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150 Years Ago: Wednesday, December 31, 1862

Battle of Stone River (also known as Second Battle of Murfreesboro)Source: Library of Congress

Battle of Stone River (also known as Second Battle of Murfreesboro)
Source: Library of Congress

At 6 a.m. C.S.A. Lieutenant General William J. Hardee attacks U.S. Major General William Rosecran’s right flank before Union soldiers have finished eating their breakfast, completely catching the men off guard. 10,000 Confederates attack in one massive wave; several Union artillery batteries are captured without having time to fire a single shot. By 10 a.m. Hardee drives the Union troops back three miles, but U.S. Brigadier General Richard W. Johnson rallies his men despite his own brigade casualties of 50%.

Rosecrans races across the battlefield directing units, his uniform covered in blood from his friend and chief of staff, Colonel Julius Garesche, who was beheaded by a cannonball while riding alongside him.

A second Confederate wave is not met with the same unexpected shock. U.S. Major General Philip Sheridan had anticipated an early attack and had his division up and in line by 4am; Sheridan’s men repulse the Confederates in three separate charges. Unfortunately while they slowed the Confederate advance it comes at a heavy cost; all three of Sheridan’s brigade commanders are killed and more than one third of his men are casualties in just four hours of fighting in a cedar forest surrounded on three sides that is later named “The Slaughter Pen.”

Though the morning had been very successful for the Confederates, by the afternoon mistakes are made in communications and movements are made based on false reports. This allows Rosecrans to reposition his troops before an attack by C.S.A. Major General John Breckinridge. Breckinridge and his men move slowly and his first two brigades are assaulted in piecemeal attacks and suffer heavy repulses. Two more brigades arrive but the Confederate attack fails a second time. By 4:30 p.m. the fighting is finished for the day.

C.S.A. General Braxton Bragg’s plan had been to cut Rosecran’s line of communication, but instead it drives the Union troops to concentrate at one point: Nashville Pike. This gives the Union a stronger defensive position than when the day had started.

In Washington City, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln signs the legislation that paves the way for West Virginia to enter into the Union as the 35th state. The citizens of West Virginia will still have to vote for a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery, after which Lincoln will be able to submit an official document stating that West Virginia has met all statehood requirements.

Lincoln also meets with his Cabinet one last time to go over revisions he made to the Emancipation Proclamation the previous evening after listening to their suggestions the day before. Afterwards he meets with U.S. Major General Ambrose Burnside to discuss military matters; Burnside has been called to testify before Congress regarding his actions at Fredericksburg.

Outside of Vicksburg, Mississippi, U.S. Major General William T. Sherman starts to move his men towards Drumgould’s Bluff, but the fog is so thick that he calls off the movement and subsequent attack. He will have to wait another day.

Tonight Rosecrans holds a council of war to decide what to do next. Some of the generals feel that the Union has been defeated and recommend a retreat. But Rosecrans and two other generals disagree; the decision is made to stand and fight.

Though he has suffered 9,000 casualties out of 35,000 men, Bragg ends the day certain he has won a victory. He is convinced that the large number of captured Union soldiers means that Rosecrans has lost considerably more than his own numbers. The Confederate troops dig in, facing the new Union line. Bragg sends a telegram to Richmond, Virginia before heading to bed:

“The enemy has yielded his strong position and is falling back. We occupy  the whole field and shall follow him. God has granted us a happy New Year.”

Though they have spent the entire day in battle against each other, men on both sides – Confederate and Union – join together in singing “Home Sweet Home” on this last night of the year.

From his camp in Falmouth, Virginia, U.S. Corporal Elisha Hunt Rhodes writes a final entry in his journal for the year:

“Well, the year 1862 is drawing to a close. As I look back I am bewildered when I think of the hundreds of miles I have tramped, the thousands of dead and wounded that I have seen, and the many strange sights that I have witnessed. I can truly thank God for his preserving care over me and the many blessings I have received. One year ago tonight I was an enlisted man and stood cap in hand asking for a furlough. Tonight I am an officer and men ask the same favor of me. It seems to me right that officers should rise from the ranks, for only such can sympathize with the private soldiers. The year has not amounted to much as far as the War is concerned, but we hope for the best and feel sure that in the end the Union will be restored. Good bye, 1862.”

