Emerging Revolutionary War is pleased to present an excerpt from the forthcoming book Seizing Destiny: The Army of the Potomac’s ‘Valley Forge’ and the Civil War Winter that Saved the Union by Albert Conner, Jr., with Chris Mackowski, published by Savas Beatie. The book likens the AoP’s experience in Stafford County, Virginia, in the winter of 1862-63 to that of Washington’s army outside Philadelphia in the winter of 1777-78. The book contends that the AoP’s resurgence as a result of that winter represented the most significant non-battle turning point of the war. Seizing Destiny will be available the third week of March.
Dissatisfaction swept over the Army of the Potomac like a midwinter blizzard. Morale plummeted. Men grew bitter. Hope froze.
The chill was far worse than anything Rufus Dawes had seen back in Wisconsin, and it was only late December. The 24-year-old major of the 6th Wisconsin Infantry, born on the Fourth of July in 1838, had watched conditions worsen ever since the debacle in Fredericksburg earlier in the month. Major General Ambrose E. Burnside had led the army to its most lopsided defeat of the war thus far, and the ill winds began blustering shortly thereafter. The squall hit furiously, almost as soon as the army retreated across the Rappahannock River into Stafford County.
“The army seems to be overburdened with second rate men in high positions, from General Burnside down,” Dawes wrote. “Common place and whisky are too much in power for the most hopeful future. This winter is, indeed, the Valley Forge of the war.”
Dawes, whose great-grandfather rode with Paul Revere on the famous midnight ride in 1775, wasn’t the only Union soldier to allude to the Revolution. “As something of the spirit of ’76 still continues to course through your veins, and as the heroic deeds of our ancesters still bring tinges of patriotic pride to your cheeks, whenever recounted, I will beg the liberty of giving you a short chapter clipped from this present age,” wrote Nathaniel Weede Brown of the 133rd Pennsylvania Infantry in a letter from “Camp near Fredericksburg.” As a “War Democrat,” Brown had conflicted feelings. “This rebellion,” he wrote, “concocted in iniquity and carried on for no other purpose than for the abolition of slavery and the aggrandizement of partisan spite, has cancelled the lives of thousands, destroyed property to the amount of millions.” To Brown, “the butchery and pillage” had just begun. He praised his comrades’ bravery in “fighting in a doubtful cause—for no one can tell what we are really fighting for.”
President Lincoln did what he could to bolster the army’s flagging spirits. “Although you were not successful, the attempt was not an error, nor the failure other than an accident,” he said, but his praise sounded faint. “The courage with which you, in an open field, maintained the contest against an entrenched foe, and the consummate skill and success with which you crossed and re-crossed the river, in face of the enemy, show that you possess all the qualities of a great army . . . . Condoling with the mourners for the dead, and sympathizing with the severely wounded, I congratulate you that the number of both is comparatively so small.” Small consolation, it seemed.
Ironically, on a December 18th nearly 85 years earlier, Congress had offered praise to another bedraggled American army, calling for a national day of Thanksgiving. General George Washington, leading his ragamuffin band into Valley Forge, paused the army’s march in recognition of the honor. Now, in 1862, the Army of the Potomac headed into its own Valley Forge, although they had no way to know it. Quickly, though, it became a winter of discontent. Army morale plummeted precipitously in the days and weeks after Fredericksburg. Not even Christmas brightened spirits. “We are suffering very much with cold and hunger,” wrote Lt. Albert P. Morrow of the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry—known as Rush’s Lancers—on December 25. “The roads are in such wretched condition that we can’t transport supplies and we can’t buy a single article in this miserable poverty-stricken country.”
Across the North, things looked just as bleak albeit for different reasons. “[The American people] have borne, silently and grimly, imbecility, treachery, failure, privation, the loss of friends and means, almost every suffering which can afflict a brave people,” editorialized the venerable Harper’s Weekly. “But they cannot be expected to suffer that such massacres as this at Fredericksburg shall be repeated.” Unseemly as it appeared, the Union was apparently losing.
“In fact the day that McClellan was removed from the command of this Army the death blow of our existence as the finest army that the World ever saw was struck,” wrote Maj. Peter Keenan of the 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry. “What was once, under that great leader, the ‘Grand Army of the Potomac’ is today little better that a demoralized and disorganized mass of men.”
For more, check out Seizing Destiny: The Army of the Potomac’s “Valley Forge” and the Civil War Winter that Saved the Union, due in mid-March.
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