Retreat from Gettysburg: Lee, Logistics, and the Pennsylvania Campaign

Retreat from Gettysburg: Lee, Logistics, and the Pennsylvania Campaign

by Kent Masterson Brown

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Brown details the retreat of the Army of Northern Virginia from Gettysburg in July 1863, focusing on the complex logistics of moving a 57-mile wagon and ambulance train and tens of thousands of livestock through hostile territory while scavenging for provisions and planning the army's next moves.


Brown details the retreat of the Army of Northern Virginia from Gettysburg in July 1863, focusing on the complex logistics of moving a 57-mile wagon and ambulance train and tens of thousands of livestock through hostile territory while scavenging for provisions and planning the army's next moves.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Through his extensive use of primary documents, including many previously unpublished diaries, letters and reports, the reader is provided with some of the most detailed accounts of the numerous military actions that occurred during the retreat. . . . A tour-de-force in Civil War writing. . . . With Kent Brown you get the real deal. He does history the old-fashioned way-years of research with careful and thoughtful writing.—America's Civil War

Beyond being a great read, Retreat from Gettysburg is exceptionally well researched. . . . Such skillful use of these primary sources provides the reader with probably the best account to date of a Civil War army's retreat after a major battle.—North & South

A who's who of Civil War historiography.—West Virginia History

There is everything to praise in this book, for the concept and execution are very good. Brown's arguments are on the mark, and he is to be congratulated for focusing on topics that have been overlooked far too long in the historiography.—Journal of American History

The result of these years of research and contemplation is an original book that for the first time provides an overview of Lee's masterful retreat from his worst battlefield defeat. . . . [For] Gettysburg buffs, as well as those interested in military logistics, retreat theory, the Army of Northern Virginia, and the Civil War in general.—Civil War News

Kent Brown offers a compelling story that heretofore has received only limited attention. . . . Everyone interested in the Civil War in general and the Gettysburg Campaign in particular will want to obtain a copy of Retreat from Gettysburg, and those in search of consequential military history will find this book to their liking.—Washington Times

An immensely important read for anyone with a serious interest in the war.—The NYMAS Review

Retreat from Gettysburg tells us new things and gives us new ways of seeing familiar events.—Chronicles

Kent Masterson Brown's more than 20 years of research have come to fruition in Retreat from Gettysburg. . . . Through his extensive use of primary documents, including many previously unpublished diaries, letters, and reports, the reader is provided with some of the most detailed accounts of the numerous military actions that occurred during the retreat. . . . To further enhance this study, excellent maps aid the reader in tracing the movements of both armies. In addition, more that 40 illustrations, many of them rare, grace the pages of the book. . . . Brown's Retreat from Gettysburg is a tour de force in Civil War writing. . . . With Brown you get the real deal. He does history the old-fashioned way-years of research with careful and thoughtful writing. —America's Civil War

Captures the reader from beginning to end. . . . Should be in the library of every serious student and scholar of Civil War history.—Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography

There is nothing in a title which promises to be more deadening than the word logistics. And if that is the conclusion you draw about Retreat from Gettysburg, you could not have made a more egregious mistake. . . . Not only does Brown give a bravura survey of the internal mechanisms of the Confederate forces in the Gettysburg campaign, he also provides a moving entrance into the mind of [a] defeated army, trying to hold itself together, and find some way to escape and fight another day.—Allen C. Guelzo, The Barnes & Noble Review

Brown has broken new ground here in spectacular fashion.—James I. Robertson Jr., Roanoke Times

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The University of North Carolina Press
Publication date:
Civil War America Series
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6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.30(d)

Read an Excerpt

Retreat from Gettysburg

Lee, Logistics, and the Pennsylvania Campaign
By Kent Masterson Brown

The University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2005 The University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8078-2921-8

Chapter One

Take What Is Necessary for the Army

The logistical problems attendant to any retreat from Gettysburg by Lee's army were acute. The mountains, the distance to the Potomac River, the thousands of sick and wounded, the size of the army, and the capability of the victorious enemy made such an operation extremely difficult. The most profound logistical challenge facing Lee on the afternoon of 3 July 1863, however, was safely moving his enormous quartermaster and subsistence trains-and all the horses, mules, cattle, sheep, and hogs traveling with them-back to Virginia. Those trains consisted of thousands upon thousands of wagons and their horse and mule teams; they extended for miles when on the road. The livestock accompanying them numbered in the tens of thousands. The nature and size of those trains, and the resulting logistical concerns they presented, can only be comprehended by examining Lee's purpose in invading Pennsylvania in the summer of 1863.

