The Union’s Winter Campaigns of 1862


By Gary W. Gallagher, University of Virginia

Following the Confederacy’s counteroffensives in the the summer and autumn of 1862, Abraham Lincoln ousted both George McClellan in the East and Don Carlos Buell in the West, and pushed his new commanders to make something happen.

Cannon in Fredericksburg
The Union launched a series of aggressive winter campaigns to offset the Confederacy. (Image: Ben DiAnna/Shutterstock)

William Rosecrans and Ambrose Burnside

Buell was replaced by an officer named William Rosecrans, and McClellan by an officer named Ambrose Burnside. Both of those men took command and the result was a very unusual series of winter campaigns in December and on into January 1862–1863.

During the mid-19th century, campaigns in the winter were scarce because it was hard to provision armies in the winter. As a rule, there was not heavy campaigning in the winter. This winter there would be, though, because Lincoln wanted victories so badly.

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Battle of Murphysboro or Stones River

In the western theater, the United States forces achieved a mixed record of success and failure. Rosecrans moved against Braxton Bragg, south of Nashville, and the two fought the battle of Murphysboro, or Stones River, right at the end of the year.

The battle stretched over December 31, 1862, and January 2, 1863. It was a “sanguinary battle”, as they would have said during the Civil War, with very heavy casualties, more than 30,000 men engaged on each side, and just about a third of them were shot down at Murfreesboro. In the end, Braxton Bragg retreated, but Rosecrans didn’t follow him.

So there’s a victory here, but it’s not a decisive victory. Lincoln was still very pleased to get it, much better than a defeat.

Rosecrans’s Success in the Western Theater

Also that winter, Ulysses S. Grant was trying to move against the last great Confederate citadel on the Mississippi River at Vicksburg. It commenced in December of 1862 and stretched out through the early months of 1863; but nothing that Grant tried succeeded.

There was, therefore, frustration for Grant, and a success—but a modest one—for William Starke Rosecrans, in the western theater.

The Battle of Fredericksburg

In the eastern theater, things went terribly for the United States, as Robert E. Lee won two of his most famous victories between December of 1862 and May of 1863.

The first was at the battle of Fredericksburg, fought on December 13, 1862. Ambrose Burnside marched southward to make something happen; he hoped to get the inside track between Lee and Richmond, and to force Lee to fight on unfavorable ground. In the end, it was Burnside who fought on unfavorable ground.

A Great Loss for the North

He ended up attacking Lee in strong positions at Fredericksburg. Union soldiers attacked through a long afternoon on December 13, and were slaughtered. Nearly 130,000 Federals were present on the battlefield, with about 75,000 Confederates, and in the end it was a horrible defeat for Burnside.

It wasn’t just that he lost, it was the way that he lost that hurt morale in the North, with seemingly feudal assaults against impregnable Confederates on high ground. Twelve-and-a-half thousand United States soldiers fell; about 5,000 Confederates; and news from Fredericksburg cast a pall over the North.

portrait of Joseph Hooker
Hooker’s defeat at the Chancellorsville campaign came as a huge blow to the Northern morale. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Joseph Hooker’s Chancellorsville Campaign

Lincoln removed Burnside from command shortly thereafter, and replaced him with a man named Joseph Hooker. He re-inspirited the army, which had become quite cast down while Burnside was in charge, built it up into a confident force of 130,000, and moved against Lee, whose army numbered about 65,000.

Hooker had a brilliant plan in what came to be called the “Chancellorsville campaign”, waged between Fredericksburg, Virginia, and an area about 10 miles west of that city, during the first four days of May 1863.

Hooker got the jump on Lee in the initial phase of the Chancellorsville campaign, but he very quickly relinquished the initiative to Lee who—together with Stonewall Jackson—crafted the most famous of all of Lee’s victories over the next two days.

The Confederates launched a famous flank attack, and by the end of the battle, Joseph Hooker had retreated back across the Rappahannock River and to the vicinity of Fredericksburg. Thirty thousand men had fallen at Chancellorsville between the two armies, one of them Stonewall Jackson himself, accidentally shot down by his own men.

Robert Lee: A Hero

It was another enormous disappointment for the Lincoln administration. It was even worse than Fredericksburg in some ways, because Hooker had built confidence, both in his army and in those who watched the early stages of the campaign.

Lee, by the end of Chancellorsville, had achieved an absolutely unparalleled stature in the Confederacy; he was considered invincible both by his own men, and by many of the people behind the lines. These campaigns, as well as the fighting out West, had enormous impact on the respective home fronts.

A Problem for Lincoln

Northern morale behind the lines dropped to one of its two lowest points of the war. Only the summer of 1864 was worse in terms of northern morale than it was in the late spring.

This was a great step in United States history. The Confederacy had already done it, but this was a major step toward trying to mobilize the entire society to fight a war, and it was very controversial in the North. The Copperheads, the anti-administration wing of the Democratic Party, was at high tide at this stage of the war as well, and Lincoln faced enormous problems on the home front.

Common Questions about the Union’s Winter Campaigns of 1862

Q: Whom did Abraham Lincoln appoint after ousting McClellan and Buell?

Buell was replaced by an officer named William Rosecrans, and McClellan by an officer named Ambrose Burnside.

Q: What were some of the Union’s successes in the winter campaigns?

The Union’s winter campaigns saw a mix of success and failure. William Rosecrans tasted success in the battle of Murphysboro or Stones River, which was followed by his victory against Ulysses S. Grant at Vicksburg.

Q: What happened in the battle of Fredericksburg?

The battle of Fredericksburg led to a terrible defeat for the Union. It wasn’t just that he lost, it was the way that he lost that hurt morale in the North.

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