150 Years Ago: Tuesday, December 30, 1862

U.S.S. MonitorSource: Library of Congress

U.S.S. Monitor
Source: Library of Congress

In a storm off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, the U.S.S. Monitor crew evacuates onto the wooden ship U.S.S. Rhode Island at the direction of Commander John P. Bankhead. Just nine months earlier, the ship had been part of a revolution in naval warfare when the ironclad dueled with the C.S.S. Merrimack off Hampton Roads, Virginia, which resulted in a standoff. It was the first time two ironclads faced each other in a naval engagement. Today as the Monitor pitches and sways in the rough seas, the caulking around the revolving gun turret loosens and water begins to leak in the hull. The high seas continue to jolt the ship’s flat armor bottom, each time opening more seams. 46 crewmen make it onto the Rhode Island; the Monitor’s pumps eventually stop working and the ship sinks before 16 crewmen can be rescued.

At the U.S. White House, President Abraham Lincoln meets with his Cabinet members and provides them with a copy of his draft Emancipation Proclamation. Though he had already announced it back in September, he will release the final, binding document on the first day of the upcoming new year. He asks for their suggestions, which he will take into account. He also notifies them that he plans on approving the bill from Congress that will make West Virginia a state. After his meeting Lincoln sends a quick note to the Commanding General of the Army of the Potomac, Major General Ambrose Burnside, who is currently in the city: “I have good reason for saying you must not make a general movement of the army without letting me know.

Out West, U.S. Major General William T. Sherman concludes that resuming his attacks on the Chickasaw Buyou bluffs would be pointless. He meets with Admiral David Dixon Porter and plans a joint army-navy attack on Drumgould’s Bluff to the northeast, hoping that the steep bluffs will provide cover for his 32,000 men as they advance. They will proceed with the new plan tomorrow; Sherman has yet to hear anything from his commanding General Ulysses S. Grant, who was to support him with additional troops via a land route.

Outside of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, U.S. Major General William S. Rosecrans slowly approaches the main Confederate forces led by C.S.A. General Braxton Bragg with fighting at Jefferson, La Vergne, Rock Spring and Nolensville. Though the Confederates do a good job of slowing their advance, Rosecrans continues to move closer to the Murfreesboro Confederate stronghold.

John T. FordSource: National Park Service

John T. Ford
Source: National Park Service

This past March in Washington City, a former Baptist Church and short-lived opera house on 10th Street reopened it’s doors as Ford’s Atheneum, a music hall. Owned by successful theatrical entrepreneur John T. Ford from Baltimore, Maryland, it had been hailed a success by the local newspaper and President Lincoln had even paid to a visit to the hall in May. Around 5pm, a fire caused by defective gas meters breaks out in the cellar under the stage. Fed by the combustible materials of the dressing rooms and stage scenery, the fire rages well into the night, lighting the city skies. While there is no loss of life, nearby buildings to the north and south are also damaged. By morning only the blackened walls remain standing and the entire interior of the theatre is gutted. Ford’s loss, estimated at $20,000, is only partially covered by insurance. He will need to decide whether or not to rebuild his theatre.

150 Years Ago: Monday, December 29, 1862

Walt WhitmanSource: Library of Congress

Walt Whitman
Source: Library of Congress

From Washington City, poet Walt Whitman writes to his mother about finding his brother First Lieutenant George Washington Whitman of the 51st New York Infantry, who they had seen listed as “killed or wounded” at the battle of Fredericksburg in the December 16th New York Tribune:

“I landed here without a dime. (TCWP note: A pickpocket took Walt’s money) The next two days I spent hunting through the hospitals, walking day and night trying to get information, when I found dear brother George, and found that he was alive and well, O you may imagine how trifling all my little cares and difficulties seemed. And now that I realize the way that hundreds of thousands of good men are now living, and have had to live for a year or more, not only without any of the comforts, but with death and sickness and hard marching and hard fighting (and no success at that) for their continual experience – really nothing we call trouble seems worth talking about.”