The idea for the Pennsylvania campaign arose many months before. It was born in a desperation caused by the looming collapse of the Army of Northern Virginia if it remained in war-ravaged central Virginia without adequate food and supplies for its men and fodder for its horses and mules. Lee's army had suffered from shortages of quartermaster stores all through the winter of 1862-63. The shortages were mostly the result of few manufactures being available for the army and a woefully inadequate supply system in the Confederacy. Clothing and shoes were desperately needed yet difficult to obtain. The soldiers were mostly dirty, ragged, and barefooted. Worse than that, the supply of fodder had run out in the early months of 1863. In February General Trimble had recorded that large numbers of horses in his division were dying every day due to "want of food and disease." For that reason Lee scattered his mounted units, including many artillery batteries, to distant areas behind his lines to allow them to find fodder. On 16 April he wrote to Jefferson Davis of his anxiety over "the present immobility of the army owing to the condition of our horses and the scarcity of forage and provisions." He reminded the Confederate president that the army was scattered and that he was "unable to bring [it] together for want of proper subsistence and forage."

Equally difficult had been the supply of subsistence stores. Virginia had virtually run out of surplus food for Lee's army. Shipments of food by rail from North Carolina and farther south were notoriously unpredictable and inadequate. The government informed Lee in the winter of 1863 that meat rations had to be reduced. Lee balked at the suggestion, demanding that the government respond to the crisis by providing his army with more food. He refused to reduce his men's rations and thus quickly ran out of food. From January to March 1863 only 400,000 pounds of meat reached Lee's army. By April the soldiers were forced to exist on a ration of one-fourth pound of salt meat a day.

The miserably poor rations led to another problem-sickness. By the end of March, scurvy had become widespread in the army, and Dr. Lafayette Guild, its medical director, was ordering corps, division, and brigade surgeons to aid the men in the collection of all sorts of vegetables and wild greenery like wild mustard, garlic, onions, watercress, sassafras, lamb quarter, vinegar, coleslaw, sauerkraut, horseradishes, peas, potatoes, turnip greens, and pickles to supplement their diets.

To try to address the issue of supply of forage and subsistence stores, Lee detached Longstreet's Corps to Suffolk in southeastern Virginia in April to collect food and supplies for the men and forage for the army's nearly 36,000 horses and mules. Colonel Sorrel recalled that at the time the "army was in want of all supplies. The subsistence department lacked fresh meat. In southern Virginia and eastern North Carolina there were said to be large quantities of cattle. There were also large stores of bacon and corn."

In the midst of the horrific problems of supply facing Lee's army, another difficulty surfaced in the winter and spring of 1863. With Confederate armies on the defensive everywhere, President Davis and Secretary of War James S. Seddon sought to detach elements of Lee's army and send them to less successful fronts.

As early as March 1863, at the request of President Davis, Lee traveled to Richmond to discuss the question of sending elements of his army west, but he put up stiff resistance to the idea. The issue arose again in early April. Lee again resisted, convincing Davis and Seddon that because Major General Joseph E. Hooker's Army of the Potomac had shown increased activity in his front, he could not afford a reduction of strength.

Lee's predictions of an enemy advance in Virginia were realized in late April, when Hooker's army, then north of Fredericksburg, crossed the Rappahannock River in an attempt to reach Lee's rear. Without Longstreet's command, Lee held back a feint by Hooker against his lines at Fredericksburg and Salem Church and, at the same time, divided his remaining force in the face of the enemy and defeated it in the clearings and dense thickets near Chancellorsville on 2 and 3 May. But the victory was costly. The Confederate casualties were very high, and Major General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, Lee's "right arm," was seriously wounded and died on 10 May.

In the wake of Chancellorsville, Davis and Seddon renewed their insistence on severing elements of Lee's army. On 9 May Seddon asked Lee to send Pickett's Division westward to reinforce Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton at Vicksburg. Once more, Lee resisted. War clerk John B. Jones reported on 14 May that Lee was in Richmond "closeted" with the president and the secretary of war. In the end, it was resolved, Jones recorded, to send Pickett's Division back to Lee.

