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 "Duty is the sublimest word in our language."  

 "Human virtue should be equal to human calamity."  LEE. 1876



XX.   Lee's Retreat across the Potomac

 Lee commenced his retreat in the direction of the Potomac on the night of the 4th of July. That the movement did not begin earlier is the best proof of the continued efficiency of his army and his own willingness to accept battle if the enemy were inclined to offer it.

After the failure of the attack on the Federal centre, he had withdrawn Ewell from his position southeast of Gettysburg, and, forming a continuous line of battle on Seminary Ridge, awaited the anticipated assault of General Meade. What the result of such an assault would have been it is impossible to say, but the theory that an attack would have terminated in the certain rout of the Southern army has nothing whatever to support it. The _morale_ of Lee's army was untouched. The men, instead of being discouraged by the tremendous conflicts of the preceding days, were irate, defiant, and ready to resume the struggle. Foreign officers, present at the time, testify fully upon this point, describing the demeanor of the troops as all that could be desired in soldiers; and General Longstreet afterward stated that, with his two divisions under Hood and McLaws, and his powerful artillery, he was confident, had the enemy attacked, of inflicting upon them a blow as heavy as that which they had inflicted upon Pickett. The testimony of General Meade himself fully corroborates these statements. When giving his evidence afterward before the war committee, he said:

"My opinion is, now, that General Lee evacuated that position, _not from the fear that he would be dislodged from it by any active operations on my part_, but that he was fearful that a force would be sent to Harper's Ferry to cut off his communications.... That was what caused him to retire."

When asked the question, "Did you discover, after the battle of Gettysburg, any symptoms of demoralization in Lee's army?" General Meade replied, "No, sir; I saw nothing of that kind."[1]

[Footnote 1: Report of Committee on Conduct of War, Part I., page 337.]

There was indeed no good reason why General Lee should feel any extreme solicitude for the safety of his army, which, after all its losses, still numbered more than fifty thousand troops; and, with that force of veteran combatants, experience told him, he could count upon holding at bay almost any force which the enemy could bring against him. At Chancellorsville, with a less number, he had nearly routed a larger army than General Meade's. If the _morale_ of the men remained unbroken, he had the right to feel secure now; and we have shown that the troops were as full of fight as ever. The exclamations of the ragged infantry, overheard by Colonel Freemantle, expressed the sentiment of the whole army. Recoiling from the fatal charge on Cemetery Hill, and still followed by the terrible fire, they had heart to shout defiantly: "We've not lost confidence in the old man! This day's work won't do him no harm! Uncle Robert will get us into Washington yet--you bet he will!"

Lee's reasons for retiring toward the Potomac were unconnected with the _morale_ of his army. "The difficulty of procuring supplies," he says, "rendered it impossible to continue longer where we were." What he especially needed was ammunition, his supply of which had been nearly exhausted by the three days' fighting, and it was impossible to count upon new supplies of these essential stores now that the enemy were in a condition to interrupt his communications in the direction of Harper's Ferry and Williamsport. The danger to which the army was thus exposed was soon shown not to have been overrated. General Meade promptly sent a force to occupy Harper's Ferry, and a body of his cavalry, hastening across the South Mountain, reached the Potomac near Falling Waters, where they destroyed a pontoon bridge laid there for the passage of the Southern army.

Lee accordingly resolved to retire, and, after remaining in line of battle on Seminary Ridge throughout the evening and night of the 3d and the whole of the 4th, during which time he was busy burying his dead, began to withdraw, by the Fairfield and Chambersburg roads, on the night of this latter day. The movement was deliberate, and without marks of haste, the rear-guard not leaving the vicinity of Gettysburg until the morning of the 5th. Those who looked upon the Southern army at this time can testify that the spirit of the troops was unsubdued. They had been severely checked, but there every thing had ended. Weary, covered with dust, with wounds whose bandages were soaked in blood, the men tramped on in excellent spirits, and were plainly ready to take position at the first word from Lee, and meet any attack of the enemy with a nerve as perfect as when they had advanced.

For the reasons stated by himself, General Meade did not attack. He had secured substantial victory by awaiting Lee's assault on strong ground, and was unwilling now to risk a disaster, such as he had inflicted, by attacking Lee in position. The enthusiasm of the authorities at Washington was not shared by the cool commander of the Federal army. He perfectly well understood the real strength and condition of his adversary, and seems never to have had any intention of striking at him unless a change of circumstances gave him some better prospect of success than he could see at that time.

The retrograde movement of the Southern army now began, Lee's trains retiring by way of Chambersburg, and his infantry over the Fairfield road, in the direction of Hagerstown. General Meade at first moved directly on the track of his enemy. The design of a "stern chase" was, however, speedily abandoned by the Federal commander, who changed the direction of his march and moved southward toward Frederick. When near that point he crossed the South Mountain, went toward Sharpsburg, and on the 12th of July found himself in front of the Southern army near Williamsport, where Lee had formed line of battle to receive his adversary's attack.

