The holiday seasons during the Civil War years were predictably somber - Colorado Politics

The holiday seasons during the Civil War years were predictably somber

Author: Patrick Teegarden - December 20, 2011 - Updated: December 20, 2011


December is the traditional time for overall “year in review” wrap up stories. So here’s an attempt to summarize the years of the Civil War. The following is admittedly far too superficial for any historian or amateur student of that period, but will hopefully give more general readers a glimpse of the painful annual retrospectives families were somberly reflecting upon during the holiday seasons of 1860-1865.

1860 — Dark Horse candidate Abraham Lincoln of Illinois became first Republican elected to the presidency of the United States, based on plurality of the popular vote in November. Radical Southern Fire Eaters reacted by launching the mayhem of secession, beginning of course in South Carolina aka The Palmetto State. The prescient and witty anti-secessionist, James L. Petigru, observed at the time, “South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum.”

South Carolina was the first of 7 states to secede prior to Lincoln’s Inauguration in March 1861 (Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas followed suit in that order, from January 9 through March 2). Following the bombardment of Fort Sumter, 4 more states quickly followed suit: Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee. With delusional bravado, the Confederacy also asserted an illusory claim to 2 more (Kentucky and Missouri). A great piece of trivia is that the Confederacy used 13 stars on its Battle Flag, even though only 11 states formally seceded.

The Battle of Fort Henry.

1861 — After the Union Army’s mortifying defeat and panicked retreat at Manassas, VA (Battle of Bull Run I) in July, President Lincoln replaced General Irvin McDowell with General George McClellan as Commander of the Army of the Potomac. McClellan then reorganized those troops, keeping them in continuous training and winter encampment, with no major military effort to occur until the following spring, when he unsuccessfully tried to take Richmond in the Peninsula Campaign.

General George McClellan

Out west, two other officers were casting about for direction in an as yet undefined conflict: relatively well-known and well connected General William Tecumseh Sherman, after serving honorably at the Bull Run defeat, was placed in charge of troops in the mid-west, only to suffer a debilitating anxiety attack, stemming from his mistaken belief that his forces were hopelessly outnumbered and in danger of imminent annihilation from hidden rebel forces.

General Phil Sheridan

Meanwhile, Sherman’s future commander, friend and confidant, Colonel Ulysses S. Grant had been promoted to the most junior level of general officer, and placed in charge of troops in Cairo, Illinois. Contrary to Sherman, McClellan, and virtually every other general officer at that point in the war, Grant went off looking for a fight, moving to Paducah, KY in response to Confederate occupation of Columbus, KY, and subsequently moving troops along the Mississippi River to Belmont, on the western side of the river from Columbus. In retrospect, these nearly unnoticed maneuvers by this unremarkable officer are great foreshadowing of the one man in the entire Union Army who would choose action and aggression in the face of opposition over the next four years.

1862 — Fredericksburg, VA. What a difference a year makes! Unlike the smaller fights of 1861, the battles of 1862 achieved levels of violence, bloodshed, and suffering which would continually escalate and shock the sensibilities of both sides, but particularly the civilian population of the North, thus calling into question the Union’s long term willingness to sustain the fight.

Among the most significant battles of 1862 were:

• Ft. Henry/Ft. Donelson, TN (Union victory);

• Shiloh/Pittsburgh Landing, TN (Union victory, but only after near defeat in a surprise attack by Confederates);

• McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign (eventually a Confederate victory, with Robert E. Lee assuming command);

• The Shenandoah campaign (this phase a Confederate victory for General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson);

• Manassas/Bull Run II (Confederate victory);

• Pea Ridge/Elkhorn Tavern, AR (Union victory);

• Antietam/Sharpsburg, MD (technically a Union victory, but Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia escapes to safety across the Potomac River);

• Holly Springs, MS (Confederate victory, ending Grant’s first attempt to take Vicksburg);

• Fredericksburg, VA (Confederate victory).

Three other significant acknowledgments for 1862 are:

• September announcement by Abraham Lincoln of Emancipation Proclamation;

• November dismissal by Abraham Lincoln of General George McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac (McClellan replaced by his friend, General Ambrose Burnside);

• Glorieta Pass, NM — Colorado’s state villain, John Chivington, prior to his later Sand Creek massacre infamy, successfully attacked and destroyed the supply wagons of Confederate troops from Texas. The true Union hero of Glorieta Pass was Colonel Manuel Cortes, who guided Chivington’s Colorado Volunteers undetected through the mountains to the supply camp of the unsuspecting Confederate forces.

