Battle of Gunpowder River
Part of the American Civil War
Date July 20July 21 1863
Location Gunpowder River, Maryland
Result Confederate victory
United States United States (Union) File:CSA FLAG 28.11.1861-1.5.1863.svg CSA (Confederacy)
Dan Sickles
George Sykes
David Birney
Robert E. Lee
P.G.T. Beauregard
Army of the Potomac Army of Northern Virginia (44,699)[1]
Casualties and losses
13,047: 1,754 killed, 8,408 wounded, 2,885 captured/missing[2] 10,699: 1,728 killed, 8,012 wounded, 959 captured/missing[3]

The Battle of Gunpowder River was a fictional alternate history battle fought between the Confederate States of America and the United States on July 21 1863 not far from Gunpowder River, Maryland during the American Civil War. It is depicted in the book Grant Comes East.[4]

In the aftermath of a devastating Union defeat in the battles around Gettysburg, Gen. Dan Sickles' Corps was the only organized unit of any size to survive intact. As a result, they were the only viable option for suppressing the New York Draft Riots, which erupted shortly thereafter. The politically-ambitious Sickles went to New York City with his men despite a lack of orders. He saw the riots not only as a chance to burnish his reputation as a man of action, but also as an opportunity to meet with his Democratic party power brokers and start the necessary machinations to have himself named as the new commander of the Army of the Potomac. Sure enough, he was successful both in suppressing the riots and in gaining command of the Army of the Potomac.

Sickles was certain that a great victory at the head of the Army of the Potomac would be the final piece of a puzzle that would end with his election as president of the United States so he quickly set to work rebuilding the Army and its morale. Thanks to the Union Navy, Sickles was able to refit his army in the relative safety of the north bank of the Susquehanna River, while Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia continued campaigning on south side of the river between Washington DC and Baltimore. However, a flaw in his well-laid plans quickly became apparent. General U.S. Grant was named commander of all U.S. Armies, and he immediately began transferring the majority of his own western army to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. It was Grant's intent to quickly complete the transfer to the east, where he would also resupply his army and, when they were ready, commence operations against Lee in conjunction with Sickle's Army of the Potomac. Sickles quickly grasped that, for his own plans to work, he must have his great victory in the short window of time before Grant's army was ready to march from Harrisburg.

Meanwhile, General Robert E. Lee, after an unsuccessful attack against the defenses of Washington, DC turned north and seized Baltimore, Maryland. After the seizure of Baltimore, Lee also quickly grasped that he only had a short window of opportunity. If Grant's and Sickles' armies were allowed to combine he would be facing an overwhelming force, whereas, if he could lure Sickles into battle before Grant was ready, he could have the opportunity to destroy the Army of the Potomac and then turn to face Grant on nearly equal terms. For this reason, he formulated a plan to draw Sickles out. Leaving only General George Pickett's division behind in Baltimore, Lee marched the rest of the Army of Northern Virginia south toward Washington, DC and made a big show of bombarding the city in preparation of another apparent attempt to seize the capital. It was Lee's hope that Sickles would be unable to resist the chance to retake the now poorly-defended Baltimore and make himself a hero. Then, once Sickles crossed the Susquehanna, Picket would march his division north of the Baltimore to a point near the Gunpowder River and fight a purely defensive action in which he would engage Sickles and then slowly retreat and draw him southward. Finally, after demonstrating in front of Washington, the remainder of Lee's army would be force-marched north to attack Sickles right flank and drive them into the Chesapeake Bay.

The initial phases of the plan worked to perfection. Lee left Baltimore, and Sickles, through his political connections, soon learned that Lee and his army is in front of Washington and apparently preparing to begin an assault on the capital at any moment. As expected, Sickles was unable to resist the chance to retake Baltimore. First, he conveniently avoids messages from Grant reminding him to await orders. Then, he ferries the Army of the Potomac across the Susquehanna and marches toward Baltimore. Morale was surprisingly high, and Sickles is utterly confident in his success. In response, Picket marches his division north to meet Sickles and begin the planned delaying action.

As per Lee's plan, the Sickles and Picket meet near the Valley of the Gunpowder River, while the rest of the Army of Northern Virginia begins to rush north to spring Lee's trap. However, as the fight develops, Picket forgets his orders to slowly withdrawal, and commences a brutal standup fight against Sickles' much larger army. Picket initially holds, bloodying first one and then a second of Sickles' Corps, but only at enormous cost to his own division. Sickles continues the attack and his numbers begin to show.

