One Continuous Fight: The Retreat from Gettysburg and the Pursuit of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, July 4-14, 1863by Eric J. Wittenberg, J. David Petruzzi, Michael Nugent
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The titanic three-day battle of Gettysburg left 50,000 casualties in its wake, a battered Southern army far from its base of supplies, and a rich historiographic legacy. Thousands of books and articles cover nearly every aspect of the battle, but not a single volume focuses on the military aspects of the monumentally important movements of the armies to and across the Potomac River. One Continuous Fight: The Retreat from Gettysburg and the Pursuit of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, July 4-14, 1863 is the first detailed military history of Lee’s retreat and the Union effort to catch and destroy the wounded Army of Northern Virginia.
Against steep odds and encumbered with thousands of casualties, Confederate commander Robert E. Lee’s post-battle task was to successfully withdraw his army across the Potomac River. Union commander George G. Meade’s equally difficult assignment was to intercept the effort and destroy his enemy. The responsibility for defending the exposed Southern columns belonged to cavalry chieftain James Ewell Brown (Jeb) Stuart. If Stuart fumbled his famous ride north to Gettysburg, his generalship during the retreat more than redeemed his flagging reputation.
The ten days of retreat triggered nearly two dozen skirmishes and major engagements, including fighting at Granite Hill, Monterey Pass, Hagerstown, Williamsport, Funkstown, Boonsboro, and Falling Waters. President Abraham Lincoln was thankful for the early July battlefield victory, but disappointed that General Meade was unable to surround and crush the Confederates before they found safety on the far side of the Potomac. Exactly what Meade did to try to intercept the fleeing Confederates, and how the Southerners managed to defend their army and ponderous 17-mile long wagon train of wounded until crossing into western Virginia on the early morning of July 14, is the subject of this study
One Continuous Fight draws upon a massive array of documents, letters, diaries, newspaper accounts, and published primary and secondary sources. These long-ignored foundational sources allow the authors, each widely known for their expertise in Civil War cavalry operations, to describe carefully each engagement. The result is a rich and comprehensive study loaded with incisive tactical commentary, new perspectives on the strategic role of the Southern and Northern cavalry, and fresh insights on every engagement, large and small, fought during the retreat.
The retreat from Gettysburg was so punctuated with fighting that a soldier felt compelled to describe it as “One Continuous Fight.” Until now, few students fully realized the accuracy of that description. Complimented with 18 original maps, dozens of photos, and a complete driving tour with GPS coordinates of the entire retreat, One Continuous Fight is an essential book for every student of the American Civil War in general, and for the student of Gettysburg in particular.
About the Authors: Eric J. Wittenberg has written widely on Civil War cavalry operations. His books include Glory Enough for All (2002), The Union Cavalry Comes of Age (2003), and The Battle of Monroe's Crossroads and the Civil War's Final Campaign (2005). He lives in Columbus, Ohio.
J. David Petruzzi is the author of several magazine articles on Eastern Theater cavalry operations, conducts tours of cavalry sites of the Gettysburg Campaign, and is the author of the popular "Buford's Boys" website at www.bufordsboys.com. Petruzzi lives in Brockway, Pennsylvania.
A long time student of the Gettysburg Campaign, Michael Nugent is a retired US Army Armored Cavalry Officer and the descendant of a Civil War Cavalry soldier. He has previously written for several military publications. Nugent lives in Wells, Maine.
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Meet the Author
J. David Petruzzi is the author of several magazine articles on Eastern Theater cavalry operations, conducts tours of cavalry sites of the Gettysburg Campaign, and is the author of the popular "Buford's Boys" website at www.bufordsboys.com. Petruzzi lives in Brockway, Pennsylvania. A long time student of the Gettysburg Campaign, Michael Nugent is a retired US Army Armored Cavalry Officer and the descendant of a Civil War Cavalry soldier. He has previously written for several military publications. Nugent lives in Wells, Maine.