Walt was relieved; with only a minor facial wound, his brother was one of the lucky ones. He writes more gruesome details of what he sees in a notebook:

“Spent a good part of the day in a large brick mansion on the banks of the Rappahannock, used as a hospital since the battle. Out doors, at the foot of a tree, within 10 yards of the front of the house, I noticed a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands, etc., a full load for a one-horse cart. Several dead bodies lie near, each covered with its brown woolen blanket. In the dooryard, toward the river, are fresh graves, mostly of officers, their names on pieces of barrel-staves or broken boards, stuck in the dirt.”

It is from this experience that Walt Whitman decides to devote himself to the care of wounded and sick soldiers; he will not return home to New York.

Unaware that U.S. Major General Ulysses S. Grant was forced to suspend his advance to Vicksburg due to communications and supply lines being cut by Confederate cavalry, Major General William T. Sherman launches his attack on the outer defenses of Vicksburg. Nothing about the battle at Chickasaw Bayou goes well for Sherman; troops become lost, some are lacerated by Confederate crossfire, heavy rains pour and the Yazoo River rises to dangerous levels. “This has been a dreadful disaster,” a distraught Sherman tells Admiral David Dixon Porter tonight, whose own attacks using naval gunboats failed to do any significant damage to the Confederates. Yet Sherman also declares that he is “generally satisfied with the high spirit manifested” by his men as they had the difficult job of attacking the enemy safely positioned on the high bluffs. As a result, Union casualties are 1,776 killed, captured or missing; Confederate casualties are only 207. Sherman consults with Porter and they decide that they will resume attacks tomorrow. In the meantime, Porter will send a boat north to Memphis, Tennessee to obtain more small arms ammunition.

150 Years Ago: Sunday, December 28, 1862

Execution of Asa LewisSource: Library of Congress

Execution of Asa Lewis
Source: Library of Congress

“Amidst a drenching rain-storm, Asa Lewis, member of Captain Page’s company, Sixth Kentucky regiment, was shot by a file of men. He was executed upon a charge of desertion, which was fully proven against him. The scene was one of great impressiveness and solemnity. The several regiments of Hanson’s brigade were drawn up in a hollow square, while Generals Breckinridge and Hanson, with their staffs, were present to witness the execution. The prisoner was conveyed from jail to the brigade drill-ground on an open wagon, under the escort of a file of ten men, commanded by Major Morse and Lieut. George B. Brumley. Lewis’s hands were tied behind him, a few words were said to him by Generals Breckinridge and Hanson, and word fire was given, and all was over. The unfortunate man conducted himself with great coolness and composure. He was said to have been a brave soldier, and distinguished himself at the battle of Shiloh.” — The Chattanooga Daily Rebel Banner

Asa Lewis was 19 when he was executed for desertion, with the orders given by C.S.A. General Braxton Bragg, Commander of the Army of the Tennessee. Lewis had joined Company E, the 6th Kentucky Infantry Regiment of the “Orphan Brigade” at the beginning of the war. Just a farm boy from Barren County, Kentucky, he had received no training, only a rifle. He was at the horrific battle of Shiloh, Tennessee in April 1862 and afterwards was promoted to Corporal for his actions on the field. When his enlisted service period of one year was over, Lewis stayed instead of returning home.

But Lewis was receiving panicked letters from his mother that his family needed him. His father had passed away shortly after he left home, and his mother and three sisters were unable to take care of the farm and were starving and financially broke. Lewis formally requested a furlough so he could return home to plant the crops needed for his family to survive, but was denied as the Confederates needed every man they could muster serving in the field. Lewis made the decision to leave anyway, without permission; he would return home to make sure his family had a crop this year and then would then return to his unit.

Desertion in both armies is very common and causes a great deal of frustration for both governments. In order to have an effective military force, both sides need reliability when it comes to their troops. An emphasis is put on finding deserters and bringing them back; while some are sent back into the field, others are punished or sentenced to death. Though the officers of Lewis’s unit plead with Bragg, he refuses to repeal the sentence, stating that the desertion rate is growing and an example has to be set. Even Kentuckians who were supporters of the Confederacy petitioned that the sentence be commuted. It didn’t make a difference; Lewis was executed two days ago. Kentuckians are furious at Bragg as the news spreads of Lewis’s execution; the 6th Kentucky Infantry is so outraged that a mutiny almost breaks out. Lewis will not be the only one to die for desertion; many are killed at the orders of Bragg to set an example to the rest of his men that desertion will not be tolerated.

