- The Washington Times - Friday, December 23, 2005

The chaos of the three-day battle at Gettysburg had hardly abated when Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee confronted one of the greatest challenges of the war.

The tactical situation was lost after Pickett’s Charge, to be sure, but now Lee had nearly 13,000 wounded soldiers, thousands of wagons laden with Pennsylvania food and forage, hundreds of scattered and disorganized units, thousands of Union prisoners, and a very tenuous 40-mile line of retreat through enemy territory.

It was a potential disaster in human suffering that could destroy the Army of Northern Virginia.

In this period of uncertainty, while news of the great battle was still filtering out to the rest of the world, Lee turned to a little-known figure, Gen. John D. Imboden, to tackle the problem.

Meeting with Lee

Imboden was a controversial leader of irregular cavalry (“raiders”) with a successful service record but a reputation for self-aggrandizement and lack of discipline.

Lee’s regular cavalry under J.E.B. Stuart had sorely let him down at Gettysburg, arriving late and failing to provide any worthwhile intelligence about the enemy’s movements. Rather than Stuart, Lee summoned Imboden from Chambersburg, Pa., on the evening of July 3 to take charge of the wagon train, prisoners, and a secret packet for Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Imboden found Lee shortly before midnight consulting with corps commander Gen. A.P. Hill and was sent back to Lee’s tent to wait for him. When Lee returned around 1 a.m., Imboden found him unusually pensive, and exhausted.

“Fixing his eyes upon the ground [he] leaned in silence and almost emotionless upon his equally weary horse,” Imboden recalled. The image of his troubled commander in chief moved him deeply.

Once they were inside Lee’s tent, both sat down, and Lee gave Imboden detailed verbal instructions. He was to take his 2,100-man brigade and, supplemented by artillery, proceed southward with the entire train to Williamsport, Md. After crossing the Potomac, the column would continue to Winchester, Va.

Personal orders

Lee had a mixed relationship with Imboden, praising his successes but often criticizing him for being tardy or letting his men get out of control.

At the start of the Pennsylvania campaign, he had been pleased with Imboden’s destruction of the B&O Railroad, but more recently, he had been irritated with a careless defeat Imboden had suffered at the hands of inferior local Union forces.

Lee relied on Imboden specifically for situations like this and kept him under personal orders rather than placing him under Stuart’s command.

Later that morning, Imboden received a written copy of Lee’s orders. Lee again advised the junior officer as a father would an overly reckless son: “I need not caution you as to preserving quiet and order in your train, secrecy of your movements, promptness and energy, and increasing vigilance on the part of yourself and officers.”

The other components of the retreat already had been ordered into place. The wounded who could survive the journey were loaded into ambulances. Wagons laden with the spoils of the Pennsylvania countryside were harnessed to horses and lined up. Artillery was limbered and readied to travel.

Early start

Shortly after noon, a deluge broke loose, drenching everyone and everything and washing gullies in the dirt roads. It was, according to Imboden, “one confused and apparently inextricable mass.”

Nonetheless, the column moved out about 4 p.m., a full hour earlier than Lee had requested in his orders. As the wagons, prisoners and guards, artillery, and cavalry escorts moved out, one soldier summed up the significance of the scene: “The wagons going back over the same road that brought us to Gettysburg told the story.” Lee’s army was in retreat.

Imboden ordered the column to proceed from the Cashtown area west of Gettysburg to Chambersburg and from there south to Williamsport without halt. Any wagon that broke down was to be pulled over and abandoned. Those walking wounded (of which there were by some estimates 10,000) who might happen to fall were to be left to fend for themselves.

Imboden did not expect to win any popularity contests. He remained behind, inserting artillery every one-third of a mile or so and overseeing the operation until dawn the next day (July 5) when the last men and animals moved out. At that moment, the train extended over 17 miles of road.

Under attack

Imboden no doubt was exhausted, though the difficult portion of his task was just beginning. He rode for the front to keep the entire column moving, directing it to turn south rather than enter Chambersburg.

