July 23, 1863 (Thursday)
By the gray light of dawn, it was clear to General Meade that the Confederate Army had given him the slip. His day of rest on the 21st had allowed General Lee to move James Longstreet’s Corps south in the Shenandoah Valley from Winchester to Front Royal and hold Chester Gap, just south of Manassas Gap. Not only did Longstreet hold Chester Gap, beating back Federal Cavalry all the while, for the past twenty-four hours, he had been marching east through the mountain pass across the Blue Ridge making haste for the Rappahannock River and Culpeper.
But Lee had two other corps and there was every chance that Meade might be able to cleft the Rebel forces in two. Following Longstreet was the corps of A.P. Hill. But by this time, and probably unknown to Meade, most of Hill’s Corps had passed through Chester Gap, leaving behind a single brigade at northerly Manassas Gap to hold back the Yankees until General Richard Ewell’s Corps, Lee’s last, could take their place.
This was the brigade of Ambrose Wright. During the battle of Gettysburg on July 2nd, they had the distinction of penetrating the Federal lines upon Cemetery Ridge farther than any other Confederate unit. Now, under the command of Col. Edward Walker, they arrived before dawn to relieve Henry Benning’s Brigade left behind by James Longstreet. As Benning and his men moved through Chester Gap, Walker’s troops filed in.
The wait would be a long one. All morning, only minor skirmishes kicked up as the Federals gathered their strength. During these skirmishes, however, Col. Walker was wounded, and the command of the entire brigade fell upon Captain C.H. Andrews of the 3rd Georgia. That a Captain now commanded a brigade was testament to the casualty count from Gettysburg.
Though Meade had sent three corps (III, V, and VI) towards Manassas and Chester Gaps, only the III Corps had yet to arrive. The others were on their way, but began their marches around dawn. General William French, commanding Dan Sickles’ old III Corps, had arrived with one division around midnight. The other two divisions would not arrive until 9am on this date.
Holding Manassas Gap itself, French advanced skirmishers down the western slope of the mountain to feel out the Confederates. With artillery and infantry filing into a line of battle, the III Corps presented a formidable foe. Before long, French’s skirmishers pushed their Rebel counterparts back down the hill and even ventured close to Chester Gap, through which Hill’s Corps was now moving.
Around 2pm, French formed all three of his divisions. He knew that the Confederates had some sort of flank guard posted to make him keep his distance from Hill’s column, but he wasn’t sure just how many enemy troops were out there.
Captain C.H. Andrews, commanding the Rebel brigade, could see that the Federals were forming for an advance. “They threw forward two regiments of cavalry and six of infantry as skirmishers,” he wrote soon after. “A line of battle of three brigades was formed in rear of these skirmishers. To each of these brigades was attached a battery of artillery. In rear of their line of battle, fifteen regiments of infantry in column of regiments were formed in support and reserve.”
As soon as he saw the scene described, he dashed off a message to General Ewell, telling him where he was and that he needed reinforcements post haste. He also tried to flag down some artillery from a passing cavalry unit, but was ignored.
Before the Federals attacked in earnest, Generals Ewell and Robert Rodes rode up to Captain Andrews. Hold tight, they told him. Reinforcements were on their way.
With his lines of battle arrayed before the Rebels, General French dispatched the Excelsior Brigade, personally raised by Dan Sickles in 1861. With orders to advance through the woods and cut the Rebel line, they formed, fixed bayonets, and with cry upon cry, charged into the Confederate lines, driving them out of Manassas Gap.
The assault hit Captain Andrew’s troops hard on his left and center, causing the entire brigade to retreat, lest they be consumed whole. Andrew’s Confederates had retreated, but were neither routed nor whipped. They formed a thin line of defense about two miles long before Front Royal, and prayed that the Federals did not advance out of the Gap.
But the enemy came again, this time with three brigades and artillery booming. “We resisted them to the utmost of human capacity,” recalled Andrews. They fought until their ammunition was exhausted and they had to rob the wounded and dead to continue.
The Federals pressed forward and the lines were no more than fifteen paces apart. With another charge, Andrew’s line broke and they fell back to a skirmish line established by General Rodes, who had finally arrived with his whole division.
Andrew’s men had held on longer than anyone could expect and though French’s men gained the entire Gap, they could not gain General Rodes’ admiration.
The enemy’s officers, reported Rodes, “acted generally with great gallantry, but the men behaved in a most cowardly manner. A few shots from Carter’s artillery and the skirmisher’s fire halted them, broke them, and put a stop to the engagement.” The conduct of the Federal soldiers, said Rodes, “was decidedly puerile.”
With Manassas Gap securely in Federal hands, and Rodes’ entire division of Ewell’s Corps on the scene, Andrew’s poor brigade, having lost 80 men, could follow their comrades in Hill’s Corps across Chester Gap on the road to the Rappahannock River and Culpeper. French’s Union troops suffered 103 casualties and decided not to press the issue any further this night.
By 10pm, General Meade was still unaware that Lee had gotten away. He knew that the Confederates still held Chester Gap, but wasn’t sure where the rest of Lee’s army was located. “There are reasons for my considering it probable that but a small portion of his army has passed on,” wrote Meade to General-in-Chief Henry Halleck well after dark. “I shall attack his position covering Chester Gap tomorrow at daylight.”
By that time, however, the Confederates would be gone. Rodes fell back after dark and was replaced by Allegheny Johnson’s Division, which held Front Royal until just before dawn.
Ewell’s troops, rather than risking Meade’s gathering forces before Manassas and Carter Gaps, marched farther south to Thorton’s Gap, near Luray, and from there, to Madison, east of the Blue Ridge. Lee’s entire Army had slipped from Meade’s sluggish grasp.
The following day, Meade would break the news to Washington: “I regret to inform you that, on advancing this morning at daylight, the enemy had again disappeared, declining battle, and though an immediate advance was made and Front Royal occupied, nothing was seen of him but a rear guard of cavalry with a battery of artillery. I then ascertained that for two days he had been retreating with great celerity….”1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 27, Part 1, p98, 490-491; Part 2, p609, 615, 626-627. [↩]