General John D. Imboden and the Confederate Retreat from Gettysburg
By Heather K. Peake
It was the evening of July 3, 1863, and General Robert E. Lee faced a serious problem. The Battle of Gettysburg was over; his massive assault on the Union center had failed; his troops were spent; it was time to depart the field. He needed to get his army back to the safety of Virginia, and the sooner the better, for if the Union army caught its breath and went on the attack, the whole cause could be lost. As the night wore on, a general plan of retreat began to form -- and therein arose the problem. Three days of hard fighting had left more than 3,500 of his men dead and a staggering 18,735 wounded. Those wounded could not simply be left to the enemy. But how to bring them along without slowing the retreat to a crawl? That was the question. 
Around 11 pm, Lee called for Brigadier General John D. Imboden to report to his headquarters. Imboden's command was a semi-independent cavalry unit that had spent the summer campaign attached to Robert E. Lee's left flank, carrying out raids and destroying railroad bridges and canals as the main body of the Army of Northern Virginia moved northward. They had not arrived on the field until noon on July 3, and Lee, busy with the final plans for Pickett's advance on the Union lines, had simply ordered them to guard the rear of the Confederate line. "[M]y little force took no part in the battle," Imboden later wrote, " but were mere spectators of the scene, which transcended in grandeur any that I beheld in any other battle of the war." His men and their mounts were fresh and comparatively well-rested, and that made Imboden a valuable commodity on that particular night. 
John Imboden was not highly regarded by Lee or other high-ranking officers in the Confederate Army. The 40-year-old lawyer and politician from Staunton, Virginia had first won attention in April 1861, just as Virginia seceded from the Union, when he led his hometown artillery to Harper's Ferry and seized the arsenal. Then he returned to Staunton and raised a cavalry, the First Partisan Rangers. He fought with Stonewall Jackson in the 1862 Valley Campaign, and in January 1863 had been rewarded with a promotion to brigadier. Now in command of the 18th Virginia Cavalry, the 62nd Virginia (Mounted) Infantry, the Virginia Partisan Rangers, and the Virginia (Staunton) Battery, he had gained a reputation as a first-class raider. As they advanced into Pennsylvania, his men were delighted to find that this reputation has preceded them. "The country was in a perfect panic when they heard of the coming of 'Imboden, the Guerilla,' as they call him," a soldier wrote in a letter published in the Staunton (Va.) Spectator on July 3, 1863. "Five thousand Pennsylvania 'Melish' advanced to meet him on the National road. He let the 'Melish' stand and wait for his coming, while a squadron of cavalry went around them and gathered the fine horses they had left at home!" But as important as these activities were, cutting enemy communication and rail lines and rounding up food and supplies, there was a kind of taint to it -- the sense that it wasn't quite as honorable as combat - and perhaps this marked Imboden as belonging to a lower class of soldier. 
General Lee was not at his headquarters when Imboden and his aide arrived around 11:30, so they lay back in the soft grass and waited. Nearly two hours passed before Imboden saw the general riding, all alone, down the road from A.P. Hill's camp, his beautiful horse Traveller moving along at a plodding walk. Lee greeted Imboden quietly; trying not to wake his exhausted staff, and made to dismount. "The effort to do so betrayed so much exhaustion that I hurriedly rose and stepped forward to assist him, but before I reached his side he had succeeded in alighting, and threw his army across the saddle to rest, and fixing his eyes upon the ground leaned in silence and almost motionless against his equally weary horse - the two forming a striking and never-to-be-forgotten group."
Imboden stared at this poignant scene until the silence became "embarrassing," and he awkwardly blurted out: "General, this has been a hard day on you."
Lee looked up. "Yes, it has been a sad, sad say to us." He slumped back against Traveller. One, two minutes passed. Then he spoke of Pickett's brave Virginians, of how they might have carried the day had the only been properly supported. Then, he paused again. "Too bad! Too bad! Oh, too bad!"
Settled in his tent a few minutes later, Lee announced: "We must now return to Virginia. As many of our poor wounded as possible must be taken home. I have sent for you because your men and horses are fresh and in good condition, to guard and conduct our train back to Virginia. The duty will be arduous, responsible and dangerous," he cautioned, "for I am afraid you will be harassed by the enemy's cavalry. He promised all the additional artillery Imboden wanted - but no additional troops. His 2000 men and the few extra artillery crews would have to protect the nearly 13,000 wounded themselves.
