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.”