Prelude to the Battle
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.
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 previous three days of battle had fatigued 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 limited Meade’s flexibility.
Meade Pursues Lee
After reconnaissance missions determined that Lee was retreating, Meade divided his army into three columns and began a more vigorous but still cautious pursuit. Throughout the pursuit, Meade was careful to keep his main force between Lee and the nation’s capital.
Over the course of the next week, the two armies sparred in several cavalry clashes around the Williamsport area. By July 12, Meade had his army (now numbering as many as 95,000 soldiers) in position to assault the Rebel defenses. By that time, however, the river had receded nearly enough to accommodate the Confederate retreat. During the night of July 13, most of Lee’s army forded the Potomac.
On June 14, Meade ordered a general advance by four divisions, only to find that most of the Confederates had returned to Virginia soil. Meade managed to capture several hundred Rebels during rearguard engagements on July 14 and July 16, but his opportunity to finish off the Army of Northern Virginia had been lost.
French and Anderson Clash at Manassas Gap
After returning to Virginia, Lee’s army traveled south, up the Shenandoah Valley, toward Front Royal. Still hoping to trap the Confederates, Meade ordered Major General William French’s 3rd Corps to cross the Blue Ridge Mountains and cut off the Rebels at Front Royal. On July 23, French assaulted a portion of Major General Richard H. Anderson’s Division entrenched at Wapping Heights overlooking a pass through the mountains known as Manassas Gap.
Spirited fighting by the Yankees throughout the day forced the Rebel defenders to concede ground until soldiers from Major General Robert E. Rodes’ Division reinforced them. When the fighting ended at dusk, the Federals had taken possession of the pass. French called a halt to the assault and during the night the Confederates withdrew. The next day, French continued to Front Royal, only to discover that he was too late to cut off Lee’s army as it marched south up the valley to safety.
Aftermath of the Battle
The results of the Battle of Manassas Gap were inconclusive. Combined losses for both sides totaled roughly 400 killed, wounded, or captured. Although French forced the Rebel defenders off of Wapping Heights and took possession of Manassas Gap, he failed to cut off Lee’s retreating army. Following Lee’s escape, Meade abandoned any further pursuit of the Confederate army, thus ending the Gettysburg Campaign.