Had the Union army decided to pursue the retreating Confederates immediately and in large numbers, they almost certainly would have destroyed Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia--had they caught up to them before crossing the Potomac River. However, Lee's army was still looking for a fight, and they dug into defensive positions on Seminary Ridge shortly after the debacle of Pickett's Charge on the evening of July 3, hoping (or merely expecting) for a Union frontal assault. The Confederates still had "plenty canister left," as Longstreet is reminded in the next-to-last chapter of the novel. The two armies "licked their wounds" on July 4 before Lee decided to retreat that night. Lee knew that Union General George Meade was overly cautious; Meade had wished to give up the field and retreat before Pickett's Charge, but he was overruled by a unanimous vote of his corps commanders. Meade did pursue Lee timidly, primarily with cavalry, before his infantry finally caught up with the Confederates, resulting in the Battle of Falling Waters (Williamsport, Maryland) on July 14, in which Pickett's Charge division commander General J. J. Pettigrew was killed.
Both armies had suffered terrific casualties--about 23,000 men each--and Meade believed his men needed to rest rather than mount another major offensive. Meade, who "outgeneraled" Lee during the Gettysburg campaign, also knew that the Army of the Potomac--which, like Lee's army, had also undergone radical changes in leadership in the days leading up to the battle--needed to regroup. But Meade was heavily criticized for not "destroying" Lee's army, just as General George McClellan was for not finishing Lee off after the Battle of Antietam. President Abraham Lincoln believed that
"... if Gen. Meade can complete his work so gloriously prosecuted thus far, by the literal or substantial destruction of Lee's army, the rebellion will be over."
The North celebrated the great victory, but Washington politicians were not satisfied.
Lincoln complained to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles that "Our army held the war in the hollow of their hand and they would not close it!" Brig. Gen. Alexander S. Webb wrote to his father on July 17, stating that such Washington politicians as "Chase, Seward and others," disgusted with Meade, "write to me that Lee really won that Battle!"