Prelude to the Battle
Lee Withdraws from Gettysburg
Following the Union victory at the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1–4, 1863), Confederate General Robert E. Lee ended his second invasion of the North. At roughly 5:00 p.m. on July 4, Brigadier General John D. Imboden led a long train of Confederate wounded and supplies toward the Potomac River crossings at Williamsport and Falling Waters, about 50 miles to the southwest. Lee ordered the rest of the army to follow using a different route the next day.
The withdrawal soon came to a halt when heavy rains swelled the Potomac River, preventing the Confederate army from crossing back into Virginia. Forced to wait until the river receded, Lee established a long, semi-circular defensive line anchored on his left by the Conococheague Creek and on his right by the Potomac River at Falling Waters.
Meade Pursues Lee
On July 5, Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Union Army of the Potomac, learned that Lee had left Gettysburg. Despite prodding from his superiors in Washington to aggressively pursue Lee and destroy his army, Meade settled for dispatching his cavalry to harass the retreating Grey Coats.
Meade had reason to be cautious. The intense three-day battle had exhausted and battered his army. Unsure of the extent of the damages inflicted upon the Confederates, Meade also needed time to gather information to determine if Lee intended to withdraw to Virginia or to make another stand north of the Potomac. Finally, overriding orders to guard against a possible Rebel assault on Washington and Baltimore confounded Meade.
After reconnaissance missions determined that Lee was assuredly retreating, Meade divided his army into three columns and started a more vigorous but still cautious pursuit. Throughout the quest, Meade was careful to keep his main force between Lee and the nation’s capital.
Battle of Williamsport
On July 6, 1863, Union Brigadier General John Buford launched an ill-fated cavalry assault against Imboden at Williamsport. The Confederate general summoned enough artillery and defenders to hold off a three-hour Federal onslaught, saving the Rebel stores and wounded from being captured. On the same day, Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrick’s Union cavalry division tried unsuccessfully for six hours to dislodge Major General J. E. B. Stuart’s cavalry from Hagerstown, about eight miles east of Williamsport. Following the failed Union assaults on July 6, the Federal cavalry fell back to Boonsboro, along the National Road roughly twelve miles southeast of Hagerstown and Williamsport.
When Lee arrived at Williamsport on July 7, the river remained too high to cross, so he went to work bolstering the Confederate defensive line as the rest of his army moved southwest to join him. Lee also ordered Stuart’s cavalry to advance upon the Union cavalry at Boonsboro to prevent the Yankees from gaining control of the South Mountain passes, hindering Meade’s access to the Confederate army stranded at Williamsport.
July 8, 1863 — Cavalry Clash at Boonsboro
On July 8, 1863, Stuart advanced toward Boonsboro with four cavalry brigades. The action began when Brigadier General William E. “Grumble” Jones’s brigade encountered Federal pickets near Beaver Creek about 4.5 miles north of Boonsboro. As the Confederates pushed forward, they met the Kilpatrick and Buford’s combined Union forces at about 11 a.m. on drenched and muddy fields outside of town.
Sloppy conditions forced the troopers on both sides to dismount and fight like infantrymen. The battle, which was the largest cavalry conflict in Maryland during the Gettysburg Campaign, raged throughout the afternoon.
At roughly 7 p.m. Federal infantry began arriving on the scene, forcing Stuart to withdraw north to Funkstown.
Aftermath of the Battle
Although the results of the battle were inconclusive, Stuart successfully delayed Meade’s movement toward Williamsport, buying more time for Lee’s retreat to Virginia.
Combined casualties at the Battle of Boonsboro totaled about 100.