Civil War Profiles: Post-Gettysburg pursuit of Lee’s army

Date Published: 
July 11, 2014

When the Army of the Potomac, under the command of Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, gained its first victory on the battlefield against Gen. Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg in early July 1863, the people of the North and the authorities in Washington were jubilant.

Meade’s assignment from President Abraham Lincoln now was “the literal or substantial destruction of Lee’s army” — which was retreating toward the Potomac River under the cover of a heavy rainstorm. (See Coastal Point, June 27, 2014.)

Meade, however, had obstacles to overcome. He had been elevated to army command three days prior to the battle, Union casualties were substantial as a result of the fighting, he needed to resupply and shift his logistical base, and was also responsible for the defense of Washington, and expected that Lee would be intent on avenging his defeat at Gettysburg.

On July 4, military railroad supervisor Brig. Gen. Hermann Haupt, learning that Meade had decided not to pursue Lee immediately, expressed concern to General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck in Washington:

“I fear that while Meade rests to refresh his men and collect supplies, Lee will be off so far that he cannot intercept him. A good force [placed] on the line of the Potomac to prevent Lee from crossing would, I think, insure his destruction.”

In his congratulatory message to his troops after the victory at Gettysburg, Meade sparked Lincoln’s anxiety about his intentions. Meade expressed the “task not yet accomplished” is “to drive from our soil every vestige of the presence of the invader.” Lincoln did not equate “destroying Lee’s army” with driving it away.

While the rest of his forces recuperated, Meade sent part of his cavalry to “operate on the enemy’s rear and flanks.” Curiously, he did not identify a specific objective for this movement.

Meade also sent his chief engineer, Maj. Gen. Gouverneur Warren, along with Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick’s Sixth Corps, to reconnoiter Lee’s army as it withdrew toward Fairfield, west of Gettysburg. His instructions were “not … to bring on an engagement” with the enemy.

When Meade learned about a wagon train bearing thousands of enemy wounded toward the Potomac River, he acted more aggressively, by sending Brig. Gen. John Buford’s cavalry division in pursuit. Lee had assigned Brig. Gen. John D. Imboden to conduct a 17-mile-long “vast procession of misery,” as William G. Williams labeled it, to safety back to Virginia.

Buford’s efforts would come to naught, however. Imboden’s much smaller force outmaneuvered their pursuers long enough for Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry to arrive and chase off the Union attackers, thereby saving the wagon train from capture.

Meade got under way from Gettysburg in pursuit of Lee on July 6, at the same time the Rebels, with a two-day head start, began arriving in Hagerstown, Md. To Lee’s misfortune, however, the rain-swollen Potomac blocked him from crossing the river to safer ground.

The Union army, meanwhile, made progress slowly; not arriving in the vicinity of Hagerstown/Williamsport until July 11 — five days to travel some 50 miles. Earlier, Meade asserted, “I will use my utmost efforts to push forward this army,” but equivocated that his intentions were to “adopt such measures … to insure success, even though these may be deemed tardy.”

Meade notified Halleck, “I wish … to moderate the expectations of those who … may expect too much.” Halleck assured Meade he was not “expressing any dissatisfaction.” His “only fear now is that the enemy may escape by crossing the river.”

Those who were monitoring Meade’s pursuit of Lee, both friends and enemies, appeared to be concluding that the Union commander was not wholeheartedly engaged in this enterprise. Lee observed that, thus far, “nothing but occasional skirmishing occurred.” In other words, Meade was not applying pressure on the Rebel position around Hagerstown.

By July 11, the entire Union army approached within five miles of the enemy. Lee and his engineers had laid out defensive positions stretching nine miles from the Potomac north to Hagerstown, and his men were entrenching and building fortifications to repel a Union assault.

In Washington, Halleck sent reinforcements to Meade’s army. Lincoln anticipated Meade’s attack with the intent to destroy Lee’s army. In “Roads from Gettysburg,” John W. Schildt quoted a Union officer, “If they could defeat Lee, it might mean the end of the Rebellion.”

The stage was set for a renewal of the battle that took place at Gettysburg. Meade’s decision making in this impending confrontation would shape his reputation far into the future.

(Note: Unless otherwise noted, quoted references from War of the Rebellion Official Records.)

Bethany Beach resident Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War: A Political, Military and Social Perspective” (available at Bethany Beach Books or from his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com). Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com.