The American Civil War 150th Anniversary – March 4-10, 1863

Here is a look at what was happening in the Civil War this week in March 1863.

General Joseph Hooker is currently busy reorganizing the Army of the Potomac to make it more effective, instituting corps insignias and issuing regular furloughs, building new hospitals and revamping the old ones, issuing better rations with more vegetables, etc. In spite of personally having a headquarters his detractors call “a combination of barroom and brothel,” the general also orders his men to observe the Sabbath. (It’s probably not true that we call prostitutes hookers after this Civil War general.)

Only a few Civil War soldiers could be generals, though. Many more exercised leadership at lower levels in the military. The day-to-day brunt of managing the war fell on their shoulders, and it is to them we look when seeking a better view of what the Civil War was really like.

Fortunately, some lower-echelon officers expressed themselves well in letters home, perhaps none more so than US Captain Francis Adams Donaldson (source 17, below).

“I don’t like the idea of anybody commanding it . . . but myself.”

This week, 150 years ago, after a “spell of sickness” had briefly laid him low while serving in the Army of the Potomac at its winter quarters near Fredericksburg, Virginia, Captain Donaldson said of his job:

. . . I am still marked “quarters” but will take command of my company tomorrow. I don’t like the idea of anyone commanding it, even for a day or two, but myself. I know just what to do with the men, and how to keep them sufficiently occupied all the time to prevent them from getting into mischief.

It’s not easy for us today to see the Civil War as it was experienced 24/7 by those who fought it – the deaths, yes, but not the living of it, day in and day out.

In the early years anyway, a soldier’s life could be very personal and human, if not often humane.

We don’t have the hate of those times present today, and that’s a good thing, but we also no longer have that easy comradeship and individuality that people on both sides took for granted back in the day.

Perhaps that’s why today we are so fascinated by the era when our past and future were there together on the field just long enough to leave their fleeting impressions in a few photographs and written recollections.

March 4

Battles: Spring Hill, Tennessee: CS Generals Forrest and Van Dorn field 5 brigades against one of the columns US General Rosecrans has sent out for reconnaissance in force of the Confederate positions in the Murfreesboro area. Some 3000 Union troops are not only outnumbered; their commander has also marched out of range of supporting forces. The Confederates drive off the US cavalry and come out ahead in the day’s artillery duel. When night falls, the Confederates withdraw to the vicinity of Thompson’s Station on the Alabama & Tennessee Railroad, and the two sides bivouac almost within sight of each other. (6, 23)

Military events: Vicksburg operations: General Grant asks (unsuccessfully) that his men be paid at once because the canal digging seems to be coming along well and he expects “to make a move which may delay payments for some time.” However, flooding and the unforeseen number of trees that must be cleared to allow boats passage keep delaying the project. Meanwhile, General Rosecrans has taken many vessels to use on the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, and Grant sends agents as far as Chicago to find boats small enough to navigate the bayous and Mississippi tributaries. Grant also has to contend with a whispering campaign about Grant’s drinking from some politically well-connected fellow officers and subordinates, most notably General McClernand. (21, including quote)

In response to this campaign, Secretary Stanton, with Lincoln’s approval, sends Charles Dana, the new Assistant Secretary of War, supposedly to investigate paymaster service in the Western armies, but really to spy, sending secret, coded reports about Grant back to Lincoln and Stanton. (24)

Dana liked Grant and reported favorably.  Here he is later in the war,  on the bench, far right, reading something during a "war council," with General Meade sandwiched in between Dana and Grant. (3D Library of Congress version of this image)

Dana liked Grant and reported favorably. Here he is later in the war, on the bench, far right, reading something during a “war council,” with General Meade sandwiched in between him and Grant. (Click to enlarge. A 3D version of this LOC image is here.)

Emancipation: President Lincoln “[c]onsults with Postmaster Gen. Blair about problems for colonizing Negroes.” (5)

March 5

Battles: Spring Hill/Unionville, Tennessee: Early in the morning, Forrest and Van Dorn deploy their men and wait for the Federals to attack. The Union commander comes on slowly and battle resumes. The New York Times puts the best light possible on the inevitable outcome: a resounding Confederate victory that some call Van Dorn’s “finest moment” (not the Holly Springs raid in ’62 that ended Grant’s first Vicksburg campaign?), while others describe it as making “material amends for the bloody Dover fiasco” the previous month that a Union soldier had called “a grand little victory.” Cavalry morale is high and General Forrest’s leadership enhanced once again. That evening, Forrest withdraws first to Spring Hill, and then back to Columbia. (4, 6, 23)

The US Draft: Joseph Medill, a staunch and influential Lincoln supporter in Chicago, says (poor formatting, but I could find no other) that “Since I have lived in Illinois I never witnessed greater hostility to any public measure than that existing against the thirteenth section of the new conscript law. If the construction put upon that section by the public be the correct one, it can never be enforced. The whole army in the South, would fail to enforce it. The attempt to draft under it will surely be the signal for general and bloody resistance – if the meaning of the section is what people suppose. . . .” (10)

As just one example of the kind of public pressure General Grant is facing at Vicksburg now, described in some of the sources below, Medill also added, “And by the way, I hardly look for much success under Copperhead Grant & Crazy Sherman.”

