A Hard Road to Travel: Two Perspectives on the March to Gettysburg, Part 3

Dawn, July 5, 1863. The gloom of the day is accentuated by dense, gray clouds and intermittent rain showers. The sharp report of stray rifle shots echo across the battlefield as the last of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia leave their final line before dawn. Only a small rear guard of skirmishers remain to cover the tail of the gray column as it heads westward. Mud. Rain. Misery. Throughout the previous day and night, baggage trains and wagons loaded with wounded soldiers rolled over the rutted roads in a long, painful column. Fence rails piled high and set alight at crossroads helped guide the way for Lee’s exhausted veterans; tired and worn but still defiant and dangerous.  Closely following were infantrymen of the Sixth Corps and despite the heavy showers that drenched the column with stinging rain and roads so deeply rutted and muddy that made walking a straight line doubly difficult, the men forged on to Fairfield, pushed back the rear guard and made their way into the mountain passes. Even at this early stage of the pursuit, it may have already too late to catch Lee. The head of the Confederate column was already entering western Maryland and within two days would be concentrated near Hagerstown.

While Lee made good his rapid withdrawal, the Army of the Potomac was slow to pursue. Footsore and weary from the weeks of marching, slim rations, and worn equipment, the 7th Maine finally made their camp on a farm on the western side of Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, only a few miles from Greencastle.  The day’s duties finally complete, Lt. Colonel Selden Connor warily made an honest attempt to describe the whirlwind of events he had witnessed over the previous weeks:

Head Qtrs 7th Me Vols.
Camp near Waynesboro Pa
July 10th, 1863

My dear father:

            I have tried to write you several times lately, but ineffectively. I forget when I wrote you last- I think it was at Bristow Station. By making long and rapid marches our corps arrived just in season to turn the battle of Gettysburg in our favor. We started from Manchester, Md at 12 o’clock on the night of the first and arrived on the field at Gettysburg before dark the next day (second) a distance of thirtytwo miles. When we reached the ground the enemy had succeeded in turning our left (page 2) flank and everybody seemed to be a little uneasy. When Gen. Sedgewick arrived with the first division of our corps he made a straight course for the heavy firing and “pitched in” driving the enemy and holding our original position on the left. Our brigade guarded the right-flank of the army and the Vermont brigade the left. We were not heavily engaged but had smart skirmishing in which I had six men wounded, three mortally. The “7th” was lucky once; but -as is- was I lost more than all the rest of the brigade together. On the fifth our brigade was detached from the corps and with a brigade of Cavalry and a battery followed the rebs on this road, through (page 3) Fairfield and the mountains. We have been here a day or two; yesterday the New York and Pennsylvania militia to the number of 8000 or 111000 under Gen. Smith our old general, reached here from Harrisburg so that we now have quite a force here. Waynesboro is a nice little town in the center of the wheat growing country, the Cumberland Valley. The people are very hospitable and glad to see the Union soldiers after what they have suffered from the rebs. It would do you good to travel in this country; such farms I never saw before. I have not seen a paper for three weeks. We hear that Vicksburg has really fallen and that Gen. Dix is threatening Richmond. Port Hudson must follow Vicksburg (page 4) and if we annihilate Lee’s Army as we hope to, I think the bottom will be pretty well “Knocked out”. It is understood that the mass of Lee’s army is at Hagerstown, three miles from us and that his line extends to the Potomac. We have a force on the other side of the river to prevent his crossing so the probabilities are that Lee will get back with but a small portion of his army. My health is first rate, only it hurts my feelings to go among the patriotic young ladies here with my old ragged clothes! Clean shirts are unknown in our brigade now. Our men need shoes and clothing badly, but they (carry on) as long as there is a prospect of whipping the rebel army again and ending the war. I should like to hear from home, but our mail hasn’t reached us for a long time. Hoping that all at home are well I am as ever,

Your affectionate son,
Selden Connor

Falling Waters 1863

The Army of Northern Virginia crosses the Potomac River at Falling Waters, July 13-14, 1863, as  sketched by northern artist Edwin Forbes. (Library of Congress)

Connor’s hope for the near annihilation of Lee never materialized. The Army of Northern Virginia successfully crossed the swollen Potomac River overnight of July 13-14, the engineers cutting loose the pontoon bridges soon after dawn. Though the Gettysburg Campaign was technically over, there was still business at hand in northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac was soon to follow its nemesis back to its old static line along the Rappahannock River.

