On this day in 1863, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia departed from Gettysburg following its most devastating defeat two days earlier — a three-day bloodbath culminating in a fantastic military blunder by Robert E. Lee known as Pickett’s Charge (or Longstreet’s Charge).
A wagon train of wounded soldiers 17 miles long followed the beleaguered southern troops through the rain to the Potomac River where they were stopped dead by rising flood waters and destroyed pontoon bridges.
The war could have ended during that retreat. With President Lincoln practically chewing the paint off the walls of the D.C. telegraph office, urging Union General George Meade to attack the retreating army, Meade let Lee slip back across the river into Virginia almost entirely unscathed.
Oh the possibilities. Had Meade attacked and crushed the demoralized, crippled rebels, the horrors of 1864 and 1865 (including the nightmarish carnage at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania and especially Cold Harbor) would never have taken place. The various assaults on the ramparts at Petersburg never would have taken place. Lee’s army could have been decimated right there on the banks of the Potomac in Maryland two years prior to the actual end of the war.
Now, Meade did, in fact, pursue Lee, but it was halfhearted and pathetic. If the full strength of the Army of the Potomac could have been employed… goodbye Marse Robert, the war is over.
It’s almost heartbreaking to consider this missed opportunity.