Imboden was to proceed west along the Cashtown road, and then south by whichever road he choose, to Williamsport, Maryland. This would keep the cumbersome wagon train out of the way of the main column, which was to retreat by the shorter Fairfield road. At Williamsport, Imboden would stop only long enough to rest his horses. Then they were to ford the Potomac and moved without delay to Winchester, Virginia. 
His operation got underway early on the morning of July 4. "It was apparent by 9 o'clock that the wagons, ambulances and wounded could not be collected and made ready to move till late in the afternoon," he wrote of that long and frustrating day. Compounding the difficulties, at around noon "the very windows of heaven seemed to have opened." The downpour turned the field beside the Cashtown road into an instant quagmire. Horses and mules, already unnerved by three days of shelling, grew frenzied by the wind and could not be calmed. Wagons and artillery carriages became hopelessly entangled and began to sink in the deepening mud. "The deafening road of the mingled sounds of heaven and earth all around us made it almost impossible to communicate orders, and equally difficult to execute them," wrote Imboden. Somehow, though, they got it done. In less than 14 hours, they had loaded 12,700 of the 18,735 wounded into some 1,200 wagons. 
By 4 pm on July 4th, the wagon train was in motion. The 18th Virginia Cavalry, under the command of the general's brother, Colonel George W. Imboden, formed the advance guard. General Imboden stayed behind to personally place detachments of troops and guns at intervals of third- or quarter-miles. It was well after dark when the last wagons rolled out of Cashtown and he set out for the head of the column.
Imboden would never forget that ride. From end to end, the wagon train was 17 miles long. "For four hours I hurried forward on my way to the front, and in all that time I was never out of the hearing of the groans and cries of the wounded and dying. " Inside each wagon lay men with shattered bones and open wound, laying on bare boards in springless wagons jolting over badly rutted roads. Everyone was wet and chilled from the intermittent rains; most had received neither food nor water nor medical attention for 36 hours or more. Imboden heard them begging to be left by the road to die, screaming obscenities, praying, calling for their wives, their mothers, their children. "No help could be rendered to any of the sufferers. No heed could be given to any of the appeals. Mercy and duty to the many forbade the loss of a moment in the vain effort then and there to comply with the prayers of the few. On! On! We must move on. The storm continued, and the darkness was appall!
ing. There was no time even to fill a canteen with water for a dying man; for, except for the drivers and the guards, all were wounded and utterly helpless in the vast procession of misery. During this one night I realized more of the horrors of war than I had n all the two proceeding years." 
But Imboden knew they had to push on through the night, for "in the darkness was our safety..." When daylight came, so would the risk of enemy attacks. "It got very dark," recalled one of the wounded, a soldier from the 16th North Carolina, "but there was no halt made, a steady trot being kept up all night. I could never tell you how we got along without some accident." Imboden's orders were clear: if a wagon broke down, transfer the wounded and abandon it. Winding through Greenwood, Duffield, New Franklin, and Marion, Pine Stump Road quickly became a graveyard of derelict transports, some of them left where they had sunk in the axel-deep mud. 
By 4 am, they had reached Greencastle, Pennsylvania, near the Maryland border. Rev. J.C. Smith remembered the scene: the walking wounded, shivering in the cold and damp, constantly adjusting their clothes to catch rainwater in the folds to drink, or to take the pressure of inflamed wounds. How different they appeared from the proud, boastful troops that the invaded the town a week earlier. Smith felt little satisfaction. "No one, with any feelings of pity, will ever want to see such a sight even once in a lifetime." 
Not everyone in Greencastle was so charitable. The advance guard was about a mile past the town when a group of 30 or 40 citizens fell upon the train with axes in hand, and managed to hack the spokes out of more than a dozen wagon wheels before Imboden sent a detachment back to stop the trouble and arrest the troublemakers.
That was just the beginning. As expected, swarms of Union cavalry began to attack all along the length of the train, choosing the weakest sections and causing, in Imboden's words "great confusion," (and probably no small amount of terror to the defenseless wounded). He himself was almost captured when surprised by a band of 50 Union cavalrymen while reconnoitering, only to be saved when brother George heard the firing, and wheeled the 18th Virginia back to counter the threat. Yet at the end of this long day of "desultory fighting and harassments," the train was rolling into Williamsport, having lost only a handful of wagons to the enemy.
Now Imboden faced an unexpected adversary: nature. The heavy rains of the previous two days had swelled the Potomac to more than 10 feet about its normal level - meaning he couldn't get his wagons across the ford. He was pinned against the river with 12,700 wounded and an irreplaceable store of wagons, horses and supplied....and less than 3,000 men to protect it all.
