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.
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!“
It’s Sunday and U.S. President Lincoln has spent the last week dealing with the loss at Fredericksburg and the near loss of some of his Cabinet members. He receives a brief note from friend and Illinois Senator Orville Browning reminding him of the West Virginia statehood legislation that Lincoln needs to review and preferably approve in order to admit West Virginia into the Union. It’s already been several days since the bill was passed by Congress and there is concern by many why the President has yet to address it. “A delay is a calamity to the Union cause,” Brown writes. But for Lincoln, it appears that he will not address the issue today. While his wife Mary is away in Philadelphia staying at the Continental Hotel, Abraham is at the White House with his youngest boy Tad; it would have been his son Willie’s 12th birthday today. While Mary couldn’t handle being in the house where Willie passed away ten months ago or to be near , Lincoln chose to stay, no doubt taking time to visit Willie’s preserved room as he often did to weep over the loss of his precious boy. No significant work will be accomplished today; the grief is too strong.
“It seems to me now clearly developed that the enemy has two principal objects in view,” President Jefferson Davis writes to Trans-Mississippi Department commander General Theophilius H. Holmes from Vicksburg, Mississippi. “One to get control of the Mississippi River, and the other to capture the capital of the Confederate States. To prevent the enemy getting control of the Mississippi and dismembering the Confederacy, we must mainly depend upon maintaining the points already occupied by defensive works; to-wit, Vicksburg and Port Hudson.”
U.S. Corporal Elisha Hunt Rhodes writes in his diary at camp near Falmouth, Virginia:
We are now in camp and trying to repair our damage. Notwithstanding our late defeat, we all have confidence in General Burnside. If his plans had been carried out we should have won a victory. We hope to do better next time we try to cross the river.
George Robertson is a long-time Kentucky lawyer and professor who once served as legal counsel for Abraham Lincoln and other Illinois heirs of Robert Todd, Mary Lincoln’s now deceased father. George and U.S. President Lincoln have been exchanging correspondence since September, when Lincoln issued a preliminary version of the
Emancipation Proclamation that now is set to go into effect in almost a month. Robertson had complained to Lincoln that Union troops were “forcibly detaining the slaves of Union Kentuckians” and asked him to prevent such an action. To make matters worse, the policy has now personally affected Robertson as one of his slaves fled to the camp of the 22nd Wisconsin Infantry, commanded by Colonel William Utley. Per established Union military guidelines on how runaway slaves should be treated, Utley enforced those rules and not only refused to return the slave but also banned Robertson from visiting the camp. In retaliation, Robertson – now a judge – had Utley indicted for harboring a slave and sued him in a U.S. District Court. Lincoln has been receiving exasperated correspondence from Utley and Robertson on the matter. Lincoln takes up his pen and proposes an offer to Robertson in an effort to end the situation:
My dear Sir: A few days since I had a dispatch from you which I did not answer. If I were to be wounded personally, I think I would not shun it. But it is the life of the nation. I now understand the trouble is with Col. Utley; that he has five slaves in his camp, four of whom belong to rebels, and one belonging to you. If this be true, convey yours to Col. Utley, so that he can make him free, and I will pay you any sum not exceeding five hundred dollars. Yours, A. LINCOLN
Lincoln hopes that his offer to pay Robertson for his runaway slave will be accepted; then the charges against Utley are dropped and more importantly, Robertson’s slave is free and no longer has to feel threatened that his old master may forcibly bring him back. It’s an interesting but not a rare situation, to have someone in support of the Union but still wanting to keep the institution of slavery intact.
In Richmond, Virginia, Confederate President Jefferson Davis is writing a more urgent letter to the governors of the Confederate states. He appeals for aid and assistance in enrolling conscripts (their version of a military draft) and in securing more supplies (guns, clothing and food) for army use. In addition, Davis strongly pushes for the continued use of slave labor in building defensive works for the army. If the slaves can do the hard manual labor in building the defenses, then the Confederate Army can reserve their energy for fighting and winning battles. The use of slaves for military purposes is a difficult thing to ask for, as many Southern women are relying on slave labor to help keep the farms running and afloat while their husbands are away fighting for the cause.
Union Commanding General Ambrose Burnside cannot catch a break. He has his pontoon boats, but Confederate General Robert E. Lee has his cannons and arms aimed at the Rappahannock River; if Burnside’s men try to connect the boats to build the two bridges needed for the army to cross, their position will be attacked. Also, in his haste to move quickly and take action in his new leading role, Burnside had failed to establish a working supply line. He had ordered train depots at Aquia Creek to be rebuilt weeks ago, but only today a working rail line is finally established so the large army can be supplied with food and other necessary goods.
