The Battles For Williamsport

This entry is part 25 of 27 in the series The Gettysburg Campaign

The battles for the town of Williamsport began on July 6, 1863 and ended ten days later on the 16th. Brig. Gen. John D. Imboden and the Confederate wagon train of the wounded arrived at Williamsport only to find that the on-going rains had raised the Potomac River and prevented the Confederates from fording across it into Virginia.

Imboden entrenched around the town, arming 700 lightly wounded men and positioning his artillery in an arc around the town. If the Confederates lost the Potomac River crossings at Williamsport and Falling Waters, four miles downstream, they would be trapped in a sea of fast-approaching Union troops.

The Confederates didn’t have long to wait. On July 7th, Brig. Gen. John Buford‘s Union cavalry arrived outside the town. Buford had some 7,000 troopers and 3 full batteries of 6 rifled guns. Included in Buford’s force was Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick‘s Division and Col. Pennock Huey‘s Brigade.

Confederate Retreat from GettysburgWhat followed was a series of battles in the area around Williamsport. On July 8th, Buford and Kilpatrick’s cavalry fought Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart‘s cavalry at Boonsboro, Maryland. Stuart faced a difficult assignment: locate the Union cavalry and prevent it from severing Gen. Lee’s avenue of retreat to Williamsport and the Potomac River.

What followed was the largest and most sustained cavalry battle in the Gettysburg Campaign. The battle took place along the National Road between Stuart’s five brigades and the two Union divisions. Stuart advanced from the direction of Funkstown and Williamsport, west to east. At about 11:00 AM, the Confederates first encountered the Union line at Beaver Creek Bridge, about 4 1/2 miles north of Boonsboro.

The surrounding field were so wet and muddy that both sides were forced to dismount and fight as infantry. It rained during a good portion of the day, precluding any chance of a mounted charge by either side. By dismounting, both sides automatically decreased their effective strength by 25%, as one out of every four troopers would be needed to hold the horses. Their horses were then available for rapid re-mounting in order to quickly advance or retreat.

Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasanton, the overall Union cavalry commander, was concerned that Stuart would push east and attempt to seize the South Mountain passes. By doing so, he could bring any pursuit of Lee by Meade’s infantry to an abrupt halt. In actuality, Stuart was executing a holding action, in order to allow the rearguard of General Lee’s retreating columns to clear Hagerstown and reach the crossing points on the Potomac.

The two sides slugged it out into the mid-afternoon. Key for the Union defense was the use of the Signal Corps officers high atop South Mountain. Stuart ordered Jenkins’ Brigade, led by Col. Milton J. Ferguson, to flank Kilpatrick along the Williamsport Road. They took up positions along a stone fence and poured fire into the Union lines.

The signalmen on South Mountain alerted Buford about the Confederate movement and he countered with two squadrons from Col. Thomas C. Devin‘s Brigade, along with units from Brig. Gen. George A. Custer‘s Michigan Brigade. These reinforcements were able to hold the Union line from being flanked. Judson Kilpatrick later credited the Signal Corps with a crucial role in the Battle of Boonsboro. His endorsement helped to make the Battle of BoonsboroSignal Corps a permanent part of the United States Army.

By then, Kilpatrick’s troopers on the Union left began to give way as they ran low on ammunition. Ammunition was brought to the Union battle line in the nosebags of horses just in time to prevent the complete collapse of the Union line. The fighting soon became saber-to-saber. By 6:00 PM, Devin had no choice but to withdraw because he was running low on ammunition.

Just before dark elements of the 6th and 11th Union Corps arrived near Boonsboro to support the Union cavalry. A division of the 11th Corps quickly advanced and drove the Confederate line back. As the Union infantry poured through the gaps in South Mountain, they were rushed to the sound of the guns.

Realizing that the Union infantry had finally arrived on the field Stuart ordered his units to make an orderly retirement. The Confederates fell back towards Funkstown, a small village of about 600 along the National Road along Antietam Creek. THey took up a strong position about 4 miles northwest of the day’s battlefield.

While the Battle of Boonsboro was going on, General Lee and his corps commanders spent the day surveying potential defensive positions. Their ride took up the entire day and into the morning of July 9th. Lee ordered a defensive line to be constructed along the Salisbury Ridge. This high ground gave the Confederates a clear field of fire across most of his front. Both flanks would be firmly anchored, by Conococheague Creek at Williamsport and Dam No. 4 along the Potomac River.

On July 10th, the opposing cavalry forces met again at Funkstown. J.E.B. Stuart’s force in the Funkstown area posed a serious threat to the Union right and rear if the Union army moved west from Boonsboro against the Confederate defenses around Williamsport. Stuart was determined to Battle of Funkstownhold this position in order to give the main Confederate army time to complete the fortifications around the town.

Buford’s cavalry cautiously approached Stuart’s crescent-shaped, 3-mile wide defensive line in front of Funkstown. This would be Stuart’s first defensive battle during the entire Gettysburg Campaign. The high ground constituted Stuart’s extreme right, held by Preston Chew’s horse artillery. A nearby stone barn and barnyard wall proved a superb defensive position for the 34th Virginia Battalion’s dismounted cavalry.

Thomas DEvin dismounted his men and advanced at about 8:00 AM. Once again, the Union cavalry began to run low on ammunition by about 3:00 PM without gaining much ground. Fortunately, Col. Lewis A. Grant’s First Vermont Brigade of infantry arrived and attacked the Confederate center. They were met by Brig. Gen. George T. Anderson’s brigade. This was the first time since July 3rd when opposing infantry clashed.

By early evening, the Union forces withdrew east towards Beaver Creek, where the Union IVI, and XI Corps had concentrated. J.E. B. Stuart had bought another day for General Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia.


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