150 Years Ago This Week: David takes on Goliath

October, 1863

Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler and his Confederate cavalry raided the countryside around Chattanooga as October of 1863 opened, worsening the siege of the city where Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans and his Union Army of the Cumberland were entrenched.

The food situation for man and beast was becoming very serious; draft mules died by the hundreds, while artillery and cavalry horses were weakened. The soldiers in blue were reduced to scavenging the dust on the ground for grains of corn dropped by the horses.

In Charleston Harbor, S.C., on Oct. 5, the bombardment against Ft. Sumter continued in earnest, with 560 rounds fired against the crumbling fortress. At 10 p.m. that hazy night, in an effort to break through the Union blockade at Charleston, a cigar-shaped, steam-driven vessel, barely visible above the waterline, moved out of Charleston Harbor toward the Federal fleet.

Approaching the formidable Union ironclad New Ironsides, the torpedo boat David, commanded by Comm. William T. Glassell, C.S. Navy, and with a four-man crew, thrust her torpedo at the side of the Federal warship.

There was a tremendous blast and a fountain of water, causing surprise and consternation aboard the New Ironsides. In their nearly-swamped vessel, the Confederate crew fought for their lives in an effort to remain afloat. New Ironsides suffered considerable damage from the torpedo, but remained afloat. Comm. Glassell and one crewman were captured but the other crew members managed to rekindle the fires in the boiler and bring David back to Charleston.

With additional Union troops moving toward Chattanooga to reinforce Gen. Rosecrans’ army and break the siege, a number of engagements and skirmishes took place all over central and eastern Tennessee. In Missouri, Maj. Gen. Joseph “Jo” Shelby’s Confederate cavalry was busy fighting Union troops near Humansville, Greenfield and Stockton.

President Jefferson Davis left Richmond on Tuesday, Oct. 6, for a trip to South Carolina, with plans to visit Gen. Bragg near Chattanooga and north Georgia. The president hoped to “be serviceable in harmonizing some of the difficulties with Gen. Bragg’s subordinates.”

On Oct. 7, Union signalmen in Culpeper County observed unusual movements in Gen. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia along the Rapidan River. Several small clashes took place at Utz’s and Mitchell’s fords on the Rapidan as Union troops probed the Confederate outposts. Something was up.

On the Red River in Texas, U.S. Navy men burned two steamers, and in Washington, President Lincoln sent a wire to Military Governor Andrew Johnson in Tennessee: “What news have you of Rosecrans’ army?”

Two days later, Gen. Lee’s army was on the move. Crossing the Rapidan River, the Army of Northern Virginia was moving again, in what was later determined to be an effort to turn the right flank of Maj. Gen. George Meade’s Army of the Potomac and move on Washington. Gen. Lee was attempting to use the depleted condition of Gen. Meade’s army (having sent troops to Tennessee to reinforce Gen. Rosecrans at Chattanooga) and to prevent any further movement to the west. Regardless, the Union army still outnumbered Gen. Lee’s Confederates by a considerable ratio.

President Davis reached Atlanta on Oct. 8 and traveled northwest to meet Gen. Bragg. In Atlanta and in Marietta, President Davis praised Georgia’s war efforts, highlighting the patriotism of Georgian regiments; his remarks were met with cheers. In Tennessee, on Friday, Oct. 9, Gen. Wheeler concluded his cavalry raids against Federal communications between Nashville and Chattanooga, and crossed the Tennessee River into Alabama at Muscle Shoals.

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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.