Union Victories at Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Port Hudson; Assault on Fort Wagner: July 1863


July 1863  in the Civil War

The Union Armies chalked up significant victories as three major campaigns concluded in July 1863. These overshadowed several other smaller, but still significant events in this pivotal month in the Civil War.

Battle of Gettysburg

The Battle of Gettysburg began early in the morning of July 1st. Marching east on the Chambersburg Pike,  Major General Henry Heth’s Division of Lt. Gen.  A.P. Hill’s Corps encountered two brigades of Brig. Gen. John Buford’s cavalry division northwest of town.  Buford’s dismounted cavalrymen fought an effective delaying action against Heth, buying time for Union infantry to arrive. The Union 1st Corps was the first to arrive on the scene and had initial success in slowing the Confederate advance. Major General John Reynolds, the 1st Corps commander and one of the better corps commanders in the Army of the Potomac, was killed leading his men forward. The 11th Corps arrived next and set up a defensive perimeter to the north.

With his army spread out, General Robert E. Lee had not intended to fight a general engagement at this point, but changed his plans and ordered Hill and Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell to attack. Ewell, on the north, attacked the 11th Corps, and overran the 11th’s poorly deployed  right flank. The 11th Corps was routed and retreated in disorder south through Gettysburg to Cemetery Hill. With the 11th Corps gone, and more and more Confederates pouring in from both the west and north, the 1st Corps also retreated.

Bufords’ cavalry had bought valuable time for the first infantry units to arrive, which in turn delayed the Confederates long enough for more of the Army of the Potomac to arrive and set up a strong defensive position on favorable, high ground  in a curved line running from Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill south along Cemetery Ridge to two hills called Big and Little Round Top.   The bulk of the Confederate force was deployed on Seminary Ridge a mile or so west of the Union position.

On July 2nd, Lee ordered an attack on the Union flanks. Prior to the attack, the Union 3rd Corps commander, Major General Dan Sickles, ordered his corps forward about a half mile from its position on the southern end of Cemetery Ridge. Sickles had acted without orders and his redeployment not only placed his corps in a vulnerable position, it also left the Round Tops  (on the far end of the Union left) undefended. Brig. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren, the Army of the Potomac’s Chief Engineer, recognized the threat to the Union left flank if the Confederates took control of the Round Tops and ordered infantry and artillery to the defense of Little Round Top.  The 3rd Corps fought stubbornly and was driven back to Cemetery Ridge, but the Union left held thanks to a successful defense of Little Round Top. A smaller Confederate attack on the Union right on Cemetery and Culp’s Hills was also thwarted, and despite massive casualties on both sides, little ground had changed hands on the second day of fighting.

Lee decided to make one last all or nothing attack the next day against the center of the Union lines on Cemetery Ridge. Major General George E. Pickett’s Division of General James Longstreet’s Corps had not yet been engaged at Gettysburg and would lead the assault.  Pickett’s Division would be joined by several brigades from A.P. Hill’s Corps. To take some of the pressure off, Ewell’s Corps would attack the Union right at Culp’s Hill  and General J.E.B. Stuart would swing his cavalry around to the east and into the Union rear. The assault would be preceded by a massive artillery barrage from 150 cannon. Longstreet was assigned overall command of the assault, though he was strongly against the operation.

To succeed, these actions would need to be coordinated, but the Union 12th Corps upset the timetable by attacking Ewell at Culp’s Hill at dawn to retake ground lost the day before.  Fighting continued for seven hours until the Federals successfully took back the ground, but it ended before the assault on the center commenced. Stuart’s cavalry was also stopped by Union cavalry and artillery three miles to the east of Gettysburg.

A little after 1 p.m., the Confederate artillery bombardment began. Union guns responded and the two sides blasted away at each other for about two hours. Then, the mile long line of Confederate infantrymen stepped off and began advancing toward the Federal positions on Cemetery Ridge, about a mile away. Waiting for them were behind a stone wall on the Ridge was the Union 2nd Corps of Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, plus some units from the 1st Corps.

As the Confederates closed in, Union artillery fire resumed, tearing holes in the Rebel lines. The advance was further slowed by fences lining both sides of the Emmitsburg Road. Union infantry opened fire as the Rebels climbed the fences knocking still more men out of the ranks, but on they came, finally reaching the stone wall. Brig. Gen. Lewis Armistead led some of his men over the wall, and the two sides exchanged fire at point blank range and fought hand to hand.  Armistead fell mortally wounded. Union regiments behind the wall were moved as needed to counter the Confederate attack, and Federal units also redeployed and fired into the Rebel flanks. The attack, popularly known as Pickett’s Charge, was repulsed, the Confederates retreated to Seminary Ridge, and the Battle of Gettysburg was over. It had cost both sides a total of 51,000  casualties, about 28,000 of which were Confederate losses.

