July 20, 1863 (Monday)
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.”
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.
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.
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
- 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. [↩]