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150 Years Ago: Thursday, December 4, 1862


CSA General Joseph E. JohnstonSource: Library of Congress

CSA General Joseph E. Johnston
Source: Library of Congress

C.S.A. General Joseph E. Johnston had been one of the most successful generals in the earlier stages of the war, but was forced out of commission when he was seriously wounded on May 31 at Seven Pines by an exploding Union shell. He has recuperated from his injuries but has had difficulties getting a new assignment due to his continuous disagreements with Confederate President Jefferson Davis as they both openly dislike each other. But Davis needs capable generals and while he has General Robert E. Lee handling affairs very well in the Eastern theater, the Western theater has been weakened and continues to be threatened by Major General Ulysses S. Grant and the very capable men who serve under him. Despite what Davis’s personal feelings are about Johnston, he is the most capable for the job. Today Johnston starts his new position as Commander of the Department of the West. With his headquarters in Chattanooga, Tennessee, he is now responsible for land from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River, which includes Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and parts of North Carolina, Louisiana and Georgia. He will oversee two large armies, one commanded by General Braxton Bragg in Murfreesboro, Tennessee and the other by Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton in Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Johnston doesn’t have much time to settle in before he receives an urgent message from Pemberton that he is falling back due to strong pursuits from Grant’s forces and desperately needs reinforcements. The Confederate government had originally sent additional troops to Pemberton but they have since been moved to northern Arkansas. Johnston looks to Bragg to see if he has any troops to spare; he doesn’t, and even if he did it would be difficult to move the troops past the strong Union lines. Though Johnston oversees a vast amount of territory, he has absolutely no control over the additional troops that are in Arkansas. While it would make the most sense to order them back to protect the crucial city of Vicksburg, Johnston must look to Richmond to give the order. In the meantime he asks Bragg if he could at least spare some cavalry to disrupt Grant’s supply lines.

U.S. Corporal Elisha Hunt Rhodes and the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers are finally on the move:

“I do not know exactly where we are. We left our camp near Stafford Court House this morning and marched to this place which is twelve miles below Fredericksburg and half way between the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers. I know one thing – it is very cold on the hill where we are in camp.”

Joshua Lawrence ChamberlainSource: Library of Congress

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain
Source: Library of Congress

In camp in Falmouth across from Fredericksburg, Lieutenant Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain of the 20th Maine writes to his wife Fanny back home about these first few days of December:

My Dearest Fanny,

We have been here a week & are waiting nobody knows for what. All sorts of rumors arise of course, but our business is to obey orders & it becomes us to be patient as well as obedient. There is a great army here you may be sure something will be done with it, I have no doubt. Saturday I rode over to the front, on the banks of the Rappahannock, only a few rods from the Rebels opposite in Fredericksburg. I rode along for some miles, & of course I had no difficulty in seeing the Rebels. They were busy as bees throwing up fortifications & planting cannon. They kept as much out of sight as possible in order not to show their forces movements. I did not feel fully comfortable, I own, in full view & reach of every one of those ugly looking cannon. They are training to slaughter us by & by, & some of the Rebel rifles looked saucy, but I presumed on the mutual understanding not to fire on either side & so in company with Mr. Brown took my time to view the city & enemy at my leisure. We did not stay very long in one spot, but dashed along from hill to hill, leaping ditches & scampering around in a quite exhilarating fashion. Fredericksburg is a fine looking city; some of the buildings – churches I imagine chiefly – are really in good taste. Warrenton is the only Virginia city I have seen equal to this. We called on Wm. H. Owen on our way back, & reaching camp at dark found that we had orders to go out on picket five or six miles to the right where some of our cavalry had been taken – “gobbled up” as the press elegantly has it – a day or two ago. Our orders were to stay out forty-eight hours & expect a skirmish. The picketing we did – the skirmishing, not.

The first day of December was a lovely day. I thought of you in my rude tent & grow rather lonely, till some duty took me away. You may imagine how warm it is, or perhaps how tough I am, when I say that I took a full bath in “Potomac creek” the first day of winter, without the least inconvenience. To be sure ice formed to quite a thickness the night before, but the days are delightful when it does not rain. Sometimes it snows – a wet driving snow – then I beg to assure you it is not particularly agreeable weather to experience. The country is nearly all devastated in this part of the state & starvation pretty sure for some I cannot but believe. The distress is great now. Our generals are kind enough to place guards around every house that is inhabited & Rebel property is carefully protected from pillage. Our Quartermasters it is true take whatever we must have & give receipts for it which are presented to the Govt, & pay obtained on them I suppose. I do not think the Rebels are treated very severely however. If this were really war we should not leave rabid secessionists within our lines to observe & give information while we protect them from loss or harm. I do not mean to question the propriety of the present policy. But regardless in a merely military point of view, the war would seem to be much more effectively carried forward if we should leave no Treachery in the midst of us or behind us – nor anything to aid support or strengthen the enemy. We should take horses, forage, cattle, & send women & children & all non-resistants over the lines; all active rebels to the rear that is to confinement within our lines, & for every ship burned at sea fire a rebel courthouse, or even private house worth $20,000 to $50,000. I tell you we should not have to fight the same ground over again, as we have here so many times. In that way we should weaken & crowd the enemy & at the same time strengthen & advance ourselves. Of course the country would be laid waste absolutely, but it would be war. We have not got over the old idea of suppressing a mob. Whatever cruelty there might seem to be in the course I indicated would be countervailed if the great saving of life & treasure in a speedier ending of the war. Now we take no advantages, use little or no strategy, but gain what we do by mainforce, by bearing on.

Perhaps I speak strongly but it seems to me you may think I am very savage in what I have said, but it is to lessen animosity. I looked over at the Rebels in Fredericksburg, without the least blood-thirstiness though if the order had come to “charge” on them, I could have gone in with all the vigor & earnestness in the world. Did I ever tell you that I tried to find out, of a rebel South Carolina officer-prisoner what had become of your uncle Harold? He did not know. I don’t believe he was foolish enough to get hung after all his knowledge of the world. He is probably a resident still of S. Carolina.

Today – Only think we had two ladies to dine with us on tin platters yesterday Mrs. Eaton & Mrs. Fogg of the Sanitary commission & very proper & efficient ladies they are too. They think I have been well instructed in the manly art of taking ladies bonnets & cloaks properly. Send them to have your Thanksgiving letter & the package of shirts & drawers (2 pairs) just what I wanted – & the “Jomini” too (art of war) with a letter tonight from Sarah from Prof. Smith of Bangor, from Mrs. Bacon & from Julia poor girl. I feel perfectly crazed so much good fortune. I thank you very much & think you are as usual a darling. I dreamed of you last night of course. I shall write you another letter on our wedding day the 7th. About the money there can’t be any risk of it being lost. The delay I don’t understand I have not had a cent yet. They owe me $600. So already in haste to get this off & love to aunty & the darlings, your own Lawrence.

About thecivilwarproject

Like many others, I have a passion for the Civil War era, and for decades have chosen to spend my much of free time researching this topic - particularly the people, as the human component is what I find most fascinating. The site is not a source of revenue for me, nor is it tied in with a company or individual behind the scenes. It is my own personal venture. It is because of this genuine bond of respect and affection I feel towards this period in our history that I created "The Civil War Project." If this is your first time visiting the site, I welcome you and thank you for your interest. If you have any feedback or questions, please feel free to contact me at thecivilwarproject@yahoo.com.

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