March 6

Military events: Vicksburg operations: Grant’s Yazoo Pass expeditionary force clears the Coldwater River and continues forward. (22)

President Lincoln meets with General Fremont to discuss a new command (which will fail to materialize when General-in-Chief Halleck opposes it). (5)

The US Draft: Indiana Governor Oliver Morton warns US Secretary of War Stanton that the $300 exemption feature in the new conscription bill is causing “much excitement and ill feeling toward the Government generally” and worries about “a popular storm,” i.e., uprising. (10)

March 7

Military events: US Admiral S. P. Lee, commander of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron is catching so many blockade runners he’s running out of officers, since he has to put one in command of each confiscated vessel. (16)

Other: Admiral Dahlgren visits President Lincoln and finds him nervous and uneasy. (5)

March 8

Military events: Virginia operations: In the evening, 29 men meet CS Colonel Mosby in Dover and are only told their objective after they ride – to capture US General Edwin Staughton and Colonel Percy Wyndham in Fairfax. In his memoirs (source 11, below), Mosby said of this evening:

I remember that I got dinner that day with Colonel Chancellor, who lived near Dover. Just as I was about to mount my horse, as I was leaving, I said to him, “I shall mount the stars to-night or sink lower than plummet ever sounded.” I did not rise as high as the stars, but I did not sink. I then had no reputation to lose, even if I failed, and I remembered the motto, “Adventures to the adventurous.”

Other: Lincoln approves memorandum to Lord Lyons suggesting that England allow no more ships built and sent for ultimate service by the Confederacy. (5)

March 9

Military events: Virginia operations: Mosby’s raid on Fairfax Court House. US Colonel Wyndham has gone to Washington and the raiders only capture two of his staff officers, as well as horses and uniforms.

As for General Staughton:

President Lincoln will later tell the New York Times that he doesn’t mind the loss of the general so much as the loss of the horses that Mosby and his men took: “I can make a much better Brigadier in five minutes, but the horses cost a hundred and twenty-five dollars apiece.” (5)

March 10

Military events: Vicksburg operations: The Yazoo Pass expeditionary force reaches the junction of the Tallahatchie and Yazoo rivers. Nearby is Confederate Fort Pemberton and the Star of the West, formerly a US vessel and the first ship fired upon at Fort Sumter in 1861 but now in Confederate hands. (22)

President Lincoln, Secretaries Seward and Stanton and others discuss sending troops to the Arizona Territory. (5)

The US Draft/Other: Under the newly passed Conscription Act, Lincoln orders all soldiers absent without leave to report back for duty, offering them amnesty if they do so by April 1st (except for forfeit of pay and allowances during their period of desertion). He also says:

And whereas evil disposed and disloyal persons at sundry places have enticed and procured soldiers to desert and absent themselves from their regiments, thereby weakening the strength of the armies and prolonging the war, giving aid and comfort to the enemy, and cruelly exposing the gallant and faithful soldiers remaining in the ranks to increased hardships and danger, I do therefore call upon all patriotic and faithful citizens to oppose and resist the aforementioned dangerous and treasonable crimes, and to aid in restoring to their regiments all soldiers absent without leave, and to assist in the execution of the act of Congress “for enrolling and calling out the national forces, and for other purposes,” and to support the proper authorities in the prosecution and punishment of offenders against said act, and in suppressing the insurrection and rebellion.

Note: I added emphasis there in light of events in upcoming months, because that part of this public presidential proclamation is overlooked by all sources checked.

From "Harper's Weekly," February 28, 1863.  Click to enlarge.  (Library of Congress)

From “Harper’s Weekly,” February 28, 1863. Click to enlarge. (Library of Congress)


(1)  The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.

(2)  Morgan’s Raiders and The L&N Railroad in the Civil War, by Dan Lee (2011).

(3)  Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson (2003 – see side bar for link).

(4) The Campaigns of Lieut.-Gen. N.B. Forrest, and of Forrest’s Cavalry by Thomas Jordan, J. P. Pryor (1868).

(5) The Lincoln Log timeline.

(6) Blue and Gray Timeline.

(7) Henry Halleck’s War: A Fresh Look at Lincoln’s Controversial General-In-Chief, by Curt Anders (1999).

(8) Grant Chronology, Mississippi State University.

(9)”The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government” (Vol. II), Jefferson Davis.

(10) The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln: The Story of America’s Most Reviled President, Larry Tagg.

(11)  The Memoirs of Colonel John S. Mosby.

(12)  Conquest of the Lower Mississippi.

(13) The Strategy of Robert E. Lee, by J. J. Bowen (1914).

(14) Major General John Alexander McClernand: Politician in Uniform, Richard L. Kiper.

(15) The Civil War and the Press, Sachsman et al.

(16) Civil War Interactive.

(17) Inside the Army of the Potomac, the Civil War Experience of Captain Francis Adams Donaldson, edited by J. Gregory Acken (1998).

(18) Mosby Heritage Area Association: Chronology of Mosby’s Life.

(19) Those Damn Horse Soldiers, by George Walsh (2006).

(20) Civil War Virtual Museum.

(21) Born to Battle: Grant and Forrest: Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga: The Campaigns That Doomed the Confederacy, Jack Hurst (2012).

(22) Yazoo Pass Expedition: Failed Attack on Fort Pemberton.

(23) Life of Lieutenant-General Nathan Bedford Forrest, by John A. Wyeth (1908/2011).

(24) Captain Raphael Semmes and the CSS Alabama, US Naval Historical Center.

Categories: American Civil War

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