It had become apparent to Lee that unless he made a move, Davis and Seddon would ultimately strip his army of some of its best fighting men to assist armies whose generals had not shown any capability of winning. Though he had prevailed thus far, he could not expect to do so through the summer if his army remained idle. Moreover, if he did not try to move the army to a region where it could obtain the critical quartermaster and subsistence stores, it would collapse. An invasion of Pennsylvania was accordingly planned.

Feeding and equipping his men and feeding his horses and mules represented Lee's most pressing challenge. The lack of subsistence and fodder had reached crisis proportions in June 1863. By then, Lee had been campaigning continuously in and around central Virginia for almost nine months. During the past two years only the invasion of Maryland in September 1862 had taken his army out of that area for about thirty days. Union troops had pillaged every town and farm they overran in Virginia. Central Virginia, wrote William Alexander Gordon, one of Lee's engineer officers, in June 1863, was a "stripped and desolate country." The armies had devoured everything edible by man and beast. A serious drought had gripped Virginia in 1862, and in the spring of 1863 it had been too wet. Little had been harvested in 1862, and there had been little planting of wheat, grasses, or feed grains thus far in 1863. Horses, mules, and cattle had no place to graze. And northern Virginia was no better. Colonel Fremantle noted in June 1863 that that part of the state "is now completely cleaned out. It is almost uncultivated, and no animals are grazing where there used to be hundreds." As early as February, Lee had claimed that his horses and mules were in such a "reduced state" that they might be unable to pull the artillery. So difficult had the supply problem become that the Confederate Congress, as early as 26 March 1863, had authorized quartermasters and commissary of subsistence officers to impress private property in the Confederate states for the use of the armies.

According to war clerk Jones, 140,000 bushels of corn were sent from Richmond to Lee's army in May. Even with that, the horses and mules were feeding on less than three pounds of corn a day when they required ten pounds. Lee and his quartermasters knew that late June and early July was harvest time in south central Pennsylvania for hay, oats, and feed corn. It was also when grasses for grazing animals were at their peak.

Beyond fodder, Lee's army had run out of other necessary supplies and equipment. Horseshoes and muleshoes, for instance, were difficult to procure. Blacksmith forges, bellows, anvils, hammers, and the steel to make shoes and other artillery and wagon hardware and the coal to fire the forges had become almost nonexistent. Horses and mules were breaking down because of the lack of shoes as well as the lack of forage.

Lee's men were in need of food; his army had virtually run out of cattle. Without adequate beef the soldiers would not be able to continue in the field. Sheep and hogs were not to be found. Central Virginia, wrote Brigadier General John B. Gordon, "was well-nigh exhausted. How to subsist was becoming a serious question." One quartermaster remembered going from farm to farm not far from Richmond actually begging the occupants for meat, as it could not be obtained otherwise.

In late May Lee was notified that some cattle might be available in southwestern Virginia and the upper Shenandoah Valley. On 1 June he wrote Major General Samuel Jones of the Department of Western Virginia: "I am very anxious to secure all the cattle which can be obtained for the use of this army. I must beg you, therefore, to let me have the 1,250 head brought out ... on the [latest] expedition.... It is reported to me there are already 3,000 head in Greenbriar and Monroe Counties. I hope, indeed, you will be able to spare some of these in addition to the 1,250." On the same day Lee informed the secretary of war that Brigadier General John D. Imboden, whose independent command of cavalry had been foraging in western Virginia, had reported that 3,176 head of cattle were brought out of southwestern Virginia. Lee was anxious to secure all of them for his army, as well as all of those obtained by General Grumble Jones in Pocahontas and Augusta Counties.

Young Colonel John Cheves Haskell, of South Carolina, one of the commanders of an artillery battalion attached to Major General John Bell Hood's Division, summed up Lee's predicament. "For months," he wrote, "our men had been on rations such as no troops ever campaigned on and did a tithe of the work ours were called on to do. Corn meal and damaged bacon were the staples, often so damaged that to live on them insured disease." Regarding the decision to invade Pennsylvania, Haskell commented: "It looked easier to go to the enemy's homes to get [food], and leave our poor people a chance to rest and to gather together the fragments left them." Another veteran, a young cavalryman, put it simply: "For the same reason that the children of Israel went down to Egypt. There was famine in the land, and [Lee's army] went [to Pennsylvania] for corn."

