The Confederate Retreat and the Union Pursuit, Part Six

On July 11, 1863, the Army of the Potomac was closing in on the Confederate army near Williamsport. Battle lines are beginning to take shape, as the Confederate army, occupied the ground from just west of Hagerstown, all the way down to Downsville, east of Williamsport. Lt. General Richard Ewell’s Corps held the left flank of the Confederate army, west of Hagerstown. Holding the center, east of Williamsport, was Lt. General A. P. Hill’s Corps. Major General George Pickett, along with Brigadier General John Imboden occupied the Hagerstown and Boonsboro Roads, as they led into Williamsport itself. Holding the Confederate right flank, east of Williamsport and Downsville, was Lt. General James Longstreet’s Corps.

The Union army began taking up positions paralleling the Confederate army. The I Corps remained at Beaver Creek. The II Corps was positioned near Saint James College. The III Corps supported the V Corps near Funkstown. During the evening, the V Corps was ordered to move into the direction of Antietam, near Jones’s Crossroads. The VI and XI Corps moved to Beaver Creek via Funkstown. The XII Corps then proceeded toward the II Corps position.

Early in the morning the next day, Colonel Pennock Huey’s cavalry brigade moved along the Williamsport Road. They were encamped at Jones’s Crossroads and were ordered to re-con the Confederate lines. Near Saint James College, they engaged some of the Confederate pickets. With the sounds of a skirmish ahead, Union infantry were ordered out and several Confederate soldiers were captured.

Meanwhile to the north, near Hagerstown, Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry moved toward the city. He was supported by Brigadier General Adelbert Ames’ infantry brigade of the XI Corps. As they approached the city, they were fired upon. Brigadier General Kilpatrick was able to capture some of the Confederate pickets. The Second Battle of Hagerstown had officially begun.

Supported by artillery, Brigadier General Kilpatrick moved to the outskirts of Hagerstown. There, deploying some cavalry behind a stonewall, Kilpatrick ordered Brigadier General George Custer to charge the city. Brigadier General Custer hesitated. Brigadier General Kilpatrick then ordered his headquarters guard, Company A of the 1st Ohio Cavalry to charge. Several Confederate soldiers were captured in charge.

While the headquarters guard charged, Brig. Gen. Ames ordered his infantry forward as support. At the same time, Brig. Gen. Custer finally charged into Hagerstown. He was quickly attacked by Confederate infantry. Fighting in the streets was vicious, as the fight took place from yard to yard. As Custer’s men pushed forward, Brig. Gen. Ames and his infantry began flooding into Hagerstown until they reached the town center. By the end of the Second Battle of Hagerstown, the Union suffered a handful of casualties, and 400-500 Confederates were taken prisoner.

While the Second Battle of Hagerstown was erupting, the Union army was again repositioning itself. The realignment was to get the entire Army of the Potomac west of the Antietam Creek. The I Corps was ordered to take the heights beyond Funkstown. The II Corps moved to Saint James. The III Corps moved toward Marsh Creek. The V Corps began to entrench its position, holding the center of the Union army. The VI Corps would eventually move to the south of Funkstown, and turn southward to occupy the ground connecting the V Corps and the I Corps. The XI Corps moved ahead of the I Corps, and would hold the right flank of the Union army, just south of Hagerstown. The XII Corps held the left flank of the Union army, south of Jones’s Crossroads.

As darkness fell on the defenses of Williamsport, the Union army had a decision to make regarding the next day. Should they attack? Or should they reconnoiter the Confederate defenses. Up until now, the Confederate army has had its back against a swollen Potomac River. They have built some massive entrenchments to protect their army. Now, both armies are looking at each other.

That night, Major General George Meade, whose headquarters was located at the Devil’s Backbone along the Antietam Creek, called for a council of war. Major General Meade asked his council if they felt the Union army should attack the Confederate positions that guarded their aveune back into West Virginia and Virginia.

The council voted “No!” to the question of attacking the Confederate army. The only vote in favor of the attack came from Major General Oliver O. Howard. Meade’s Staff was also in favor of the attack, but their votes could not be counted. Major General Meade would then reconnoiter the Confederates the next day and make plans for an all out attack on July 14. This decision infuriated President Abraham Lincoln.

On July 13, the Union army concentrated on improving their own defenses. Throughout the day, both armies continued to look over at each other. Meanwhile, the Confederate army determined that they would move into West Virginia that night. Longstreet’s and Hill’s Corps would cross over the Potomac River on a newly built pontoon bridge at Falling Waters. At Williamsport, the waters had receded enough and Ewell’s Corps would ford the Potomac River there. Bunker Hill, West Virginia would be the concentration point of the Confederate army.

As night fell on the fields separating both armies, the Confederate army prepared to move out. Near midnight, the Confederate army began moving into West Virginia. By 7:00 a.m. on July 14, it was discovered that, for the most part, the Confederate army was on the south side of the Potomac River. They had performed a great escape.

Early in the morning on July 14, at Falling Waters, MD, Brig. Gen. Kilpatrick with Brigadier General John Buford caught up with the rearguard of the Confederate army. Without consulting Brig. Gen. Buford, Kilpatrick ordered Brig. Gen. Custer to attack. Leading his brigade was the 6th Michigan Cavalry and they charged the Confederates. At first the Confederate soldiers thought that this cavalry was part of their own. The rearguard of Hill’s Corps, commanded by Major General Henry Heth, realized that this was Union cavalry. They fired a devastating volley into the Union cavalry. As fighting continued into the early afternoon, Brigadier General James Pettigrew was mortally wounded.

By 1:00 p.m., Maj. Gen. Heth was ordered to fall back to the bridge. The Union cavalry had 111 casualties. The Confederates lost more than 154 men killed or wounded, but upwards to 1,500 men captured. Falling Waters was the last major battle of the Pennsylvania Campaign in Maryland.

For the next several days, the Union army moved back into Pleasant Valley. By July 16, the Army of the Potomac was located in the three main areas of Harper’s Ferry, Sandy Hook and Berlin. That same day, Union cavalry fought near Shepherdstown, where they engaged Confederate cavalry guarding the Potomac River. After several hours of fighting, and both sides standing their ground, the Union cavalry was forced to withdraw after sunset.

On July 17, after being re-supplied and re-equipped, the Army of the Potomac began moving into Virginia. The crossing of the Potomac would take two days. By July 19, the Army of the Potomac was south of the Potomac River.

On July 23, at Manassas Gap, the III Corps was ordered to Front Royal to cut off the Confederate army’s retreat. However, poorly coordinated Union attacks allowed the Confederate army to continue moving without any further pursuit. The next day, the last battle of the Pennsylvania Campaign occurred near Amissville at Battle Mountain. Being outnumbered, Brig. Gen. Custer was forced to fall back, and the Pennsylvania Campaign of 1863 officially came to an end.