Burnside had began the Fredericksburg to Richmond campaign with vigor, but now he found himself stuck. The rain continued to fall and the river was rising. The fords were all becoming impassable, especially for his army of over 110,000. The roads were a sloppy, muddy mess, which slowed any travel by foot or wagon. He has always been focused on crossing at Fredericksburg, but now that Lee’s troops are firmly and well positioned, Major General Edwin Sumner, leader of the Grand Division that would be the first to cross, asks Burnside to reconsider as he felt the move would mean undeniable slaughter of his men. Sumner suggests that Burnside “look down the river” instead.
From Washington City it was clear to President Lincoln that his new General that was so quick to move is now frozen and going nowhere. He had seen it before with previous General George B. McClellan, but Lincoln, as he had done with McClellan, thought that maybe if he met with Burnside one-on-one he could boost his confidence and talk Burnside into taking some kind of action. Without notifying his Secretary of War Edwin Stanton or General-In-Chief Henry Halleck, Lincoln makes his way to Acquia Creek, Virginia and arrives late that evening with Burnside there to greet him. They go aboard the steamer Baltimore almost immediately; but it is too late for such a serious discussion. Lincoln decides that both should get a good night’s sleep and the true meeting of the minds can wait until morning.
In Baltimore, Maryland, nine-year-old Thomas “Tad” Lincoln has been spending the last couple of days at Barnum’s Hotel with Augustus “Gus” Gumpert, a well-to-do Philadelphia tobacco dealer that Mrs. Lincoln conducts business with and also a man whom Tad is very found of and considers his friend. Joining them is Thomas Cross, a White House messenger who is often charged with looking after Tad. Gus receives a telegram from Mary Lincoln, who has been on yet another shopping trip in New York City; she is leaving for Washington and would like Mr. Cross to come back with Tad tomorrow. It’s possible that the Lincoln’s knew they would both be away from home and thought Tad would be happier away from the city on his own adventure instead of left behind at the White House.
Daily Highlights/Updates – November 15, 2012
C.S.A. Major General Thomas J. Jackson provides an update to General Joseph E. Johnston, who is in charge of operations in Northern Virginia. Jackson informs Johnston that since the Confederates pulled out of Romney, Virginia (TCWP note: Present-day Romney is located in West Virginia), Union troops have since returned to retake possession. The Union is also moving approximately 3,000 troops 26 miles south to Moorefield. But the most important news is regarding re-enlistments, as the Confederacy is in desperate need to not only recruit, but to retain who they have. Jackson has provided those who re-list with an incentive: an authorized furlough. So far the results are encouraging.
The Alton Military Prison has only been in operation for three days but it’s already facing overcrowding issues. Chas C. Smith, U.S. Captain of the 13th Infantry, sends a letter to U.S. Lieutenant Colonel Sidney Burbank letting him know that he received yet another shipment of prisoners last night. They have rented buildings adjacent to the prison for storage and the quartermaster’s department, and the resident surgeon is looking for a suitable building for a hospital but has yet to find one. So far there has been no trouble with any of the prisoners, but soon there will not be room for the 13th Infantry to have quarters within the prison walls.
Under U.S. Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant’s instructions, most of the Union troops depart Fort Henry this morning and proceed about five miles utilizing Dover and Ridge Roads. Along the route troops are met by C.S.A. Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest, who is utilizing his cavalry to screen their movements. When Forrest observes a change of direction made by McClernand’s division after an initial encounter, he makes a quick decision to move his cavalry to Indian Creek, where they will wait to intercept them.
Three of Forrest’s squadrons dismount and wait for the large Union force to arrive. Once they do, Forrest orders a charge. The Union cavalry are given orders to move out of the way before the charge, leaving the 8th Illinois to take on Forrest and his men. The infantry opens a terrific fire at short range against the charging Confederate cavalry. A Union Battery arrives shortly after the firing begins and assists in breaking up the attack. Forrest withdraws his men behind the shelter of the Fort for the evening.
The USS Carondelet is the first Union gunboat to arrive up the river. They promptly fire numerous shells into Fort Donelson to test the strength of its defenses. There are no casualties or damage from the act. They pull out of range and await their orders for tomorrow.
Grant finally arrives at nightfall, where he sets up headquarters at Widow Crisp’s house. This puts him near the left side of the front of the line and a mile from the Cumberland River.
