“I have every reason to believe the enemy is retreating, very much crippled, and hampered with his [wagon] trains.” With these words on July 6, 1863, as recorded in the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Maj. Gen. George G. Meade informed Union army General-in-chief Henry W. Halleck in Washington that his forces had defeated Gen. Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg.
When Halleck informed Abraham Lincoln of this news, the elated president responded that “We have certain information that Vicksburg [MS.] surrendered to General Grant on the 4th of July. Now, if General Meade can complete his work, so gloriously prosecuted thus far, by the literal or substantial destruction of Lee’s army, the rebellion will be over.”
These, in effect, were orders from Lincoln for Meade to pursue Lee vigorously, and attack and crush his army before it could safely cross back over the Potomac River. Meade, however, rather than pursuing and pressuring the retreating enemy immediately, chose to take “some time to get up supplies, ammunition, etc., rest the army, worn out by long marches and three days’ hard fighting.”
As a result, Lee gained several days head start on the Union army and “arrived at Hagerstown [MD] in the afternoon of the 6th and morning of July 7.” Heavy rains and the rising river, however, prevented Lee from reaching more secure ground across the Potomac.
Nonetheless, because of Meade’s hesitancy in pursuit, Lee and his engineers had time to reconnoiter the area in front of the river town of Williamsport, Md. They were able to fortify a position along a nine-mile front from the Potomac River on the south to Hagerstown to the north.
Lee recorded that Meade’s army belatedly arrived at this location “manifesting no disposition to attack, but throwing-up intrenchments along his whole line.” Meade approached his mission to intercept and destroy Lee’s army with considerable caution.
Understanding that his great victory at Gettysburg had averted permanent separation of the states, Meade was wary about engaging Lee once more and negating the success he already achieved. Although he proposed an attack on the enemy in a meeting with his corps commanders on the evening of July 12, Meade deferred to the majority, who encouraged delay, pending further reconnaissance of Lee’s position.
Throughout the next day, Meade conducted a “careful examination of the enemy’s position, strength, and defensive works … [that] show the enemy to be strongly intrenched on a ridge running from the rear of Hagerstown … to the Potomac.” Meanwhile, Lee received word that his engineers completed construction of a pontoon bridge over the swollen Potomac, allowing the Army of Northern Virginia to cross surreptitiously the night of the 13th and early morning hours of the 14th.
At 9 p.m. on the 13th, Meade issued orders to selected units to “make a reconnaissance in force in front of their respective positions to-morrow, the 14th instant, the movement to commence punctually at 7 a.m.” The Union commander further directed that the “commanders of corps will hold their troops under arms in readiness for a general engagement, should the enemy offer one ….”
In the late morning of the 14th, however, Meade had the unpleasant duty to report to Halleck, “I found, on reaching his lines, that [the enemy troops] were evacuated.” The reaction from the authorities in Washington to this devastating news came swiftly.
Upon learning what had taken place, a dispirited president sat down at his desk at the White House and penned a letter to Meade. The essence of this lengthy missive was: “I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee’s escape.” The president concluded, “Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasurably because of it.”
As noted in Roy Basler’s “Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings,” the president, upon getting disappointment off his chest and down on paper, allowed the better angels of his nature to prevail. He placed the letter in his desk drawer and never sent it to Meade. He decided not to criticize his general, in deference to his great victory at Gettysburg.
As a result, Lee and his army lived to fight another day. Although Lincoln had hoped Meade could hasten the end of the war by aggressively pursuing and “destroying” the enemy, the conflict would continue with great loss on both sides for the better part of two more years.
Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” (recipient of the Bachelder-Coddington Literary Award for 2015), available at Bethany Beach Books and Browseabout Books in Rehoboth. Contact him at email@example.com, or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.