150 Years Ago This Week: Spending the holidays at war

December, 1863/January, 1864

On Saturday, Dec. 19, marking the beginning of the week before Christmas, several skirmishes in Virginia and West Virginia resulted from the long-continuing Federal cavalry raids on the railroads connecting southwest Virginia and West Virginia with the eastern seaboard.

In eastern Tennessee, a skirmish between blue and gray troops occurred at Stone’s Mill. From Richmond, President Jefferson Davis wrote to Gen. Joseph Johnston, new commander of the Army of Tennessee: “The difficulties of your new position are realized, and the Government will make every effort to aid you.”

In Washington, the Lincolns hosted a reception for congressmen, other government officials, and officers of the Russian warships visiting the United States. At St. Andrew’s Bay in Florida, Union naval forces continued their destruction of 268 buildings and almost 300 salt works in 10 days.

“I shall not attempt to retract or modify the emancipation proclamation,” President Lincoln told an official of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society on Dec. 20. There was anything but peace on Earth during this week: Union troops operated against military targets and Confederate supply points at Lexington, Mo., and from Bealeton in Fauquier County to Luray in Page County.

Fighting continued at Cleveland, Tenn.; Trenton, N.C.; Fayette, Miss.; Rossville and La Fayette, Ga.; Jacksonport, Ark.; and the Culpeper Court House. Military action around Centreville, Mo., lasted three days.

On the high seas, the C.S.S. Alabama was on patrol in the Straits of Malacca, looking for Union shipping and warships. Again President Davis wrote to Gen. Johnston on Dec. 23 that he hoped the general “would soon be able to commence active operations against the enemy.”

From Washington, President Lincoln directed a message to Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks, commanding the Department of the Gulf, about an issue which weighed heavily on his mind: reconstruction. “I have all the while intended you to be master, as well as in regard to re-organizing a state government for Louisiana, as in regard to the military matters of your department.” He went on to say to Gen. Banks that the new state government was to help, not thwart, the military authorities in that state.

On the third Christmas Day of the war, the conflict continued unabated. Federal gunboats operated against Confederates on the Stono River in South Carolina; the U.S.S. Marblehead was damaged by Confederate field and siege guns there. In North Carolina, in one of the continuing series of raids against Confederate salt works, Federal troops destroyed a factory at Bear Inlet.

There was fighting at Fort Brooke in Florida, and in the far west, Union troops skirmished with Indians near Fort Gaston in California. At John’s Island near Charleston, S.C., Confederate shore batteries and the U.S.S. Pawnee dueled for several hours without either side inflicting much damage. Union cavalry conducted a scouting expedition from Vienna in Fairfax County to Leesburg in Loudoun County.

Most of the Union and Confederate land and naval forces were able to enjoy a somewhat peaceful Christmas in winter quarters on Saturday, Dec. 25. There was the usual drilling and maintenance of arms and equipment, and dreams of Christmas with loved ones far away occupied the minds of most of the combatants. It was a time for reflection, and many wondered if this was to be the last Christmas away from homes and hearths.

There was also the constant concern about what the coming year would bring, and whether a soldier or sailor would be alive to see the next Christmas. In the brutal military campaigns destined to take place in 1864, many thousands would not. But on this Christmas Day in 1863, newspaper editorials in the South and in the North all expressed hopes for “Peace on Earth,” while reminding readers of the causes for which the men fought.

Another gloomy New Year’s

On the day after Christmas, Saturday, Dec. 26, and despite the winter season, the fighting between Union and Confederate troops continued. There was skirmishing this day in the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) at Fort Gibson; at Sand Mountain, Ala.; at Port Gibson, Miss.; and in Tennessee at Somerville, New Castle and Mossy Creek.

In the far west, Indians still continued their fight with Union troops near Fort Gaston in California. C.S.S. Alabama took two Union merchant vessels in the Straits of Malacca, which connects the Pacific and Indian Oceans near the island of Sumatra in Malaysia. The following day, President Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton traveled to Point Lookout in Maryland and visited Confederate prisoners of war in the prison camp there.

At Dalton, Ga., Gen. Joseph Johnston officially assumed command of the Confederate Department of Tennessee. Several skirmishes took place in a number of places in Tennessee and North Carolina. On Monday, Dec. 28, several Confederate congressional acts took effect, abolishing substitution for military service and authorizing changes in the tax in kind.

As the last week of 1863 ended, the fighting continued. From the state capitol in Raleigh, North Carolina Gov. Zebulon Vance wrote President Davis of the discontent in his state, particularly from the western counties. “I have concluded that it is perhaps impossible to remove it, except by making some effort at negotiation with the enemy.”

The only recorded fighting on Thursday, Dec. 31, was a skirmish in Searcy County, Ark. In Richmond, the “Richmond Examiner” reflected the opinion of many Confederates: “Today closes the gloomiest year of our struggle.” The Spring of 1863 had seen Confederate successes in Virginia, notably the Battle of Chancellorsville, but the combined Southern defeats of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania and Vicksburg in Mississippi — with the loss of the entire Mississippi River valley — and the Federal occupation of Chattanooga disillusioned many in the South.

In the North, while there was some rejoicing as the year closed, victory and restoration of the Union was by no means certain. On the last day of 1863, President Davis nominated Sen. George Davis of North Carolina as Attorney General, succeeding Wade Keyes, ad interim appointee.

By the third winter of the war, the character of the conflict between North and South had altered, and the future seemed more definite. Hope for victory and independence lessened in the Confederacy while it increased somewhat in the Union.

The Federal war effort was clear, made so by both policy and action, implemented by manpower and material supremacy. Emancipation of the slaves was now an irrevocable commitment, and military conquest of the Confederacy was being relentlessly pursued. The Lincoln administration faced an election in November, 1864, but many wondered if it would make a difference.

The people and the soldiers and sailors of the Confederacy felt pressed back toward their inner bastions. The dreams of Northern collapse, foreign intervention by England and France, the lifting of the blockade and dramatic military victories became more nebulous. No military campaigns or great battles appeared imminent as the New Year 1864 began, but the threat remained, and many believed that disaster was only a matter of time. The great armies in Virginia and Tennessee were, for the most part, quiet, but guerilla activities and small skirmishes were daily occurrences. This was a time for regrouping, reassignment of commanders and much soul-searching by both sides.

Since the end of November, 1863, there had been no major military action and none was in the immediate future. Reconstruction efforts began in the areas of the Confederacy controlled by the North, and the Federal Congress turned its focus on the coming elections. The Confederacy had command problems, particularly in the Western theatre of the war, and there was increasing discontent of the Davis administration in most sections of the Confederate States.

On New Year’s Day, 1864, extreme cold swept across much of the North and the South, and temperatures fell far below zero as far south as Memphis, Tenn. In both Executive Mansions, in Washington and in Richmond, the usual New Year’s Day ceremonies took place. There was some fighting despite the bitter cold at Dandridge, Tenn., and Bunker Hill, W. Va. In the Humboldt District of California, Union troops struggled in mortal conflict with Indians there.

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.