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The Retreat from Gettysburg  

By Brig. General John Imboden C.S.A. (1887)

Introduction by John A. Miller

I know that this article does not pertain to Emmitsburg directly. My main objective is to raise awareness and educate the public about the historical significance the aftermath of Gettysburg played on our region. The reason I thought it should be added to our Archives of Civil War History is because it explains the retreat first hand from the commander who was in charge of the task. General Imboden gives a very good detail of the retreat as he experienced it. This is the other half of Lee's retreat as they retreated from Gettysburg through Cashtown toward Greencastle. The wagon train that relates to the Emmitsburg area was under the command of Generals Richard Ewell and Grumble Jones.  It was this retreat route that the battles of Fairfield Gap, and Monterey Pass pertain to.

Up until the battle of Gettysburg, Generals Imboden and Jones' fought most of their Civil War career in the western areas of modern day West Virginia. Together they carried out one of the most daring raids during the Civil War in April of 1863. The raid went completely around West Virginia and entered Oakland, Maryland. The purpose of the raid was to destroy the B & O railroad overhangs that were vital to the Federals. This was known as the Jones and Imboden Raid before parts of the Army of Southwestern Virginia was summoned to General Lee as they approached the Mason and Dixon Line.  

The Retreat from Gettysburg

During the Gettysburg campaign, my command an independent brigade of cavalry was engaged, by General Lee’s confidential orders, in raids on the left flank of his advancing army, destroying railroad bridges and cutting the canal below Cumberland wherever I could so that I did not reach the field till noon of the last day’s battle. I reported direct to General Lee for orders, and was assigned a position to aid in repelling any cavalry demonstration on his rear. None of a serious character being made, my little force took no part in the battle, but was merely spectators of the scene, which transcended in grandeur any that I beheld in any other battle of the war.

When night closed the struggle, Lee’s army was repulsed. We all knew that the day had gone against us, of the disaster was only known in high quarters. The carnage of the day was generally understood to have been frightful, yet our army was not in retreat, and it was surmised in camp that with tomorrow’s dawn would come a renewal of the struggle. All felt and appreciated the momentous consequences to the cause of Southern independence of final defeat or victory on that great field.

It was a warm summer’s night; there were few campfires, and the weary soldiers were lying in groups on the luxuriant grass of the beautiful meadows, discussing the events of the day, speculating on the morrow, or watching that our horses did not straggle off while browsing. About 11 o’clock a horseman came to summon me to General Lee. I promptly mounted and, accompanied by Lieutenant George W. McPhail, an aide on my staff, and guided by the courier who brought the message, rode about two miles toward Gettysburg to where half a dozen small tents were pointed out, a little way from the roadside to our left, as General Lee’s headquarters for the night. On inquiry I found that he was not there, but had gone to the headquarters of General A. P. Hill, about half a mile nearer to Gettysburg. When we reached the place indicated, a single flickering candle, visible from the road through the open front of a common wall tent, exposed to view Generals Lee and Hill seated on campstools with a map spread upon their knees. Dismounting, I approached on foot. After exchanging the ordinary salutations General Lee directed me to go back to his headquarters and wait for him. I did so, but he did not make his appearance until about 1 o’clock, when he came riding alone, at a slow walk, and evidently wrapped in profound thought.

When he arrived there was not even a sentinel on duty at his tent, and no one of his staff was awake. The moon was high in the clear sky and the silent scene was unusually vivid. As he approached and saw us lying on the grass under a tree, he spoke, reined in his jaded horse, and essayed to dis­mount. The effort to do so betrayed so much physical exhaustion that I hurriedly rose and stepped forward to assist him, but before I reached his side he had succeeded in alighting, and threw his arm across the saddle to rest, and fixing his eyes upon the ground leaned in silence and almost motionless upon his equally weary horse, the two forming a striking and never to be forgotten group. The moon shone full upon his massive features and revealed an expression of sadness that I had never before seen upon his face. Awed by his appearance I waited for him to speak until the silence became embarrassing, when, to break it and change the silent current of his thoughts, I ventured to remark, in a sympathetic tone, and in allusion to his great fatigue: “General, this has been a hard day on you.” He looked up, and replied mournfully: “Yes, it has been a sad, sad day to us,” and immediately relapsed into his thoughtful mood and attitude. Being unwilling again to intrude upon his reflections, I said no more. After perhaps a minute or two, he suddenly straightened up to his full height, and turning to me with more animation and excitement of manner than I had ever seen in him before, for he was a man of wonderful equanimity, he said in a voice tremulous with emotion: “I never saw troops behave more magnificently than Pickett’s division of Virginians did today in that grand charge upon the enemy. And if they had been supported as they were to have been, but, for some reason not yet fully explained to me, were not, we would have held the position and the day would have been ours.” After a moment’s pause he added in a loud voice, in a tone almost of agony, “Too bad! Too bad! OH! Too BAD!”