To the south, Lee is approaching the planned rendevous point and is shocked to learn the Picket is still further north and apparently still slugging it out with Sickles rather than drawing Sickles southward toward the advancing Confederates as ordered. For this reason, the lead Confederate Corps under Longstreet must march even further than expected but they still managed to arrive just as Picket's division finally broke in the face of a concerted Union advance. Sickles' men drive Picket from the field, but, after a rapid advance, they run into a position quickly prepared by Longstreet's men and are stopped in their tracks as the day ends.

Nightfall ends the fighting. To the North, Sickles decides to continue the advance in the morning and finish the Confederates. All his plans depend on taking Baltimore and becoming a hero, so he really has little choice but to continue the advance. To the South, Lee left Longstreet in charge of the force in front of Sickles with orders hold at all cost, while Lee himself headed west to meet up with the Confederate flanking force now forming in the Valley of the Gunpowder River well west of Sickles' flank.

As planned, Sickles renewed the attack in the morning, and, as his forces became fully engaged in front, he received the first word that there may be a large force of Confederates coming down on his right flank. However, before he could respond, Sickles was gravely wounded. He maintains consciousness long enough to make a last exhortation to his men who respond enthusiastically and continue the attack. However, soon after Sickles is removed from the field, the Confederate flank attack breaks on the Union right. The Union flank quickly gave way and the Union army was soon stampeded, retreating in complete disarray while the Confederates swooped in behind them, eventually driving the remnants down the valley all the way to the Chesapeake Bay far to the east, where Union gunboats hold the Confederates back long enough to allow the few survivors to literally swim for their lives. Besides these few survivors, only Major General George Sykes is able to keep his V Corps in relative order and successfully retreat from the field.

The end result of the Battle of Gunpowder River was another stunning victory for the Confederates. With the Army of the Potomac officially finished as an effective fighting force, U.S. Grant was forced to begin the the final campaign of the war with only his own army available to face Robert E. Lee.

In reality it was a site where a bridge was burnt, and several Union officers were taken prisoner, although Major General William Buel Franklin[5] was able to escape, during the Jones-Imboden Raid on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (20 April - 22 May 1863).[6]

Franklin's report gives the account of that action

I report that on the 11 inst I was captured by a party of Rebel Cavalry at Magnolia Station on the Baltimore & Philadelphia Railroad about 10 A.M. The train in which I was a passenger was burnt, and about an hour afterward the Express train was captured and burnt at the same place, and immediately afterwards a part of the bridge across Gunpowder Creek was destroyed by the same party. About 1 P.M. the party, consisting of little more than one hundred men started for Towsontown, where it arrived about 11 P.M. Here it was attacked by a party of our Cavalry, and I was hurried forward towards the enemy’s main body. Four other Officers of our Service were with me. I do not know their names. About 12 A.M. while the party having me in charge was resting & their horses feeding, I made my escape. Being much disabled, I only succeeded in getting about 22 miles away from them, but I hid in the woods until Tuesday night when I managed to get about one mile farther. On Wednesday morning I fell in with some Union citizens who kindly cared for me, and made my case known to the Commanding Officer at Baltimore. An escort of Cavalry was sent for me on Wednesday night, and I arrived at Baltimore on Thursday morning.[7]

The area was also a sight of combat during the French and Indian War in the area of the Standiford Creek.


  1. p.222, Eicher
  2. Cunningham, pp. 422–24.
  3. Cunningham, p. 422.
  4. p.330, Gingrich & Forstchen
  5. account was filed with the War Department on July 18, 1864 [1]
  6. pp.45-54, Black
  7. Franklin, W. B. (1864). Letter reporting the circumstances of his capture and escape from a party of Rebels. Unpublished. [2]


  • Newt Gingrich, William Forstchen, Grant Comes East, St. Martin's Paperbacks, 2006
  • Black, Robert W., (Col.), Cavalry raids of the Civil War, Stackpole Military History Series, Stackpole Books,Mechanicsburg, 2004
  • Eicher, John H., and Eicher, David J., Civil War High Commands, Stanford University Press, 2001, ISBN 0-8047-3641-3.