- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 31, 2008

THE RETREAT FROM GETTYSBURG AND THE PURSUIT OF LEE’S ARMY OF NORTHERN VIRGINIA, JULY 4-14, 1863

By Eric J. Wittenberg, J. David Petruzzi and Michael F. Nugent

Savas Beatie

$34.95, 519 pages, illus.

A long-neglected aspect of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Northern Campaign in June and July 1863, the Confederate army’s harrowing retreat from Gettysburg is beginning to receive the attention it deserves. This was a high-stakes event, the outcome of which would have a profound impact on the progress of the war.

In 2005, Kent Masterson Brown published an incisive study called “Retreat from Gettysburg: Lee, Logistics, & the Pennsylvania Campaign.” As the title implies, this work emphasized the logistics of moving a large army in unfamiliar and unfriendly territory in an attempt to reach safety at the end of an arduous campaign while being closely pursued by the enemy.

When Civil War armies confronted each other, ordinarily the infantry was at center stage. When armies were on the move, however, the cavalry generally played the more important role. It screened and protected a marching army, and gathered information about the opposing force’s location and intentions.

“One Continuous Fight: The Retreat from Gettysburg and the Pursuit of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, July 4-14, 1863” by Eric J. Wittenberg, J. David Petruzzi and Michael F. Nugent highlights and scrutinizes the Union and Confederate cavalries’ role in the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg, and factors in the results of cavalry engagements in the overall outcome of the pursuit of Lee’s army.

Mr. Wittenberg has published a number of studies on Civil War cavalry actions (most recently “Rush’s Lancers” and “Jeb Stuart’s Controversial Ride to Gettysburg”), and is recognized as one of the foremost scholars on this subject. Mr. Petruzzi also specializes in cavalry matters, and authored the Jeb Stuart book with Mr. Wittenberg. Mr. Nugent, a newcomer to the publishing field, brings credentials of military service as an armored cavalry officer. The benefit of three authors collaborating is reflected in the extensive research conducted to produce this study.

In the foreword, Civil War writer Ted Alexander reviews the lean historical record on this subject, and cites the heavy casualty count for cavalry during this campaign.

Military historian Noah Andre Trudeau, in the preface, laments the absence of “the full Lee versus Meade story.” He cites the lost opportunities that Lee and Union commander Maj. Gen. George G. Meade experienced during the post-Gettysburg period - not the least of which occurred during the retreat. In essence, he frames the issue that is at the heart of the examination undertaken in “One Continuous Fight,” that is, whether Meade put forth sufficient effort to attack and destroy Lee’s army.

In the introduction, the authors point out that the cavalry of both sides bore the brunt of the fighting during the retreat. The title is derived from a Confederate cavalryman’s description of the march from Gettysburg as “one continuous fight.” The objective, therefore, was to link more than a score of cavalry engagements, and to explain the impact of each on the outcome of the Army of the Potomac’s pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Several of these engagements occurred at locations that may not be familiar to some, such as Monterey Pass, Williamsport, Funkstown, Hagerstown, Boonsboro and Falling Waters. In the context of Lee’s attempt to escape with his army still relatively intact, however, each of these battles or skirmishes had a bearing on the eventual outcome.

The authors take the reader on a wild ride through the Pennsylvania and Maryland countryside following lengthy wagon trains and the opposing armies. Conditions were for the most part extraordinarily poor, with heavy rains and inferior or nonexistent roads. The Confederate train, filled with thousands of men wounded at Gettysburg, sustained repeated attacks along the route, yet somehow most of the wagons arrived at the Williamsport destination.

Lee’s army, already reduced by about 28,000 casualties at Gettysburg, would suffer thousands more losses from deserters and those captured along the way. The Confederates had two major terrain obstacles. Initially they had to get across South Mountain safely, and eventually ford a rain-swollen Potomac River. In both cases, they relied on Stuart’s cavalry to keep the Union army at bay in the attempt to have Lee’s forces reach safety.

Whether fighting in the mountains or clashing in the valleys, the Union and Confederate cavalries showed their mettle. These troopers conducted operations with little time for rest and paltry rations. The authors introduce several of these heroes, citing their backgrounds and accomplishments. Many would be wounded or killed in combat along the way, their makeshift graves dotting the landscape.

Particularly captivating is the description of the classic struggle between Union cavalry commanders Brig. Gen. John Buford and Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick on the one hand and the forces Brig. Gen. John Imboden was able to cobble together on the other. They fought for possession of the Confederate wagon trains that had successfully reached Williamsport. The authors point out that the outcome of this battle was crucial to the fate of Lee’s army.

While the successive cavalry battles provided the excitement, the pending confrontation involving opposing infantry supplied the drama. As both armies settled near Williamsport, Meade and Lee were left with the wrenching decision of whether to reprise the bloody conflict at Gettysburg.

Detailed discussion of the military and political ramifications of potential choices makes for fascinating reading. The authors assess the respective commanders’ capacity to accept responsibility and manage stress under these trying circumstances. While their commanders pondered the options, a sizable majority of Union officers and enlisted men who went on record expressed a desire to attack the enemy and bring an early end to the war.

A feature of this study is the extensive research and use of primary sources to authenticate the findings presented. Facts and statements are documented with the words of participants recorded in letters, memoirs and official correspondence. This plus the inclusion of ample maps, photos and illustrations enhances the feeling of being close to the action. An appended order of battle aids in identifying military units, and the comprehensive bibliography will permit further investigation.

Given the depth of research, it is surprising that this study does not include a number of reports dated July 9-11 from civilian and military scouts of the Army of the Potomac’s intelligence staff known as the Bureau of Military Information.

These documents, located in files at the National Archives and published in available sources, were from BMI personnel who reconnoitered Lee’s army in the vicinity of Hagerstown and Williamsport and provided details of its location, disposition, defensive preparation, supply efforts, movements across the river, and the conditions in the area. These reports were by far the most detailed Meade had available about enemy plans and activities.

Also note that the figure cited by the authors of 12,000 Union cavalry at the Battle of Brandy Station should read just under 8,000, and recent scholarship provides satisfactory evidence that Imboden’s cavalry brigade had a strength of 1,300 to 1,400 rather than the 2,245 cited. These changes for the record do not detract from the exceptional research accomplished in this study.

Some bonuses are two separate driving tours that afford the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of the retreating Confederate army and its wagon trains along the hazardous routes they followed. The length involved along these somewhat parallel routes (about 50 and 65 miles respectively), that begin and end in the same locations, may dictate taking one route forward and the other in reverse to save time. A listing of GPS Waypoints for the Wagon Train of Wounded Driving Tour provides additional guidance.

Those with an interest in the critical 10 days after the Battle of Gettysburg will welcome this essentially eyewitness account based on voluminous personal descriptions and recollections. “One Continuous Fight: The Retreat from Gettysburg and the Pursuit of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, July 4-14, 1863” should be at the top of everyone’s Civil War shopping list.

Thomas J. Ryan of Bethany Beach is past president of the Central Delaware Civil War Round Table.

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