1863 — Casualty-wise, 1863 overall was a tough year for both sides. For the Confederacy, the brilliance of Lee and Jackson at Chancellorsville nearly destroyed the Union’s Army of the Potomac, which was then under the command of General Joe Hooker. But ultimately Lee and the Rebels were the greatest losers at Chancellorsville with the mortal wounding of General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson by “friendly fire.” Gettysburg was the reverse, with a brilliant victory by the Union Army of the Potomac, now under the command of General George Meade. But like McClellan at Antietam, Meade failed to finish the job by pursuing Lee’s beaten and exhausted Army of Northern Virginia to its permanent demise.

Meanwhile, out west, the one Union General who knew how to finish a battle and a campaign, Ulysses S. Grant, achieved the most brilliant military victory by either side throughout the Civil War, resulting in the fall of Vicksburg, MS and the surrender of yet another entire Confederate Army (Grant also received the surrender of an Army at Ft. Donelson).

Grant was then deployed to Chattanooga, TN, where he relieved General Rosencrans of command in favor of the more capable General George Thomas, aka, “The Rock of Chickamauga.” At Chattanooga, Grant had a daunting assemblage of generals, including Thomas, Sherman, Hooker, Burnside, and the up-and-coming Phil Sheridan, who was receiving particular notice from Grant for his pugnacious temperament. After masterfully extricating the besieged Union forces from near starvation at Chattanooga, Grant was called to Washington where he would soon be promoted again to the command of all Union troops in early 1864.

1864 — This penultimate year of our fratricidal war was anything but straightforward. Grant accepted command from President Lincoln to much fanfare and high expectations, and implemented the first multi-theater strategic initiative of the war. Grant appointed his most trusted lieutenant, Sherman, to command the Union’s western forces, and the two of them met personally to map out their coordinated plans.

But as always, the killing fields of Virginia would be the near undoing of the Union war effort, as once again Lee’s local troops confronted the Army of the Potomac ferociously in the dense wooded areas of Spotsylvania County known as The Wilderness. The Wilderness battleground actually overlapped in places with Peninsula Campaign and Chancellorsville battlefields from previous years, and stories of men killing one another and falling into the decayed skeletal remains of their predecessors within this dark forest are chilling but true.

But the major difference this time around was that, unlike McDowell, McClellan, Burnside, and Hooker, Grant was unwilling to acknowledge defeat, and continued to advance his forces in left-flanking maneuvers until finally reaching Petersburg, VA, just south of Richmond, where he besieged the city and severed the surrounding supply lines into the Confederate Capitol itself.

However, the Union public was horrified by the amount of carnage and bloodshed of this Overland Campaign, which they had mistakenly expected to be a relatively quick and painless final coup de grace against the Rebels. The public was tired of war, and it appeared that President Lincoln was doomed to defeat in his re-election bid against none other than General George McClellan.

But among Grant’s considerable gifts was his eye for talent. At the beginning of September, Sherman captured Atlanta, and shortly thereafter, another Grant protégé, Phil Sheridan, made his immortal ride from Winchester up to his tottering troops in the Shenandoah Valley. With Sheridan’s arrival, his forces rallied to finally defeat Jubal Early’s Army, sending it limping back to the besieged Lee in and around Petersburg and Richmond.

In November and December, the cautious and slow, but nonetheless effective, Union General George Thomas defeated General John Bell Hood’s western forces at Franklin and then Nashville, TN, effectively destroying that Army, and making the eventual Union victory all the more apparent.

And for Christmas, having completed his fabled “March” through Georgia, General William Tecumseh Sherman occupied the coastal city of Savannah, Georgia, and sent the following telegram to President Lincoln:

“I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the City of Savannah, with one hundred and fifty guns and plenty of ammunition, also about twenty-five thousand bales of cotton.”

1865 — With apologies to Charles Dickens, who had published A Tale of Two Cities only six years earlier, for the United States 1865 truly was the best of times and the worst of times. In less than one week in April (April 9 through April 15), Grant accepted Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, effectively bringing Civil War hostilities to an end, and our greatest President, Abraham Lincoln, was assassinated. On December 6, the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution was adopted, and makes for a fittingly ambiguous close to an overview of our most ambiguous collective memory of what the Civil War truly means to our nation, 150 years later.

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

A happy and peaceful holiday season for everyone.

Patrick Teegarden authored a series on the 150th anniversary of the Civil War for The Colorado Statesman. He can be reached at

Patrick Teegarden

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