150 Years Ago This Week: Twin disasters for the Confederacy

July 1863

After three days of heavy fighting in the fields, hills and rocks around Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, Gen. Robert E. Lee’s battlefield successes on the first two days were dashed following Maj. Gen. George Pickett’s unsuccessful frontal assault on the third day – one of the most intensive artillery bombardments ever; over 100 guns fired for at least two hours, trying to “soften” the Union lines a mile or so across the open fields from the Confederate lines.

In a blinding rainstorm on July 4, Gen. Lee began moving the shattered remnants of his army south toward the Potomac River and Virginia. Of the 75,000 troops who arrived at Gettysburg, Gen. Lee left behind 2,500 killed, 12,700 wounded and about 5,100 missing or captured. Maj. Gen. George Meade’s 85,000 Federal troops sustained casualties of almost 3,200, with more than 14,500 wounded and almost 5,400 missing or captured.

Included in the casualty lists on both sides were a substantial number of generals and others in command positions. Part of Gen. Lee’s failure to assess the battlefield and the numbers of opposing troops could be placed on the absence of his cavalry until the second day of the battle. When Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart finally reported to headquarters, Gen. Lee contained his anger and frustration and simply said, “Well, Gen. Stuart, you are here.”

Gen. Stuart did not need to be told of his commander’s disappointment. There was work to be done on the battle’s third day, and Gen. Lee did not belabor the point. In the end, the South’s hope of bringing the war to the North was over.

A thousand miles away, Maj. Gen. Ulysses Grant’s pressure on the city of Vicksburg, Miss., had completely worn down the Confederate defenders under Lt. Gen. John Pemberton, who proposed to surrender to Gen. Grant on July 4. Gen. Pemberton was sharply criticized in the South for not only surrendering the city, but for asking for terms on Independence Day. Gen. Pemberton, a Pennsylvanian by birth who had cast his lot with the Confederacy, said simply, “I know those people [the Union army] and I knew I could get the best terms of surrender on the Fourth of July.”

With the fall of Vicksburg, the Mississippi River was cleared of all Confederate military forces. When he heard that Vicksburg had been taken, President Lincoln said, “The Father of Waters now goes unvexed to the sea.” Another consequence of the loss of Vicksburg and Confederate forces was that the Confederacy was now split in half, with the Trans-Mississippi theatre of operations hampered in the way of supplies, troops and equipment.

The siege at Port Hudson, La., continued until July 8, when Maj. Gen. Franklin Gardner asked Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks for terms of surrender. The Southerners held out as long as they could, and 7,000 Confederates surrendered. To the north, in Kentucky, there was much excitement as Confederate cavalry under Brig. Gen. John Hunt Morgan crossed the Ohio River into Indiana, taking the war into the northern Midwest states.

The Union Conscription Act took effect on July 9, and was met with discontent throughout the North, especially in New York, where citizens rallied against the compulsory draft. The next day, Union troops laid siege to Fort Wagner in Charleston Harbor, S.C. Ft. Wagner was one of the main defenses of Charleston, and the first attack on the fort occurred on July 10. The Federal troops under Maj. Gen. Quincy Gillmore withdrew under heavy Confederate fire from the fort.

In Indiana, Gen. Morgan’s cavalry skirmished at Salem before turning east toward Ohio. In Mississippi, Maj. Gen. William Sherman’s troops (now freed from duty at Vicksburg) moved toward the state capital at Jackson, where Gen. Joseph E. Johnston’s army was positioned. Facing stiff Federal opposition to Confederate troops at Chattanooga, Jackson and Charleston, along with losses at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, President Jefferson Davis was writing to his commanders in the field that the concentration of all forces might reverse the recent disasters in the field.

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Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 193 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.