The Rebel Army is Still Passing on this Road – Longstreet’s Escape

July 22, 1863 (Wednesday)

Wesley Merritt
Wesley Merritt

At last convinced that General Lee’s Confederate Army was moving south on the other side of the Blue Ridge Mountains, George Meade set his own army in motion. He figured that the Rebels were making for the Rappahannock River and, ultimately, Culpeper Court House. His only objective was to stop that from happening. All but two of his corps, he set in motion for Manassas Gap.

The day previous, two brigades of John Buford’s Cavalry had fought to keep the mountain pass out of Confederate hands. While Manassas Gap was held, the lesser-used Chester Gap, a few miles south, was not. James Longstreet’s men had arrived first, though barely, and turned out to be more than a match for the Federal troopers.

Buford was ordered to hold Manassas Gap as long as he could, and was assured that reinforcements were on their way. Most of the Army was en route, but Daniels Sickles’ former III Corps, now helmed by William French, was the closest. During most of the recent campaign, French and his division had been stationed at Harper’s Ferry. He had been selected to take over for Sickles, adding his own division to the III Corps, depleted by casualties from July 2. However, they would not arrive at Manassas Gap until evening.

The cavalry division headed by Buford consisted of three divisions. Wesley Merrit’s held Manassas Gap, and skirmished most of the day with the Rebels on the western side of the Blue Ridge. Col. Thomas Devin’s Brigade was held in reserve, but moved closer to be of some assistance if needed.

Today's map, just for you.
Today’s map, just for you.

William Gamble’s Brigade, however, was engaged in some hot fighting all of the day. After being pushed away from Chester Gap the previous day, they rested a mile and a half east of the crest. Just after dawn of this date, the Rebels showed themselves, apparently trying to break through the gap before the rest of the Army of the Potomac showed up.

“When the head of the enemy’s column came within easy range,” wrote Col. Gamble after the battle, “we opened fire on it with artillery and the carbines of the dismounted men so effectually that his column, with his wagon train, halted and fell back out of our range, his advance guard and skirmishers being still engagted with ours, and continued firing, we holding our position, and preventing the head of Longstreet’s corps from moving forward from the Gap from 8 a.m. till 6 p.m.”

Meanwhile, General Longstreet had hurried his men forward, crossing the Shenandoah River at Front Royal, he threw John Bell Hood’s Division (now commanded by Evander Law) towards Manassas Gap, but didn’t press the issue, finding it better defended than the previous day (though it really wasn’t).

For Chester Gap, there was actually some sort of plan. Longstreet sent a brigade from Lafayette McLaws’ Division into the Gap, while sending George Pickett’s Division around it in an attempt to outflank the Federal cavalry. This apparently transpired around 6pm.

William Gamble wrote that he was forced to fall back “when the enemy brought five regiments of infantry around out of sight in the woods, and, approaching my left flank, drove in our skirmishers.” He fell back to Barbee’s Cross-Roads, where Col. Devin’s Brigade was posted.

Would William French arrive too late?
Would William French arrive too late?

Buford had held on as long as he could, but without infantry support, there was little more he could do. Through the night, much of Longstreet’s Corps were on the march, crossing the Blue Ridge on the road to Culpeper. By 2pm, Col. Gamble knew that his efforts were worthless, when he wrote to his superiors that “the rebel army, with strong flankers, is still passing on this road.”

General French’s III Corps did not arrive until well after dark – probably around 11pm. His lead division joined Merritt’s Cavalry in Manassas Gap, while the remainder of his corps marched through much of the night, and would arrive the following morning.

By that time, General Lee’s previously spread out Army would be concentrated near Front Royal. While Longstreet’s Corps crossed the Blue Ridge, A.P. Hill’s Corps continued their march south from Winchester. General Richard Ewell’s Corps was following, but was still at Winchester. Only by a quick march the next morning could he arrive in time to relieve both Longstreet’s and Hill’s Corps from Manassas and Chesters Gaps.

Likewise, Meade’s Army would have to make great haste if they wanted to stem the flow of Rebels from the Gaps across the Blue Ridge. “There is no doubt that the rebel army is pushing toward Culpeper on both side of the mountains as fast as it possibly can,” summed up Col. Gamble, “and I hope our army will act accordingly.”1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 27, Part 1, p98, 149, 488-489, 937, 944; Part 2, p362, 449, 489; Part 3, p740; Robert E. Lee and the Fall of the Confederacy, 1863-1865 by Ethan Sepp Rafuse; Fighting for the Confederacy by E. Porter Alexander; Make Me a Map of the Valley by Jedediah Hotchkiss. []
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