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1863, Part I – Prelude

At the time, the United States was approaching the age of four score and seven years. The country was engaged in the Civil War, a conflagration which showed no signs of abating. On January 1st of that year, President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation took effect whereby all slaves in areas not under the control of the federal government were freed. While the effects were minimal and no slaves in the North were freed, the proclamation had shamed the United Kingdom and France, whose governments had recently ended slavery in their countries, in not recognizing the slavery-supporting Confederate States of America and supplying them with goods. The aim of the war had changed from one to bring back the South into the fold of the United States into one to finally free all of its people. But even as the proclamation took effect, it wasn’t clear the United States would even remain as it was.

This post will discuss the situation as it was when 1863 began. Subsequent posts appearing periodically will each be of the major battles that took place in 1863.

The Civil War was primarily fought in two theaters: northern Virginia, especially in the area between the U.S. capital of Washington, D.C. and the Confederate capital Richmond, VA; and, everywhere else east of the Mississippi River and south of the Ohio River, the Western Theater. There would be two sub-theaters within the Western Theater; the line from Nashville to the Georgia border, and along the Mississippi River.

In the Virginia theater, 1862 had been a terrible year for the federal army. The South’s Maj. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (Jackson would be promoted to Lt. Gen. before the end of the year) had run the federal army ragged in the Shenandoah Valley. The Peninsular Campaign by Federal Maj. Gen. George McClellan and his Army of the Potomac was a wasted opportunity as he imagined many more Confederate troops than existed; on top of that, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, commanding the Army of Northern Virginia, outclassed McClellan everywhere their two armies met on the battlefield. Maj. Gen. John Pope, commander of the Union Army of Virginia, was routed at the battle of 2nd Bull Run (2nd Manassas) by Lee, Jackson, and Lee’s steady and reliable subordinate, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet. And while Lee’s September invasion of Maryland was thwarted by McClellan at Antietam, which caused Lee to retreat back to Virginia and allowed Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, McClellan’s lack of battlefield prowess caused him to be relieved by Lincoln. Unfortunately, his replacement Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside led the Union into a bloody debacle at Fredericksburg, VA in December.

But if 1862 had been a terrible year for the North in Virginia, it was a disaster for the South in the Western Theater. At the beginning of the year, the Confederates held a line from Arkansas to Memphis to central Kentucky and all points south. By the end of 1862, the rebels had been pushed out of Kentucky twice; northern Arkansas, Memphis, New Orleans, Nashville, and the northern portion of the state of Mississippi were under federal control; and, Union Maj. Gen. Ulysses Grant was threatening Vicksburg, MS to close off the connection of the Confederate states east of the Mississippi River to those west.

To add to Confederate woes, the U.S. Navy’s blockade of most of the ports in the South, from Brownsville, TX, through the Gulf of Mexico, around Florida, and up the eastern coast to Chesapeake Bay was beginning to tighten. River-bound craft had been converted by the Union into effective gunboats, which assisted in repelling Confederate forces at the end of the first day of the Battle of Shiloh (Pittsburg Landing) in Tennessee (April 5, 1862), along with helping Grant to try close off the Mississippi River to the Confederates. A brand new ship, the granddaddy of all turreted big-gun, dreadnought battleships, the U.S.S. Monitor, along with others like her, effectively nullified Confederate attempts to convert captured Union steam-and-sail ships into steam-powered, heavily-gunned ironclads that were impervious to cannon fire. Confederate blockade running was still bringing in supplies at a great rate, but there was no real Confederate naval force to challenge the U.S. Navy head on. By the end of 1862, only Charleston, SC and Mobile, AL were open to bringing in supplies from across the open sea, while Vicksburg and Port Hudson, LA allowed supplies to come in from the western Confederate states, especially Texas.

The battles of 1863 would be critical in determining if the United States remained one country or split into two. In the east, Burnside still had his huge Army of the Potomac near Fredericksburg, VA with which to attempt to attack Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia based in the city. South of Nashville, TN, Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans and his Union Army of the Cumberland was squaring off against the twice-defeated Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg (his forces were repulsed at Shiloh, and he personally led an unsuccessful invasion of Kentucky) and the Army of Tennessee. Further west Grant, commanding the Union Army of the Tennessee (not to be confused with the Confederate Army of Tennessee), was having a devil of a time trying to seriously threaten Vicksburg and the demoralized Army of Mississippi under the command of Lt. Gen. John Pemberton; although thwarted repeatedly, the dogged Grant remained relentless in his goal to take the city.

The first battle of 1863 began on the last day of 1862.

To be continued…

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