At Greencastle, the column suddenly came under attack from angry Union citizens who began breaking wagon wheels and smashing wagons with shovels or picks. Imboden ordered his men to arrest such citizens and treat them as combatant prisoners of war.

Lee was sanguine about the loss of some wagons, noting later that the enemy “captured a number of wagons and ambulances, but [Imboden] succeeded in reaching Williamsport without serious loss.”

Imboden, however, took the loss of every wagon personally.

Union cavalry employed hit-and-run tactics to sweep in and destroy wagons before artillery or reinforcements could be brought to bear. The defending companies under Imboden would gallop through the neighboring fields at breakneck speed only to have the Union raiders melt into the Pennsylvania countryside.

Imboden’s worries only increased when word reached him that Williamsport, his Potomac crossing and regrouping point, was held by the enemy.

In a war infamous for mistakes made on the basis of false intelligence, Imboden made the brave decision to ignore the report and continue moving. In fact, the town was empty when the column arrived, and between July 5 and 6, the complete train reached the safety of the defensive perimeter that Imboden set up.

Under Imboden’s orders, local families cooked for the wounded, and the center of town was transformed into a massive Confederate hospital.

Yet another obstacle immediately confronted him. The recent rains had swollen the Potomac beyond fording levels, and Lee’s order had been that the wagon train continue to Winchester. A prolonged stay in Williamsport would be asking for trouble, so Imboden quickly put two small ferries into service, moving the walking wounded across the river as soon as they had eaten and had their wounds dressed.

Desperate battle

As expected, the Union cavalry could not resist the inviting target of Lee’s wagon train. With the Confederate infantry still considerably north of Williamsport, three brigades of Union cavalry under Gens. John Buford and Judson Kilpatrick approached the town with the idea of destroying Lee’s supplies and cutting off his retreat.

Imboden positioned his artillery in the hills around the town and, with the help of other officers, drafted 700 wagoners into temporary service. Wounded officers voluntarily led the wagoners by company.

Soon shells were flying from both sides, and a battle was under way. Imboden fully understood that his men had to hold out against a veteran force that certainly outnumbered them. As Confederate batteries began to run low on ammunition, companies of Union cavalry swept in to within a half mile of the parked and concentrated wagons. Fortuitously, two wagonloads of shells were ferried across the river and literally broken open within sight of the enemy. The Confederate artillery continued to fire.

Near nightfall, at a crucial moment, word came from Gen. Fitzhugh Lee that Imboden should hold on — help was close by. A cheer went up along the Confederate lines, and the Union cavalry began to move away, threatened on another flank by men under J.E.B. Stuart.

Imboden’s men, including the wagoners, slowly advanced and cleared the hills of the enemy.

Praise and criticism

Imboden had done his job. Lee would later praise him, summarizing the Union attack as “gallantly repulsed.”

As always, though, Imboden was surrounded by critics. When Stuart found out that nearly 60 wagons had been lost “while in the special charge of General Imboden,” he requested a court of inquiry.

Although the court never was convened as far as records can tell, Stuart (along with many others) remained reluctant to give Imboden credit even when he was successful.

Nonetheless, Imboden’s accomplishment was a significant one. When one considers the tragedy of Pickett’s Charge, the destruction of Lee’s wagon train and the additional capture of thousands of men certainly would have hastened the end of the war.

For Imboden and his men, there was little time to reflect on the small victory. He praised the efforts of the wagoners, many of whom had died while protecting their wagons, and readied his men for their next task, which was to help with rear-guard duties. Lee then gave him charge of a large group of Union prisoners to move to Staunton.

Partially as reward for his Gettysburg duty, Lee shortly thereafter appointed Imboden commander of the Valley District, Stonewall Jackson’s old district. Imboden would hold this command until near the end of the war, but perhaps his best moment was his successful defense of the “wagon train of woe.”

Jack Trammell works at Randolph-Macon College and is finishing his doctoral studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. He can be contacted at jacktrammell@yahoo.com.

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