I shall never forget his language, his manner, and his appearance of mental suffering. In a few moments all emotion was suppressed, and he spoke feelingly of several of his fallen and trusted officers; among others of Brigadier-Generals Armistead, Garnett, and Kemper of Pickett’s division. He invited me into his tent, and as soon as we were seated he remarked: “We must now return to Virginia. As many of our poor wounded as possible must be taken home. I have sent for you, because your men and horses are fresh and in good condition, to guard and conduct our train back to Virginia. The duty will be arduous, responsible, and dangerous, for I am afraid you will be harassed by the enemy’s cavalry. How many men have you?” “About 2100 effective present, and all well mounted, including MeClanahan’s six-gun battery of horse artillery.” “I can spare you as much artillery as you require,” he said, “but no other troops, as I shall need all I have to return safely by a different and shorter route than yours. The batteries are generally short of ammunition, but you will probably meet a supply I have ordered from Winchester to Williamsport.. Nearly all the transportation and the care of all the wounded will be entrusted to you. You will re-cross the mountain by the Chambersburg road, and then proceed to Williamsport by any route you deem best, and without a halt till you reach the river. Rest there long enough to feed your animals; then ford the river, and do not halt again till you reach Winchester, where I will again communicate with you.”

After a good deal of conversation about roads, and the best disposition of my forces to cover and protect the vast train, he directed that the chiefs of his staff departments should be waked up to receive, in my presence, his orders to col­lect as early next day as possible all the wagons and ambulances which I was to convoy, and have them in readiness for me to take command of them. His medical director [Dr. Lafayette Guild] was charged to see that all the wounded who could bear the rough journey should be placed in the empty wagons and ambulances. He then remarked to me that his general instructions would be sent to me in writing the following morning. As I was about leaving to return to my camp, as late, I think, as 2 am, he came out of his tent to where I was about to mount, and said in an undertone: “I will place in your hands by a staff-officer, tomorrow morning, a sealed package for President Davis, which you will retain in your possession till you are across the Potomac, when you will detail a reliable commissioned officer to take it to Richmond with all possible dispatch and deliver it into the President’s own hands. And I impress it on you that, whatever happens, this package must not fall into the hands of the enemy. If unfortunately you should be captured, destroy it at the first opportunity.”

On the morning of July 4th my written instructions, amid a large official envelope addressed to President Davis were handed to me by a staff-officer. It was apparent by 9 o’clock that the wagons, ambulances, and wounded could not be collected and made ready to move till late in the afternoon. General Lee sent to me eight Napoleon guns of the famous Washington Artillery of New Orleans, under the immediate command of Major Eshleman, one of the best artillery officers in the army, a four-gun battery under Captain Tanner, and a Whitworth under Lieutenant Pegram. Hampton’s cavalry brigade, then under command of Colonel P. M. B. Young, with Captain James P. Hart’s four-gun battery of horse artillery, was ordered to cover the rear of all trains moving under my convoy on the Chambersburg road.  These 17 guns and McClanahan’s 6 guns gave us 23 pieces in all for the defense the trains.

Shortly after noon of the 4th the very windows of heaven seemed to have opened. The rain fell in blinding sheets; the meadows were soon overflowed, and fences gave way before the raging streams. During the storm, wagons, ambulances, and artillery carriages by hundreds by thousands were assembling in the fields along the road from Gettysburg to Cashtown, in one confused arid apparently inextricable mass. As the afternoon wore on there was no abatement in the storm. Canvas was no protection against its fury, and the wounded men lying upon the naked boards of the wagonbodies were drenched. Horses and mules were blinded and maddened by the wind and water, and became almost unmanageable. The deafening roar of the mingled sounds of heaven and earth all around us made it almost impossible to communicate orders, and equally difficult to execute them.