The deliberate character of General Meade's movements sufficiently indicates the disinclination he felt to place himself directly in his opponent's front, and thus receive the full weight of his attack. There is reason, indeed, to believe that nothing could better have suited the views of General Meade than for Lee to have passed the Potomac before his arrival--which event would have signified the entire abandonment of the campaign of invasion, leaving victory on the side of the Federal army. But the elements seemed to conspire to bring on a second struggle, despite the reluctance of both commanders. The recent rains had swollen the Potomac to such a degree as to render it unfordable, and, as the pontoon near Williamsport had been destroyed by the Federal cavalry, Lee was brought to bay on the north bank of the river, where, on the 12th, as we have said, General Meade found him in line of battle.

Lee's demeanor, at this critical moment, was perfectly undisturbed, and exhibited no traces whatever of anxiety, though he must have felt much. In his rear was a swollen river, and in his front an adversary who had been reenforced with a considerable body of troops, and now largely outnumbered him. In the event of battle and defeat, the situation of the Southern army must be perilous in the extreme. Nothing would seem to be left it, in that event, but surrender, or dispersion among the western mountains, where the detached bodies would be hunted down in detail and destroyed or captured. Confidence in himself and his men remained, however, with General Lee, and, with his line extending from near Hagerstown to a point east of Williamsport, he calmly awaited the falling of the river, resolved, doubtless, if in the mean time the enemy attacked him, to fight to the last gasp for the preservation of his army.

No attack was made by General Meade, who, arriving in front of Lee on the 12th, did no more, on that day, than feel along the Southern lines for a point to assault. On the next day he assembled a council of war, and laid the question before them, whether or not it were advisable to make an assault. The votes of the officers were almost unanimously against it, as Lee's position seemed strong and the spirit of his army defiant; and the day passed without any attempt of the Federal army to dislodge its adversary.

While General Meade was thus hesitating, Lee was acting. A portion of the pontoon destroyed by the enemy was recovered, new boats were built, and a practicable bridge was completed, near Falling Waters, by the evening of the 13th. The river had also commenced falling, and by this time was fordable near Williamsport. Toward dawn on the 14th the army commenced moving, in the midst of a violent rain-storm, across the river at both points, and Lee, sitting his horse upon the river's bank, superintended the operation, as was his habit on occasions of emergency. Loss of rest and fatigue, with that feeling of suspense unavoidable under the circumstances, had impaired the energies of even his superb physical constitution. As the bulk of the rear-guard of the army safely passed over the shaky bridge, which Lee had looked at with some anxiety as it swayed to and fro, lashed by the current, he uttered a sigh of relief, and a great weight seemed taken from his shoulders. Seeing his fatigue and exhaustion. General Stuart gave him some coffee; he drank it with avidity, and declared, as he handed back the cup, that nothing had ever refreshed him so much.

When General Meade, who is said to have resolved on an attack, in spite of the opposition of his officers, looked, on the morning of the 14th, toward the position held on the previous evening by the Southern army, he saw that the works were deserted. The Army of Northern Virginia had vanished from the hills on which it had been posted, and was at that moment crossing the Potomac. Pressing on its track toward Falling Waters, the Federal cavalry came up with the rear, and in the skirmish which ensued fell the brave Pettigrew, who had supported Pickett in the great charge at Gettysburg, where he had waved his hat in front of his men, and, in spite of a painful wound, done all in his power to rally his troops. With this exception, and a few captures resulting from accident, the army sustained no losses. The movement across the Potomac had been effected, in face of the whole Federal army, as successfully as though that army had been a hundred miles distant.[1]

[Footnote 1: Upon this point different statements were subsequently made by Generals Lee and Meade, and Lee's reply to the statements of his opponent is here given:


_July 21, 1863._

_General S. Cooper, Adjutant and Inspector-General C.S.A., Richmond, Va_.:

GENERAL: I have seen in Northern papers what purported to be an official dispatch from General Meade, stating that he had captured a brigade of Infantry, two pieces of artillery, two caissons, and a large number of small-arms, as this army retired to the south bank of the Potomac, on the 13th and 14th inst.

This dispatch has been copied into the Richmond papers, and, as its official character may cause it to be believed, I desire to state that it is incorrect. The enemy did not capture any organized body of men on that occasion, but only stragglers, and such as were left asleep on the road, exhausted by the fatigue and exposure of one of the most inclement nights I have ever known at this season of the year. It rained without cessation, rendering the road by which our troops marched to the bridge at Falling Waters very difficult to pass, and causing so much delay that the last of the troops did not cross the river at the bridge until 1 P.M. on the 14th. While the column was thus detained on the road a number of men, worn down by fatigue, lay down in barns, and by the roadside, and though officers were sent back to arouse them, as the troops moved on, the darkness and rain prevented them from finding all, and many were in this way left behind. Two guns were left on the road. The horses that drew them became exhausted, and the officers went forward to procure others. When they returned, the rear of the column had passed the guns so far that it was deemed unsafe to send back for them, and they were thus lost. No arms, cannon, or prisoners, were taken by the enemy in battle, but only such as were left behind under the circumstances I have described. The number of stragglers thus lost I am unable to state with accuracy, but it is greatly exaggerated in the dispatch referred to.

I am, with great respect, your obedient servant,

R.E. LEE, _General_.

The solicitude here exhibited by the Southern commander, that the actual facts should be recorded, is natural, and displayed Lee's spirit of soldiership. He was unwilling that his old army should appear in the light of a routed column, retreating in disorder, with loss of men and munitions, when they lost neither.]



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