150 Years Ago This Week: A bloody year comes to a close

December 1862/January 1863

In the last days of 1862, Federal forces closed in on Vicksburg, Miss. and Gen. Braxton Bragg’s Confederate army centered around Murfreesboro, Tenn. In Washington, President Lincoln wrote the last revisions to the Emancipation Proclamation; in the South, President Davis was in Alabama, still on his tour of the Confederate States.

On Saturday, Dec. 27, Maj. Gen. William Sherman’s Federal troops disembarked from the river transports on the Yazoo River in Mississippi. As the Union soldiers picked their way through the swamps and bayous toward Vicksburg, Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton, the Confederate commander at Vicksburg, rushed troops by rail from the east to defend the city. On Dec. 28, some minor fighting occurred just north of Vicksburg.

In Tennessee, Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans’ Federals advanced on Murfreesboro from Nashville. Near President Lincoln’s birthplace in Kentucky, Brig. Gen. John Hunt Morgan’s Confederate raiders destroyed a bridge at Muldraugh’s Hill and fought Federals at Bacon Creek before heading back toward Tennessee.

Gen. Sherman’s troops arrived at Chickasaw Bluffs, just north of Vicksburg, on Dec. 29; the Bluffs overlooked the Mississippi River, and Gen. Pemberton’s troops charged through the swamps to slaughter the Union forces. Gen. Sherman’s men countered with a futile frontal assault reminiscent of the fighting at Fredericksburg, and were repulsed with heavy losses. Union casualties out of some 31,000 men engaged numbered almost 1,800, while Confederates with 14,000 men put their losses at not quite 200. Gen. Sherman concluded that he could not take Vicksburg from the north, and ordered a retreat back to the Yazoo River and the awaiting river transports.

The Federals steamed north on the Mississippi River again toward Memphis. In Tennessee, Gen. Rosecrans’ army of some 41,000 Union troops encountered strong resistance from Gen. Bragg’s 35,000 Confederates as the Union forces closed in on Murfreesboro. At Dripping Springs, Ark., Brig. Gen. James Blunt’s Union Army of the Frontier fought the Confederates there and drove the Southerners through Van Buren, destroying forty wagons, four river steamers and military supplies. In Washington, President Lincoln produced his final draft of the Emancipation Proclamation on Tuesday, Dec. 30; he wanted to issue it on Jan. 1.

On the night of Dec. 30, the ironclad U.S.S. Monitor, which had fought the Confederate ironclad C.S.S. Virginia in March at Hampton Roads, foundered in a severe gale off Cape Hatteras, N.C., as it was being towed to the Carolina coast. Never very seaworthy, the ironclad sank in heavy seas with a loss of sixteen officers and men. The U.S.S. Rhode Island, which was escorting the Monitor, rescued 47 officers and men.

In the pre-dawn hours of Wednesday, Dec. 31, at Murfreesboro, Gen. Bragg’s Confederates caught the Union troops under Gen. Rosecrans by surprise. The Union lines were driven in; the Federals set up defenses, with their backs to Stone’s River. In three days of intense winter combat, the two armies fought it out with charges and countercharges; neither side gained or gave up any ground. When the fighting finally ended on Jan. 3, Gen. Bragg’s men were unable to dislodge the Federals, and Gen. Bragg ordered a withdrawal toward Tullahoma, Tenn. Federal casualties numbered just over 13,000; Confederate casualties numbered more than 10,000. The North needed a victory, however inadvertent it was.

1862 was over. Since April 12, 1861 at Ft. Sumter, more than 2,000 engagements had been fought, spreading blood and death all over American soil, east and west, north and south. Everyone knew full well that 1863 would bring more names on newspaper casualty lists, more sorrow and death, more suffering and loss. Many on both sides felt the dread of perhaps not living to see another new year.

A Confederate in Gen. Bragg’s army wrote home, “I am sick and tired of this war, and I can see no prospects of having peace for a long time to come. I don’t think it will ever be stopped by fighting, the Yankees can’t whip us and we can never whip them. I see no prospect of peace unless the Yankees themselves rebell and throw down their arms and refuse to fight any longer.”

Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 194 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.