150 Years Ago This Week: Mother Nature prepares a battlefield

February 1863

River and ocean warfare highlighted the events of the third week in February 1863. In Washington, President Lincoln was concerned about a naval attack being planned for Charleston, S.C. There was fighting at Yazoo Pass, Miss., when Confederates there opposed Maj. Gen. Ulysses Grant’s plans to move gunboats down the Yazoo River and on to Vicksburg from the rear.

The U.S. Senate approved a Conscription Act in Washington on Monday, Feb. 16. This law was intended to fill the ranks of the Union Army which was not being adequately served by voluntary enlistments. Provost Marshal General Simeon Draper estimated that some 100,000 Federal soldiers had deserted their posts. It was hoped that the new law would better provide for the interests of the U.S. than the system currently in use.

Below Vicksburg, on Feb. 17, at the junction of the Red and Mississippi Rivers, the Union gunboat Indianola was in position to oppose Confederate river vessels. Confederate guerilla fighters near Memphis attacked the Union vessel Hercules; in retaliation, Federal troops burned the town of Hopefield, Ark., to the ground. Gen. Grant rescinded last week’s order restricting circulation of the Chicago Times due to alleged anti-Northern sentiments. The next day, Gen. Pierre G.T. Beauregard, in command at Charleston, S.C., warned the city’s defenders about anticipated Union attacks there and at Savannah.

In Virginia, two divisions of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s First Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia were ordered to proceed to the peninsula east of Richmond, to protect the Confederate capital from Federal threats from the peninsula or south of the James River. A Democratic convention at Frankfort, Ky., was disrupted by Federal authorities as members were believed to be pro-Confederate.

Fighting broke out in Mississippi on Thursday, Feb. 19, between Gen. Grant’s troops and Confederates on the Yazoo and Coldwater Rivers. The same day, in Britain, two mass meetings were held at Liverpool and at Carlisle, supporting Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. A heavy eight-inch snowfall in Virginia fell on Fredericksburg, covering the camps of the opposing Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia.

In a snowy Richmond, Pres. Jefferson Davis wrote Gen. Joseph E. Johnston that he regretted “the confidence of the superior officers in Gen. Bragg’s fitness for command has been so much impaired. It is scarcely possible in that state of the case for him to possess the requisite confidence of the troops.” Davis was reluctant to remove Gen. Braxton Bragg from command; yet at the same time was very concerned about the military situation at Vicksburg.

Near Fort Halleck in the Dakota Territory, fighting broke out between Indians and Federal troops on Friday, Feb. 20. That same day, the Confederate Congress passed an act providing for the issuance of bonds for funding Confederate treasury notes.

In the North, with currency and coins in small denominations becoming very scarce, local merchants were issuing personal notes in the value of one, two and three cents. Late that night, another snowstorm dumped nine more inches on the Union and Confederate army camps around Fredericksburg, setting the stage for what would prove to be a battle of unusual and monumental proportions.

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.