150 Years Ago This Week: Gen. Lee offers to resign

August, 1863

August, 1863 saw the beginning of a relatively quiet month in all theaters of the war. In the east, Federal forces began gathering outside of Charleston Harbor in South Carolina for another assault on Fort Wagner and Fort Sumter.

In the west, the U.S. War Department disbanded the Fourth and the Seventh Army Corps, and Rear Adm. David D. Porter assumed naval command of the Mississippi River, where Union forces were fired on by Confederate raiders. Adm. Porter favored legal river trade.

The same day, Confederate spy Belle Boyd, who had advised Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson the year before of Federal troops in Front Royal, Va., was arrested at her home in Martinsburg, W. Va. and put into the Old Capitol Prison in Washington.

The Confederate steamer Chesterfield was attacked on Aug. 2 by Federal troops in Charleston Harbor near Morris Island. President Jefferson Davis wrote to Gen. Robert E. Lee about the problems of returning stragglers to the Army: “It is painful to contemplate our weakness when you ask for reinforcements.” In Mississippi, the Ninth Army Corps left Vicksburg on Aug. 3 for service in Kentucky.

Gov. Horatio Seymour of New York, mindful of the destruction and deaths in the July draft riots in New York City, asked President Lincoln to suspend the draft in his state. On Tuesday, Aug. 4, shortly after Union cavalry under Gen. George Custer left Amissville for Warrenton, there was a brief fight about a mile west of the village (near the present day intersection of Seven Ponds Road and Lee Highway) between roaming cavalry patrols of both sides.

Union forces continued their bombardment of Fort Wagner in Charleston Harbor, and prepared to bring up a huge 200-pound Parrott cannon, dubbed the Swamp Angel and which fired incendiary shells, for future operations against the city. Confederate troops, meanwhile, strengthened their defenses of Fort Sumter and Fort Wagner. The USS Commodore Barney was several damaged by a Confederate electric torpedo.

The North observed a day of thanksgiving for the recent victories on Thursday, Aug. 6; churches held services and in many places business was suspended. President Lincoln wrote to Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks in Louisiana regarding the state of affairs there: “For my own part I think I shall not, in any event, retract the emancipation proclamation; nor, as executive, ever return to slavery any person who is made free by the terms of the proclamation, or by any of the acts of the Congress.”

Near Fairfax Courthouse, Confederate partisans under Maj. John S. Mosby captured a Union wagon train. On the shores of Table Bay at the Cape of Good Hope, at the southern tip of the African continent, cheering crowds watched the Confederate raider CSS Alabama capture the merchant vessel Sea Bark. President Davis wrote the same day to Gov. Milledge Bonham of South Carolina: “I will do all possible for the safety and relief of Charleston, which we pray will never be polluted by the footsteps of a lustful, relentless, inhuman foe.”

Gov. Seymour of New York received word from President Lincoln on Aug. 7 that he would not suspend the draft in New York. “My purpose is to be, in my action, just and constitutional; and yet practical, in performing the important duty, with which I am charged, of maintaining the unity, and the free principles of our common country.”

The next day, with his health and a semblance of depression influencing his request, Gen. Robert E. Lee tendered his resignation as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia to President Davis. “I am acutely aware,” he wrote, “of the discontent resulting from the failure of my Army in the recent campaign in Pennsylvania, and I, therefore, in all sincerity, request your Excellency to take the measures to supply my replacement.” President Davis, on receipt of the letter three days later, rejected his general’s request, saying “our country can ill-afford to lose you.”

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.