Civil War Series Part 21: Lee Tries Unsuccessfully to Resign in August 1863

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By Mary Wadland

A drawing of the workings of the Spencer Repeating Carbine Rifle showing the magazine cartridge in the butt of Lincoln ordered 60,000 for Union troops.
A drawing of the workings of the Spencer Repeating Carbine Rifle showing the magazine cartridge in the butt of Lincoln ordered 60,000 for Union troops.

General Robert E Lee, the most famous Confederate general of the American Civil War offered his resignation in August 1863 after the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg in July. Lee took full responsibility for the defeat but Jefferson Davis refused his offer. While the South licked its wounds in August, Lincoln ordered new arms for the Union’s armies — 60,000 Spencer Repeating Carbines – a rifle that greatly increased the firepower of the Union’s infantry soldiers.

Celebrated Confederate spy Belle Boyd was imprisoned in DC for a third time in August 1863
Celebrated Confederate spy Belle Boyd was imprisoned in DC for a third time in August 1863

Right off the bat, on August 2, famous Confederate spy Belle Boyd, sometimes referred to as  the “Cleopatra of the Secession” was arrested for the third time and imprisoned in Washington DC. She had operated out of her father’s hotel in Front Royal, Virginia and the government attempted to prove many times she had shared important information with Confederate General Stonewall Jackson in 1862. She was eventually released and fled to England, where in 1864 she married a Union Naval officer.  She married twice more, became an actress and returned to the States where she toured telling dramatic accounts of her life as a Civil War spy. She died in 1900.

On August 2, plans were submitted to build a suitable artillery gun platform in the marshland near Charleston to enable the North to use large caliber guns against the city. However, as the city was nearly 8,000 meters from this platform, even the largest caliber guns would have been at the end of their range.

A 200-pound Parrott rifle in Fort Gregg on Morris Island, South Carolina.   Robert Parker Parrott (1804–77), an 1824 graduate of the United States Military Academy, developed a new form of rifled artillery using a cast iron barrel with a reinforcing wrought iron band around the breech. He first produced 2.9-inch (10-pounder) and 3.67-inch (20-pounder) rifles for the field artillery. He later produced four larger rifled guns that were used as siege artillery. These heavy Parrott rifles became the mainstays of the Federal siege train.
A 200-pound Parrott rifle in Fort Gregg on Morris Island, South Carolina. Robert Parker Parrott (1804–77), an 1824 graduate of the United States Military Academy, developed a new form of rifled artillery using a cast iron barrel with a reinforcing wrought iron band around the breech. He first produced 2.9-inch (10-pounder) and 3.67-inch (20-pounder) rifles for the field artillery. He later produced four larger rifled guns that were used as siege artillery. These heavy Parrott rifles became the mainstays of the Federal siege train.

The Union engineers started to build the gun platform on Morris Island to allow for the bombardment of Charleston. Logs were forced vertically down 20 feet through the mud into the sand substratum. Pine logs were then laid across these logs, which in turn were covered with 13,000 sandbags that contained 800 tons of earth. This was capable of supporting an 8-inch 200-pounder Parrott rifle. It was impossible to disguise what they were doing and the defenders of Charleston responded with strengthening the city’s defenses.

President Lincoln proclaimed August 6th as a day of thanksgiving for the recent Union victories. Businesses in the North were shut as all were encouraged to attend church services.

Robert E Lee offered his resignation on August 8th and took full responsibility for the disaster at Gettysburg. On no occasion did he try to blame a subordinate officer – a problem in the Union’s Army of the Potomac that created many divisions among senior generals who could never be totally sure who they could trust. Davis refused Lee’s offer.

President Lincoln met with abolitionist Frederick Douglas in early August to discuss back pay and the treatment of black soldiers in the Union Army.

Union gunships arrived off Charleston to give the engineers more cover from Confederate artillery attacks. In particular the 10-inch guns at Battery Wagner were proving a real concern. Battery Wagner was at the far seaward end of Morris Island and had originally been built to defend the harbor entrance into Charleston. Its guns were in easy range of the Union engineers still constructing their platform but also now very open to a naval assault by Union gunships.

450 Union soldiers managed to move the 200-pounder Parrott gun to its base at Morris Island.  It was nicknamed the “Swamp Angel”. All day, hundreds of men moved the required supplies to its base – gunpowder, shot etc.

President Lincoln himself tried out the new Spencer Repeating Carbine in mid-August. Suitably impressed, he gave it his approval. The rifle was more accurate than previous ones issued to Union troops and, correctly used, it could fire more bullets over the same period of time. The Spencer rifle was to give the North’s infantrymen a major advantage over the South’s.

During the third week of August, the “Swamp Angel” was finally ready for use. The North demanded that the South had to evacuate Battery Wagner or they would fire on Charleston.  As the South had not agreed to the North’s demands, the first shot by the “Swamp Angel” was fired at Charleston at 1:30 in the morning.. The gunners could not actually see their target but artillery officers had spent the previous day working out the necessary predicted range and angle of fire. In total, twelve shots were fired in quick succession, including four incendiary rounds.

Civil War hero General P.G.T. Beauregard tried hard to defend Charleston, but ultimately failed.
Civil War hero General P.G.T. Beauregard tried hard to defend Charleston, but ultimately failed.

The officer in command of defending Charleston, General Beauregard, wrote to the Union commander on Morris Island, General Gillmore, claiming that he was firing on innocent women and children, none of whom had been given the chance to leave the city. “You’re firing a number of the most destructive missiles ever used in war into the midst of a city taken unawares and filled with sleeping women and children will give you a bad eminence in history,” wrote Beauregard. Gillmore replied that the city had been given fair warning and that if women and children were in the city, it was the fault of the city’s commanders and not his. The issue was solved not by diplomacy but by the “Swamp Angel” itself. After firing a further 20 rounds, the breech exploded and put the gun out of use.

Fort Sumter, also built to guard Charleston, surrendered after a 7-day artillery bombardment. Hit by over 2,500 rounds, the fort was reduced to ruin. However, when the troops in the fort were seen trying to remove the remaining artillery guns, which were going to be shipped to Charleston to bolster the city’s defenses, a further 627 rounds were fired at it.

Near the end of August, around the 26th, Union troops had moved to within 250 meters of Battery Wagner, which had yet to be put out of action. However, any further movement forward was severely hampered when it became clear that the battery had been surrounded by “sub-surface torpedo mines” activated by foot pressure. However, General Beauregard believed that the fall of Battery Wagner was inevitable and planned for its evacuation.