Tag Archives: Potomac River

Never Call Retreat: “The whole country is our soil”

July 5, 1863/2013
Volume 4, Issue 27 (143 Issues Since 15 October 2010)

Lincoln: “Will our generals never get that idea out of their heads? The whole country is our soil.”

July 7, 1863. Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg had forced him and his army to head back south again. It was good news for the Union, of course, as was General Grant’s capture of Vicksburg on the

Major General George G. Meade, courtesy Library of Congress

Major General George G. Meade, courtesy Library of Congress

Mississippi. But, as historian Bruce Catton writes, “The President was in no mood to rejoice over the recovery of lost territory. He wanted Confederate armies wiped out.” In light of those two victories, Lincoln had said, “Now, if General Meade [the commanding Union general at Gettysburg] can complete his work, so gloriously prosecuted thus far, by the literal or substantial destruction of Lee’s army, the rebellion will be over.” In short, Lincoln wanted Meade to pursue Lee’s retreating army, battered as it was by Gettysburg, engage it, and defeat it. But Meade did not pursue the Confederate army as it raced to get across the Potomac River to comparative safety.

Catton continued, “The President’s feeling of frustration began when he read a congratulatory order Meade issued after Gettysburg, inviting the army to keep up the good work and to ‘drive the invader from our soil.’ To Secretary John Hay Mr. Lincoln exploded angrily: ‘Will our generals never get that idea out of their heads? The whole country is our soil.’ (The Union was endangered not because Lee’s army was in Pennsylvania, but because Lee’s army existed at all.)

As Lee went back to the Potomac, Mead cautiously following, Mr. Lincoln grew more impatient, and when newspaperman Noah Brooks left to visit Meade’s headquarters the President confessed his fear that ‘something would happen’ to save Lee’s army from annihilation. On July 14 news came that Lee’s army had indeed escaped, crossing the Potomac at night on an improvised pontoon bridge and returning to Virginia bruised but alive. Brooks wrote that the President’s ‘grief and anger were something sorrowful to behold,’ and Hay remembered the President saying: ‘We had them within our grasp. We had only to stretch forth our hands and they were ours.'”

“. . . The war . . . might have ended this summer, but instead it had made almost a new beginning; because it had not ended it was going to cut more deeply than ever before, plowing new forces to the surface and forcing men to deal with them as best they could. . . .”


Bruce Catton, Never Call Retreat, 210-11; 213-14.

When the Confederacy Stopped the Exchange of White Officers of Black Union Troops, All Prisoner Exchange Stopped

July 13, 1863. In the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Confederate Congress voted that captured white officers of black Union troops would not be exchanged for Confederate soldiers captured by the North. They would instead face court-martial on the field and summary execution. Moreover, captured black Union soldiers would not be exchanged. In response, on July 13, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton formally suspended all exchange of prisoners between the North and the South. To continue prisoner exchange in the face of the Confederacy’s policy would be, Stanton wrote, “a substantial abandonment of the colored troops and their officers . . . a shameful dishonor to the Government bound to protect them.”

Three weeks later, on July 31, Lincoln issued a General Order stating that “For every soldier of the United States killed in violation of the laws of war a rebel soldier shall be executed, and for every one enslaved by the enemy or sold into slavery, a rebel soldier shall be placed at hard labor on the public works. . . .”  Privately, however, Lincoln had serious qualms about killing an innocent rebel soldier for the actions of Confederacy’s government. No such execution is known to have taken place.


Joseph Wheelan, Libby Prison Breakout (2010), p. 28-29.

Leave a comment

Filed under Civil War Book of Days: 1863