150 Years Ago This Week: Worry, hope and discontent

March 1863

The first glimmerings of spring after a winter of bitter weather greeted North and South as the month of March, 1863, began. There were increased worries in the Confederacy, and hope mixed with discontent in the Union. Northern citizens were critical of their military leaders, even of Maj. Gen. Ulysses Grant; he had his troops apparently spasmodically making one effort after another in Mississippi in futile attempts to take Vicksburg. In Richmond, the government saw signs that Vicksburg would be soon attacked in earnest and extensive, though futile, attempts were being made to save it.

On Monday, March 2, the U.S. Congress confirmed the appointments of four major generals and nine brigadier generals for the Regular Army, and 40 major generals and 200 brigadier generals of volunteers. Thirty-three U.S. Army officers were dismissed from the service, having been found guilty by court-martial of various charges.

The following day, President Lincoln signed “An Act For Enrolling & Calling Out the National Forces and for Other Purposes.” This Conscription Act called for the enlistment in military service of all able-bodied males between 20 and 45 years of age, for three years. The law also provided that a drafted man could furnish a substitute or pay his way out of the army for $300.

Some 116,188 men furnished substitutes through the end of the war, while another 86,724 paid the $300 commutation fee. One of those who furnished a substitute was President Lincoln himself, to remove any stigma from the practice. Another man was Stephen Grover Cleveland of New York, who furnished a Polish immigrant, George Brinski, so that Cleveland could stay home and care for his widowed mother.

In 1884, Grover Cleveland became the first U.S. president elected since the end of the war never to have served in the conflict. He spent the war years as an attorney practicing law in Buffalo.

Another provision of the draft law was that military forces could be called up by Federal order, without intervention by the states. In addition, Congress passed a financial bill intended to aid the Federal economy by issuing Treasury notes; $300 million in 1863 and $600 million for 1864.

Moreover, Congress also extended suspension of the writ of habeas corpus throughout the entire Union. This controversial measure incurred the wrath of 36 Democratic representatives, who went on record protesting such a sweeping measure to curtail individual freedom.

The Territory of Idaho was carved from a section of the Territory of Washington and established on March 3, the same day that a third Federal naval attack against the Confederate Fort McAllister near Savannah failed despite eight hours of bombardment.

There was fighting on March 4 in Tennessee, Missouri and Virginia. In Tennessee, at Spring Hill, Federal forces were surrounded by Confederate cavalry under Nathan B. Forrest and infantry under Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn. The Union cavalry managed to escape, but the U.S. infantry surrendered after a heavy engagement on March 5.

Work continued by Federal forces building the canal opposite Vicksburg to allow Union river traffic to evade and bypass the Confederate artillery batteries overlooking the Mississippi. Occasionally, the efforts were shelled by the artillery in the city on the opposite side of the river.

Federal soldiers in Columbus, Ohio, acting on their own, badly damaged the offices of the allegedly pro-Southern Columbus Crisis, for publishing anti-Union sentiments. In Baltimore, the Federal army posted there forbade the sale of “secession music,” and confiscated all such song sheets.

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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.