Lee began his retreat back to Virginia on July 4th. Meade played it safe and did not mount a serious pursuit, and the Army of Northern Virginia made it back across the Potomac to fight another day. Still, it was a huge victory for the Union, and Lee never attempted another large scale invasion of the North.

Surrender at Vicksburg and Port Hudson

While Lee’s army was retreating on July 4th, Major General Ulysses S. Grant accepted the surrender of the Confederate forces defending Vicksburg, Mississippi. The city had been under siege for six weeks and with food running out and the hoped for relief  by General Joseph Johnston’s army not happening, Lt. General John C. Pemberton had few options other than to surrender.

With Vicksburg in Union hands, Port Hudson, Louisiana was the last Confederate garrison left on the Mississippi River. When word of the surrender of Vicksburg reached Port Hudson, Major General Franklin Gardner saw his situation as hopeless and formally surrendered his forces on July 9th. In less than 10 days, three major campaigns had come to a close and all three were Union victories.

The Union was victorious in some actions in the trans-Mississippi as well. On July 4th, Confederates under Lt. Gen. Theophilus Holmes attacked Federals under Major General Benjamin Prentiss at Helena, Arkansas, but were soundly defeated.  Further west in Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma), Major General James G. Blunt’s Federals defeated Brig. Gen. Douglas Cooper’s Confederates at the Battle of Honey Springs on July 17th. This action involved about 3000 troops on each side and was the largest battle in the Territory in the war. White, African American, and Native American regiments fought on the Federal side while white and Native American troops fought for the Confederacy.

Assaults on Fort Wagner

On July 10th, Union troops landed on Morris Island, South Carolina near Charleston.  Fort Wagner, a sand and log fort with a 1700 man garrison and14 cannon, was a part of the defenses of Charleston Harbor. With support from Naval gunfire, the Federals launched an unsuccessful assault on the fort on July 11th.

On July 18th, the Federals tried another, larger  assault. Leading the way this time was the newly arrived 54th Massachusetts Infantry, one of the first African American regiments raised since the Emancipation Proclamation. The 54th, and the all white regiments from New England, New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio that followed suffered terrible losses but failed to take the fort.  The overall Union commander, Major General Quincy Gilmore, decide the position could not be taken by storm and changed to siege tactics. African American troops had fought a few engagements by this stage of the war, but the assault on Fort Wagner was the highest profile event yet for the black troops. Their bravery had not gone unnoticed as they showed the skeptics that black soldiers would indeed fight.

New York City Draft Riots

On July 11th, officials in New York City drew the first names in the new, and in many places unpopular Federal draft to replenish the army. Two days later, mobs began attacking draft offices and Federal officials, beginning four days of violent rioting.

Many of the rioters were working class, unskilled laborers, often Irish or of Irish descent who wanted no part of a war for emancipation of blacks, who were seen as competitors for their jobs. Their ire spread from the draft officials to African Americans;  their homes and businesses were attacked and destroyed and at least 11 blacks were killed, some of whom were lynched by the mobs.  White businesses and businessmen who employed blacks were also attacked, as were abolitionists and the offices of newspapers that supported the war. Henry Raymond, founder of the New York Times, managed to borrow three Gatling Guns (invented just a year earlier and not yet in general use) from the army to defend his offices. The Colored Orphanage and Asylum was burned to the ground in one of the many fires set by the rioters.

The New York police did what they could but were overwhelmed by the sheer size of the mobs and the War Department ordered troops from Gettysburg and state militia units that had been sent to Pennsylvania to deal with Lee’s invasion to go to New York. Arriving on July 15th and 16th, the army went into action and restored order. Exact numbers are unknown but the accepted best estimates are that between 105 and 120 were killed in the riots with thousands injured.

The draft in New York was temporarily suspended, but resumed on August 19th. This time, the government had 20,000 soldiers on hand to keep the peace. There was resistance to the draft in other cities, but nothing like what had occurred in Manhattan in mid July.

Capture of  John Hunt Morgan

On July 26th, General John Hunt Morgan and 364 Confederate cavalry men surrendered near Salineville, Ohio after a month long raid through Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio. Morgan’s raiders burned bridges and rail cars, captured food, horses, and other goods, ransomed towns and stole money. They fought several small engagements along the way, including one at Corydon, Indiana, the only battle of the Civil War fought in that state.

After he was captured, Morgan was taken to the Ohio State Penitentiary at Columbus.  He escaped on November 27th, made his way to the south, and returned to duty.

The Union had won significant victories in July. The Confederacy was spit in half now that the Federals had control of the Mississippi River, and Lee’s invasion had been decisively stopped at Gettysburg. While there was hope for victory in the North, and despair over these significant setbacks in the south, there was still a lot of fighting ahead.

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