North of Vicksburg, Mississippi, U.S. Major General William T. Sherman has been conducting reconnaissance to find weaknesses in Confederate defenses surrounding the city. One of his four divisions, led by Frederick Steele, attempts to turn the Confederate right flank but is repulsed by artillery fire as they advance on a very narrow front. For now Sherman remains on his own with 32,000 troops; Major Generals Ulysses S. Grant and John McClernand are no where near the city where the attacks were to be coordinated.

After traveling from Springfield, Illinois, McClernand arrives Memphis, Tennessee and finds himself without the divisions he expects to have waiting for him. He finds that Sherman has absorbed them into his command and has already gone downriver. McClernand is under the impression that the Vicksburg campaign is his to run, not Grant’s; he has papers from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton assigning McClernand command of the Vicksburg expedition. Not having heard from Grant, he sends him a letter expressing his disappointment with how things have been handled and wants guarantees from Grant that his command will be restored to him. He is not aware that Grant is currently maneuvering his troops back towards Memphis after his supply and communication lines were cut off by Confederate cavalry in Mississippi.

Betty Herndon MaurySource: Virginia Historical Society

Betty Herndon Maury
Source: Virginia Historical Society

Twenty-seven year old Elizabeth “Betty” Herndon Maury is a life-long Virginian and supporter of the Southern cause. Her husband (and cousin) of five years, William A. Maury, is the Judge Advocate General of the Confederate States of America. Her brother Richard is a commander of the 24th Virginia.

Betty was living in Fredericksburg before the battle and has since returned to her home. Today she writes in her diary about the conflict:

“On the 13th of December God blessed us with a great victory at Fredericksburg. Upwards of eighteen thousand of the enemy were killed. We lost but one thousand. Even the Yankees acknowledge it to be a great defeat.

The battle took place in and around the town. The streets were strewn with the fallen enemy, the houses were broken open, sacked and used for hospitals, and their dead were buried in almost every yard.

Dr. Nichols was there—came as an amateur with his friend Gen’ Hooker—he occupied Uncle John’s house (where his wife has been most hospitably entertained for weeks at a time) drank up Uncle J’s wine, used his flour and ate up Ellen Mercer’s preserves.

Delicacy, and so cold blooded and heartless as to come—not at the stern call of duty, but for the love of it—to gloat over the desolated homes of people he once called friends, and who are relations and connections of his wife’s.”

150 Years Ago: Saturday, December 27, 1862

America continues to be the one theme that occupies the world’s tongue and thought. The Rappahannock has been crossed in the face of the whole Confederate army; and by the time these pages reach the reader a battle will probably have been fought upon which great issues may hang. If the Confederates are the winners it will go far to establish, as an unquestionable fact, their military superiority, and to inspirit them, in spite of all difficulties, to new exertions and struggles. But if they are beaten their position will be a most dangerous one. General Sumner has also, and on an earlier day, crossed the river some miles further down, and from that point was almost within a day’s march of Petersburg and its railway, which is connected with all the railways of North and South Carolina, and must be the chief line for bringing supplies to Lee’s army. Sumner, therefore, in the event of a Federal victory at Fredericksburg, would be ready to make a flank attack on the retreating army; and that most dangerous measure under the circumstances could only be evaded by the Confederates retreating by a different and circuitous line to Richmond, so that the Federals would probably be able to reach the Confederate capital first. Much, then, depends upon the battle at Fredericksburg, which we are told by telegrams arriving at the moment we write had actually begun.

The Alabama threatens to become a source of trouble between our own and the American Governments. If the responsible advisers of the Crown say the English law of enlistment has been violated by the building and fitting out of such a vessel in our country, it will be of course our duty to offer amends. But if no law has been violated the Americans must learn to be less susceptible, to annoyance, and direct their energies rather to the capture of the offending vessel than to angry abuse of us. Meantime we cannot but own the Americans are doing a very handsome act in contributing so largely to the wants of our operatives.