About 4 P. M. the head of the column was put in motion near Cashtown, and began the ascent of the mountain in the direction of Chambersburg. I remained at Cashtown giving directions and putting in detachments of guns and troops at what I estimated to be intervals of a quarter or a third of a mile. It was found from the position of the head of the column west of the mountain at dawn of the 5th, the hour at which Young’s cavalry and Hart’s battery began tile assent of the mountain near Cashtown, that the entire column was seventeen miles long when drawn out on the road and put in motion. As an advance guard I had placed the 18th Virginia Cavalry, Colonel George W. Imboden in front with a section of MeClanahan’s battery.

Next to them, by request, was placed an ambulance carrying, stretched side by side, two of North Carolina’s most distinguished soldiers, Generals Pender and Scales, both badly wounded, but resolved to bear the tortures of the journey rather than become prisoners. I shared a little bread and meat with them at noon, and they waited patiently for hours for the head of the column to move. The trip cost poor Pender his life. General Scales appeared to be worse hurt, but stopped at Winchester, recovered, and fought through the war.

After dark I set out from Cashtown to gain the head of the column during the night. My orders had been peremptory that there should be no halt for any cause whatever. If an accident should happen to any vehicle, it was immediately to be put out of the road and abandoned. The column moved rapidly, considering the rough roads and the darkness, and from almost every wagon for many miles issued heart rending wails of agony. For four hours I hurried forward on my way to the front, and in all that time I was never out of hearing of the groans and cries of the wounded and dying. Scarcely one in a hundred had received adequate surgical aid, owing to the demands on the hard working surgeons from still worse eases that had to be left behind. Many of the wounded in the wagons had been without food for thirty-six hours. Their torn and bloody clothing, matted and hardened, was rasping the tender, inflamed, and still oozing wounds. Very few of the wagons had even a layer of straw in them, and all were without springs. The road was rough and rocky from the heavy washings of the preceding day. The jolting was enough to have killed strong men, if long exposed to it. From nearly every wagon as the teams trotted on, urged by whip and shout, came such cries and shrieks as these: “Oh God! Why can’t I die? My God! Will no one have mercy and kill me Stop! Oh! For God’s sake, stop just for one minute; take me out and leave me to die on the roadside.”  I am dying! I am dying! My poor wife, my dear children, what will become of you?

Some were simply moaning; some were praying and others uttering the most fearful oaths and execrations that despair and agony could wring from them; while a majority, with a stoicism sustained by sublime devotion to the cause they fought for; endured without complaint unspeakable tortures, and even spoke with cheer and confront to their unhappy comrades of less will or more acute nerves. Occasionally a wagon would be passed from which only low, deep moans could be heard. 

No help could be rendered to any of the sufferers. No heed could be given to any of their appeals. Mercy and duty to the many forbade the loss of a moment in the vain effort then and there to comply with the prayers of the few. On! On! We must move on. The storm continued, and the darkness was appalling.  There was no time even to fill a canteen with water for a dying man; for, except the drivers and the guards, all were wounded and utterly helpless in that vast procession of misery. During this one night I realized inure of the horrors of war than I had in all the two preceding years.

And yet in the darkness was our safety, for no enemy would dare attack where he could not distinguish friend from foe. We knew that when day broke upon us we should be harassed by bands of cavalry hanging on our flanks. Therefore our aim was to go as far as possible under cover of the night. Instead of going through Chambersburg, I decided to leave the main road near Fairfield after crossing the mountains, and take “a near cut across the country to Greencastle, where daybreak on the morning of the 5th of July found the head of our column. We were now twelve or fifteen miles from the Potomac at Williamsport, our point of crossing into Virginia.

Here our apprehended troubles began. After the advance of the 18th Virginia Cavalry had passed perhaps a mile beyond the town, the citizens to the number of thirty or forty attacked the train with axes, cutting the spokes out of ten or a dozen wheels and dropping the wagons in the streets. The moment I heard of it I sent back a detachment of cavalry to capture every citizen who had been engaged in this work, and treat them as prisoners of war. This stopped the trouble there, but the Union cavalry began to swarm down upon us from the fields and crossroads, making their attacks in small bodies, and striking the column where there were few or no guards, and thus creating great confusion. I had a narrow escape from capture by one of these parties of perhaps fifty men that I tried to drive off with canister from two of MeClanahan’s guns that were close at hand. They would perhaps have been too much for me; had not Colonel Imboden, hearing the firing turned back with his regiment at a gallop, and by the suddenness of his movement surrounded and caught the entire party.

