The Union Pursuit

This entry is part 23 of 27 in the series The Gettysburg Campaign

The Union army began its pursuit of the retreating Confederates almost immediately. Many casual students of the Gettysburg campaign view George G. Meade as a commander like George B. McClellan who was content to sit at Sharpsburg after the Battle of Antietam while Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia escaped unscathed back to the safety of Virginia.

This was not the case with General Meade who sent his cavalry in pursuit of the retreating Confederates. The Union cavalry hounded the various columns of Lee’s retreating army with attacks at Monterey Pass and other locations. Some of the attacks were mere skirmishes  while other were successful attempts to capture significant numbers of Confederate troops and parts of the various wagon trains that were wending their way south through the Pennsylvania and Maryland countryside.

General George Gordon MeadeThe Union pursuit began almost immediately with the dispatching of almost the entire cavalry forces of the Amy of the Potomac on the morning of July 4, 1863. Meade was still concerned about the strength of the Confederate army. The high command believed that Lee had a larger force than he actually had. In fact, from the start of the war it seemed that Union commanders thought that the Confederate army had twice as many men as it actually had.

General Meade ordered his chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Daniel Butterfield, to prepare for a general movement of the army, which he organized into three wings, commanded by Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick (I, III, and VI Corps), Maj. Gen. Henry W. Slocum (II and XII), and Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard (V and XI). By the morning of July 5, Meade learned of Lee’s departure, but he hesitated to order a general pursuit until he had received the results of Warren’s reconnaissance.

On the morning of July 5th, Meade ordered General Sedgwick to send a division from his VI Corps under the command of Brig. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren, the army’s chief engineer, to probe the Confederate line and determine Lee’s intentions. Sedgwick’s Corps had hardly been engaged at Gettysburg and it was the largest corps in the Army of the Potomac.

Instead of dispatching just a single division, Sedgwick ordered his entire corps forward. By late on the afternoon of July 5th, they ran into Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell’s rearguard at Granite Hill near Fairfield, but the result was little more than a skirmish. The Confederates camped a mile and a half west of Fairfield, holding their position with only their picket line. Warren informed Meade that both he and Sedgwick believed Lee was concentrating his force at this location.

Meade reacted cautiously and halted the army’s advance. On the morning of July 6th, he ordered another reconnaissance of the Confederate positions. Sedgwick expressed his opinion that there was a great deal of risk in sending his corps into the rough country ahead, particularly when it was swathed in a dense fog. Meade was persuaded and called off the advance for the time being.General John Sedgwick

This seeming indecision by Meade would cause him a great deal of difficulty by the second-guessing of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. After Gettysburg, Butterfield actively undermined Meade, in cooperation with Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles. The two generals testified to the Joint Committee that Meade had vacillated and planned as early as July 1st to retreat from Gettysburg. Butterfield’s chief evidence for this assertion was the Pipe Creek Circular, the original campaign plan that Meade’s staff had prepared before it became clear that battle would be at Gettysburg.

With Meade’s mixed signals, Warren and Sedgwick steered a conservative course with the advance. They waited for Ewell’s force to leave Fairfield and followed at a safe distance as Ewell moved west.

Assuming that Sedgwick would attack Ewell’s rearguard, General Lee gave him specific orders to respond to any attack. “If these people keep coming on, turn back and thresh them.” Ewell replied, “By the blessing of Providence I will do it.” He ordered Maj. Gen. Robert E. Rodes‘s division to form a battle line.

The VI Corps followed Lee only to the top of Monterey Pass, however, and did not pursue down the other side. It would be left to the other two wings of the Union army and the cavalry to pursue the Confederates to the Potomac shore.



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