The American Civil War 150th Anniversary: March 11-17, 1863

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

But first, as an introduction to a few disparate glimpses of the African American’s experiences in the Civil War, here is a soldier’s description of his morning breakfast on March 17, 1863, in Virginia:

As a proof of my improved bodily condition I have but to mention what I ate for breakfast this A.M. One pint of coffee, about thirty flannel cakes, one pound and a half of beef steak, half loaf of toasted bread, three sardines, some cheese, boiled tongue and dried sausage. I will have but a scant dinner today, owing to the absence of the entire force of n*****s from the culinary department. Henry is washing, George is absent on furlough and Scipio Africanus is in the Guard House . . . [h]ad the n*****s been on hand would have had coffee, omelets, buckwheat cakes, egg nog and ash cake. You will perceive I am in no danger of starving and will wager that as a Captain in the U.S.A. I live better than does the Commanding General of the C.S.A.
— US Captain Francis Adams Donaldson (17)

In this collection of his letters, Donaldson is described as a staunch abolitionist, but his view of black people certainly couldn’t be called liberal.

Last August, we saw four firsts for black Americans, and below we will finally hear from the 54th Massachusetts Infantry for the first time.

Meanwhile, let’s take a look at how things were for some black men in the Confederate camp (the time is just after the battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862), according to Ron Maxwell in a deleted scene for Gods and Generals:

A hundred and fifty years ago, everybody’s life in America was turned upside down. One viewpoint that this series is short on is the black experience. It was just as varied as the white experience, but much less well documented, and sources are not easy to find in a general, superficial Internet search, week to week.

Let’s remember them all, white and black, for out of their agony and confusion, our modern world – with all its strengths and weaknesses – was born.

March 11

Battles: Mississippi operations/Yazoo Pass: Federal forces attack but fail to take Fort Pemberton. CS General W. W. Loring orders the Star of the West sunk in order to block the river (it can still be seen there today). The US fleet settles in at nearby Curtis Plantation, directing naval fire against the fort, while landing troops. Boggy ground prevents the infantry from advancing to the fort, however. This will continue through the end of the month and into the first week of April. (6, 22)

Military events: Tennessee operations. US forces attempt to cross the Duck River, but CS General Forrest and his cavalry resist with a series of skirmishes. Despite rainy, cold weather, Forrest’s men manage to safely withdraw. (4)

March 12

Military events: Tennessee operations. General Forrest and his men reach Columbia. (4)

Other: On either the 12th or the 13th (sources vary), a friction primer explodes at the Confederate Ordnance Laboratory on Brown’s Island near the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond. The resulting massive explosion in the laboratory kills 69 people, all but 7 of them women and young girls. (6) Here is more about Confederate ordnance.

March 13

Military events: Some sources give this date for the start of the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment (the one in Glory). Here is a scene from that movie (language warning and ad at the end – I’m not affiliated with this at all):

Other: The prominent Peace Democrat Clement Vallandigham returns home to Dayton, Ohio, condemning the US conscription act and saying (14),

I would resist no law by force, but would endure almost every other wrong as long as free discussion, free assemblages of the people, and a free ballot remain, but the moment they are attacked, I would resist. We have a right to change Administrations, policies, and parties, not by forcible revolution, but by the ballot-box; and this right must be maintained at all hazards.

March 14

Military events: Mississippi operations/Vicksburg: US Admiral Farragut, still under orders to clear the Mississippi River, tries to get 7 vessels past the Confederate guns at Port Hudson, Louisiana, in order to support Grant’s Vicksburg campaign upriver and to reinforce the US blockade at the mouth of the Red River. Only Farragut’s flagship (the Hartford) and the USS Albatross make it through the intense artillery fire. (12) With things bogged down at Fort Pemberton, Grant orders the start of the Steele’s Bayou Expedition. (16)

March 15

Military events: Tennessee operations. General Forrest’s headquarters are once again moved forward to Spring Hill. Forrest now commands a division made up of his cavalry brigade plus Armstrong’s, including the 8th Tennessee, and occupies the right of General Bragg’s line. (4)

California operations/Pacific squadron: In San Francisco, the USS Cyane stops the schooner J. P. Chapman before it sails with 17 Confederate sailors (pirates) and arms hidden aboard. (16)

Atlantic operations: In mid-March, the CSS Alabama is prowling the waters northeast of Brazil, capturing and releasing on bond the Punjab, on its way from Calcutta to London. (24)

March 16

Military events: Mississippi operations/Vicksburg: Steele’s Bayou Expedition: US Admiral Porter picks up General Sherman and his infantry. In coming days, they will get bogged down trying to clear Deer Creek for passage, and Confederates will make things even harder by burning cotton bales near choke points on the creek.

March 17

Battles: Virginia operations: Battle of Kelly’s Ford on the Rappahannock. (6) The Federals fail in their attempt to crush Confederate cavalry under Fitzhugh Lee but still demonstrate that US General Hooker’s revamping of the armed forces has made US cavalry a force to be reckoned with. The overwhelming superiority of Confederate cavalry will soon be challenged.


One last video excerpt, this from Gods and Generals. I can’t remember if it made it into the extended cut, but I love it, having done some black powder shooting in years past and knowing just how hard it is to load one of those firearms. Matt Lescher, as Colonel Ames, actually does a pretty professional job with the loading sequence.

Ames, of course, is picking on Tom Chamberlain because he’s the brother of Colonel Joshua Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels, on the right here). This is twice as funny if you remember C. Thomas Howell in Red Dawn. There are also overtones of a similar, more dramatic training sequence in Glory.


(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) The record of Hon. C. L. Vallandigham on abolition, the Union, and the Civil War. C. L. Vallandigham (1863)

(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.

(25) A. Lincoln, A Biography, Ronald C. White, Jr. (2009)

Categories: American Civil War

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