To add to our perplexities still further, a report reached me a little after sunrise, that the Federals in large force held Williamsport. I did not fully credit this, and decided to push on. Fortunately the report was untrue. After a great deal of desultory fighting and harassments along the road dur­ing the day, nearly the whole of the immense train reached Williamsport on the afternoon of the 5th. A part of it, with Hart’s battery, came in next day, General Young having halted and turned his attention to guarding the road from the west with his cavalry. We took possession of the town to convert it into a great hospital for the thousands of wounded we had brought from Gettysburg. I required all the families in the place to go to cooking for the sick and wounded, on pain of having their kitchens occupied for that purpose by my men. They readily complied. A large number of surgeons had accompanied the train, arid these at once pulled off their coats and went to work and soon a vast amount of suffering was mitigated. The bodies of a few who had died on the march were buried. All this became necessary because the tremendous rains had raised the river more than ten feet above the fording stage of water, and we could not possibly cross then. There were two small ferryboats or “flats” there, which I immediately put into requisi­tion to carry across those of the wounded, who, after being fed and having their wounds dressed, thought they could walk to Winchester. Quite a large number were able to do this, so that the “flats” were kept running all the time.

Our situation was frightful. We had probably ten thousand animals and nearly all the wagons of General Lee’s army under our charge, and all the wounded, to the number of several thousand, that could be brought from Gettysburg. Our supply of provisions consisted of a few wagonloads of flour in my own brigade train, a small lot of fine fat cattle, which I had collected in Pennsylvania on my way to Gettysburg, and some sugar and coffee procured in the same way at Mercersburg.

The town of Williamsport is located in the lower angle formed by the Potomac with Conococheagne Creek. These streams enclose the town on two sides, and back of it about one mile there is a low range of hills that is crossed by four roads converging at the town. The first is the Greencastle road leading down the creek valley; next the Hagerstown road; then the Boonsboro’ road; and lastly the River road.

Early on the morning of the 6th I received intelligence of the approach from Frederick of a large body of cavalry with three full batteries of six rifled guns. These were the divisions of Generals Buford and Kilpatrick, and Huey’s brigade of Gregg’s division, consisting, as I afterward learned, of 23 regiments of cavalry, and 18 guns, a total force of about 7000 men.

I immediately posted my guns on the hills that concealed the town, and dismounted my own command to support them and ordered as many of the Wagoner’s to be formed as could be armed with the guns of the wounded that we had brought from Gettysburg. In this I was greatly aided by Colonel J. L. Black of South Carolina, Captain J. F. Hart commanding a battery from the same State, Colonel William II. Aylett of Virginia, and other wounded officers. By noon about 700 Wagoner's were organized into companies of 100 each and officered by wounded line officers and commissaries and quartermasters, about 250 of these were given to Colonel Aylett on the right next the river, about as many under Colonel Black on the left, and the residue were used as skirmishers. My own command proper was held well in hand in the center.

The enemy appeared in our front about half-past one o’clock on both the Hagerstown, and Boonsboro’ roads, and the fight began. Every man under my command understood that if we did not repulse the enemy we should all be captured and General Lee’s army be ruined by the loss of its transporta­tion, which at that period could not have been replaced in the Confederacy. The fight began with artillery on both sides. The firing from our side was very rapid, and seemed to make the enemy hesitate about advancing. In a half hour J. D. Moore’s battery ran out of ammunition, but as an ordnance train had arrived from Winchester, two wagonloads of ammunition were ferried across the river and run upon the field behind the guns, and the boxes tumbled out, to be broken open with axes. With this fresh supply our guns were all soon in full play again. As the enemy could not see the supports of our batteries from the hilltops, I moved the whole line forward to his full view, in single ranks, to show a long front on the Hagerstown approach. My line passed our guns fifty or one hundred yards, where they were halted awhile, and then were withdrawn behind the hilltop again, slowly and steadily.

Leaving Black’s Wagoner's and the Marylanders on the left to support Hart’s and Moore’s batteries, Captain Hart having been put in command by Colonel Black when he was obliged to be elsewhere, I moved the 18th Virginia Cavalry and 62d Virginia Mounted Infantry rapidly to the right, to meet and repel five advancing regiments (dismounted) of the enemy. My three regiments, with Captain John H. McNeill’s Partisan Rangers and Aylett’s Wagoner's, had to sustain a very severe contest. Hart, seeing how hard we were pressed on the right, charged the enemy’s right with his little command, and at the same time Eshleman with his eight Napoleons advanced four hundred yards to the front, and got an enfilading position, from which, with the aid of McClanahan’s battery, he poured a furious fire into the enemy’s line. The 62d and Aylett, supported by the 18th Cavalry, and McNeill, charged the enemy who fell back sullenly to their horses.