He moved swiftly to bring order to the situation. Surgeons went to work on the wounded. His men went from door to door, demanding provisions. The locals were required to cook for the men "on pain of having their kitchens occupied for that purpose by my men.... They readily complied," he later noted. He commandeered two small ferry-boats and started moving the less severely wounded across the river to Virginia. And all the while, he kept an eye out for the attack that would surely come. 
He didn't have long to wait. The next morning, July 6th, he learned that a large body of enemy cavalry was approaching form Frederick. Imboden ordered his artillery to be placed on the hills surrounding the town, then rounded up everyone - wagoners, quartermasters, commissaries, stragglers - who could hold a gun, giving him an additional 700 men to supplement his veteran troops. Organized into 7 companies, these recruits were placed under the watchful eyes of wounded line-officers who had volunteered for duty.
At about 2 pm, the enemy began filling the roads leading into Williamsport, and Imboden realized how heavily outnumbered he really was. The Union force totaled 23 cavalry regiments and 18 guns under the crack commands of Generals John Buford and Judson Kilpatrick - about 7000 men in all.
In the end, it was a combination of luck and skill that kept Imboden from disaster that day. Just as ammunition ran low, a fresh supply unexpectedly arrived on the Virginia side of the river. It was ferried across, the boxes hurriedly split open with axes. To make his forces seem larger, he formed a strong line on the left flank, then rapidly shifted them to the right, giving them the illusion of strength that seemed to keep the enemy off-balance. And as his lines began to waver from sheer exhaustion, word arrived from General Fitzhugh Lee that and additional force of 3,000 men would arrive within the hour. "The news was sent along our whole line, and was received with a wild and exultant yell," Imboden wrote. "We knew then that they field was won, and slowly pressed forward." By 8 pm, the battle was over. 
"The firing was beautiful and very rapid," one of Imboden's staff wrote the Richmond Enquirer soon after the engagement. "I never saw such destructive cannonading; one piece on our side lost thirteen men killed and wounded - They dismounted two regiments, but our wagoners were too much for the - They carried away nearly all of their dead and wounded, though the ground was covered with dead horses. Our loss was about 125 men...We saved the immense wagon train of our army, and too much credit cannot be given to Gen. Imboden. He organized a force out of a mob, and whipped the enemy, outnumbering him nearly five to won. He is a splendid man, and on the field goes everywhere, no matter how great the danger." 
Imboden credited his victory to "extraordinary good fortune," more than anything else. He was deeply impressed with the bravery of his impromptu little army. "The wagoners fought so well that this became known as 'the wagoner's fight," he said. Many of them had been killed storming a farm that was being used as a sharpshooter's nest. He estimated his losses at 125 killed - he didn't say how many had been wounded - and never learned how many casualties he had inflicted on the enemy. 
"The expedition had for its object the destruction of the enemy's trains, supposed to be at Williamsport," Union General John Buford wrote in his official report of the action. "This, I regret to say, was not accomplished. The enemy was too strong for me, but he was punished for his obstinacy. His casualties were more than quadruple mine." It was an embarrassing loss, and a costly one. The rebel army was pouring in to Williamsport. The next day, he wrote "I can do nothing with the enemy except observe him." 
General Lee and the rest of the Army of Northern Virginia arrived in town on July 7, trapped as Imboden was, by the floodwaters. Imboden was immediately assigned a new task: to escort the 4,000 prisoners taken at Gettysburg to Staunton, Virginia, where they would be shipped to Richmond. Lee directed that he take only a single regiment, the 62nd Virginia, as guard. "When the general assigned me this duty, he expressed an apprehension that before I could reach Winchester, the Federal cavalry would cross at Harpers' Ferry, intercept and capture my guard and release the prisoners." It's doubtful a little think like that would have stopped Imboden: Staunton was his hometown, and his wife and children were there.
He had just started out for Winchester when he was ordered back to Lee's headquarters. "I halted my column and hurried back, was ferried across the river and galloped out on the Hagerstown road, where I had parted from the general that morning." He finally overtook Lee and his staff further down the road. Lee, remembering Imboden's familiarity with the countryside, asked him to detail all the fords from Williamsport to Cumberland, calling on another general (Imboden couldn't remember if it was Alexander of Long) to take careful notes. "He did not say so, but I felt that his situation was precarious in the extreme." The sooner the army got across the river, the better.
Lee was about to dismiss him when he paused and smiled. He gestured towards the swollen river. "Do you know this country well enough to tell me if it ever stops raining about here?" he asked, laughing. "If so, I should like to see a clear day soon."