Battle of Williamsport Summary
The Battle of Williamsport — also known as the Battle of Falling Waters — was fought from July 6–16, 1863, in Washington County, Maryland, during the Confederate Retreat from Gettysburg. As Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Army moved into Maryland, toward Hagerstown and Williamsport, they were slowed by heavy rains, which also made the Potomac River impossible for them to cross.
The battle started on June 6 when Union forces led by General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick attacked Confederate forces under the command of General J.E.B. Stuart at Hagerstown. Meanwhile, Lee sent General John Imboden to protect Confederate trains from Union raids and had the rest of his army prepare for an attack from the main Union Army, under the command of General George G. Meade.
By July 13, the water level of the Potomac dropped enough for the Confederates to cross. The next day, Meade ordered attacks on the rear of Lee’s army. General Henry Heth, General Fitzhugh Lee, and General John R. Chambliss held the river and covered Lee’s retreat until the 16th when the Confederate withdrawal was complete. Despite the Union victory, Meade was slow to attack, ultimately allowing Lee to escape, prolonging the war.
Battle of Williamsport Facts
- Also Known As: The Battle of Williamsport is also known as the Battle of Falling Waters and the Battle of Hagerstown.
- Date Started: The Battle of Williamsport started on July 6, 1863.
- Date Ended: The battle ended on July 16, 1863.
- Location: The Battle of Williamsport took place in Washington County, Maryland, around Williamsport.
- Campaign: The battle was part of the Gettysburg Campaign of 1863.
- Who Won: The outcome of the battle is considered inconclusive.
Battle of Williamsport History and Overview
Robert E. Lee Withdraws from the Battle of 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.
Potomac River Impassable
As the operation started, heavy rains began falling, slowing the evacuation. When Imboden reached the Potomac, he found the river so swollen that the ford at Williamsport was impassable. He also discovered that Union cavalry dispatched from Harpers Ferry by Major General William H. French had destroyed the Confederate pontoon bridge across the river at Falling Waters.
Unable to reach Virginia, Inboden formed a semi-circular defensive line anchored on his left by the Conococheague Creek and on his right by the Potomac River at Falling Waters. With the Potomac at his back, Inboden established a temporary hospital at Williamsport and hunkered down to await Lee’s arrival with the rest of the Confederate Army.
Meade Lingers at Gettysburg
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 pursue the Confederate general aggressively and destroy his army, Meade settled for dispatching his cavalry to harass the retreating Confederates.
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 Confederate assault on Washington and Baltimore confounded Meade.
Meade Pursues Lee
After reconnaissance missions determined that Lee was retreating, Meade divided his army into three columns and launched 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.
What Happened at the Battle of Williamsport?
On July 6, 1863, 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. Stuart’s victory maintained control of important roads leading to Williamsport. On the same day, 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 Confederate stores and wounded from being captured.
Lee Bolsters His Lines
When Lee arrived at Williamsport the next day, the river remained too high to cross, so he immediately went to work bolstering the Confederate defensive line. With only 35,000 able-bodied soldiers available, Lee deployed Major General James Longstreet’s Corps on the left and Major General A. P. Hill’s Corps on the right. While the river hindered the Confederate retreat, Lee rounded up a few boats to resupply his army with ammunition.
Meade Dawdles as Lee Escapes
Meanwhile, Meade’s reinforced army, now numbering close to 95,000 soldiers, crept to within a mile of the Confederate line over the next five days. By July 12, Meade had his army in position and began probing the Confederate defenses. The next day heavy skirmishing erupted.
On July 14, Meade ordered a general advance by four divisions, however, the opportunity to destroy Lee’s army was already gone. By July 13, the Potomac River had fallen enough to allow the Confederates to retreat. That night Longstreet’s Corps crossed over a newly constructed bridge at Falling Waters. By morning, Ewell’s Corps and most of Hill’s Corps had forded the river at Williamsport.
Federals Attack Lee’s Rearguard
With Brigadier General George A. Custer’s brigade in the vanguard, on the morning of July 14, Union cavalry divisions commanded by Buford and Kilpatrick attacked Lee’s rearguard, commanded by Major General Henry Heth, north of the Potomac near Falling Waters. A premature assault by two Federal squadrons alerted the Confederates to the impending onslaught, enabling them to mount a more spirited defense than might otherwise have been possible. Still, the Federals captured over 500 Confederate soldiers before Heth’s division could cross the river on the pontoon bridge.
The final action in the Battle of Williamsport occurred on July 16, 1863, when Brigadier General David M. Gregg’s cavalry division approached the Confederate brigades of Brigadier General Fitzhugh Lee and Colonel J.R. Chambliss guarding the Potomac River Crossing at Shepherdstown, West Virginia. After several unsuccessful assaults, Gregg withdrew at nightfall.
Battle of Williamsport Outcome
The Battle of Williamsport was arguably more important for what did not happen, as opposed to what did. Much to the dismay of his superiors, including President Lincoln, Meade’s measured pursuit of the trapped Confederate army enabled Lee to hang on long enough to escape across the Potomac after the rain-swollen waters receded. Coupled with Ulysses S. Grant’s victory at Vicksburg, Meade may have lost an opportunity to end the Civil War in 1863, two years before its actual conclusion.
Battle of Williamsport Significance
General George G. Meade was not aggressive in pursuing the retreating Confederate forces, allowing the Army of Northern Virginia to cross the Potomac River and escape.
Battle of Williamsport Generals and Details
Principal Union Commanders
- Major General George Meade
Principal Confederate Commanders
- General Robert E. Lee
Battle of Williamsport Dates and Timeline
These are the main battles and events of the Gettysburg Campaign in order.
- June 5—6 — Battle of Franklin’s Crossing
- June 9, 1863 — Battle of Brandy Station
- June 13–15, 1863 — Second Battle of Winchester
- June 17, 1863 — Battle of Aldie
- June 17– 19, 1863 — Battle of Middleburg
- June 21, 1863 — Battle of Upperville
- June 27, 1863 — Battle of Fairfax Court House
- June 29, 1863 — Corbitt’s Charge
- June 30, 1863 — Battle of Hanover
- June 30, 1863 — Skirmish of Sporting Hill
- July 1, 1863 — Battle of Carlisle
- July 1–3, 1863 — Battle of Gettysburg
- July 3, 1863 — Pickett’s Charge
- July 3, 1863 — Battle of Fairfield
- July 4–5, 1863 — Fight at Monterey Pass
- July 6–16, 1863 — Battle of Williamsport
- July 8, 1863 — Battle of Boonsboro
- July 10, 1863 — Battle of Funkstown
- July 23, 1863 — Battle of Manassas Gap
Battle of Williamsport Suggested Reading
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Mingus and Wittenberg, the authors of more than 40 Civil War books, present a history of the opening moves of the Gettysburg Campaign in the 2-volume study. This compelling study is one of the first to integrate the military, media, political, social, economic, and civilian perspectives with rank-and-file accounts from the soldiers of both armies as they inexorably march toward their destiny at Gettysburg. This first volume covers June 3–21, 1863, while the second, covers June 22–30, completes the march, and carries the armies to the eve of the Battle of Gettysburg.
Meade and Lee After Gettysburg, the first of three volumes on the campaigns waged between the two adversaries from July 14 through the end of July, 1863, relies on the official records, regimental histories, letters, newspapers, and other sources to provide a day-by-day account of this fascinating high-stakes affair. The vivid prose, coupled with original maps and outstanding photographs, offers a significant contribution to Civil War literature.