The American Civil War 150th Anniversary – January 1-6, 1863

Here is a look at events in the Civil War this week in January 1863. But first . . .

General Burnside and staff officers in November 1862.  (Library of Congress)

General Burnside and staff officers in November 1862. (Library of Congress)

The Starting Gate

In the vicinity of Fredericksburg, Virginia, the US Army of the Potomac and the CS Army of Northern Virginia are still facing off, while General Burnside is in Washington, summoned because reports have reached President Lincoln that the army lacks confidence in Burnside and is in no shape to undertake the new offensive the general has planned against Lee’s army. (7)

Braxton Bragg before the Civil War.  (Source)

Braxton Bragg before the Civil War. (Source)

Along Stones River, near Murfreesboro, Tennessee, per McPherson, CS General Bragg has sent a telegram to President Davis, declaring that the Yankees are “falling back” after Confederate successes in battle on December 31st. However much elation this causes in Richmond, US General Rosecrans at Stones River has spent New Year’s Eve in council, unwilling to give up just yet.

CS General John Hunt Morgan’s second cavalry raid into Kentucky is drawing to a successful close, while General Nathan Bedford Forrest and his cavalry are resting in Middle Tennessee. (2, 4)

In the vicinity of Vicksburg, Mississippi, General Grant is taking command of a renewed army-navy campaign, though continual winter rains make it impossible for his army to move, and his 45,000 men are getting sick as they maneuver in the swamps and along seemingly endless rivers, unable to reach the solid high ground. (3)

Transportation scene along the Ohio River at Cairo during the war.  (Library of Congress)

Transportation scene along the Ohio River at Cairo during the war. (Library of Congress)

The North desperately needs an open Mississippi River in order to avoid a political disaster in the Northwest (this actually is what we think of today as part of the Midwest: Ohio, Indiana and Illinois). Many of these people – sometimes called Butternuts – hail from the South and support the Confederacy, and are now suffering major economic dislocations from the need to rely on Eastern transportation networks to sell their goods. (3, 10)

Disaffection in the Northwest, as well the many Union military setbacks during 1862, certainly helped the so-called Peace Democrats (labeled Copperheads by the Republicans) make recent gains in the US House of Representatives, although ironically, their leader, Clement Vallandigham has lost his seat there, thanks to Republican gerrymandering of Ohio districts. (3)

A journalist writing of these days, 10 years later, won’t mention the Democrats, some of whom are now openly wearing little badges of copper in public. (I think that’s telling, in that emotional wounds take the longest to heal, if they ever do, and people everywhere are having their loyalties tested in early 1863 and their accepted world views challenged just about every time they read or hear the latest news.)

It is indeed “a season of deep depression” for the North.

My first interview with Mr. Lincoln was early in January, 1863. It was a
season of deep depression in loyal Washington circles, owing to recent reverses
of the Union arms. We had well-nigh forgotten the splendors of Grant’s
early campaigns, in our impatience with the slowness of his later operations;
we had lost faith in McClellan, finally, after the escape of Lee back into Virginia,
out of our very clutches at Antietam; and the dismal December that
brought us the cruel disaster at Fredericksburg had closed feverishly with the
beginning of a great battle in Tennessee, the details of which the public found
it impossible to obtain. The new year opened with a feeling of wild anx-
iety in regard to the fate of Rosecrans and his army in the encounter we
knew he had forced with Bragg on the banks of Stone river. Since it had
gallantly marched forth from Nashville to meet the advancing enemy, the
Army of the Cumberland had been the immediate subject of our hopes and
fears; and though the Government had permitted us to know that the hostile
hosts had sustained the first shock of an encounter, it had, beyond this preg-
nant announcement, maintained an impenetrable and ominous silence. Sun-
day, January 4, was a day of intense solicitude to the public, as it was mor-
ally certain that the great battle had then been fought to the end; and on
the evening of that day, moved by special motives, and using influences not
necessary to be named, I obtained an interview with the President for the
purpose of ascertaining as much as possible of the truth.

. . .

After a brief interchange of commonplaces, I stated my precise errand, and
could scarcely credit my senses when he told me that the Government was
no better informed than the public in regard to the result at Stone river.
I was prepared for any answer but this ; for good news or bad news, or
a refusal to give any answer at all; for anything but ignorance. It did not
seem possible that a contest of the magnitude of this could have raged
for days in a region of railways and telegraphs, and the Government be
uninformed as to the issue.

–J. M. Winchell, “Three Interviews With President Lincoln,” in The Galaxy, July 1873.

In this setting, President Lincoln releases the Emancipation Proclamation.


The proclamation may give us a warm glow today, but only because we’re so far distanced from it in time. In 1863 it was, to say the least, controversial.

I will try to include various reactions to it in the next few series to convey a sense of the times. You will find some of the negative reactions offensive, but I only draw the line at the “N” word and include the opinions (as collected by Tagg in source 10, below) because they convey an accurate impression of what was going on then. Just as not all human beings are pretty all of the time, our history is also ugly sometimes. The only way to change that is to face the fact.

Here’s something to think about, the next time you hear a pundit opining on how impossible it is for {person/movement/law/right) to win: Practically speaking, it was insane to release the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. There’s no other word to describe it – except “right.”

Only the future can determine the correctness of an action, but we can never go wrong if we do the right thing as best we can, no matter how much it costs us personally or in the short term, and no matter confused and horrifying the present situation.

Library of Congress

Library of Congress

[T]he proclamation is the mighty fact. There it
stands, irrevocable, sure, — the guaranty of their liberty,
valid against the world ; the charter of citizenship,
which a nation’s power stands pledged to guard, — which
whoso fails to respect as such does so at his peril.
Before it “bills of sale” turn to waste-paper; and
chain and handcuff melt, as in the fervent heat of a thou-
sand suns ; and forms stand erect, and eyes brighten, and
burdens drop, and life and the world put on a new signifi-
cance, and bud and blossom with new blessings. And, more
than this, and whatever else it does, or fails to do, it decrees
the nation’s emancipation. Not strictly, — for the guaranties
of slavery, untouched by this edict, linger on its statute-
book, — but, practically, it decrees the nation’s emancipation.
It has broken from its ignoble and debasing thrall. It has
spoken, at last, that magic word, ” Freedom,” never to un-
learn it. It has set its face towards the sun, never to turn
Nathaniel Hall

Now let’s get down to the daily events.

Pages: 1 2

Categories: American Civil War

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