150 Years Ago in the Civil War
After an eventful May, major campaigns were underway in both the East and West as spring turned into summer.
Gettysburg Campaign Begins
After scoring major victories in Virginia at Fredericksburg in December and Chancellorsville in May, General Robert E. Lee decided it was time to invade the north a second time. In his first invasion back in September 1862, Lee had suffered a strategic defeat at the Battle of Antietam. Now he had about 75,000 troops in his army, as opposed to 45,000 at Antietam. On June 3rd, the campaign got underway when two of General James Longstreet’s divisions headed west from their camps south of the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg. More units followed in the next few days as Lee marched wide around the Union right flank toward Culpeper Courthouse.
Major General Joseph Hooker, commanding the Army of the Potomac across the Rappahannock from Fredericksburg, was unsure of the purpose of the Confederate movement and dispatched cavalry under Major General Alfred Pleasonton to gather information. The Union cavalry, with some supporting infantry, numbered around 11,000. The Federals split into two columns and crossed the Rappahannock at two locations, Beverly Ford and Kelly’s Ford early on June 9th. Pleasonton’s force surprised the 9,500 man cavalry of Major General J.E.B. Stuart at nearby Brandy Station. In the largest cavalry battle ever fought in North America, the two sides charged and attacked and counterattacked all day long until Pleasonton decided to withdraw at about 5 p.m.
Though Stuart claimed victory at the Battle of Brandy Station inasmuch as the Confederates held the field at the end of the day, he was criticized for being surprised and nearly beaten. Though the Federal cavalry had withdrawn, they were an even match for the formerly dominant Rebel cavalry.
Hooker began moving his army on June 12th, keeping it between Washington and the Confederates, who were heading towards the Shenandoah Valley where their movements would be screened by the Blue Ridge Mountains. Elements of Lt. General Richard Ewell’s Corps defeated Federals under Major General R. H. Milroy at Winchester, Virginia on June 14th and 15th in what was called the Second Battle of Winchester. The first Confederates crossed the Potomac River into Maryland on June 15th.
With the Rebels marching north, Pennsylvania and Maryland prepared for invasion. In Pennsylvania’s capitol of Harrisburg important government papers and records were packed up and readied to be evacuated. President Lincoln called for 100,000 militia from area states to help counter the threat. Major General Robert Rodes’ Division of Ewell’s Corps was the first Confederate unit to cross into Pennsylvania, doing so on June 22nd. Confederate forces marched though Greencastle north to Chambersburg (some as far north as Carlisle) before turning east and heading towards Greenwood, Cashtown, and Gettysburg. Hooker moved his infantry corps into Maryland and continued north while sending his cavalry ahead to locate the Confederates; he also insisted on abandoning the Federal post at Harper’s Ferry and using those troops to help repel the invasion, a request repeatedly denied by the Lincoln Administration, who felt it was strategically necessary to maintain the garrison there.
Joseph Hooker had been soundly defeated at Chancellorsville in early May, had failed to stop Lee from invading Pennsylvania or even contesting the invasion, and was denied use of the Harper’s Ferry garrison troops. Hooker asked to be relieved on June 26th, a request Lincoln accepted. Major General George Meade was named commander of the Army of the Potomac on the 27th.
Vicksburg and Port Hudson Sieges Continue
In Mississippi, General Ulysses S. Grant settled into siege operations around Vicksburg. Grant needed reinforcements to encircle the city, and thousands of Union soldiers arrived during the month from Kentucky, Missouri, and Tennessee. Federal gunboats on the Mississippi River continued to pound the besieged city. To the east, General Joseph E. Johnston was attempting to build a relief army to aid the trapped garrison, but he was reluctant to use it.
To put pressure on the Federals at Vicksburg, Confederate forces attacked three Union supply bases in Louisiana, at Young’s Point and Milliken’s Bend on June 7th and at Lake Providence on June 9th. The battle at Milliken’s Bend was the largest of the three. In that action, Brigadier General Henry E. McCulloch’s brigade of Texans attacked four newly organized and poorly trained and equipped Louisiana and Mississippi African American regiments, reinforced by the 23rd Iowa Infantry. The Texans overran the Federal defensive line, and fighting was hand to hand until the Union soldiers withdrew to a second defensive line. As the Confederates approached the second line, the Union gunboat Choctaw opened fire and stopping the Rebel advance. When the gunboat Lexington was spotted on its way to Milliken’s Bend, McCulloch retreated.
Union casualties at the Battle of Milliken’s Bend totaled 652, including 101 killed, while the Confederates had 185 total losses, including 44 dead. Despite their lack of training and second rate muskets, the black soldiers had fought tenaciously. There was much less action at Young’s Point and Lake Providence than at Milliken’s Bend, but all three Confederate attacks were failures.
On June 23rd at the Union position outside of the Confederates’ 3rd Louisiana Redan on the northeast side of the siege line, a group of 35 former coal miners began digging a tunnel under the redan. It was packed with 2200 pounds of gunpowder and detonated on June 26th, forming a huge crater. Union troops rushed in to take advantage of this breech in the lines, only to find that the Confederates had set up a defensive line to cover the breech. Federal units were brought in, fought, and were replaced as the two sides slugged it out for 26 hours. Finally, with the chances of a breakthrough gone, the troops were withdrawn from the crater. The action did not result in a Union breakthrough, but the Federals did gain control of part of the redan parapet. Federal casualties were 34 killed and 209 wounded, while the Confederates lost 21 killed and 73 wounded. This tactic of building a mine tunnel under the Confederate lines and then blowing a hole in the defenses would be done on a much larger, and much more costly scale thirteen months later at Petersburg, Virginia.
South of Vicksburg at Port Hudson, Louisiana, siege operations were also continuing. On June 14th, Major General Nathaniel Banks again launched his second assault against the Port Hudson defenses. The first one on May 27th had been a costly failure, but Banks was sure he could carry the position with his superior numbers of troops. But the June 14th assault was poorly executed, and what were supposed to have been simultaneous attacks against multiple points were instead made in piecemeal fashion. The result was one of the most lopsided defeats in the war. Federal losses were 203 killed, 1401 wounded, and 188 missing for a total of 1792. The Confederates had 22 killed and 25 wounded. The siege at Port Hudson continued, and Banks called for volunteers to train for a third assault.
As June 1863 drew to a close, the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia were closing in on each other in Pennsylvania. In the west, defenders of the last two Confederate strongholds on the Mississippi River at Vicksburg and Port Hudson were running out of food, ammunition, and everything else as siege operations continued. The stage was set for one of the most decisive and momentous months of the war in July.