Company Q: The Retreat from Gettysburg

Company Q
The Retreat from Gettysburg
By William Henterly

By the evening of July 3rd, 1863, it was obvious that the army of Robert E. Lee had sustained a crippling defeat on the fields south of the town of Gettysburg. His invasion of Pennsylvania had been stopped cold, and now Lee had to take his army home. Aside from soldiers, this involved transporting a huge train of supplies containing tons of material, feed, and food plundered from enemy territory. Accompanying the supply trains would be the wounded and captured. With an aggressive enemy at his heels and a difficult terrain to cross, the task would be formidable. Lee had boasted that his army was the best fighting force in the world, and despite a crushing defeat, the retreat from Gettysburg would prove him right.
At this critical time, Lee's army drew on a resource usually unacknowledged, this being slaves from the south. Blacks, both freemen and slaves, were an integral part of the Southern military. At the inception of the invasion, between 10,000 and 20,000 blacks traveled with the army, with the majority working for the Quartermasters Department. For the most part they maintained and drove the wagons, and they called themselves Wagoners. During the retreat from Gettysburg, most of these slaves would demonstrate a willingness to fight and even die for their wagons. In a stunning irony of American history and at a bleak and desperate time, the black Wagoners would ensure the survival of an army protecting the country dedicated to their continued enslavement.
Armies of the Civil War traveled with long tails, this being a supply system consisting of transport for munitions, fodder, tents, repair implements, and artillery. These supplies would be stowed in wagons, which would be pulled by teams of horses, mules, or oxen. When it was necessary for Lee to leave Gettysburg, his supply trains were enormous. They not only contained the material of an army on the march, but were fattened by plunder acquired from the farms and towns of Pennsylvania. Interspersed with the wagons were herds of animals on the hoof to include hogs, horses, sheep, cattle, and mules. Finally there were the casualties. Packed into ambulance wagons were 9,500 badly wounded soldiers who would suffer immensely during the evacuation.
All of the wagons, both supply and ambulance, would head west across the South Mountains, then down the Cumberland Valley to the Potomac River. Accounts from local who witnessed this exodus described the scenes as unforgettable. The procession of over 6,000 wagons stretched for 57 miles. The terrain was difficult, and the weather went bad. Torrential rains turned the roads, primitive at best, into mud, which mired wagons axle deep. It took enormous energy, from both animals and humans, to keep things moving. The task of the Wagoners was to move fast as possible, reach and then cross the Potomac River.
By July 5th, the trains were south bound on the Cumberland Pike (now I-81). Trudging along by alternate routes were the three corps of Confederate infantry who, though in defeat, remained an exceedingly dangerous foe to their Northern counterparts. Sometime during the night of July 5th, the head of the wagon column reached the north shore of the Potomac at the town of Williamsport, Maryland. All that remained was to consolidate the wagons, prisoners, wounded, and livestock, and cross the river. Lee had provided for this contingency at the start of his invasion when he ordered his engineers to build a pontoon bridge across the Potomac. This would hopefully ensure an escape route should one become necessary, as it now as. However, during the battle, the small detachment of troops left at the crossing had been scattered by Federal Calvary, who then destroyed the bridge. Consequently, the retreating wagons were stranded.
Moreover, the heavy rains had swollen the Potomac to ten feet above fording level. The wagons and all that accompanied them were unable to reach the far Virginia shore. It was at this point, at dawn on July 6th, that General John Imboden, the Confederate officer tasked with transporting the wounded and protecting the wagons, learned that a powerful Union Calvary force was bearing down on Williamsport. There was little to impede their approach. Should the enemy Calvary reach the town of Williamsport, they would be able to capture or destroy the wagons, and all that they held, within minutes.
Imboden marshaled all available Calvary, along with the artillery accompanying the trains. Well short of the resources needed to provide an adequate defense, Imboden turned to the Wagoners. Once the call went out, 700 black teamsters fell into line. They were issued weapons taken from wounded soldiers, and formed into one hundred man units. Command of these units were entrusted to wounded Confederate line officers. Imboden's staff officers designated the outfit as Company Q. After a few hours of instruction, Company Q was sent to the front.
By noon on the 6th, these ragtag untrained black Wagoners were in place to receive an attack of dismounted Union Calvary commanded by General John Buford. Amazingly, in short order the Wagoners met and repelled the attack, launched a counterattack, and drove the enemy to retreat. The arrival of nightfall would end the contest. With skill and speed, Southern engineers stripped barns and buildings to obtain lumber to build a bridge across the river. The fighters of Company Q then left the trenches, returned to their mules, and drove their wagons across the Potomac. Because of the fighting bravery of Company Q, the Army of Northern Virginia would live to fight again.
Then as now, times were racially charged. The South, though woefully lacking in manpower, was loath to enlist slaves into the army. Nevertheless, when faced with a frightful situation, Imboden would do just that. Company Q was raised, armed, and sent to fight in a matter of hours. True, they were well supported with artillery, but they still faced a daunting task. In the end, t hey did their job and they did it well. Little is known as to recollections of the Company Q participants. Slaves did not keep diaries. The most sincere appraisal of their actions came from the man who was in the best position to address their contribution. Writing after the war, General Imboden said that the battle at Williamsport saved the army, and was called the Wagoners Battle.1

1 A.S. Barnes and Company, Battles and Leaders of American Civil War USA, 1956, Volume 3, page 428.