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After General Robert E. Lee’s strategic defeat at the Battle of Gettysburg, he ordered the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to retreat southward through the Cumberland Valley of southern Pennsylvania and Maryland in order to cross the Potomac River at Williamsport, Maryland on Tuesday, July 14th into the relative safety of Virginia. Although the path of the retreat was only a distance of about 50 miles in today’s terms, the troops were hampered by torrential rains, muddy roads, a wagon train 15 to 20 miles long carrying wounded soldiers, officers and supplies, the flooded Potomac River, and skirmishes with the Union Calvary along the way. General Lee and his highly spirited Confederate soldiers remained defiant and were surprised by General George G. Meade’s failure to launch an aggressive offensive. The Confederate Army crossed the Potomac River on pontoon bridges at Williamsport, Maryland, and the Union Army crossed the river several miles to the east at Harpers Ferry. While the Confederate Army retreated south through the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, the Union Army tracked its progress by advancing just east of the Blue Ridge Mountains (see map), blocking the Confederates’ escape through mountain gaps to their capital at Richmond.

In his letter of July 30th, Orrin L. Gatchell wrote that “Our corps was badly cut up” at the Battle of Gettysburg. Their commander, Major General Daniel E. Sickles, was severely wounded and was replaced by Major General William H. French on July 7th to lead the remnants of the III Corps, including Orrin’s Excelsior Brigade. On July 11th, Colonel William R. Brewster, commander of the Excelsior Brigade during the Battle of Gettysburg, was taken ill and replaced by Brigadier General Francis B. Spinola. The III Corps was ordered to track the Confederate Army’s retreat south from Gettysburg to Manassas Gap, near Front Royal, Virginia; the men marched the distance of about 110 miles at an average speed of about 7 miles/day between July 7th and July 23rd. Orrin’s letter dated August 3, 1863 clearly expressed his weariness when he stated: “Then commenced another series of foot races, the rebels on the west side of the Blue Ridge Mountains and our army on the east side. We ran heats of from ten to twenty miles just as the distance happened to be from one gap to another. At Manassas Gap, … we  settled the thing in a different way, neither party  being willing to run again.” In order to settle “the thing,” on Thursday, July 23rd General Meade ordered Generals French and Spinola to force their way west through Manassas Gap, a break in the Blue Ridge Mountain chain, whose surrounding escarpments and hills were defended by the Confederates. The Excelsior Brigade was ordered at about 5 pm to “march … through the defile [gap] up to the skirmish line, for the purpose of assaulting the enemy on a hill [Wapping Heights, on the south side of Manassas Gap] in our front. … The order was to fix bayonets and charge the [Confederate] line in front of us. … Under a severe fire from the enemy …. . The brigade charged on, returning the enemy’s fire, taking prisoners, and carrying all before it. Nothing of interest transpired during the night, and at early dawn [July 25th][we] learned that he [the enemy] had evacuated all his positions … during the night.”  They marched west toward Front Royal and then were ordered to withdraw because General Lee’s Army had retreated further south to the safety of the Luray Valley. Continuing the official communication from General Meade to General-in-Chief Halleck, “It was not until late in the evening that the army debouched [moved from a confined region into an open area] from the pass sufficiently to deploy any larger force than the Third Corps, though this corps was followed immediately by the Fifth and Second. During the night, the Twelfth and two divisions of the Sixth were ordered up, and it was my intention, as reported to you, to attack with my whole force, in the hope of separating the force of the enemy and capturing such portions as had not reached the passes. I regret to inform you that, on advancing this morning at daylight, the enemy had again disappeared, declining battle, and though an immediate advance was made and Front Royal occupied, nothing was seen of him but a rear guard of cavalry with a battery of artillery. I then ascertained that for two days he had been retreating with great celerity principally through Strasburg and Luray,…”  The New York Times highlighted the valor of Orrin’s Excelsior Brigade in this action in a report published on August 2, 1863: “… the Excelsior Brigade, so often in the thickest of the fight, rushed on with veil, charged up the hill amidst the fire of artillery and musketry … . The Excelsior Brigade, reduced in numbers as it is by many of a hard fight, never did better.”  By August 3rd, Orrin was writing from Warrenton, Virginia, the Excelsior Brigade having marched 32 miles in the summer heat from Front Royal.

            The summer of 1863 delivered mixed news to President Abraham Lincoln and the nation, with the Union winning a strategic victory at the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1 – 3, 1863) and a decisive victory at Vicksburg after a long siege that ended on July 4, 1863. Both victories were tempered by General Robert E. Lee’s retreat into Virginia, where the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia bivouacked near the Rappahannock River until military clashes resumed during November, 1863.


Related Images

  • Tracking General Lee’s Retreat from Gettysburg: The Battle of Manassas Gap

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