“Monday. Heavy rain last night, raining again today. Our wagon trains commenced crossing the Potomac at Williamsport, Maryland, this morning.”
So wrote Spartan Band diarist William H. Hill on July 13, 1863.
The 13th Regiment had left their rifle pits and marched six miles to Falling Waters where they camped to await their turn to cross. Gen. Lee’s engineers had torn down some abandoned Maryland houses to make improvised pontoons, according to Shelby Foote in his The Civil War, A Narrative.
The planks were floated down to Falling Waters, connected and floored, and then overlaid with lopped tree branches to deaden the sounds of wagon wheels and, when Hill’s and Longstreet’s corps were ready to cross, brogans.
“We fall back from no fear of the enemy,” diarist Robert A. Moore of the 17th Regiment recorded, “but that our army is in no condition to move forward & we are too far from our base to remain here.”
By nightfall huge bonfires were blazing on the Maryland and Virginia shores to light the way across the makeshift pontoon bridge. Still, at least one ambulance filled with wounded was lost. It fell into the river on the Maryland side.
There may have been others. Hill wrote: “The river was very high and several wagons, teams, ambulances and men were lost…”
By dawn on the 14th the rest of the wagons were across and Longstreet’s corps followed them, with Hill’s bringing up the rear.
“We crossed at 9 and 1/2 A.M.,” Moore wrote. “Army finished crossing at 2 P.M.”
Ewell’s Corps, according to Foote, crossed at Williamsport that Tuesday morning. Their tallest men were wading out armpit deep in the receding but still swollen river and passing the shorter men along.
Hill’s lead division was just across when Union cavalry attacked the Heth’s division in the rear guard. The men turned about and fought them off while Hill’s center division crossed.
In the fight, Gen. J. Johnston Pettigrew, who had survived Pickett’s Charge, was mortally wounded. He would be the tenth general to die in the Gettysburg campaign.
In all, a thousand Rebels were captured there, making about 5,000 Confederate casualties altogether in the retreat from Gettysburg, according to some recent histories.
“Marched 14 miles and camped 3 miles from Martinsburg,” Hill recorded of the 13th Regiment in the brigade’s escape.
Mail was waiting for some. Moore wrote that he “received a letter from home this evening bearing the date of 27th of [June]. Brother wounded.”