Over 740 miles away in Washington City, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln has spent most of his 53rd birthday at the bedside of 11-year-old son Willie. Willie has been very ill for over ten days now and is growing weaker and more shadow-like each day that passes. He is not allowed to see other children and is too ill to get out of bed, so the President and his wife Mary have been spending most of their time at Willie’s bedside. They comfort and sooth their child, read him stories and remind him that Tad and his favorite pony that he always insisted on riding every day are waiting for him to get better. The White House staff, including dressmaker Elizabeth Keckley, also take turns keeping Willie company so he is never left alone. Willie is a favorite among the White House staff; he’s intelligent and vivacious, but has a kind and tender heart. To see him in this state is almost too much for them to bear, but all they can do is pray for him to get better.
Missouri and Union generals had come to an agreement days before regarding peace between the two sides. Meanwhile, Governor Claiborne Jackson was still in communication with the Confederate government. CSA Secretary of War Leroy Pope writes the Governor in response to a letter from May 5. Pope expresses his disappointment that Missouri has not been able to join their cause, as he had always felt Missouri would be a part of their movement. He and Davis will try their best to supply men and arms. He assures Jackson that they are making plans for Missouri’s defense, and laments the fact that he had let two former prisoners of war go free – Major Anderson and General Harney – who are now both serving the Union in the crucial states of Kentucky and Missouri.
A state legislator from Maryland, John Merryman, is arrested for his attempts to hinder Union troops from moving between Baltimore and Washington. He is moved to Fort McHenry and his attorney immediately asks for a writ of habeas corpus. U.S. President Lincoln decides to suspend the writ; he had already done so along the railway lines between Baltimore and Washington, but this would now extend across the Union.
A funeral service is held in the East Room of the White House for Colonel Elmer Ellsworth. It is a large military funeral that includes President Lincoln, his wife Mary and their two youngest children, Willie and Tad. One of the guards stationed by the coffin is Francis Brownell, whose quick action yesterday had resulted in the death of Ellsworth’s killer. The President and Mary weep openly. Julia Taft, a constant presence at the White House as she often watches after her brothers and the Lincoln children, wants desperately to talk with the President and tell him of the wonderful day she had spent with Ellsworth on May 23. She decides against it when someone tells her that the President can’t say or hear a word about Ellsworth without crying. She didn’t want to cause him any more grief. For Julia it was a difficult day, as she was asked by Major Watt, the White House head gardener, to put a wreath of white roses on Ellsworth’s breast. She had never seen a dead person before so even the idea made her lightheaded, but she did it anyway. During the service she was appalled to see Tad Lincoln and her brother Holly climb on the back of General Winfield Scott’s chair, only to fall back into the arms of some of his staff when Scott stands up. Mary Lincoln is presented with the secessionist flag that had been held in Ellsworth’s arms when he was shot, but it is such a tragic reminder that she will just put it in a dresser drawer, out of view.
After the funeral, President Lincoln writes a letter to Ellsworth’s parents:
To the Father and Mother of Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth
My Dear Sir and Madam,
In the untimely loss of your noble son, our affliction here is scarcely less than your own. So much of promised usefulness to one’s country, and of bright hopes for one’s self and friends, have rarely been so suddenly dashed as in his fall. In size, in years, and in youthful appearance a boy only, his power to command men was surpassingly great. This power combined with a fine intellect, an indomitable energy, and a taste altogether military, constituted in him, as seemed to me the best natural talent, in that department, I ever knew.
And yet he was singularly modest and deferential in social intercourse. My acquaintance with him began less than two years ago; yet through the latter half of the intervening period, it was as intimate as the disparity of our ages, and my engrossing engagements would permit. To me, he appeared to have no indulgences or pastimes; and I never heard him utter a profane or an intemperate word. What was conclusive of his good heart, he never forgot his parents. The honors he labored for so laudably, and in the sad end so gallantly gave his life, he meant for them, no less than for himself. In the hope that it may be no intrusion upon the sacredness of your sorrow, I have ventured to address you this tribute to the memory of my young friend, and your brave and early-fallen child.
May God give you that consolation which is beyond all earthly power.
Sincerely your friend in a common affliction,
Julia Taft, along with her older brother half-brother Charles Sabin Taft, her three younger brothers and their playmates Willie and Tad Lincoln, watch the 11th New York Fire Zouaves participate in their “gymnastic drills” in camp led by Lincoln family friend Elmer Ellsworth. Ellsworth is in great spirits and jokingly tells the boys that the Zouaves are “his monkeys” given their great agility. When the Tafts and Lincolns leave, Ellsworth stands at the corner, lifts up his cap and merrily shouts “Come again!”, looking “very bright and handsome” in Julia’s eyes.
