The Confederate Retreat From Gettysburg: Overview

This entry is part 19 of 27 in the series The Gettysburg Campaign
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The Gettysburg Campaign had three distinct phases. The first phase was the Confederate advance from Virginia to Pennsylvania followed by the Union Army of Northern Virginia. The three-day Battle of Gettysburg was the second phase. Finally, the Confederate retreat from Gettysburg to the Potomac, chased by the Union cavalry was the final phase in the campaign.

This retreat from Gettysburg is the least studied part of a campaign that is perhaps the most studied in American military history, if not world military history. Robert E. Lee led his Army of Northern Virginia through Maryland and into Southern Pennsylvania with several objectives in mind.

Lee left his home state because he needed supplies for his army. Virginia was exhausted after over two years of constant combat on its soil. Meanwhile, the north had not yet been directly impacted by the fighting, while most of the Southern states had been. As he moved north, his army collected foodstuffs, clothing and shoes (an important commodity for an army on the march).

Confederate Retreat from GettysburgGeneral Lee also sought to draw the Union army into a decisive battle on ground of his own choosing. Lee knew that the industrial strength and larger populations in the the North would eventually strangle the Southern Confederacy. Elan and bravery could only go so far.

However, the three day fight at Gettysburg was not on ground of General Lee’s choosing. The final throw of the dice with Pickett’s Charge ended the Confederate invasion of the North with the defeat of Lee’s army.

The Army of Northern Virginia had entered Pennsylvania with slightly over 70,000 effectives. The three day’s of fighting around the crossroads town of Gettysburg had cost the Army of Northern Virginia almost one-third of its strength, 22,874 men had been either killed, wounded or captured/missing.

General George Meade’s Army of the Potomac had entered Pennsylvania with 89,815 men. The fighting cost the Union army slightly under 25% of their strength with 22,813 men killed, wounded or captured/missing. Gettysburg was a bloodbath for both armies.

After the final attack on Cemetary Ridge, both armies stared at each other across the bloody battlefields, each waiting for the other to attack. Meade was left with 67,000 effectives while Lee had 47,000. However, neither exhausted army was prepared for another day of bloody fighting.

With that the heavens opened up and a torrential downpour began. A staff officer from the Union II Corps observed, “The downpour was in proportion to the violence of the preceding cannonade. The soldiers were drenched in an instant; and sudden torrents swept over the hills, as if to wash out the stains of the great battle.”

General Lee realized that Meade’s army was exhausted as his own and determined to save as much as he could by retreating to the Potomac River and crossing back into Virginia. Lee’s army would need to traverse some distance through enemy territory in order to cross the river at Williamsport, Maryland and back into Virginia.

Lee’s first order of business was to secure his wounded, which numbered over 12,000, and transport them back to the safety of Virginia. This General John Imbodenmonumental job fell to Brig. Gen. John D. Imboden, a 40-year old native of Staunton, Virginia in the Shenandoah Valley. Imboden had joined the Confederate service at the beginning of the war, having served several years as a captain in the Staunton Artillery of the Virginia State Militia.

After First Manassas, Imboden left the artillery and formed a battalion of partisan rangers. He was promoted to colonel of the 62nd Virginia Mounted Infantry (1st Partisan Rangers). He fought with Maj. Gen.Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson in the Valley Campaign at Cross Keys and Port Republic. He was promoted to brigadier general on January 28, 1863.

J.E.B. Stuart did not appreciate Imboden’s contribution to the Confederate war effort but Robert E. Lee did. Imboden reported directly to General Lee during the Gettysburg campaign. His independent Northwestern Brigade consisted of the 18th Virginia Cavalry, 62nd Virginia Mounted Infantry, the Virginia Partisan Rangers and the Staunton Horse Artillery, Virginia Battery. In all, Imboden commanded some 2,245 troopers.

During June, 1863, the Brigade had caused extensive damage to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad between Martinsburg, WV, and Cumberland, MD. It had also cut the C&O Canal in two places in Maryland. Within a short time after entering Pennsylvania, it had become entirely mounted by plundering local horses. Once in Pennsylvania, Imboden’s Brigade was used primarily a screening force and to secure needed supplies for General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

Now, General Lee needed the Virginia cavalry leader for the most difficult assignment of his military career. Imboden was summoned to Lee’s headquarters at about 1:00 AM on July 4, 1863 to meet with General Lee.

Imboden later described the meeting. “The moon shone full upon his massive features and revealed an expression of sadness that I had never before seen on his face. Awed by his appearance, I waited for him to speak until the silence became embarrassing.” Imboden broke the silence, “General, this has been a hard day on you.”

Retreat From Gettysburg“Yes, it has been a sad, sad day to us.” Lee went on to praise Pickett’s Virginians and then added, “Too bad! Too bad! Oh! Too bad!” Lee then invited Imboden into his tent and explained the situation to his fellow Virginian. Imboden’s men and horses were fresh because they had not fought in the battle. He instructed the cavalryman to guard and conduct the wagon train of the wounded back to the Potomac and see them safely across into Virginia.

Lee also instructed Imboden to see that a package for President Jefferson Davis which he would carry with him be delivered to Richmond by a reliable commissioned officer. Under no circumstances was the package to fall into enemy hands. Lee’s written orders and the package were delivered to Imboden several hours later. John D. Imboden’s trek back to Virginia began almost immediately. The retreat from Gettysburg was to be a running battle all of the way to the Potomac.

The Confederate retreat from Gettysburg is a worthy subject of study because it illustrates how soldiers and armies cope with crushing defeat.

 

 

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