This Day in the Civil War

Saturday Dec. 14, 1861

Prince Albert, known to generations of Americans only as a brand name of pipe tobacco, was the consort to the queen whose name denotes an era, Victoria of England. Although not the king, and possessed of no official duties beyond begetting the next generation of royalty, he was quite influential in a quiet way, particularly in diplomatic matters. He had been working steadily to defuse the uproar caused by the "Trent Affair" wherein a US ship had stopped a British one on the high seas and removed some of her passengers, an act viewed in London as tantamount to piracy if not warfare. Notions for retaliation ranged from diplomatic recognition of the Confederate States to a military attack on the US by way of Canada. Albert had quieted most of these but then his health, never strong, had begun to fail. Today he died, and his queen and his empire were in deep mourning.

Sunday Dec. 14, 1862

Five bloody, futile charges had been made up the side of a rise called Marye’s Heights in Fredericksburg yesterday, and today the proud Army of the Potomac was in tatters. Out of 114,000 men assembled nearly 13,000 had become casualties, either killed, wounded, taken prisoner, or fled. The opposing Army of Northern Virginia, although battered, was unscathed on the heights above the Rappahannock River. This morning Burnside had a brilliant idea: his men should charge the heights once again. His commanders were aghast, and some reports suggest outright mutiny might have occurred if they had not been able to talk him out of the notion. Instead the work turned to finding and tending the wounded, and burying the dead. Lee, in turn, was criticized by some in Richmond for not counterattacking.

Monday Dec. 14, 1863

A year after Robert E. Lee had breathed his famous wish at Fredericksburg--”I wish these people would go away and leave us alone”--Gen. James Longstreet had to be thinking precisely the same thing. He had withdrawn from the gates of Knoxville after the failure of his last assault in East Tennessee, and now he wanted nothing more than to get his battered, ill-supplied corps to a winter camp where they could rest and rebuild their strength. The problem was getting there. He was set upon today by the forces of Union Gen. James M. Shackelford in a battle at Bean’s Station, TN, and it turned into quite a sharp fight. As the weak winter sun sank into evening, the Confederates had driven Shackelford’s men back some distance but had not broken them. Everyone settled down for an uneasy night.

Wednesday Dec. 14, 1864

Gen. George Thomas had been teetering on the fine edge of unemployment for weeks now. Known in the papers as the “Rock of Chickamauga” for his heroic defense of the Union army’s retreat from the catastrophe of Chickamauga, he was facing questions about his abilities on offense. His orders were to attack the Confederate Army of Tennessee, which had come to the outskirts of Nashville following the Battle of Franklin two weeks ago. Thomas replied that he was perfectly willing to attack, but had been stripped of all his best troops, particularly cavalry, when William T. Sherman had taken them along on his march to Atlanta. Thomas had been resisting repeated orders from Washington to attack until he was better prepared. His boss Ulysses S. Grant, who was himself being pressured from above, was being ordered to remove him from command and had managed to hold off when Thomas reported the area had been shellacked by an ice storm, making battle impossible. Today he reported that temperatures were rising, the ice was melting, and the attack would take place tomorrow.

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