The Confederate Retreat Begins

This entry is part 21 of 27 in the series The Gettysburg Campaign

The Confederate retreat of their main army began on the evening of July 4, 1863. General Robert E. Lee accompanied by his chief subordinate, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, conferred with his other corps commanders, Lt. Gens. Richard Ewell and A.P. Hill, on Seminary Ridge about a miles from the Lutheran Seminary during that day.

After surveying the condition of his Army of Northern Virginia, Lee told his commanders that it was time to withdraw to Virginia and safety. Lee’s army had suffered terrible losses in the fighting Some 17 of the army’s 52 general officers had either been killed, wounded or captured.

Commanders such as Lewis A. ArmisteadRichard B. Garnett and Isaac E. Avery were dead. James L. Kemper, Isaac Trimble and James J. Archer were captives in Union hands. John B. HoodWade HamptonGeorge T. AndersonDorsey Pender, and Alfred M. Scales had been severely wounded in the fighting and were to transported south on John D. Imboden’s wagon train of the wounded.

The length of the campaign and the intense three days of fighting had wreaked havoc with the army’s logistics situation. Losses were not just confined to men. Large numbers of horses and mules had been either killed or lamed. Ammunition supplies were at a low ebb and food supplies Confederate Retreat from Gettysburgwere limited. Pennsylvania had ceased to be a fruitful supply ground for the Confederate army.

Lee’s army was adrift in a sea of Union troops that were beginning to move into the area. The Confederates were like a magnet attracting filings. Besides Meade’s 67,000-man Army of the Potomac temporary reinforcements of about 10,000 men, who had been with General William H. French at Maryland Heights, were incorporated into the I Corps and III Corps.

Maj. Gen. Darius N. Couch of the Department of the Susquehanna had 7,600 men at Waynesboro, 11,000 at Chambersburg, and 6,700 at Mercersburg. These were “emergency troops” that were hastily raised during Lee’s march into Pennsylvania and were subject to Meade’s orders.

The Army of the Potomac had lost a number of key commanders during the fighting at Gettysburg. Meade’s chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Daniel Butterfield, was wounded on July 3 and was replaced on July 8 by Maj. Gen. Andrew A. Humphreys; Brig. Gen. Henry Price replaced Humphreys in command of his old division of the III Corps. Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds, killed on July 1, was replaced by Maj. Gen. John Newton of the VI Corps.

Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock of the II Corps, wounded on July 3, was replaced by Brig. Gen. William Hays. Maj. Gen. William H. French, who had temporarily commanded the garrison at Harpers Ferry for most of the campaign, replaced the wounded Daniel E. Sickles in command of the III Corps on July 7.

General Lee determined that the Confederate retreat from Gettysburg must not be a precipitous. Unsure of Meade’s intentions, he did not wish to give the Union commander the idea that the Army of Northern Virginia was being routed. He told his corps commanders that the withdrawal must be orderly and deliberate, similar to their withdrawal from Sharpsburg (Antietam) the previous September.

General Lee’s plan of withdrawal called for the supply trains to depart first along the Fairfield Road with A.P. Hill’s Corps accompanying them. Longstreet’s First Corps would follow them. Ewell’s Second Corps would bring up the rear.

The Army’s route was as follow’s: the Fairfield Road through Jack’s Mountain then the Monterey Pass through South Mountain. Once they were Meade and Leethrough the mountains, the Confederate line of retreat would split with some units moving west to Waynesboro and then south to Williamsport. Other units would head south to Hagerstown and from there a short march to Williamsport. In all the route was about 40 miles of marching.

The logistics of the march would be challenging. The Confederate army had wagons, artillery, cavalry and infantry. All of them would have to be moved over a few roads that in the best of times were primitive. The Confederate retreat would require meticulous planning and luck to be successful.

On the morning of July 4th, Union troops from the XI Corps, commanded by Col. Orland Smith, moved into the town of Gettysburg, capturing about 300 enemy troops, many whom were sleeping. The spent about an hour skirmishing with the Confederate rearguard until they were relieved by another division.

At 6:35 AM, General Lee sent a note across the lines asking for an exchange of captured troops. Gen. Meade relied that “it is not in my power to accede to the proposed arrangement.”  This meant that captured soldiers from both armies would now go into prisoner of war camps for the duration of the war. It also meant that the Confederate retreat would be burdened by the guarding and feeding of a large number of Union prisoners.

At about noon, a torrential rain began to fall causing difficulties for both sides. The rain was so heavy that many of the creeks that crisscrossed the battlefield began to rise and carried away wounded soldiers that were still lying on the battlefield. Three days of rations that had been distributed to Union troops the night before were turned into soggy mush.

Gettysburg from Seminary RidgeUnion probes of the Confederate lines continued throughout the day. These forays soon determined that the Confederate army had pulled back from Seminary Ridge leaving only pickets to slow down the Union advance.

Private Leander Schooley was a trooper in a squadron of the 1st Indiana Cavalry, Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard’s headquarters escort. His vivid description of the battlefield is riveting (complete with spelling and grammatical errors).

“The battle field was the Awfulest sight I ever saw. The woods in front of our men the trees were riddled with Cannon ball and bullets evry limb shot off 20 feet high. Some say the rebel dead lay six deep deep in the grave yard where we lay. Nearly every grave stone was shattered by shots and everything torn to pieces. I went through the town on the 4th of July with the General. The streets were covered with dead. Evry frame house were riddled with balls the brick ones dented thick where the shot had hit.”


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