– – The London Times

The final Emancipation Proclamation is to be issued in a few days and many are nervous that U.S. President Abraham Lincoln may change his mind. He spends the day meeting with various members of Congress and clergymen on the issue, one of them Dr. Bryan Sunderland, who tells the President that “We are full of faith and prayer that you will make clean sweep for the Right.” Lincoln leans forward in his chair towards the clergyman and says “Doctor, it’s very hard sometimes to know what is right! You pray often and honestly, but so do those across the lines. They pray and all their preachers pray honestly. You and I don’t think them justified in praying for their objects, but they pray earnestly, no doubt! If you and I had our own way, Doctor, we will settle this war without bloodshed, but Providence permits blood to be shed. It’s hard to tell what Providence wants of us. Sometimes, we, ourselves, are more humane that the Divine Mercy seems to us to be.

John A. McClernandSource: Library of Congress

John A. McClernand
Source: Library of Congress

U.S. Major General William T. Sherman’s troops move their way through the swamps and bayous as they make their way towards Vicksburg. They are engaged in small skirmishes against Confederate pickets as Lieutenant General John Pemberton rushes troops in from the north to defend the strategic Confederate city. Sherman is waiting to receive additional assistance from Major General John McClernand, though he lacks respect for the man and is not looking forward to working with him. McClernand has proven himself to care more about using his political connections to advance his rank than to actually earn his promotions. Very few men respect or trust him; and they probably shouldn’t, as he is one of the key people responsible for spreading the word to politicians and the press that U.S. Major General Ulysses S. Grant is a drunk. Of course, if Grant is forced to step down because of this, McClernand naturally assumes he will obtain Grant’s position of Commander of the Western army. He has already been working closely with Illinois Governor Richard Yates to gain control over the Vicksburg campaign and authority to execute his own plan that goes against what Grant already has in motion. He knows that capturing Vicksburg will be a huge win for the Union; if his plan is the successful one, he will gain the credit and fame. But for now, Grant’s orders – backed by Washington – put him under Sherman’s control.

In Tennessee, U.S. Major General William Rosecrans continues his march towards Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where C.S.A. General Braxton Bragg and his army of over 20,000 are stationed in defense of the city.

150 Years Ago: Friday, December 26, 1862

The Hanging of the DakotaSource: Library of Congress

The Hanging of the Dakota
Source: Brown County Historical Society in New Ulm, MN

At 10 a.m. in Mankato, Minnesota, the thirty-eight condemned Dakota Indians sing and chant as they are led to the scaffolds. Three drumbeats signal the moment of execution, and hundreds of civilian men & women who have shown up to witness the execution cheer in celebration. It is the largest mass execution in U.S. history. The bodies of the dead are buried in a single mass grave at the edge of town. An additional 300 convicted Dakota Indians will remain imprisoned in Mankato.

In the House Chamber at the Capitol building in Jackson, Mississippi, Confederate President Jefferson Davis gives a long speech to the state legislators and citizens of the state he once called home at the start of the war. It is meant to rally its citizens and celebrate the successes the Confederacy has had under extreme circumstances where many felt the odds were against them. He closes with the following two paragraphs:

I can then say with confidence that our condition is in every respect greatly improved over what it was last year. Our armies have been augmented, our troops have been instructed and disciplined. The articles necessary for the support of our troops, and our people, and from which the enemy’s blockade has cut us off, are being produced in the Confederacy. Our manufactories have made rapid progress, so much is this the case that I learn with equal surprise and pleasure from the general commanding this department, that Mississippi alone can supply the army which is upon her soil.

Our people have learned to economize and are satisfied to wear home spun. I never see a woman dressed in home spun that I do not feel like taking off my hat to her; and although our women never lose their good looks, I cannot help thinking that they are improved by this garb. I never meet a man dressed in home spun but I feel like saluting him. I cannot avoid remarking with how much pleasure I have noticed the superior morality of our troops, and the contrast which in this respect they present to those of the invader. I can truly say that an army more pious and more moral than that defending our liberties, I do not believe to exist. On their valor and the assistance of God I confidently rely.

