The US Civil War in January 1864

Bowld Soldier Boys: The Return of Irish Brigade Veterans to New York, January 1864

By January 1864, the war’s momentum was clearly shifting into the North’s favor, as the relentless push into the South slowly ground Confederate soldiers and civilians into submission. Optimistic southerners hoped that the Federal elections later this year would replace the Lincoln administration with one more willing to discuss peace. Pessimistic southerners believed it was only a matter of time before the Confederacy was destroyed.

The Confederate Economy

By this year, price inflation was soaring in most Confederate cities due to the massive printing of paper money and selling of government bonds not backed by gold. Basic items such as eggs cost hundreds of times more than they did before the war; a pound of coffee cost $10 and a bushel of beans cost $60 or more. One gold dollar was worth at least $30 in Confederacy paper money. Prominent citizens held “starvation parties” to make light of their harsh situation.

Discontent grew in various states, including North Carolina, where Governor Zebulon Vance informed President Jefferson Davis that citizens were beginning to resent the government’s war policy. In response, Davis reiterated his goal of securing southern independence, stating “this struggle must continue until the enemy is beaten out of his vain confidence in our subjugation. Then and not until then will it be possible to treat of peace.”

Confederate Proposal to Arm Slaves

The Confederate Army of Tennessee was suffering a manpower shortage following its defeat at Chattanooga the previous year. To counter this, highly respected Confederate General Patrick Cleburne submitted a proposal to the army commander, General Joseph Johnston, to enlist slaves as soldiers and “guarantee freedom within a reasonable time” for their service.

The proposal was firmly rejected, as many officials called the idea “revolting” and believed such a plan would demoralize the army. Some of Cleburne’s colleagues believed that he was passed over for future promotions because of his proposal. One officer, hoping to discredit Cleburne, forwarded the proposal to Jefferson Davis. However, unlike others, Davis did not reject the plan outright.

The Red River Campaign

With Federal forces occupying Louisiana and Arkansas, the next target for conquest was the rich farmland of East Texas. At the Lincoln administration’s request, General Nathaniel Banks, Department of the Gulf commander, began planning an expedition up the Red River, from Port Hudson to Shreveport, Louisiana. This was the largest, most ambitious military operation west of the Mississippi River, consisting of 30,000 troops and a large fleet of naval transports and gunboats.

Being a politician as well as a general, Banks was assured by the Lincoln administration that the wharves and warehouses on the Red River were filled with cotton that Banks could confiscate and send north to appease potential voters. But the mission would be difficult, as the land along the river consisted of bayous, swamps and sandy ground infested by poisonous snakes and scorpions. Banks spent the next two months planning his campaign.


President Abraham Lincoln began turning more attention to reconstructing the governments of southern states under Federal military occupation. These included Tennessee, Arkansas and Louisiana. In an effort to restore normal relations, Lincoln approved a plan allowing southern plantation owners to keep their slaves as hired hands if the owner recognized the slaves’ freedom and adopted a contract labor system to be supervised by the Federal military.

In Tennessee, pro-Union citizens assembled at Nashville and proposed forming a convention to write a new state constitution that included the abolition of slavery.

In Arkansas, a pro-Union convention assembled at Little Rock to create a new state constitution that included abolishing slavery. Lincoln instructed the Federal military commander, General Frederick Steele, to make arrangements for state elections. Steele appointed a provisional governor and worked with civil authorities to form the new state government pending the upcoming elections.

In Louisiana, a pro-Union convention drafted a new constitution that abolished slavery. Lincoln instructed Louisiana commander Nathaniel Banks to “proceed with all possible despatch” to create the new state government. Lincoln added that Banks was “at liberty to adopt any rule which shall admit to vote any unquestionably loyal free state men and none others. And yet I do wish they would all take the oath (of allegiance to the Union to restore their voting rights).”