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Although this book provides detailed accounts from primary sources of Lee’s retreat from Gettysburg, July 4 – July 14, it is ultimately flawed and unbalanced. After the Battle of Gettysburg, in which the Army of Northern Virginia was repulsed in its efforts to invade the North, Lee guided his army through daunting obstacles, miserable weather, and a pursuing army fresh from victory to a safe haven in his native Virginia. Theories abound as to Maj. General George Gordon Meade’s anemic attempts to crush Lee’s forces and the authors cover those in detail as well as add their own. However, only once in the book do the authors state that Lee’s retreat was “skillfully executed.” And herein lays the major defect of the book. The authors, all Northerners and amateur historians with no advanced degrees in history, spin their own version of the events that took place in those ten days after the North claimed victory at Gettysburg. Lee was a masterful tactician who understood the importance of needing to regroup his tired and hungry troops so that they could fight another day. This is similar thinking Washington employed during his retreat to Valley Forge in the harsh winter of 1777-78 – a time to rest, rearm, and resupply. The authors don’t see it that way and don’t give Lee much credit for anything. Instead, they take the attitude that Lee’s retreat from Gettysburg should be seen as a defeat for the Army of Northern Virginia with its troops sent packing and their tails between their legs, not giving credit to Lee’s tactical move to ferry his damaged forces across the swollen Potomac during extremely difficult conditions, leaving Union commanders scratching their heads in disbelief that Lee escaped. Had Lee been “defeated” at Gettysburg, and that includes the Northern pursuit of his army to the Potomac, the war would probably have ended soon after with a Union victory and end to hostilities. However, Lee’s ability to see and realize the state of his army bought him buying time to continue the war almost two years after Gettysburg. Instead, the authors focus on the “hardships” and missed opportunities of the Northern forces to destroy Lee’s wounded army. The book ultimately becomes an apology and excuse for the Union efforts. Also, the book abounds with “what-ifs” for the Union side. What if Meade, What if Meade’s subordinates, and so on. In one instance in the book the authors let slip the word “unfortunately” to describe a missed opportunity by the Union army to head off the Confederates. This type of bias makes the rest of the book suspect and there are other examples. These viewpoints do no service to a more balanced analysis of Lee’s retreat. There was plenty of blame to go around on the Union side for their tentative pursuit of Lee after the main battle at Gettysburg. Lincoln, though pleased with the Union victory at Gettysburg, couldn’t disguise the fact to Meade that he was livid at missing the opportunity to strike Lee finally and for good. Lincoln, while no amateur when it came to micromanaging the Union war effort, saw more of the importance of stopping Lee’s army completely than Meade himself probably realized. Others in Meade’s command took similar views while others believed that when Lee gained the advantage of higher ground after his crossing into Virginia the Union army could possibly experience severe losses and “undo” their recent victory at Gettysburg. Meade blamed his tepid chase on the fact that he had only recently been appointed commander of the Army of the Potomac and that his subordinates had little combat experience. Meade, after all, claimed that he was an engineer by profession and that he had no experience as a field commander, not wanting the overall command of the Army of the Potomac. Lee too was an engineer in the regular army but the authors don’t mention that fact and that Lee never issued a similar excuse when he met defeat. Meade comes across as an honest, career soldier who was never motivated by politics or blind ambition. Whether Meade was right or wrong in his method of pursuing Lee will continue to be debated. It wouldn’t be until later in 1863 that Lincoln would find his general in Ulysses S. Grant. Meade was ultimately brought before a Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War in the winter of 1863-64. The committee members were radical Republicans who wanted to nail Meade’s hide to the wall. Meade, a soldier and not a politician, took it on the chin though the proceedings eventually never achieved their desired results. The remainder of his career was spent in defense of his actions at Gettysburg but not particularly satisfying his own critics. The book was obviously conceived with an agenda: to deliver another blow to the Confederacy for good measure 150 years after the fact. Why three authors were needed to accomplish that is beyond me. Perhaps there is strength in numbers. I hope more balanced books are in the works to counter the Northern bias that has dominated recent attempts to depict the Confederacy as an unequal adversary. Lee’s retreat from Gettysburg is an interesting aspect of the war and needs to be told without partiality. Near the end of the conflict the Confederacy could barely feed and equip itself. The Confederacy’s lack of an industrial base and its overall agricultural economy succumbed to the vast numbers and materiel the Union could muster, to paraphrase Shelby Foote, with one hand tied behind their back.
Excellent book. Well-written, and very well researched. Highly recommended.
This book gives excellent coverage of all the battles, actions, etc. that took place as the Rebel army made its painful journey back to Virginia after its defeat at Gettysburg. There was a lot of fighting as the Confederate forces skillfully pulled back to a strong defense position at Williamsport, MD awaiting the fall of the river's depth so they could cross over to Virginia. US Calvary units were constantly attacking and putting pressure on the rebs. The authors have included a lot of personal stories collected from letters, newspapers and interviews of those involved which make the account come alive and give a real feeling of being there.
