By Wendy Swanson
Friday, October 1, 2021
Lincoln Group members explore final phase of Gettysburg campaign on our annual picnic/tour
Contrary to what many, if not most, Americans believe, the Gettysburg campaign did not end with Pickett’s Charge. Rather, Lee’s retreating Confederates were trapped for several days in Maryland by the flooding waters of the Potomac. Each day brought more rain. Union pursuit of the rebels followed but failed to deliver that final crushing blow that Lincoln saw as a means of ending the rebellion once and for all.
This historic event set the scene for the Lincoln Group’s first in-person event since the spring of 2020 - a picnic/tour, led by our tour director, Craig Howell. His presentation began appropriately enough by describing Lincoln’s displeasure with the manner in which the Union army handled this final phase of the Gettysburg campaign. To focus on Lincoln’s mood, Craig read a portion of a letter dated July 14, 1863, from Lincoln to General George Meade:
You fought and beat the enemy at Gettysburg; and, of course, to say the least, his loss was as great as yours. He retreated; and you did not, as it seemed to me, pressingly pursue him; but a flood in the river detained him …You had at least twenty thousand veteran troops directly with you, and as many more raw ones within supporting distance, all in addition to those who fought with you at Gettysburg; while it was not possible that he had received a single recruit; and yet you stood and let the flood run down, bridges be built, and the enemy move away at his leisure, without attacking him.
Lincoln clearly believed Meade had lost “his golden opportunity” to bring the war to an end.
Craig emphasized that this letter was never signed or dated (or deleted for that matter). Why? Lincoln’s letter was meant for posterity, and not to lose a general.
Devil’s Backbone County Park, near Boonsboro, MD, the starting point for the tour, stands at the site where Union generals held a council of war on the evening of July 12, 1863. The decision at hand: whether to assault Confederate defenses near Williamsport, MD, that were protecting Lee’s escape routes after Gettysburg. The majority of Meade’s commanders, many new to their positions, opposed such an assault. Meade himself said his troops needed to rest.
As the tour progressed, Craig introduced participants to sites where expected combat never materialized; he told of lines of defense, skirmishes, cavalry actions, and bridges destroyed with pontoon replacements required. At every stop he mentioned that the rains continued and the waters of the Potomac remained swollen. However, by the evening of July 13, the waters of the Potomac finally fell. Meade still had not attacked and Lee ordered a crossing by the Confederate army. The crossing began the evening of the 13th and continued throughout the night. Most had crossed by morning, the time when Meade had planned his attack.
At the tour’s last stop, participants finally saw “action.” George Franks, owner of the land where most of the Battle of Falling Waters occurred, gave a personalized tour of the property, describing the fighting at that site. He walked the attendees to the crest of the hillside where Lee’s rear guard (Henry Heth’s division) had been positioned. From that location the Confederates realized that the cavalry troops advancing before them were not their own as initially thought but the enemy. Accordingly, the Confederates opened fire at close range on the attacking Michigan Wolverines. The result was devastating for the Union. Standing at that location, tour members relived the experience through Confederate eyes. Franks continued his narration to include other actions on the property including the mortal wounding of Brig. General James J. Pettigrew. That loss was deeply mourned throughout the Confederacy as Pettigrew was viewed as one with great leadership potential.
The end result: Lee escaped back into Virginia and Lincoln did not get that much desired "crushing blow" against the enemy. The Gettysburg Campaign - and our tour - had ended.
Inspired by the book “Lee Is Trapped and Must be Taken:” Eleven Fateful Days After Gettysburg, July 4-14, 1863,” by Thomas J. Ryan and Richard R. Schaus, Craig Howell spent several years researching the subject and developing the associated tour. His hard work paid off – he delivered, as is his tradition, a thoughtfully developed and detailed program – and earned well-deserved kudos from those on the tour.
The tour day itself was picture-perfect, quite a contrast to the non-stop rain that continued throughout the Gettysburg campaign. The weather, combined with Craig’s outstanding narrative, amid gorgeous scenery, off-the-beaten path sites (where history did or didn’t happen), and the chance to visit with friends, old and new and face-to-face, made for quite the event!
We were privileged to tour the Falling Waters Battlefield, located on private property. The property owner George Franks personally led that portion of our tour. In the photo to the left, Lincoln Group President David J. Kent (l) is seen after presenting a check from our organization for further preservation efforts at the site to Mr. Franks. Advanced permission for visitation to the site is required. For more information on the site history as well as ongoing preservation efforts, see https://battleoffallingwaters1863foundation.wordpress.com.
Tour director, Craig Howell, plans write to an article about the Ryan/Schaus book that inspired him to develop this tour. Members will be able to read this piece and see additional commentary on and photos of the tour in the October issue of The Lincolnian, the newsletter of the Lincoln Group of DC.
(Photo credit: Rod Ross)