The American Civil War: Union Morale in the Winter Campaign of 1862


By Gary W. Gallagher, Ph.D., University of Virginia

The winter of 1862, during the American Civil War, was a difficult time for the Northern forces. The Union’s resolve, both civilian and military, was tested, and Northern morale in the autumn before this round of campaigning played a key role. 

Band of 21 African American men holding musical instruments during the Civil War.
During the American Civil War, the winter campaign of 1862 was unusual. It was preceded by a lot of dissatisfaction for the Union, both in the civilian and military spheres. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

During the autumn of 1862, the sentiment on the battlefield was reflective of things going wrong for the North, although there was always the hope of the situation changing for the better. 

This is a transcript from the video series The American Civil War. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Dissatisfaction for the North

There was a considerable dissatisfaction in both the civilian and the military sections of the North in the fall of 1862. Northerners, looking at the strategy of the war, saw that George B. McClellan had been unable to follow up after the Battle of Antietam. He hadn’t pushed the Army of Northern Virginia after that battle, and Robert E. Lee had been allowed to retreat, almost leisurely, away from the battlefield at Sharpsburg, getting back across the Potomac River without any major damage. 

Don Carlos Buell’s actions in the West, too, were similar after the Battle of Perryville. He had let Braxton Bragg go, who then reunited with Edmund Kirby Smith, leaving Kentucky absolutely unscathed. Similarly, there had been no follow-ups to the Union victory at Corinth in northern Mississippi, which had happened in the first week of October 1862.

To the people, therefore, nothing had come from the Union successes at Antietam, Perryville, and Corinth. It seemed that so much more could have been accomplished, and there was a wave of disappointment amongst the people of the North.

Learn more about the Union in the Western Theater.

Campaigning in the Winter

Lincoln was well aware of the fact that positive results on the battlefield were necessary to keep the Northerners in high spirits, which was essential in keeping them tied to the war effort.

While attempting to get back positive news from the battlefield, Lincoln eventually realized that he was simply not going to be able to extract any action from McClellan or Buell, and would instead have to make changes in command at the top.

He did just that, removing Buell and replacing him with William Stark Rosecrans, and replacing McClellan with Ambrose Everett Burnside. He explicitly informed these men of his expectation of action before the end of the year. This was unusual because it went against the rhythms usually seen in the Civil War—campaigning was usually done in the spring, summer, and fall, not in the winter. This unusual demand showed how important Lincoln believed it was to have good news from the battlefield. 

Rosecrans and Braxton Bragg actually went on to fight one of the largest battles of the war in middle Tennessee, near Murfreesboro, the Battle of Stone’s River, or Murfreesboro. 

Following the Kentucky Campaign, Bragg had withdrawn into middle Tennessee and taken up a position just a few dozen miles southeast from Nashville, commanding what is now called the Army of Tennessee. 

Naming Bragg’s army after the state of Tennessee was perhaps an optimistic gesture on the part of the Confederacy. By naming a major army after a largely Union-controlled state at this stage of the war, they were indicating that the Confederacy meant to hold onto Tennessee or to reclaim Tennessee. Rosecrans’ army of 42,000 men was called the Army of the Cumberland, after the Cumberland River.

Learn more about the pursuit at Antietam.

Action Initiated by Rosecrans

Portrait of William Rosecrans.
William Rosecrans, who replaced Don Carlos Buell, knew that he was expected to bring about significant action, and he led the Union army in the Battle of Murfreesboro.
(Image: Brady National Photographic Art Gallery/Public domain)

An intelligent man, Rosecrans was well aware of the action expected from him.

In the old army, he had had a lackluster career and had resigned early, in the 1850s, after which he headed a kerosene refinery in Cincinnati. He came back into federal service in 1861, participating in the campaigning in western Virginia. After that, he had been sent out to the Western Theater, where he had campaigned under Halleck and Grant before receiving command of the Army of the Cumberland.

So, Rosecrans, instructed to ruffle feathers, moved south of Nashville after Christmas in 1862, moving toward Murfreesboro, where Bragg’s army was also reported. 

The armies came together, only about a mile apart, on the night of December 30, 1862, leading to a memorable moment in the war. 

Learn more about the Battle of Murfreesboro.

Hymns Amongst the War

When the two armies met, there was apparently a band on one of the sides, which began to play patriotic tunes. The Northern band played songs such as the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’ or ‘Yankee Doodle’. When it finished, a Confederate band answered by playing ‘Dixie’ or ‘The Bonnie Blue Flag’ or ‘Maryland, My Maryland’, or some patriotic Confederate song. When it finished, the Union band answered, the Confederate band subsequently answered, thus creating a battle of the bands going on into the night as men on both sides listened.

As this battle started to come to an end, one side’s band began to play ‘Home Sweet Home’, one of the most popular songs in both the armies during the war, and eventually, both the bands began to play this tune together, with soldiers on each side singing along.

This was one of the many occasions in the war when the soldiers were reminded of the kinship they shared with each other, not just by virtue of being soldiers in the war, but in the sense that they were all Americans, at least in some sense. 

The memorial at Stones Rives Battlefield, Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
It was at Murfreesboro that Rosecran’s army met Bragg’s, and the winter campaign reached its pinnacle.
(Image: William C Bunce/Shutterstock)

While many such incidents took place during the war, both sides ultimately felt that they were fighting for the larger good, and there was great enmity between the forces. It is a common misconception, often sparked by such examples of fraternization, that the war was simply a result of surface differences. 

The very next day, Bragg and Rosecrans planned for battle, and they came up with a plan to attack each other’s right flank. 

The Confederates launched their assaults first in this case, where Braxton Bragg’s men got going at dawn on December 31, 1862, hoping to pin Rosecrans’s army against Stone’s River and cut Rosecrans off from his direct route to Nashville. The Confederate assaults went well at first. Two Federal divisions were essentially swept from the field. It was very hard fighting.

There was a lot of bloodshed in this battle, but it did not do much to change the outcome of the Civil War in itself.

Common Questions about Union Morale During the Winter Campaign of 1862

Q: Why was the Union dissatisfied in the winter of 1862 during the American Civil War?

In the fall of 1862, there was a lot of dissatisfaction among the military, as well as the civilian sections of the Union, mainly because people felt that McClellan had not been able to push the Army of Northern Virginia after the Battle of Antietam. Lee had simply been allowed to retreat from the battlefield. This dissatisfaction sparked the need for a winter campaign during the American Civil War.

Q: Why was the winter campaign of 1862 regarded as unusual during the American Civil War?

During the American Civil War, hardly any campaigns were held in the winter. The winter campaign of 1862, however, was needed because of the severe discontentment in the Union after the fall campaign.

Q: What was the role of William Rosecrans in the winter campaign of 1862 during the American Civil War?

William Rosecrans was chosen to replace Don Carlos Buell in the winter campaign of 1862 during the American Civil War. He led the Union forces against the Confederates in the Battle of Murfreesboro.

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