I have only seen the Northern Lights once. Far out in the Bering Sea, seen from the bridge of a Coast Guard cutter, they are an awe-inspiring sight. Just seeing the aurora borealis is enough to give one a sense of the power and glory of God.
Imagine, then, the reaction of armies of believers, both Northern and Southern, to the appearance of the Northern Lights in the night sky following the terrible “Slaughter Pen” of the Battle of Fredericksburg. This important clash was fought this day one hundred fifty years ago. The Northern Lights had almost never before been seen so far South. It was said of that night, “the Heavens are draped” in mourning.
Fredericksburg was a Confederate triumph, another Union disaster. It closed the tumultuous and bloody year of 1862. In Washington, President Abraham Lincoln received this grim news with grief. The failure of the Army of the Potomac’s Gen. Ambrose Burnside to beat Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee would place a great burden on Lincoln.
It would not be wrong to call 1862 Lincoln’s Annus Horribilis. The year began with the death of his beloved son, Willie. The bright, engaging boy suffered terribly in the White House. He might never have fallen ill at all had he not been brought to Washington from his boyhood home of Springfield, Illinois. The fever swamps of Washington, D.C., with communicable diseases carried by hundreds of troops stationed around the Executive Mansion claimed this boy’s life.
There followed the failure of Gen. George B. McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign. He had transported more than 100,000 soldiers of the Army of the Potomac to Virginia’s York Peninsula and threatened the Confederate capital of Richmond. But McClellan moved slowly. And, following the wounding of the rebel Gen. Joseph Johnston, Robert E. Lee was dispatched to save the Southern capital and cause.
Initially dismissed by grumbling gray-coated soldiers as “Granny Lee” for his white beard, or sneered at as the King of Spades for making them dig defensive trenches, Lee soon showed his genius for war.
In the year 1862, Robert E. Lee and his faithful lieutenant, Gen. Thomas Jonathan (“Stonewall”) Jackson, captured the hearts of the South and earned the admiration of all for their brilliant stratagems. Again and again, they defeated far more numerous federal forces. Jackson’s Valley Campaign (Shenandoah) continues to be taught in army staff and command colleges around the world.
Lincoln pressed McClellan to strike. McClellan demanded more men. Lincoln said sending more troops to McClellan was “like shoveling fleas.” Thousands seemed never enough and many reinforcements ordered simply failed to show up on McClellan’s roster. McClellan had even allowed himself to be slowed by “Quaker guns” mounted in defense of Yorktown. (These were logs painted to look like artillery pieces.)
Meanwhile, Lincoln was pressured by Radicals in Congress to do something about slavery, the cause of all the fighting. McClellan was totally opposed to any effort to free the slaves. A Democrat, and aware he might face Lincoln in the next election, McClellan sternly warned the president against freeing any slaves. “The Union as it was and the Constitution as it is,” said Democrats.
Nonetheless, McClellan had provided victory at Antietam. That September battle near Sharpsburg, Maryland, was the bloodiest single day in American history. It gave Lincoln the victory he needed to announce his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. If, by January 1, 1863, rebel states failed to lay down their arms, their slaves would be freed as a purely military measure.
Democrats throughout the North howled in protest. The mid-term elections proved to be very damaging for Republicans. Lincoln desperately needed the support of War Democrats to hold the Union together. His Radical Republican wing in Congress didn’t make that easier. When “Bluff Ben Wade,” abolitionist senator from Ohio, demanded Lincoln fire McClellan, the commander-in-chief asked the lawmaker with whom he should replace the foot-dragging “Young Napoleon.” Anybody, roared Wade. “Anybody will do for you, Wade,” the President replied, “but I must have somebody.”
That somebody proved to be Gen. Ambrose Burnside. Burnside was big, hearty, affectionate, intelligent, and brave. He gave a name—sideburns—to the manly growth of facial hair he sported. But Gen. Burnside was unfit to command an army, and told Lincoln so. At Fredericksburg, he proved it.
He ordered charge after bloody and fruitless charge against Marye’s Heights, a fortified rebel position. He achieved nothing but a very long casualty list. “It is well that war is so terrible,” calmly reported Lee, “or we should grow too fond of it.”
One of the most remarkable testaments came from a young Union soldier who had come to these shores from Ireland. Corporal Peter Welsh of the Irish Brigade wrote to his wife of his feelings as an immigrant for this home of freedom: “This is my country as much as the man that was born on the soil and so it is with every man who comes to this country and becomes a citizen.”
“This is the first test of a modern free government in the act of sustaining itself against internal enemys and matured rebellion all men who love free government and equal laws are watching this crisis to see if a republic can sustain itself in such a case if it fails then the hopes of millions fall and the designs and wishes of all tyrants will suceed the old cry will be sent forth from the aristocrats of europe that such is the common end of all republics the blatant croakers of the devine right of kings will shout forth their joy . . . . it becomes the duty of every one no matter what his position to do all in his power to sustain for the present and to perpetuate for the benefit [of] future generations a government and a national asylum which is superior to any the world has yet known.”
It was for such men and their families that Lincoln wanted to preserve the western territories as free land, homesteads for “Patrick, Hans, and Pierre.” Lincoln saw an America of 130 millions, drawing immigrants here to this “last best hope of man on earth.
As this year of 2012 winds down, we can take inspiration from the determination of Abraham Lincoln. In our day we have faced a year of defeat and disappointments. Despite his Annus Horribilis, Lincoln persevered. In a letter to his Secretary of State, William Seward, he wrote: “I expect to maintain this contest until successful, or till I die, or am conquered, or my term expires, or Congress or the country forsakes me…”
He held on with a bulldog grip. So, I pray, will we.
FRC Senior Fellow Robert Morrison has taught American history at the high school and college levels. He is the lead researcher for Bill Bennett’s “America: The Last Best Hope.” Morrison’s great uncle, Capt. Jonas Lipps, fought in the Stonewall Brigade under Robert E. Lee.