150 Years Ago This Week: The secession of western Virginia

December 1862

President Lincoln, on Saturday, Dec. 6, ordered the the Dec. 19 execution of 39 Sioux warriors for their part in the Indian uprising in Minnesota (the Dakota War of 1862), which lasted a month at the end of summer. More than 300 of the captured Sioux had been convicted by a military tribunal and sentenced to death; none of them had any legal counsel. Lincoln reviewed the trial records and sought to differentiate between those who had engaged in warfare against Federal forces and those who committed crimes and atrocities against civilians. The president commuted the death sentences of 264 of the convicted Sioux, but approved the execution of the other 39.

On Dec. 7, Confederate Brig. Gen. John Hunt Morgan led 1,400 cavalry in an attack on a Federal force of about 2,000 men under Col. Absalom Moore near Hartsville, Tenn. In the two-hour fight, the cavalry surprised and drove back the Union troops guarding a bridge crossing over the Cumberland River. Around 1,800 Federals were taken prisoner; many later said that Gen. Morgan’s men wore blue uniforms, which allowed his advance units to easily overrun the Federal defenses.

The same day, at Prairie Grove Church, Ark., some twelve miles from Fayetteville, Confederate troops commanded by Brig. Gen. Thomas Hindman sought to prevent two Union divisions under Brig. Gen. Francis Herron and Brig. Gen. James Blunt from joining forces. The Confederates were initially successful but were eventually pushed back to a wooded ridge. They dug in and were assaulted by two unsuccessful Union attacks after the Federal divisions joined. As darkness closed, the fighting stopped and the Confederates held their ground. Bitter winter weather at nightfall forced the Confederates to withdraw, with neither side claiming victory. Both sides had about 10,000 troops engaged; Federal casualties numbered about 1,250, while Confederates suffered some 1,300 casualties. Gen. Hindman’s withdrawal to Van Buren, Ark. established Union control over the state.

In Richmond, Confederate President Jefferson Davis was concerned about Lt. Gen. John Pemberton’s defense of Vicksburg, Miss. He wrote to Gen. Pemberton: “Are you in communication with Genl. J. E. Johnston? Hope you will be reinforced in time.” He also wrote to Gen. Robert E. Lee at Fredericksburg on Dec. 8: “In Tennessee and Mississippi the disparity between our armies and those of the enemy is so great as to fill me with apprehension.” He told Gen. Lee he regretted that he could little to help him with manpower, and advised Gen. Lee that he intended to travel to the west immediately.

On Dec. 10, in an ironic twist, after the Federal government had previously said in 1861 that secession of the Southern states from the Union was unlawful, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill creating the state of West Virginia. This bill – which granted secession of western Virginia from Virginia and establishing West Virginia – had previously passed the Senate on July 14. The same day, Confederate forces defeated a Union garrison at Plymouth, N.C., and seized the town. In Virginia, Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s Union troops at Falmouth, across the Rappahannock from Fredericksburg, increased their activities there, indicating that an attack was imminent.

On the foggy morning of Dec. 11, Union troops began constructing five pontoon bridges to cross the Rappahannock River and advance closer to the Confederates on the high ground beyond Fredericksburg. The Union troops constructing the bridges were furiously assaulted in town by Mississippi sharpshooters under Brig. Gen. William Barksdale; by noon, two bridges had been built. Union artillery fire on the high ground overlooking the river caused severe structural damages in Fredericksburg. In mid-afternoon, four brigades of Union troops crossed the bridges and drove the Mississippians out of the town. By nightfall, all five bridges had been built; large numbers of Union troops under Maj. Gen. Edwin Sumner and Maj. Gen. William Franklin occupied Fredericksburg. The rest of the Army of the Potomac was set to cross the next day.

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Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 193 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.