This Day in the Civil War

Friday Dec. 20 1861

Shuttle diplomacy was not yet a term in common use, but communications were shuttling back and forth by every vessel traveling between Washington and London. The dispute did not center so much on the fate of the two Confederate commissioners Mason and Slidell themselves--although their release to British custody was one of the demands--as it did on English outrage that a US ship had stopped a British one on the high seas and demanded the men be turned over. Negotiations took place again today between British ambassador to Washington Lord Lyons and Secretary of State Steward. Lyons was losing patience. He wrote to his boss, Foreign Minister Lord Russell, “I am so convinced that unless we give our friends here a good lesson this time, we shall have the same trouble with them again very soon...Surrender or war will have a very good effect on them.”

Saturday Dec. 20 1862

It had hardly been a smooth march down the Mississippi River from Cairo, Illinois, for the army of Ulysses S. Grant, but it had seemed unstoppable until today. Grant had established this base as a supply depot for the next stop, an attack on Vicksburg, Miss. In a lightning strike out of Grenada, Miss., Confederate Gen. Earl Van Dorn led a force which swooped down on the camp without warning. Grant was not there at the time, confusion ensued, and it was finally surrendered almost without a fight. Some 1500-1800 Federal soldiers were taken prisoner and an incredible $1,500,000 worth of supplies were taken or destroyed. Grant, aghast, was forced to cancel plans for the attack on Vicksburg and withdrew his surviving forces to LaGrange, Tenn. Criticism of Grant was mounting, and this did not help at all.

Sunday, Dec. 20, 1863

The recent command changes at the top of the Confederate Army of Tennessee seemed to have settled down. After Bragg had come Hardee; replacing Hardee now was Gen. Joseph Eggleston Johnston. As he settled into the intricacies of his new office there was the expected bureaucratic tangle of orders, requisitions and paperwork of all sorts to be gone through. At the top of the pile was the obligatory letter from his President, Jefferson Finis Davis. To call it a letter of congratulations, under the circumstances, would not be quite correct, but not yet was it a missive of condolence. “The difficulties of your new position,” Davis wrote, “are realized, and the Government will make every possible effort to aid you...” What Davis did not need to write, because Johnston, like every other Confederate commander, already knew it, was that there was precious little that Richmond could do to aid the effort in the West. The effort of sending Longstreet’s corps of the Army of Northern Virginia to Tennessee had been a failure.

Tuesday Dec. 20 1864

It had been three days since Gen. William T. Sherman had sent a letter to his Confederate counterpart Hardee inside Savannah, Ga., demanding the surrender of his army and the city it defended. As Hardee had barely 10,000 men to Sherman’s 62,000, fighting was out of the question. As the city was surrounded on three sides, with Howard’s corps moving to cut off the route to the north, surrender seemed the only choice. Hardee, after delaying as long as he could, booked out of town. The bridges were unusable, but Hardee’s engineers rigged an ingenious pontoon bridge out of rice-carrying barges lashed together across the Savannah River. All the cotton and most of the 250 cannon had to be left behind, but 10,000 soldiers of the Confederacy lived to fight another day. Sherman was severely criticized for allowing the escape.

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