, General Lee fortified his position along Seminary Ridge, west of town. General Meade, commanding the Union Army, did much the same. He had been attacked the three previous days and wasn’t so sure that he wouldn’t be hit again on the 4th.
He had issued an order congratulating his army for their service, but left them with a warning. “Our task is not yet accomplished,” wrote Meade, “and the commanding general looks to the army for greater efforts to drive from our soil every vestige of the presence of the invader.”
President Lincoln was hardly pleased when he read the order. The object wasn’t to simply drive the Confederates back across the Potomac, but to destroy their army. In Meade’s defense, however, at this point he didn’t know he had won the battle. As the day passed and Lee’s forces pulled back, Meade got a fairly good idea that Lee was about to retreat. With this in mind, he called together nine of his top commanders.
Of them, he asked four questions. The first was whether the army should remain in position. It was largely agreed that if Lee remained where he was, the Union army should remain as well. With that settled, the question was raised whether or not to take the offensive. All assembled agreed that they did not want to attack. Since they had no plans to attack Lee, Meade asked if they should hold close to Washington, keeping between the capital and the Rebels. Of course, all agreed to this. Lastly, if Lee was indeed retreating, should they follow him?
Upon this, they could not agree. Though most wanted to, others thought that it should be a cavalry operation, basically ushering the enemy back home. The bigger question was whether or not Lee was even in retreat. All through the 4th, the Confederates had kept up a lively picket fire, especially on the Union left. Might this be to cover a withdrawal? Before the evening meeting drew to a close, General Gouverneur K. Warren, Meade’s leading engineer, offered to take a full division out the next morning to see if Lee was still there.
General Lee had, of course, been in retreat since the late night of the 3rd. First, he had to move his supply trains. To cover this, he needed the cavalry, specifically John Imoden’s brigade. The trains were brought to Cashtown, six miles west of Gettysburg, and then sent south, skirting Chambersburg, but running through Greencastle.
It was at Greencastle on the morning of this date, that a detachment of Union cavalry hit the fifteen-mile long caravan. Almost immediately, they seized 176 wagon and hundreds of prisoners. The Rebels soon replied, wheeling into line a single piece of artillery as their own cavalry converged on the excitement. Before it got too hot, the Federals fled with little to show for their efforts.
The citizens of Greencastle, however, had quite a different story to tell. When the Rebels were distracted by the Federal cavalry, they attacked the wagons passing through their town. With axes and saws, they fell upon the wagons and ambulances, cutting off the axles and wheels of a surprising number of them. The Confederates quickly drove them off, capturing a few along the way.
By nightfall, Imboden’s wagon train reached the Potomac River, but stretched an unwieldy thirty-one miles nearly back to Cashtown. They were now heavily protected by two more brigades of cavalry, keeping the pursuing Federals at bay.
While the cavalry and citizenry were running down wagons, General Warren’s plan to probe Lee’s defenses with a division had evolved into General John Sedgwick taking his entire VI Corps on mission out the Fairfield Road, southwest of Gettysburg. The initial probe proved a success. All that remained at Lee’s position were a few pickets.
As they pressed on, Meade ordered three additional corps to pursue Lee’s Army in a roundabout fashion. The II and XII Corps moved southeast along the Baltimore Pike, while the V Corps took to the Emmitsburg Road.
Sedgwick’s pursuit was slow and strange. The general advance didn’t start off until noon, and when it did, they did not march in column, but in a full line of battle. Somehow, they still managed to catch up with Jubal Early’s Division at the rear of Lee’s Army. A quick skirmish ensued, but Sedgwick didn’t press the issue and the Rebels slipped away, camping just west of Fairfield.1
- Sources: Gettysburg by Stephen Sears; The Gettysburg Campaign by Edwin Coddington; Retreat From Gettysburg by Kent Masterson Brown. [↩]