Lee Escapes (July 14, 1863)

 A drawing by Alfred Waud, labeled, "On the Potomac nr. Williamsport. Rebel crossing ; Rebel Pontoons at Falling Waters" (Library of Congress).

A drawing by Alfred Waud, labeled, “On the Potomac nr. Williamsport. Rebel crossing ; Rebel Pontoons at Falling Waters” (Library of Congress).

July 14, 1863, was not a good day for Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade. He and his army had had Robert E. Lee and the Army of the Northern Virginia backed up against the Potomac River at Williamsport, Maryland. As I write in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg:

The council took place in Meade’s small and crowded tent at Devil’s Backbone. Howard and Maj. Gen. James Wadsworth, who had taken over the I Corps from an ill Newton, voted to attack. The rest of the corps commanders voted to hold off until the army could better investigate Lee’s defenses. Perhaps remembering what had happened at Chancellorsville when Hooker overruled his corps commanders, Meade decided to defer to his generals’ advice. He postponed his attack for a day.

Meade wired Halleck the next day. It was a lengthy message with a slightly defensive tone. “In my dispatch of yesterday I stated that it was my intention to attack the enemy to-day, unless something intervened to prevent it,” he said. “Upon calling my corps commanders together and submitting the question to them, five out of six were unqualifiedly opposed to it. Under these circumstances, in view of the momentous consequences attendant upon a failure to succeed, I did not feel myself authorized to attack until after I had made more careful examination of the enemy’s position, strength, and defensive works. These examinations are now being made. So far as completed, they show the enemy to be strongly intrenched on a ridge running from the rear of Hagerstown past Downsville to the Potomac. I shall continue these reconnaissances with the expectation of finding some weak point, upon which, if I succeed, I shall hazard an attack.”

He received a terse message from Halleck in reply. “You are strong enough to attack and defeat the enemy before he can effect a crossing,” said the general in chief. “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.”

On the morning of July 13 war correspondent Charles Carleton Coffin of the Boston Journal rode over to Meade’s headquarters at Devil’s Backbone. There he found Seth Williams, the army’s adjutant general, in Meade’s tent. Williams told Coffin that Meade was out reconnoitering the rebel lines.

“Do you think that Lee can get across the Potomac?” Coffin asked.

“Impossible!” replied Williams. “The people resident here say that it cannot be forded at this stage of the water. He has no pontoons. We have got him in a tight place. We shall have reinforcements to-morrow, and a great battle will be fought. Lee is encumbered with his teams, and he is short of ammunition.”

As Coffin talked with Williams, Meade entered the tent, dripping wet from the rain. “His countenance was unusually animated,” Coffin wrote. “He had ever been courteous to me, and while usually very reticent of all his intentions or of what was going on, as an officer should be, yet in this instance he broke over his habitual silence, and said, ‘We shall have a great battle to-morrow. The reinforcements are coming up, and as soon as they come we shall pitch in.’”

But when Meade’s soldiers moved forward on July 13 they found that Lee had, in fact, slipped across the river. The next day Meade wrote to his wife:

I found Lee in a very strong position, intrenched. I hesitated to attack him, without some examination of the mode of approaching him. I called my corps commanders together, and they voted against attacking him. This morning, when I advanced to feel his position and seek for a weak point, I found he had retired in the night and was nearly across the river. I immediately started in pursuit, and my cavalry captured two thousand prisoners, two guns, several flags, and killed General Pettigrew. On reporting these facts to General Halleck, he informed me the President was very much dissatisfied at the escape of Lee. I immediately telegraphed I had done my duty to the best of my ability, and that the expressed dissatisfaction of the President I considered undeserved censure, and asked to be immediately relieved. In reply he said it was not intended to censure me, but only to spur me on to an active pursuit, and that it was not deemed sufficient cause for relieving me. This is exactly what I expected; unless I did impracticable things, fault would be found with me. I have ignored the senseless adulation of the public and press, and I am now just as indifferent to the censure bestowed without just cause.

I start to-morrow to run another race with Lee.

In the letter, Meade mentions these exchanges he had with Henry Halleck:

Halleck to Meade, July 14 (in part):

I need hardly say to you that the escape of Lee’s army without another battle has created great dissatisfaction in the mind of the President, and it will require an active and energetic pursuit on your part to remove the impression that it has not been sufficiently active heretofore.

Meade to Halleck, July 14:

Having performed my duty conscientiously and to the best of my ability, the censure of the President conveyed in your dispatch of 1 p. M. this day, is, in my judgment, so undeserved that I feel compelled most respectfully to ask to be immediately relieved from the command of this army.

Halleck to Meade July 14:

My telegram stating the disappointment of the President at the escape of Lee’s army was not intended as a censure, but as a stimulus to an active pursuit. It is not deemed a sufficient cause for your application to be relieved.

Meade’s correspondence taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 2, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), pp. 134-5 and 311-12. Available via Google Books.

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