The US Civil War in December 1863

Christmas during the American Civil War. Image: Artist Thomas Nast's depiction of a mournful Christmas Eve in December of 1863.

In December 1863, Confederate forces withdrew from Knoxville after an unsuccessful siege, and the Confederate forts around Charleston Harbor continued taking a pounding from the Federal Navy. At Chattanooga, Federal General Ulysses S. Grant began preparing for an invasion of Georgia. And Congress convened in both Washington and Richmond as northern eyes began looking ahead to next year’s Federal elections.

Lincoln’s 1863 Message to Congress

President Abraham Lincoln submitted his annual message to Congress as the body convened in Washington. Unlike the previous year’s message, Lincoln was cautiously optimistic, noting that foreign relations were peaceful, the Treasury balance was adequate, and the Federal blockade was slowly strangling the Confederate war effort.

Referring to the unrest and disapproval of his administration over the past year, Lincoln stated, “The crisis which threatened to divide the friends of the Union is past…” Confederate forces had been defeated in recent battles, the Mississippi River had been opened to Federal navigation, and emancipation was working in the North’s favor. Lincoln saluted the soldiers, for which “the world must stand indebted for the home of freedom disenthralled, regenerated, enlarged, and perpetuated.”

Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction

With momentum now in the North’s favor, President Lincoln issued a proclamation outlining his plan for restoring the Union after the war. Under this plan, amnesty would be granted to all Confederates (except for high ranking officials) who swore an oath of allegiance to the Union and acknowledged the end of slavery. When 10 percent of a seceded state’s registered voters swore allegiance and recognized emancipation, that state could be restored to the Union.

This “Ten Percent Plan” attempted to satisfy both the Radical and conservative factions of the Republican Party: the Radicals supported the emancipation portion of the plan and the conservatives supported the lenient restoration portion. However, as the war continued, the Radicals began pushing for a more punitive approach to the Confederate states regarding reconstruction.

The First Confederate Congress

The fourth session of the First Confederate Congress convened in Richmond. In his annual message, President Jefferson Davis recognized the “grave reverses” of the past year. He stated there were no prospects for gaining foreign aid, and finances demanded serious attention. Nevertheless, Davis concluded, “The patriotism of the people has proved equal to every sacrifice demanded by their country’s need.”

Davis urged Congress to enact legislation that would encourage more men to volunteer for military service. This included suggestions from the secretary of war that the substitute and exemption provisions of the draft law be repealed. Meanwhile members of Congress began openly and harshly criticizing Davis’s military and civil policies.

The Davis administration announced that supplies coming from the North to feed Federal prisoners of war would be stopped. This was an effort not only to divert those supplies to Confederate troops in the field but also to force the Lincoln administration to renew the prisoner exchange program. Lincoln’s policy of imprisoning captured soldiers rather than paroling them was severely diminishing Confederate manpower.

The Confederate Department of Tennessee

Following the Confederate defeat at Chattanooga the previous month, Jefferson Davis reluctantly accepted the resignation of General Braxton Bragg as commander of the Department of Tennessee. Morale was at an all-time low in the department, as troops were deserting by the thousands. Bragg was generally disliked and his subordinates were nearly unanimous in supporting his removal.

Replacing Bragg was General Joseph Johnston, a hero of the Battle of Bull Run and a highly popular commander. Although he disliked Johnston, Davis hoped the general could reinvigorate the army and stop the impending Federal invasion of Georgia. Johnston quickly restored discipline and stemmed desertion by creating a furlough system, offering amnesty for first-time offenders, and executing incorrigibles.