This Week in the Civil War

This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, July 21: Union pursuit of Lee’s retreating fighters into Virginia.

Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, his bloodied forces retreating after their defeat at Gettysburg, was confronted by harassing Union forces that pursued his columns this week in July 1863. Now some weeks after failure to carry out his second invasion of the North, Lee’s fighters have returned back over the Potomac River, withdrawing into the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. There, a group of Union fighters under Maj. Gen. William H. French began attacking Confederate columns near Manassas Gap — at Wapping Heights — as they withdrew into the Virginia countryside on July 23, 1863. The Union onslaught opened robustly but Confederate artillery pulled up and began firing back, hindering the federal fighters. The Union’s badly organized attacks had to be halted by nightfall and Confederate fighters move safely beyond the reach of their Union pursuers during the early morning hours of July 24, 1864. President Abraham Lincoln had urged Union forces to urgently pursue and destroy the enemy after the federal victory at Gettysburg. But because Confederate fighters were able to escape to safety, they would be able to reorganize and fight another day — setting the stage for many more months of combat ahead.

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This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, July 28: Confederates regroup after Gettysburg.

Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee wrote this week 150 years ago in the Civil War to the president of the Confederacy as his battered army continued its recovery from defeat at Gettysburg. Both North and South had experienced heavy bloodletting in the fight and were bidding to regroup after what would turn out to be the pivotal battle of the war. In a letter dated July 31, 1863, Lee told Confederate President Jefferson Davis that the adverse turn of events at Gettysburg for the South cannot be blamed on anyone but himself. “No blame can be attached to the army for its failure to accomplish what was projected by me, nor should it be censured for the unreasonable expectations of the public. I am alone to blame, in perhaps expecting too much of its prowess & valour,” Lee wrote Davis. In the same letter, Lee added: “Our loss has been heavy, that of the enemy’s proportionally so.” And he concluded that his plan could have worked if all the elements of his war strategy had come together as expected: I still think if all things could have worked together it would have been accomplished.” Many letters were going back and forth between Davis and Lee at this point in the war, with Davis at the time promising to rapidly furnish more fighters for the badly depleted Army of Northern Virginia.

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This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, Aug. 4: Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee offers to resign.

Barely a month after his army’s defeat at Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee offered to resign 150 years ago this week in the Civil War. Lee, whose military leadership was being questioned after the heavy casualties at Gettysburg, was under the spotlight of trenchant criticism in Southern newspapers. Lee only recently had said he alone shouldered any blame for the defeat — that in a letter days earlier to Confederate President Jefferson Davis. On Aug. 8, 1863, Lee again wrote Davis, this time offering to resign. “I have been prompted by these reflections more than once since my return from Pennsylvania to propose to Your Excellency the propriety of selecting another commander for this army. I have seen and heard of expression of discontent in the public journals at the result of the expedition. I do not know how far this feeling extends in the army … I, therefore, in all sincerity, request Your Excellency to take measures to supply my place.” Davis declined to accept the offer. In fact, Davis responded that he could find no other “more fit to command” and a general who also had the confidence of his troops.

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This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, Aug. 11: shelling near Fort Sumter, S.C., Confederate sub to Charleston.

Federal forces continued to lay siege to Confederate forces holding defensive positions in South Carolina’s Charleston harbor area. From late July of 1863 until early September of that year, Union forces were intent on reducing Confederate fighters defending Charleston — where the Civil War broke out at federally-held Fort Sumter in 1861. The prolonged federal siege began after a failed assault July 18, 1863, on Confederate defenses at Fort Wagner — led by a courageous black regiment which suffered heavy loss of life. It would not be until Sept. 7, 1863, that Confederate foes would abandon Fort Wagner when their position there became untenable. This week 150 years ago in the Civil War, the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley arrived by train at Charleston after its construction in Mobile, Ala. It was billed as the world’s first successful submarine and seen as a secret weapon for the South in fighting Abraham Lincoln’s wartime blockade of Southern seaports.

This series marking the 150th anniversary of the Civil War draws primarily from wartime dispatches credited to The Associated Press or other accounts distributed through the AP and other historical sources.

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