General Robert E. Lee & Major Walter H. Taylor
Falling Waters -Williamsport, Maryland - July 13, 1863
After the battle of Gettysburg, the Army of Northern Virginia retreated south in a torrential rain storm that lasted for two days. As General Robert E. Lee’s army reached the Potomac River at Williamsport, they found a swollen, raging and impassable river. A pontoon bridge near the town had been broken up by a Federal raiding party leaving Lee’s army in a perilous position. With the river so high some predicted it might be a week before the river could be crossed and Federal forces had already begun probing for an opening to attack. With the Potomac River to their backs, a full scale attack by US General Mead’s army would be disastrous.
General Lee issued orders for his commanders to set up defensive positions around the army and prepare for battle. Soon a mixed force of Federal cavalry and artillery appeared threatening to capture wagons carrying wounded soldiers. General J.E.B. Stuart and his cavalry along with infantry were able to push back the enemy probe. Lee turned his attention to his wounded soldiers and ordered any ferry boats to begin transporting the injured to the south bank. Lee then gave Major J. A. Harman the assignment to somehow rebuild the pontoon bridge.
General Lee wrote to his wife, “Had the river not unexpectedly risen, all would have been well with us; but God, in His all-wise providence, ruled otherwise, and our communications have been interrupted and almost cut off.” By July 13 Lee’s prayers were answered. The river had receded to about 4 feet and Major Harman had reconstructed the pontoon bridge using wood from old warehouses, and recovered boats from down river. General Lee decided to attempt the crossing of his army under the cover of night.
Disheartening to all it began to rain again that afternoon and by nightfall the men were facing another “pouring from the skies” wrote Col. Alexander. All night the army labored to cross the Potomac. General Lee sat on his horse at the north end of the bridge encouraging his men throughout the whole night. At times the rain came down so hard it was difficult to keep the three or four torches alight to guide the procession. The shaky bridge miraculously held together “as it swayed to and fro, lashed by the current.”
By morning a great weight seemed to be lifted from General Lee’s shoulders, as most of the army had crossed into Virginia safely. In the distance the guns of the rear guard under the command of General Henry Heath could be heard. Heath and Pender’s battle at Falling Waters was soon over, and the rest of Army of Northern Virginia was back on home soil. This would be the southern army’s last crossing of the Potomac River.