After crossing over the Potomac River at Williamsport on July 13-14, Rodes’ Division marched southward to Martinsburg, then to the village of Darkesville where the men had a chance to draw rations and get a few hours rest before moving again, this time through northern Virginia and eventually to camps south of the Rappahannock River near Orange Court House.  By the time Lee’s soldiers had the chance to pitch what few tents they had near the court house, the men were physically drained and supplies of fresh uniforms, rations and medical supplies were virtually non-existent. Shortages were once again the daily routine. Some time between his daily duties,  Lt. John Gay penned a letter home, hopeful yet wary of what lay ahead for he and his comrades:

Orange C.H. Va.
Augt 2 1863

My Dear Wife,

            About one year ago we encamped at this same place. We were then on our way to Md. Now we are returning from there. Then our ranks were full; now they are thinned by casualties, sickness, etc in our late expedition. Then we were hopeful, cheerfull & sanguine- eagerly in pursuit of a retreating foe. Now the tables are turned, and we are retreating before an enemy pursuing; yes, foot sore, (many of us are bare footed) raged & dirty and worn out from heat and fatigue we are slowly retreating before Meades army. I don’t know the opinion of our Genls. They (page 2) make a stand here or may fall still father back. It is with them to decide. The men are defiant and most of them seem anxious to meet the enemy again, confidently expecting to gain a great victory. God grant that such may be the case, if we are compelled to fight them again soon, for the series of reverses that we have lately met with has indeed been a little disheartening. We must retrieve our character, and Oh! I fear it will be at a fearful cost. We are having some terribly hot weather. Yesterday we marched sixteen miles without a breath of air stirring and the sun broiling hot. I was completely exhausted when we got here, and verily believe I could not have gone two miles farther (page 3) had my life depended on it. I hope, though, we will not have much more hard marching to do this summer. My general health has improved lately. Joseph Ware was taken sick at Darktown and sent to the rear. I have heard nothing from him since. I am afraid he got worse after he left us. Our boys are all quite well. Mr James E. Evans preached for us last night and again this morning and the Rev. Mr. Jewett from the Geo(rgia) Conference preached the 11 o’clock sermon. The have come to spend two months with this army for the purpose of preaching to the Geo(rgia) soldiers during that time. I have had no letter from you lately. Write very soon. I am anxious to hear from you. Yours, J.T.G.

(page 4) It is strange that nothing can be heard from Joe Lennard (note- a family friend serving in the west.) Those Vixburg prisoners have all been paroled and could have certainly gotten a letter home before this.

I have got on a clean shirt to day and you have no idea how proud I am; but I don’t know when the next will come from. I have been almost tempted to hire a negro to wash for me to day (Sunday). Tell Mrs. Cartright that Billy Evans says he is thinking a little hard of her for not writing. You may also say to Mrs. G. that if she don’t do better I shall think hard of her too. Love & a kiss to Mary, Peggy & your Ma. Remember me kindly to all the negroes. Yours etc. J.T.G.

Despite the terrible losses in Pennsylvania and continued shortages, Gay and his fellow soldiers remained defiant and confident,  blithely unaware of the fateful condition of the Confederacy on the heels of disaster that was the Gettysburg Campaign. Yet confidence was not a trait owned solely by Lee’s soldiers. Men in the Army of the Potomac were also confident of success and few would let the cost of Gettysburg pass without a stubborn determination to see the war through to its bitter end.

Selden Connor

Selden Connor while serving as the governor of Maine. (State Archives of Maine; Wikipedia)

The following spring, Colonel Connor marched with the Army into the Wilderness of Virginia though not in command of his old 7th Maine. Promoted to full colonel in January 1864, he took command of the 19th Maine Infantry in Hancock’s Second Corps. Cast into the inferno that was the Battle of the Wilderness, Connor was in temporary command of the brigade on May 6 when seriously wounded by a Confederate ball that broke his thigh bone. Though his condition was considered grave, Connor’s strong stamina and immediate care saved his life. It was soon after his transfer to a Washington hospital when reports reached Maine that Connor had died, reports that he later wrote were “gravely exaggerated;” but the severe wound would prevent his return to the Army. Awarded a brigadier general’s star on June 11, 1864, he convalesced at home in Maine until mustered out of service in 1866. Unfortunately, he re-injured his broken leg that same month and would be confined to his home for an additional two years before he could work again.

Connor went onto a serve in a number of government positions, was a three-term governor of Maine, a Federal pension agent, and president of Northern Banking Company. General Connor died in 1917 and is buried in Augusta.

Fort Stedman, Petersburg

A stereoview of the interior of Fort Stedman, photographed several weeks after the battle. (Library of Congress)

1st Lieutenant John Gay did not survive the war. On March 25, 1865, Rodes’ old division took part in the surprise attack on Fort Stedman in the Petersburg siege line.  At 4:30 that morning, the 4th Georgia, in Brigadier General Philip Cook’s Brigade, stormed through the outer defenses and into the fort itself where the battle continued unabated for nearly two hours. Union infantry supported by artillery counterattacked and drove the southerners back to the Confederate defenses, across the no man’s land cris-crossed by Union fire. Felled while running the gauntlet, Lt. Gay stumbled into the Confederate lines. He was transported to a Richmond hospital, captured when the city was abandoned a week later. Despite the efforts of Confederate doctors and Union surgeons, Lt. Gay succumbed to his injuries on April 28, 1865, one of last casualties of the war from Georgia. The “fearful cost” of life he had predicted in his August 1863 letter had unfortunately included his own.

John Heiser
Historian, Gettysburg National Military Park


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This entry was posted in 4th Georgia Infantry, 7th Maine Infantry, Aftermath, Soldier Life. Bookmark the permalink.

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