The Water Was Cold, Deep and Rising – Lee Begins His Escape

July 13, 1863 (Monday)

Confederate entrenchments near Williamsport, MD.
Confederate entrenchments near Williamsport, MD.

The dim gray light of dawn was growing as the mists and light rains clung to the margins of the Potomac River. Two armies faced each other, but neither dared to attack. General Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, need only hold off the Federal forces before him long enough to slip his command across the water. For too many days had they been forced to linger, as storms had flooded the Potomac holding their prospects of escape to a near impossibility.

Through this, Union commander George Gordon Meade had gathered his Army of the Potomac. Following the battle of Gettysburg, now ten days in the past, they had tried to keep pace with the wounded Rebels, but fell behind. When they had finally caught up, backing their enemies to the rushing and broad river, they could find no way of launching a successful assault.

As the Federals occupied a slight ridge west of Funkstown, Maryland, the Southern Army frowned down upon them from the greater ridge above. For three days or more the enemy had scraped and dug entrenchments and escarpments. They had placed artillery and ranged their pieces. At no point along their deathly nine-mile line could George Meade discover a weakness.

Nevertheless, the previous evening, he had assured Washington that come dawn, he would attack. Shortly after, he decided better. Now that the first light had slipped over the hills behind him, he was firm in his resolve not to expend hundreds, maybe thousands of lives to attempt something he was certain could not be accomplished.

Upon Salisbury Ridge, General Lee’s soldiers believed with each passing moment they were to be attacked. They were in good spirits, but hungry. To while away the time, they improved their works, tried to keep dry, and searched for food. They had little idea that their commander had already made up his mind to cross come nightfall.

Though no attack was received, skirmishing peppered the morning all up and down the lines. An artillery duel upon the northern flanks kicked up early. Lee rode out to observe what might be happening, but by the time he arrived, it was all but fizzled. He returned to his headquarters and detailed the plans for evacuation.

Map showing the routes of the retreating Confederates.
Map showing the routes of the retreating Confederates.

General Richard Ewell’s Corps, holding the left of his line, was to be the first to move. Perhaps they were selected because they occupied the northernmost part of the line – where the artillery had dueled that morning. By dusk, Ewell’s men were to be marching west towards Williamsport, and there they would ford the Potomac, protected by Jeb Stuart’s Cavalry.

On the opposite end of the line, James Longstreet’s Corps, would move next – almost simultaneous with Ewell. They would make their way west to the pontoon bridge at Falling Waters. Holding the Confederate center, A.P. Hill’s Corps would follow.

C.E.H. Bonwill's depiction of Ewell's crossing.
C.E.H. Bonwill’s depiction of Ewell’s crossing.

When the dark afternoon slid into darker evening, General Ewell’s command began to slip away. A single regiment was all that remained behind for each of the three divisions evacuating. First the left, and then the right, with the center division falling back last. Each division left a single regiment behind to act as a rear guard. They spread out in the entrenchments like skirmishers and kept a close watch on the Federal position across the valley.

A thousand Confederate campfires were stoked by these skirmishers, keeping the illusion that Lee’s great army still held the ridge in full array. Along with the infantry, the artillery was pulled out in due course, leaving single guns behind to aide the rear guard regiments if needed. Along with the many fewer true guns, “Quaker guns” created by propping black logs against the works, were planted to trick the Federals into believing Lee had never left. When all was clear, each of the regiments, along with their assigned artillery, pulled out and cavalry occupied the lines and the campfires in their places.

Longstreet’s and Hill’s Corps did much the same thing all throughout the night, but Ewell’s troops probably got the worst of it. While other corps could tramp across the Potomac in relative rainy dryness, Ewell’s men had to first splash across the putrid and stagnant canal aqueduct and then wade the chest-high river.

By nightfall, the rains were again falling in sheets. Fires had been lit on either side of the crossing, but they were pale and flickering in the deluge.

“The water was cold, deep and rising,” remembered General Robert Rodes of Ewell’s Corps, “the light on either side of the river were dim, just affording enough light to mark the places of entrance and exit; the cartridge-boxes of the men had to be placed around their necks; some small men had to be carried over on the shoulders of their comrades; the water was up to the armpits of the full-sized men.”

Edwin Forbe's painting of Longstreet's (or Hill's) crossing.
Edwin Forbe’s painting of Longstreet’s (or Hill’s) crossing.

Though Longstreet’s and Hill’s crossing was easier, getting to the bridge meant trudging through ankle, and even knee-deep mud. The going was slow and confusing in the storm.

Through this and late in the night, General Lee personally crossed at Falling Waters. He was anxious that the Federals might strike him while Hill’s Corps still held their entrenchments, and sent word to hurry along. By the dawn, however, they trenches were all but empty. A portion of Hill’s Corps held a small rise near the crossing, as it was believed that with light, Meade would notice the complete lack of Rebels in his immediate front and hit them as quickly as he could.

This made good sense. Around 3am, Meade had been alerted that Lee was crossing and ordered Judson Kilpatrick’s Cavalry to find out just what was going on. They were to leave at first light and probe the Confederate left.1

  1. Sources: Make Me a Map of the Valley by Jedediah Hotchkiss; Gettysburg by Stephen Sears; Retreat from Gettysburg by Kent Masterson Brown; Fighting for the Confederacy by E. Porter Alexander. []
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The Water Was Cold, Deep and Rising – Lee Begins His Escape by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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