"We Must Cross the Potomac to Virginia"
(Source: The Battle of Gettysburg, Wikipedia)
After Lee’s monumental Pickett’s Charge failure on the afternoon of July 3rd, the Confederate Army spent a rainy July 4th digging in and awaiting an attack from Meade’s army that never came. Heavy rains made the Confederate retreat beginning on July 5th very difficult. The Confederate army slogged its way back toward Virginia on muddy roads using routes through Cashtown and Frederick. Their objective was to reach the Potomac at Hagerstown and cross back into Virginia. When the last of the Confederate army reached Hagerstown on July 7th, Lee discovered the Potomac was too swollen to cross and prepared for a Union attack while his army entrenched and waited for the river level to fall.
Lee ordered General Imboden and his brigade of cavalry, who had arrived at Gettysburg too late to participate in the battle, to protect the train of Confederate wounded from the pursuing Union cavalry. The train of wounded had reached Williamsport, Maryland late on July 5th. The next day Union cavalry attacked the town of Williamsport in strength. The fight was tilted toward a Union victory until a fresh supply of ammunition and an attack to the Union rear by the Confederate cavalry commanded by J.E.B. Stuart and Fitzhugh Lee settled the contest. This was only one of numerous cavalry clashes between Union and Confederate cavalry during the retreat.
The Army of the Potomac had also been severely damaged at Gettysburg and needed to re-supply in Frederick. The Army of the Potomac finally pushed forward to the Potomac River on July 14th. It was too late! The water of the Potomac River had subsided enough that the Confederates were able to cross it during the night. The Federal cavalry found only a Confederate rear guard at the pontoon bridge at Falling Waters, Maryland. Although Lee’s army was crippled and would never launch another major offensive, Meade’s hesitation to pursue along with Confederate cavalry protecting the retreat would result in two more years of civil war.
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