This Day in the Civil War

Sunday Dec. 15 1861

When it was first announced, the Union blockade of shipping in and out of Southern ports sounded like a bad joke. The Federal navy was an unimpressive force to begin with. Many of its vessels had been sailed South by captains and crews who sided with the Confederacy; others were caught in Southern ports or burned at their moorings by those would sooner see them destroyed than taken by the enemy. This late in the year, however, the Federal teeth were beginning to bite. Two blockade runners were taken today, one off Cape Fear and the other off Cape Hatteras. Rates charged by ship owners were beginning to rise rapidly.

Monday Dec. 15, 1862

The blood still flowed on the field and in the hospitals set up in nearly every building still standing in the rear of Federal and Confederate lines alike, as the defeated Union army retreated back across the Rappahannock River. Blood, of a more metaphorical and political nature, flowed in the hallways of the War Departments in the respective capitals. In Richmond there were those who criticized Robert E. Lee for not following his successful defense of the heights with a counterattack. These critics seemed unaware that even after the bloodletting, the Confederate army was considerably outnumbered, and Federal artillery was undamaged across the river. In Washington, the rage against Burnside rained in from all directions. Hooker’s was perhaps the most vociferous, a fact which would be remembered later. Only Lincoln was unable to criticize; having fired McClellan for failing to fight, he could not very well castigate Burnside for having done so.

Tuesday Dec. 15, 1863

There were those who fought their parts of the American Civil War, and had as much effect as a great many who marched and fired guns, but who never came near battlefields. One such person was US Ambassador to England Charles Francis Adams. Confederate Captain Barron wrote today from London to Confederate Secretary of the Navy Mallory. Barron was in a cold rage. Spies, he wrote bitterly, “are to be found following the footsteps of any Confederate agent in spite of all the precautions we can adopt.” Anywhere Southern agents went to arrange for ship repairs, fuel supplies, or armaments purchases, one of these “spies” would get word to Adams and shortly thereafter the promised work or purchase would be cancelled. And it wasn’t just in London that this happened: it was hard to get work done in any port in Europe.

Thursday Dec. 15, 1864

Gen. George Thomas had nearly gotten himself relieved of command of the Union forces in Nashville for not attacking John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee when first told to do so some weeks ago. Thomas had insisted that he had been stripped of too many good soldiers, particularly cavalry units, when William T. Sherman left for Atlanta, and he needed time to rebuild. Then an ice storm had hit central Tennessee and brought everything to a halt for some days. Today the ice was gone and the Army of the Cumberland swept forth from the gates of Nashville. The strategy was simple: a small force on the Union left pinned down the Confederate right. The main Union strike, with some 35,000 troops, smashed the opposite end of the line, taking the fortifications and then Montgomery Hill. The Southern line was pushed back to Franklin Pike, where they managed to hold. Hood, in his report, claimed that this retreat was his intention all along, as the original line was overextended and the present one was better suited for defense. Both sides readjusted positions somewhat during the night, and waited for the dawn.

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