- The Washington Times - Friday, April 8, 2005


By Kent Masterson Brown

University of North Carolina Press, $34.95, 534 pages

On the afternoon of July 3, 1863, the remnants of Pickett’s Charge streamed back across the fields at Gettysburg after being repulsed by the Union Army. Though Gen. Robert E. Lee saw this as a “sad day for us,” he had little time to lament the numerous casualties suffered during the assault on Cemetery Ridge. Lee had the onerous task of organizing a retreat of his army and lengthy wagon trains to the safety of Virginia.

Kent Masterson Brown’s “Retreat From Gettysburg: Lee, Logistics, & the Pennsylvania Campaign” provides a narrative of events after Lee’s decision to withdraw from the field after three days of fierce fighting at Gettysburg, because ammunition was getting low and food was difficult to gather. In addition, he feared for the safety of large quantities of livestock and stores confiscated in the countryside during the Northern invasion that would be needed to sustain his forces in the coming months.

Lee anticipated that Gen. George G. Meade, commander of the Union Army of the Potomac, would stage a counterattack after Pickett’s Charge, thereby giving the Confederates an opportunity to reciprocate by inflicting substantial losses on the Union Army. When Meade chose not to take the offensive, Lee decided to retreat gradually with the anticipation that his enemy would follow and attempt to engage his forces along the way.

Brown relates how Lee had to arrange for the herding of tens of thousands of horses and cattle and the movement of thousands of wagons filled with provisions, supplies and ordnance. He was also confronted with the need to transport nearly 20,000 wounded and sick soldiers and had to leave behind thousands of the most serious cases, who could not be moved.

There are vivid descriptions of Confederate wounded forced to walk or crammed into vehicles traversing rough roads and the plight of unfed and uncared-for Union prisoners during the march to the Potomac River. The author was able to relate the experiences and emotions of those who took part in these events through the extensive use of personal papers, diaries and memoirs.

Lee chose two routes to the Potomac. The wagon trains of wounded took a more northerly direction through Cashtown and Greencastle in southern Pennsylvania while the army followed roads farther south via Waynesboro, Va., and Hagerstown, Md.

Speed was of the utmost importance for the wagon loads of wounded guarded by Gen. John Imboden’s cavalry. Private citizens and detachments of Union troops attacked the train along the way. Imboden managed to reach his destination at Williamsport, Md., with most of the convoy intact, only to discover that the Potomac River had become impassable because of heavy rains.

“Retreat From Gettysburg” relates the considerable logistical problems confronting Meade as he endeavored to pursue the Confederates. He had orders from President Lincoln and Gen. Henry Halleck to engage Lee in battle again and damage or destroy his army. Meade was not anxious, however, to jeopardize his hard-fought victory at Gettysburg by rushing into an ill-defined situation.

Cavalry and infantry battles and skirmishes took place as Union detachments clashed with the Rebels at various locations. A small band of Maryland cavalry held off an attack by elements of a reinforced Union cavalry division under Gen. Hugh Judson Kilpatrick as Lee’s army traveled through the mountains. Although Kilpatrick managed to capture a number of troops and wagons, Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry arrived and repulsed his attack.

Union Gen. John Buford, a hero at Gettysburg, received orders to destroy the wagon trains that had arrived at Williamsport. Buford’s attacks failed, however, when Imboden cobbled together a workable defense by employing artillery and arming teamsters and ambulatory wounded soldiers to bolster his meager forces.

A test of fortitude took place after Lee arrived in the vicinity of Williamsport with his army and established a defensive perimeter along an entrenched line in front of the town. Because the river was not fordable, Lee awaited Meade’s arrival with the hope that the Union forces would attack his strong position and suffer losses similar to his own at Gettysburg.

When word arrived that Union reinforcements were on the way, Lee had a change of heart about making a stand. Meade cautiously approached after crossing South Mountain and postponed action while attempting to learn more about Lee’s deployment. The delay proved costly when on July 13 the river receded sufficiently to allow Lee to cross safely during the night.

Brown’s command of the narrative reflects his many years of research, but, as with any study of this magnitude, better editing would have found fault with a number of statements in the text. For example, his contention that Lee sent Stuart around the Union Army during the Northern invasion in order “to protect his own line of communication and supply” and “preoccupy the Union cavalry” is not supported by the evidence.

His statement that Meade had to rely on his cavalry to collect all necessary information about Lee’s movements does not take into consideration the Bureau of Military Information, Meade’s intelligence unit, whose scouts provided detailed reports to the Union commander about the whereabouts and activities of Lee’s army.

Although Brown is generally on solid ground when dealing with matters related to the retreat itself, he is less sure-footed when discussing Lee’s strategy and tactics during the invasion.

The significance of the retreat from Gettysburg rivals that of the battle at the small south-central Pennsylvania town. An opportunity existed to attack Lee’s army with the objective of seriously damaging or destroying it, thereby bringing a conclusion to the war that much closer. Meade’s inability to accomplish this objective led to an extension of the conflict for two more years.

Kent Brown offers a compelling story that heretofore has received only limited attention. He relates the preparation for the retreat and the withdrawal, as well as the aftermath, and amplifies the reasons why the second major battle of the Gettysburg Campaign did not take place at Williamsport. Much of the material is based on previously untapped sources. His extensive use of maps and illustrations places the reader close to the action.

Everyone interested in the Civil War in general and the Gettysburg Campaign in particular will want to obtain a copy of “Retreat from Gettysburg,” and those in search of consequential military history will find this book to their liking.

Thomas J. Ryan, a resident of Bethany Beach, Del., is vice president of the Central Delaware Civil War Round Table. His article about intelligence operations during Meade’s pursuit of Lee’s retreat from Gettysburg will appear in the July 2005 issue of Gettysburg magazine.

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