Battle of Falling Waters (Maryland)
Events Leading to the Battle
After the July 1 – 3, 1863 Battle of Gettysburg, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army was trapped in Maryland because the Potomac River was flooded and his pontoon bridge destroyed. Union Maj. Gen. George G. Meade’s army pursued Lee first with cavalry and then with the balance of his force. By July 12, both armies were entrenched from north of Hagerstown to south of Downsville. When Meade did not attack, Lee ordered his army to cross the Potomac River at Williamsport and the rebuilt Falling Waters pontoon bridge at dusk on July 13.
By dawn on July 14, Lee’s troops were still crossing the river. Two of Meade’s cavalry commanders, Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick and Brig. Gen. John Buford, were alerted that Lee’s army had left their positions to cross the river. Kilpatrick’s troopers rushed from near Hagerstown to Williamsport only to find one of Lee’s corps had already crossed the river. Next, Kilpatrick’s horsemen galloped in the direction of the pontoon bridge. Buford, near Downsville, also ordered his troopers to converge on Falling Waters.
Maj. Gen. Henry “Harry” Heth, in command of a division of Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi troops was ordered to protect the rear of Lt. Gen. A. P. Hill’s corps – forming a rear guard on either side of the road to Falling Waters (now Falling Waters Road) approximately two miles from the crossing. Believing Lee’s cavalry to be between his position and any of Meade’s forces, Heth mistook two companies of Michigan “Wolverines” cavalry advancing toward his position on the crest of a hill for Confederates. Heth and Brig. Gen. James Johnston Pettigrew, in command of a North Carolina brigade, ordered their men not to fire. It was not until the Michigan troopers were nearly upon their position that the Heth’s infantry opened fire – devastating the attacking force.
Fighting continued from mid-morning until around 1 PM. During that time less than 3,000 Confederates under Heth repelled what grew to nearly 7,000 cavalry and artillery under Kilpatrick and Buford. Newly promoted Brig. Gen. George A. Custer, in command of a Michigan cavalry brigade, personally led his troopers in battle. Pettigrew, “the most brilliant man in the South” was mortally wounded behind the Daniel Donnelly House during the fighting.
Around 1 PM, Heth received orders to withdraw to the pontoon bridge and cross the river. While many Confederates were captured, most of Heth’s division safely crossed into Virginia (now West Virginia). Pettigrew refused to remain behind for medical treatment and was moved. He died three days later in Bunker Hill, WV.
When Meade telegraphed to Abraham Lincoln that Lee’s army had crossed the Potomac River into Virginia, the President was furious. He wrote a scathing letter to Meade – which he never mailed. Lincoln felt the war could have been ended by Meade crushing Lee’s trapped army.
The war continued until April 1865.