Harpers Ferry, Virginia Source: Library of Congress

Harpers Ferry, Virginia
Source: Library of Congress

Communications between U.S. Major General Ambrose Burnside and General-in-Chief Henry Halleck are fast and furious as cavalry reports possible Confederate movements near Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. This small but strategic city has continuously changed hands between the United States and the Confederacy. The reports make Burnside very nervous, as he had no idea that General Robert E. Lee had moved any of his troops after Fredericksburg, especially as far north as Harpers Ferry. Burnside sends a full Corps of troops led by Major General Henry Slocum to help protect the city that is currently protected by Major General John Adams Dix.

In the meantime, Confederate cavalry perform their reconnaissance on Harpers Ferry but take no action. There are no Confederate troops waiting to storm the city; it is merely a routine Confederate tactic to observe Union positions. Little did they know it would cause such a panic that Burnside would send over 10,000 men to guard a city that was in no way under attack.

150 Years Ago: Thursday, December 25, 1862

Thomas Nast illustration of a couple separated by war at Christmas

Thomas Nast illustration of a couple separated by war at Christmas

The wintry blast goes wailing by,
the snow is falling overhead;
I hear the lonely sentry’s tread,
and distant watch-fires light the sky.

Dim forms go flitting through the gloom;
The soldiers cluster round the blaze
To talk of other Christmas days,
And softly speak of home and home

My saber swinging overhead,
gleams in the watch-fire’s fitful glow,
while fiercely drives the blinding snow,
and memory leads me to the dead.

My thoughts go wandering to and fro,
vibrating ‘twixt the Now and Then;
I see the low-browed home again,
the old hall wreathed in mistletoe.

And sweetly from the far off years
comes borne the laughter faint and low,
the voices of the Long Ago!
My eyes are wet with tender tears.

I feel again the mother kiss,
I see again the glad surprise
That lighted up the tranquil eyes
And brimmed them o’er with tears of bliss

As, rushing from the old hall-door,
She fondly clasped her wayward boy –
Her face all radiant with they joy
She felt to see him home once more.

My saber swinging on the bough
Gleams in the watch-fire’s fitful glow,
while fiercely drives the blinding snow
aslant upon my saddened brow.

William McCabeSource: Library of Congress

William Gordon McCabe
Source: Library of Congress

Those cherished faces are all gone!
Asleep within the quiet graves
where lies the snow in drifting waves, –
And I am sitting here alone.

There’s not a comrade here tonight
but knows that loved ones far away
on bended knees this night will pray:
“God bring our darling from the fight.”

But there are none to wish me back,
for me no yearning prayers arise
the lips are mute and closed the eyes –
My home is in the bivouac.

— A poem written by 21-year-old Confederate Soldier William Gordon McCabe on Christmas Night outside Fredericksburg, Virginia

U.S. Corporal Elisha Hunt Rhodes, near Falmouth, Virginia, writes in his diary that “We have passed a very quiet day and except that we have been excused from drill, the day has been like others. My brother-in-law, Colville D. Brown came today from Washington and made me a call. In the evening Lt. Col. Goff of our Regiment and other officers came to my tent and we had a sing. I should like to be at home on this Christmas night.” This is his second Christmas in the army; this year he does not feel as homesick and alone. He is now a seasoned veteran, even if he is just a volunteer. This is his life.

In Washington, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln and First Lady Mary spend the day visiting wounded soldiers in the nearby hospitals while their children Robert and Tad stay at home.

Out West in Vicksburg, Mississippi, Confederate President Jefferson Davis is almost 1,000 miles away from his wife Varina and their children in Richmond, Virginia. As a man who once served with high honors in the Mexican-American war, he misses his family but also feels at home surrounded by military men in the field.

In Fredericksburg, Virginia, C.S.A. General Robert E. Lee writes an emotional letter to his wife Mary. He begins by thanking God for the recent successes of the Confederate army, but laments “what a cruel thing is war; to separate and destroy families and friends, and mar the purest joys and happiness God has granted us in this world; to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbors, and to devastate the fair face of this beautiful world!

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