Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Lee Crosses the Potomac

After being defeated in the Battle of Gettysburg by Meade's Army of the Potomac, Robert E. Lee began retreating back towards Virginia with his Army of Northern Virginia. Although they had suffered greatly in the three days of fighting and many of their comrades had fallen in the fields and woods of Pennsylvania, the morale of the rest of Lee's army remained high. The Confederates met some resistance from the pursuing Federals. A significant part of the 15 mile wagon train was lost. Stuart's cavalry, which had been absent from the army during the advance north, now did good service in covering the retreat.

The main part of the Union army didn't follow right behind Lee. Meade was not sure that Lee was really returning to Virginia, and he stayed to the east side of South Mountain to cover Baltimore and Washington. When the Confederates reached the Potomac River, they found a serious problem. On July 7th heavy rain had fallen, turning the roads into mud, and this deluge of water had also raised the river so that it could not be crossed. Lee could do nothing except arrange his men in defensive positions with the river to their back and wait for the water to fall.

Lee's Earthworks
As the Federal troops arrived opposite the Confederates on July 12, they found them just finishing strong earthworks complete with gun emplacements. Meade considered attacking, but in a council of war that night he found that only two of the officers present supported an attack. Henry Halleck was upset and telegraphed him:
You are strong enough to attack and defeat the enemy before he can effect a crossing. Act upon your own judgment and make your generals execute your orders. Call no council of war. It is proverbial that councils of war never fight. Re-enforcements are pushed on as rapidly as possible. Do not let the enemy escape.
Lee crossing the Potomac
On the other side of the entrenchments Lee was hoping that Meade would attack. But that was not to be. Meade was not willing to risk a fight, and on the night of July 13-14 the river had fallen enough for Lee to make his escape. He had suffered about 5,000 casualties in the retreat, mostly captured, but he had successfully extricated his defeated army from deep in the enemy's country. President Lincoln was disappointed at Meade's failure to capture Lee. He said:
We had them within our grasp! We had only to stretch forth our hands, and they were ours, and nothing I could say, or do, could make this army move. … This is a dreadful reminiscence of McClellan; it is the same spirit as moved him to claim a great victory, because Pennsylvania and Maryland were safe. Will our Generals never get that idea out of their heads? The whole country is our soil.


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