In Virginia, citizens vote for the Ordinance of Secession; 78% vote for secession, with the other 22% against it. Virginia will officially be the tenth state to become part of the Confederate States of America, with a final Tennessee vote pending in June. The anti-secession, northwestern Virginia delegates who met at the First Wheeling Convention ten days ago know that with this vote, their job has now only started. The result of the vote today is unacceptable, and they will continue with their plan to meet again on June 11.
C.S.A. General Joseph E. Johnston arrives at Harper’s Ferry to take command; up until now Colonel Thomas J. Jackson has been organizing and leading military efforts here. Yesterday Jackson had strategically placed troops along a 44 mile stretch of rail. Today between 11am and noon, 46 trains had filled up east and westbound lanes on the B & O (Baltimore & Ohio) Railroad lines. With the troops he had put in place just yesterday, Jackson barricades the ends of the tracks; the trains and items the 386 cars contain are now property of the Confederacy. In addition to the reward of knowing he had just pulled off a brilliant plan on Virginia’s first “official” day of war, Jackson will also be rewarded with his future horse named Little Sorrel, who was part of a large herd of horses found on the train. Jackson initially was going to call the horse “Fancy” and give it as a gift to his wife Mary Anna, but the horse fit his own riding style so perfectly that he keeps it for himself.
General Benjamin Butler runs into a key issue on his second day at Fort Monroe. Three runaway slaves appear, hoping that Butler will take them into safety. Butler issues a declaration regarding “contraband of war”, stating that any contraband – including slaves – will be kept and not returned. This sets a very important precedent that will allow slaves to escape behind Union lines to safety and out of bondage.
In the afternoon, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln attends a flag presentation ceremony at Camp Cameron (located in Georgetown). Patriotic ladies of New York present a “beautiful and rich National flag” to the 7th New York. “The raising of the flag was of course greeted with deafening huzzas, accompanied by the music of the regimental band to the tune of the Star Spangled Banner.”
Governors of three key western states – William Dennison (Ohio), Oliver Perry Morton (Indiana) and Richard Yates (Illinois) – meet in Indianapolis. The topic of their discussion focuses on Kentucky, as each of their states have Kentucky along their southern border. They believe that the Union needs to take possession of four prominent points within the state, including Louisville, Covington, Newport and Columbus, along with the railroads leading south from those points. If Kentuckians can’t be found to do this, then they believe it is their responsibility to prevent secessionists from controlling the state. They:
Around 8pm the New York Fire Zouaves Regiment is ordered to be ready to move at a moment’s notice to board the steamers Mount Vernon and James Guy for Alexandria, Virginia. It’s leader, Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, quickly writes two letters: one to his parents, the other to his fiancee Carrie Spafford.
To his parents:
My dear Father and Mother: The Regiment is ordered to move across the river tonight. We have no means of knowing what reception we are to meet with. I am inclined to the opinion that our entrance to the City of Alexandria will be hotly contested, as I am just informed that a large force have arrived there today.
My dear parents, it may be my lot to be injured in some manner. Whatever may happen, cherish the consolation that I was engaged in the performance of a sacred duty; and tonight, thinking over the probabilities of tomorrow and the occurrences of the past, I am so perfectly content to accept whatever my fortune may be, confident that He who noteth even the fall of a sparrow will have some purpose even in the fate of one like me. My darling and ever loved parents, good-bye. God bless, protect and care for you.” Elmer
And to Carrie:
My own darling Kitty. My Regiment is ordered to cross the river and move on Alexandria within six hours. We may meet with a warm reception & my darling among so many careless fellows one is somewhat likely to be hit.
If anything should happen — Darling just accept this assurance, the only thing I can leave you — The highest happiness I looked for on earth was a union with you — You have more than realized the hopes I formed regarding your advancement — And I believe I love you with all the ardor I am capable of — You know my darling any attempt of mine to convey an adequate expression of my feelings must be simply futile — God bless you, as you deserve and grant you a happy and useful life and us a union hereafter. Truly your own, Elmer.
P. S. Give my love to mother & father (such they truly were to me) and thank them again for all their kindness to me — I regret I can make no better return for it — Again good bye. God bless you my own darling. Elmer.
The 1st Michigan commanded by Colonel Orlando B. Wilcox, along with an artillery & cavalry company of U.S. military regulars, will join the Fire Zouaves in crossing the Potomac into Virginia.