One could fill a room with the books published on the Gettysburg campaign. Until recently, however, no single volume examined the tactical maneuvering following the battle itself as both armies maneuvered toward the Potomac. In most coverage of the campaign, scarcely a page covers the events between the end of the battle and the arrival of both armies at the Rappahannock River near Culpeper. This groundbreaking book finally provides just such an examination.
One Continuous Fight covers the nearly two dozen different engagements that took place during Lee¿s retreat to the Potomac and Meade¿s pursuit. While all three authors are recognized Civil War cavalry experts, this is a work for the sake of the cavalry. Cavalry units are simply the medium through which the majority of the story is told, as they were the principal players in the majority of the fighting. It was Confederate General Jeb Stuart¿s task to protect the exposed columns of Lee¿s army as it maneuvered toward the Potomac. The majority of the effort to intercept and disrupt these columns was assigned to Union general Alfred Pleasanton¿s Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac. The army itself hurried in pursuit to complete the destruction of Lee¿s army if brought to bay.
Many people think that Meade¿s pursuit was simply a footrace for the Potomac by both sides, marked by little actual fighting. The authors do an excellent job of illustrating the continuous and desperate fighting that occurred throughout the pursuit. Noah Andre Trudeau wrote an extremely thought provoking essay on Meade vs. Lee that is an excellent set up for the authors¿ narrative.
This book draws upon a truly massive array of sources, including letters, diaries, newspaper accounts, and published primary and secondary sources. Many of the primary sources are previously unpublished. These new resources enable the authors to carefully describe each engagement within the framework of the overall pursuit. While the tactical discussions are very detailed, they enhance rather than bog down the story. The authors do a masterful job of weaving primary sources and text into a captivating tapestry that is at once easy to read and nearly impossible to put down.
To my mind, this framework makes the book all the more valuable as a reference. Each engagement, analyzed in detail from both a tactical and strategic standpoint, is contained within in its own chapter. After reading the entire book, the reader is left in essence with an encyclopedia of the retreat and pursuit.
The authors were remarkably evenhanded in their treatment of the pursuit. Both Union and Confederate viewpoints and sources are utilized throughout the book. Both sides are equally praised and critiqued, as appropriate to the situation. Such objectivity is unfortunately rare.
The conclusions chapter is yet another illustration of this, and a major strength of the book. It provides a balanced look at the various controversies surrounding the retreat. They attempt to break down the questions concerning each one and answer them in the context of the personalities and information available at the time. Each is answered in detail, with the same evenhanded consideration to opposing schools of thought that characterizes the rest of the book. In the end, my impression was that Lee was very fortunate to get away with his army intact, and that it was a much narrower escape than previous reading had led me to believe.
The plotting of the maneuvering and engagements between the Confederate and Union armies in the week and a half right after the climactic battle of Gettysburg leaves off with a trip along the route of the armies giving GPS coordinates so readers can follow in the footsteps of the armies and also locate the exact spots covered in the regular text. But for this book, many of the routes and spots could not easily be located as these days of the conflict have received little attention. In many cases, there are no historical markers or official sites. Historians and Civil War buffs tend to think both armies, spent after the battle of Gettysburg, licked their wounds and recuperated, not to engage in any significant confrontations until the battles in northern Virginia marking the closing phase of the war. But by their detailed recounting of the week and a half after Gettysburg, the coauthors show that this period evidences its own strategic aims and fateful clashes. It was especially important for the South in that Lee's army survived intact by fending off Union forces trying to deliver a crushing blow to it in its weakened state. The authors have a special interest in the Civil War cavalry. But it is not because of this they pay particular attention to the role of the cavalry of both sides. They pay close attention because the cavalry was particularly important in the brief period. Southern cavalry was mainly responsible for protecting the 17-mile long wagon train of wounded rebel troops. For its part, Union cavalry played a leading role in combat against the Confederates and some units proved to be a match against the highly-touted Southern cavalry forces. The variety of sources--letters, diaries, military communications, news reports, and books--allows for shedding light on varied aspects of the days covered. The title is taken from a phrase in a letter by a Union soldier. Overarching strategic views are succeeded by first-person accounts of particular combat episodes from communications among officers, one follows the battle preparations on both sides newspaper articles give a picture of the concerns of civilians trying to follow developments papers from civilian leaders reveal their efforts to bring about the respective desired outcome. This variety of material is skillfully integrated for a dramatic narrative. The reader hardly notices the shifts in content as one becomes engrossed in the tale to learn specifics of how the known outcome of the escape of Lee's army happened. 'One Continuous Fight' is popular history at its best--simultaneously engaging and educating.