Night was now rapidly approaching, when a messenger from Fitzhugh Lee arrived to urge me to “hold my own,” as he would be up in a half hour with three thousand fresh men. The news was sent along our whole line, and was received with a wild and exultant yell. We knew then that the field was won, and slowly pressed forward. Almost at the same moment we heard distant guns on the enemy’s rear and right on the Hagerstown road. They were Stuart’s, who was approaching on that road, while Fitzhugh Lee was coming on the Greencastle road. That settled the contest. The enemy broke to the left and fled by the Boonsboro’ road. It was too dark to follow. When General Fitzhugh Lee joined me with his staff on the field, one of the enemy’s shells came near striking him. General Lee thought it came from Eshleman’s battery, till, a moment later, he saw a blaze from its gun streaming away from us.

We captured about 125 of the enemy who failed to reach their horses. I could never ascertain the loss on either side. I estimated ours at about 125. The Wagoner's fought so well that this came to be known as “the Wagoner's’ fight.” Quite a number of them were killed in storming a farm from which sharpshooters were rapidly picking off Eshleman’s men and horses.

My whole force engaged, Wagoner's included, did not exceed three thousand men. The ruse practiced by showing a formidable line on the left, then withdrawing it to fight on the right, together with our numerous artillery, 23 guns, led to the belief that our force was much greater.  By extraordinary good fortune we had thus saved all of General Lee’s trains. A bold charge at any time before sunset would have broken our feeble lines, and then we should all have fallen an easy prey to the Federals. The next day our army arrived from Gettysburg, and the country is familiar with the way it escaped across the Potomac on the night of the 13th of July.

It may be interesting to repeat one or two facts to show the peril in which the army was till the river could be bridged. Over four thousand prisoners taken at Gettysburg were ferried across the river by the morning of the 9th, and I was ordered with a single regiment, the 62d Virginia to guard them to Staunton and send them on to Richmond. When the general assigned me to this duty he expressed an apprehension that before I could reach Winchester the Federal cavalry would cross at Harper’s Ferry, intercept and capture my guard and release the prisoners. Before we had left the river I had an interview with him at his headquarters near Hagerstown, in which he expressed great impatience at the tardiness in building rude pontoons at the river, and calling in Colonel James L. Corley, his chief quartermaster, told him to put Major John A. Harman in charge of the work; remarking that without Harman’s extraordinary energy to conduct the work, the pontoons would not be done for several days. Harman took charge that day, and by tearing down warehouses on the canal got joists to build boats with, and in twenty-four hours had enough of them ready to float down to Falling Waters and construct a bridge. As we were talking General Longstreet came into the tent, wet and muddy, and was cordially greeted by General Lee in this wise: “Well, my old warhorse what news do yon bring us from the front?” That cordial greeting between chief and lieutenant is a sufficient answer, in my mind, to the state­ments of alleged ill feeling between the two men growing out of affairs at Get­tysburg. It has been said that if “Stonewall” Jackson had been in command at Gettysburg, Longstreet would have been shot. This is a monstrous impu­tation upon General Lee, no less than upon Longstreet, and utterly without foundation, in my opinion. They were surely cordial on the 9th of July 1863.

Before I had gone two miles on my anxious march toward Winchester a courier overtook me with a note from General Lee directing me to return immediately to his headquarters. I halted my column, hurried back, was fer­ried over the river, and galloped out on the Hagerstown road to where I had parted from the general that morning. He had left with his staff to ride toward Hagerstown, where a heavy artillery fire indicated an attack by the enemy in considerable force. When I overtook him he said that he understood I was familiar with the fords of the Potomac from Williamsport to Cumberland, and with the roads to them. I replied that I was. He then called up one of his staff, either General Long or General Alexander, I think, and directed him to write down my answers to his questions, and required me to name and describe ford after ford all the way up to Cumberland, and to describe minutely their character, and the roads and surrounding country on both sides of the river, and directed me, after I had given him all the information I could, to send to him my brother and his regiment, the 18th Virginia Calvary, to act as an advance and guide if he should require it. He did not say so, but I felt that his situation was precarious in the extreme. When about to dismiss me, referring to the freshet in the river he laughingly said: “You know this country well enough to tell me whether it ever quits raining about here? If so, I should like to see a clear day soon.” I did not see him again till he left the Shenandoah Valley for the east side of the Blue Ridge.

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