Thursday, December 13, 2012

A Winter of Discontent

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg, one of the great Union disasters of the Civil War.  Already this morning I've found some great content and reflection, from John Hennessy, Kristopher D. White, and Kevin Levin.

In Gettysburg Pennsylvania, the news of the terrible slaughter at Fredericksburg filtered in over the days and weeks following the 13th. In December of 1862, Gettysburg was a town with deep partisan divides coming off a closely fought election season. As such, the citizens of Gettysburg received their news through partisan filters - the Democratic views receiving expression in the Gettysburg Compiler, and the Republican views represented by the Star & Banner and the Adams Sentinel.

On December 16, the Sentinel published the first incomplete accounts of the engagement. By the following week, the full story was known. The news came at a low point in the Union war effort. At the start of the summer of 1862, victory seemed imminent for federal arms, with armies making progress in the west and the Army of the Potomac inching to within miles of Richmond. In the intervening six months, the war had been turned on its head. That fall had seen Rebel armies take the offensive. Though these movements were repulsed, northerners realized that they would end 1862 no closer to victory than they had began it. Republicans suffered badly in the mid-term elections that fall.

News of the one-sided defeat at Fredericksburg just as the year was coming to a close seemed to underline the failings of the year. The Compiler responded to the disaster on December 22nd:

Under this caption, the Patriot & Union says:--The contending emotions of sorrow and anger fill the breasts of the Nation to-day. Our armies before Fredericksburg have been compelled to fall back; and while we are still in the dark as to the actual loss they sustained in the worse than useless encounter into which they have been precipitated; while anxiety is wide spread in every heart and anguish wrings the bosoms of the friends of the gallant slain; while every patriot mourns the loss, and every honest man blushes with shame at the new repulse; while the clouds gather and the future looks black with forebodings; while there is horror enough, God knows, for all of us--anger, deep, resolute and overwhelming, is knitting the sinews and stirring up the blood of an earnest, outraged people.

Failure upon failure, millions upon millions, hundreds of thousands of precious lives, disaster, labor, carnage, sacrifice--and will not these suffice?

What more of blood and ruin will the insatiate passion have? How long shall we stand dumb and silent, and submit? How long shall we suffer? Have we not drank the bitter cup of madness to the dregs?

There is not mere momentary passion in the thought. The gathering rage which swells the honest indignation of the land from east to west, like the deep heaving of the troubled sea, is a precursor of the approaching storm, which, if it shall ever come up on us in its fell fury, will sweep before it the curse of the nation's danger and agony, as the rushing tornado sweeps the forest and the fields in its mad, resistless career.

We have no heart to write more on the subject of that ill-judged and murderous conflict, forced upon a reluctant General by the peremptory commands of his superiors--a conflict in which, it is said, our loss will fall little short of 20,000, in killed, wounded and missing, ending in disastrous defeat, and the retreat of the army across the river to its original position near Falmouth--a position which should never have been taken, or, if taken, never left to attack the impregnable position of the enemy in front.
To close out the year, the Sentinel tried to put a more positive spin on the dismal news on December 30:
Gen. Burnside, in his preliminary report of the battle of Fredericksburg, assumes the entire responsibility for that unsuccessful movement, and states the reasons that induced him to cross the river at that point and attack the Rebels in front. The delay in the construction of pontoon bridges caused by the enemy's sharpshooters, and the subsequent fog, disarranged his plans and enabled the Rebels to concentrate their forces. As it was, the army came very near carrying the crest in the rear of the town. Failing, however, in this, the army remained for two days in line of battle, when finding that the enemy would not come out to attack, the river was re-crossed, and our troops withdrew without loss of men or property, and "marched to their positions as if going on parade--not the least demoralization or disorganization existing." The condition and spirits of the army is excellent. Gen. Burnside's despatch is frank and soldierly in the extreme, neither seeking to avoid responsibility for his course or to cast blame upon others. Of the extreme gallantry, courage and endurance of the troops, and of the good conduct of the officers, he speaks in most exalted terms.
 As the citizens of Gettysburg prepared for a long winter, and a long war, no Democrat or Republican in the town could have predicted how the new year would change their lives forever.

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