As the battered Army of Northern Virginia made its way from Gettysburg another bit of intelligence fell into the hands of someone determined to act on it. Colonel Andrew McReynolds, commanding the cavalry brigade of MG French’s corps at Frederick, Maryland reported on the 3rd that he had;
“information, which I deem reliable, that the rebel force in the vicinity of Williamsport is very small; that a force of cavalry about one hundred and fifty strong, could, in my opinion, successfully approach to that point, and by a prompt movement, at break of day tomorrow destroy the pontoon bridge at that place, which is the only reliance of the rebels for a retreat for their infantry, artillery, and wagons in that direction.”
General French endorsed the recommendation on the afternoon of the 3rd and McReynolds put the affair under the command of Major Shadrack Foley, of the 14th Pennsylvania cavalry. Foley assembled twice the requested strength for a move that night. Departing Frederick with a mixed command of 300 troopers from the 13th and 14th Pennsylvania, 1st New York, and 6th Michigan moved quickly through the night to Falling Waters. McReynolds’ intelligence proved spot on. Foley’s column found the bridge, lightly guarded, exactly where it had reported to be. The problem was that it had been disconnected from the Maryland side and the river posed a serious obstacle to their success. The solution to their troubles came from an unexpected source. Bugler John Hetz, of the 6th Michigan, volunteered to swim the river and release the bridge so that the current would sweep it into position for the raiders to use. Taking advantage of a lack of vigilance on the part of the guards Hetz accomplished the feat. The span swung into position and the Maryland side made fast. Foley led his men across and routed the Confederate guards, capturing seventeen. The Union troopers then crossed back to the Maryland side and sent a detail “supplied with straw and turpentine set fire to it” and cut it loose to float down stream.
Lee’s bridge was gone and his army was trapped against the rising waters of the upper Potomac. The Army of Northern Virginia was saved by an incredible bit of field engineering and a sluggish pursuit by Meade’s main body forces. The extra time allowed Lee’s men to strip local buildings for lumber and fashion an expedient crossing. Foley’s raid was nonetheless a well executed use of intelligence that should have spelled the end of Lee’s forces. In an interesting sidelight another bridge destruction mission by Union cavalry reduced the opportunity to cut off Lee’s retreat. The bridges at Harper’s Ferry were destroyed by Cole’s Maryland cavalry trapping the only available Federal forces on the wrong side of the river.
***Check out the Siege of Petersburg Online for daily posts on battle accounts in newspaper articles, diary entries, letters and more!
What are your Top 10 Gettysburg Books? See what a panel of bloggers said recently.
Want to read some interesting Civil War content from amateurs and pros alike? Check out the Top 10 Civil War Blogs and Top 10 Civil War Blogs: 11-20.