150 Years Ago This Week: Lincoln’s preliminary plans for Reconstruction

December, 1863

Lt. Gen. James Longstreet pulled his troops out of the Knoxville area in Tennessee on Friday, Dec. 4, and, on their return to Virginia, got as far as Greenville, where they set up winter quarters. They were thus in a position to move into Virginia to support Gen. Lee’s army or take offensive action in the West. The Confederate withdrawal marked the end of the Autumn campaign in Tennessee, resulting in a major Union victory.

In Charleston Harbor, S.C., seven full days of bombardment of Fort Sumter ended, with over 1,300 shells fired at the crumbling symbol of Southern defiance. Maj. Gen. William Sherman and his Union troops entered Knoxville on Dec. 6, ending the siege of Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s men there.

In Richmond, President Jefferson Davis seriously considered sending Gen. Lee from Virginia to Tennessee to reorganize the Army of Tennessee. Two days later, on Dec. 6, the Union ironclad Weehawken sank in Charleston Harbor; a strong tide swept over the deck and poured down through an open hatch, taking two dozen crew members to the bottom of the harbor.

On Monday, Dec. 7, both the Congress of the United States and the Congress of the Confederate States convened; the first session of the Thirty-Eighth Congress met in Washington. In Richmond, the fourth session of the First Congress met, and listened to President Davis’ message about the “grave reverses” of the past summer but the Confederate leader stated that the progress of the enemy “has been checked.”

There was no improvement in foreign relations; finances demanded attention; it was regrettable that the enemy had refused to exchange prisoners of war and there were special problems in the Trans-Mississippi, cut off from the rest of the Confederacy. Mr. Davis concluded his message by condemning “the savage ferocity of the Federals by these pretended friends of human rights and liberties against the unfortunate negroes. The hope last year entertained of an early termination of the war has not been realized, but the patriotism of the people has proved equal to every sacrifice demanded by their country’s need.”

President Lincoln delivered his annual message to the Congress on Tuesday, Dec. 8 and issued his Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction, offering pardons to those who “directly or by implication participated in the existing rebellion” if they took an oath of allegiance to the Union. Excluded were “high-ranking military officers and members of the Confederate government, all who resigned commissions in the U.S. Army and Navy” to join the Confederacy and “ those who treated negroes or whites otherwise than lawfully as prisoners of war.”

If “at least one-tenth of the citizens who voted in the election of 1860 so wish, a state government would be recognized in any of the seceded states. Citizens must take the oath to support the United States, and slavery would be barred.” Thus President Lincoln had taken a significant step toward reconstruction and indicated his future course of moderation against the South.

In Richmond, President Davis was quite apprehensive over the military situation in the Confederacy, and asked Gen. Lee to visit him. Rep. Henry Foote of Mississippi, bitterly criticized the President’s military and civil policies. Also on Dec. 8, leading a group of Confederate sympathizers, John C. Braine seized the Union merchant steamer Chesapeake off Cape Cod and headed to Nova Scotia. In Louisiana, a mutiny by black Union soldiers at Fort Jackson, below New Orleans, was suppressed by Federal white officers; the mutiny was reported to have been started by alleged soldier mistreatment by one officer.

On Dec. 10, there was some nasty fighting in eastern Tennessee as Gen. Longstreet gathered his command around Greenville. Engagements occurred at Gatlinburg, Long Ford, Morristown and Russellville. In Florida, a Federal land and sea force destroyed a Confederate salt works in Choctawatchie Bay.

On Friday, Dec. 11, a relatively light bombardment of some 220 rounds at Fort Sumter exploded a powder magazine, killing 11 and wounding 41. This was to be the final bombardment of 1863 against the crumbling fortress, but it brought about no sign of surrender to Union forces.

John A. Seddon, the Confederate Secretary of War, submitted his annual report to President Davis on Dec. 11. He admitted serious defeats, especially in Mississippi, and reduced military effectiveness because of desertion, straggling and absenteeism. Mr. Seddon recommended repeal of the substitute and exemption provisions of the draft law in the Confederate States.

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.