Should Nothing Occur to Arrest Your Progress – Lee Moves South, but Meade Moves Quicker

July 20, 1863 (Monday)

Time to go home, Lee.
Time to go home, Lee.

In the six days that had passed since General Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia had slipped back across the Potomac River, much had happened. Union General George Meade had failed to attack Lee’s entrenched army, wounded, though still vicious from the battle of Gettysburg. Feeling pressure from Washington, Meade was determined to catch the Rebels before they crossed the Rappahannock River.

By the night of the 15th, Lee had his army at Bunker Hill, north of Winchester, Virginia, at the mouth of the Shenandoah Valley. The river had risen shortly after his crossing, flooding the fords and cutting off the Army of the Potomac on the Maryland side. Almost immediately, Meade sent three corps (II, III and XII) to Harpers Ferry and four others (I, V, VI and XI) to Berlin, several miles below. The bridges across the river were being repaired with only a slight annoyance by Confederate cavalry. They began crossing on the 16th, and by the next day, Meade’s entire army was on Virginia soil.

Lee had learned quickly that Meade was across and saw for his army no other option but to leave. At Bunker Hill, he was in the process of refitting his army, but due to Meade’s swiftness, he would wait no longer.

On the 19th, Lee ordered his corps commander, James Longstreet, to march his men to Millwood, cross the Shenandoah River at Berry’s Ferry and occupy Ashby’s Gap, “should nothing occur to arrest your progress.”

Today's map!
Today’s map!

While Meade (and most generals for that matter) issued daily orders for the placement of troops, Lee’s orders to Longstreet were vague, as was typical. He hoped that Longstreet could leave the Shenandoah Valley via Ashby’s Gap, or at least keep it out of Union hands. If Longstreet had any luck, Lee would order A.P. Hill’s Corps to follow the following day.

Wishing not to lose a day’s march on Lee, after crossing, Meade cut ties with Harper’s Ferry and the depots in Maryland. His army was now on the march. From the intelligence that he could gather, Lee’s army was still north of Winchester and possibly entrenching. Meade understood that eventually Lee would have to come south, break out of the Shenandoah Valley and make his way across the Rappahannock River. Fortunately for Meade, he held the inside track. His path was shorter and, with a little luck, he should be able to prevent this.

Kilpatrick sends Custer to the gaps.
Kilpatrick sends Custer to the gaps.

To accomplish this, Meade was relying on his cavalry. Judson Kilpatrick’s Division was ordered to Upperville (along with the III Corps), near Ashby’s Gap. Meanwhile, John Buford and David Gregg’s Divisions were sent to cover Manassas Gap to the south and Gregory’s Gap to the north. Running out of cavalry, Meade also dispatched his XII Corps to hold Snicker’s Gap between Buford and Gregg. All of the passes south to Front Royal were covered by Meade’s troops.

On the morning of this date, Longstreet began his march from Bunker Hill for Ashby’s Gap. When his corps arrived at nightfall, it was already lost. He determined that rather than trying to fight the Federal cavalry which had established itself not only in the pass, but along the Shenandoah River, he would march south to Front Royal the following day. If he was quick about it, perhaps he could make Manassas Gap or Chester Gap, below it, before they were occupied by Yankees.

What Lee wanted most was to secure the gaps along the Blue Ridge Mountains so his army could pass south up the Shenandoah Valley. Lee believed that Longstreet would be holding the passes, and so planned leave with A.P. Hill’s Corps the following day (the 21st). This left only Richard Ewell’s Corps behind. Ewell had reported a large gathering of Federals near Martinsburg and wanted to attack them at dawn the next day (again, the 21st). Lee seemed to not think much of it, but instructed Jeb Stuart to take his cavalry to help him out, if needed. In the end, nothing would come of this and Ewell started south, following Longstreet and Hill, on the 23rd.

Rest up and get your rations, boys! You're sure to be fighting ol' Bobby Lee soon enough... right?
Rest up and get your rations, boys! You’re sure to be fighting ol’ Bobby Lee soon enough… right?

Though Meade held the gaps, he still wasn’t sure exactly what Lee was up to. Naturally, he believed that Lee would ultimately move south, but reports had come in that Lee wasn’t yet moving at all. If Meade continued to move south, there was every possibility that Lee could get into his rear, disrupting supply lines and communications. From the looks of things, Meade was about to win the race. So far ahead was he that on the following day (the 21st) his army rested.

The cavalry, however, would be sent forward to occupy Manassas and Chester Gaps – the same gaps Longstreet, unbeknown to Meade, was planning to occupy as well.1



  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 27, Part 1, p97-98, 118, 149; Part 2, p362, 449; Part 3, p695, 725, 727, 1025-1026, 1027; Six Years of Hell by Chester G. Hearn; Fighting for the Confederacy by E. Porter Alexander; The Sword of Lincoln by Jeffery D. Wert; Robert E. Lee and the Fall of the Confederacy, 1863-1865 by Ethan Sepp Rafuse. []
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8 thoughts on “Should Nothing Occur to Arrest Your Progress – Lee Moves South, but Meade Moves Quicker

  1. Eric–what form do you use for the OR? Do you have the whole set of books, or do you use a disk, or history? Which ones have you used? What do you think of them as to ease of finding information? In other words, HELP! Anyone else, chime in!

    1. Hi! I use googlebooks for that. They are horribly in no order at all, but with a bit of searching, it all works out.

    2. If it’s any help, the memoirs of Sherman and Grant are available as free e-books from Project Gutenberg and elsewhere. Just about everyone else — with the surprising exception of Robert E. Lee — wrote memoirs as well, but they are not free.

      1. Kenneth–thanks! I have the utmost respect for Project Gutenberg, & have used their resources countless times. It is the OR that always gives me fits. Sometimes I think I should just take out a loan and buy the set for myself, in hard copy. One difficult thing, for me, about on-line research, is holding more than one place at a time. Eric seems to do this pretty well!

        1. Multiple tabs is the way to go. I have an installation of Firefox specifically dedicated to the CWDG. I think I’ve got 40 tabs open.

          Using the OR on Googlebooks is simple once you find the volumes. The trick is finding them. And the trick there is searching for a specific phrase used in whatever volume you’re using. Once you find the phrase, chances are you’ve found the volume on Googlebooks.

          In addition to Grant’s and Sherman’s memoirs, there are actually hundreds of memoirs and books in the public domain. Many of these are on Googlebooks. They’re sometimes nearly impossible to find – even searching the title and author doesn’t always bring them up. But again, if you’ve found a quote from the memoir and you search that specific quote in Googlebooks, it will almost always bring up the source you’re looking for.

          Googlebooks also has the transcripts from the Committee on the Conduct of the War. These are amazingly fun to read, though not always accurate (since almost everybody was politicking).

  2. I stopped getting email updates about4 days ago. Can you add me back to the distribution list,please?

    1. I don’t think you’re the only one. My test email address hasn’t received any, either. I’m looking into it. Sorry about that.

      1. Okay – after a quick check, my host seems to disallow it now. I’m going to see if I can find a way around it, but if not, we’re just going to have to live without it.

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