Resupplying his army in Pennsylvania presented a strategic benefit, Lee believed. Northern newspapers had been reporting the rise of Copperhead or peace party sentiment in the North. In the face of growing antiwar feelings, President Abraham Lincoln was vacillating over enforcement of the Conscript Act enacted in March 1863. The presence of Lee's army north of the Mason-Dixon Line could crystallize peace party sentiment.

Although Lee undoubtedly visualized a peace dividend, his objectives for the invasion of Pennsylvania appear to have been nothing more complicated than to feed and equip his army and to keep it intact, although he communicated those objectives to no one. Nevertheless, Lee's officers quickly surmised his intentions. "If we could live on the supplies we hoped to find north of the Potomac," recalled Colonel Sorrel, "the already serious question of food and forage for our men and animals would lighten up temporarily, at least." On 21 June 1863 Lieutenant Henry A. Figures of the Forty-eighth Alabama, Hood's Division, wrote to his mother: "[Our brigade surgeon] told me yesterday that General Lee was going to [Pennsylvania] to subsist his army [and] that he would probably remain there for two months." Such a foraging operation in enemy country was recognized by the great military theorists of the age; unquestionably, it was fundamental to the continued existence of Lee's army.

Lee had tried such a foraging operation once before. In September 1862 he invaded Maryland with the express purpose of feeding and equipping his ragged army north of the Potomac River. His intention then was to eventually move into the Cumberland Valley of Pennsylvania and impress livestock, forage, and other goods in that rich farming region. Yet events dictated otherwise, and Lee wound up withdrawing his troops back toward the Potomac while fighting bloody engagements with General George B. McClellan's fast-marching Army of the Potomac in the passes of the South Mountain range and finally at Sharpsburg. In the end, Lee had little to show for the invasion. He could not afford to let that happen again.

In the early planning for the 1863 invasion of Pennsylvania, Lee determined that Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell's Corps would not only lead the way into the Shenandoah Valley, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, but that its principal mission would be to obtain food, fodder, and equipment from the civilian population for the army and itself while the remaining two corps of the army covered the Army of the Potomac. The records of the quartermaster stores condemned and issued in units of the Army of Northern Virginia tell the story of Ewell's mission. Those records reveal that as early as mid-May 1863 quartermasters in Longstreet's and Hill's Corps and the cavalry brigades had condemned and then drawn significant amounts of what supplies and equipment were available for their use, while drawing almost nothing for Ewell's Corps. Because Ewell's Corps was directed to supply itself first while in Pennsylvania-and it would precede the rest of the army by almost two weeks-it was not considered by the army quartermaster for the condemnation and reissuance of supplies and equipment prior to the campaign.

Lee began his Pennsylvania campaign on 3 June 1863. To maneuver Hooker's army out of Virginia, he directed the divisions of Generals Hood and Lafayette McLaws of Longstreet's Corps, which were northwest of Fredricksburg, to cross the Rapidan River to Culpeper. The two remaining corps would follow; Ewell also moved north from near Fredricksburg to Culpeper on the third; Hill would wait until Union forces evacuated his front.

On 4 June Lee asked Adjutant and Inspector General Samuel Cooper in Richmond to instruct all convalescents belonging to Hood's and McLaws's Divisions and to Major Generals Jubal A. Early's, Robert E.


Excerpted from Retreat from Gettysburg by Kent Masterson Brown Copyright © 2005 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
Kent Masterson Brown has given us a vivid account of the Confederate return to Virginia after Gettysburg. He writes of the suffering of the wounded, the vast wagon trains, foraging, slaves, and attacks by Union cavalry. It is a must read for students of battle and a testimony to the hellishness of war.—Harry W. Pfanz, author of Gettysburg—The Second Day

Using an impressive array of untapped source material, Kent Brown has written the first detailed narrative on the Confederate retreat from Gettysburg. This phase of the campaign has often been misunderstood and Brown brings understanding to how and why the Army of Northern Virginia escaped across the Potomac without another full-scale battle against the Army of the Potomac.—D. Scott Hartwig, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

Meet the Author

Kent Masterson Brown is an attorney in Lexington, Kentucky. He is author of Cushing of Gettysburg&58; The Story of a Union Artillery Commander# and editor of The Civil War in Kentucky.

Kent Masterson Brown is an attorney in Lexington, Kentucky. He is author of Cushing of Gettysburg&58; The Story of a Union Artillery Commander# and editor of The Civil War in Kentucky.

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