The Gloomiest Year of Our Struggle

December 31, 1863 (Thursday – New Year’s Eve)


New Year’s Eve is often a time to reflect upon the past twelve months, measuring fortune against fatigue. For the South, it was a bittersweet time, with the victories of Chancellorsville and Chickamauga overshadowed by the death of Stonewall Jackson and Chattanooga. No better account of the Southern view of 1863 might exist than the Richmond Examiner‘s editorial published on this date. True, the Examiner was becoming increasingly anti-Davis, but it still clung with dug-in claws to the idea of an independent Confederate nation.

“Today closes the gloomiest year of our struggle,” it began. “No sanguine hope of intervention buoys up the spirits of the confederate public as at the end of 1861. No brilliant victory like that of Fredericksburgh encourages us to look forward to a speedy and successful termination of the war, as in the last weeks of 1862.”

Even the latest victories of Mine Run, Virginia and Bean’s Station, Tennessee seemed hollow. “Meade’s advance was hardly meant in earnest,” allowed the paper, “and Bean’s Station is a poor set-off to the loss of the gallant men who fell in the murderous assault on Knoxville.” Strange for the South, who once soundly dominated the Federal Cavalry, the editorial noted that due to the “deficiencies of our cavalry service, Lincoln’s squadrons of horses threaten to be as universal a terror, as pervasive a nuisance, as his squadrons of gun-boats were some months since.”

Looking farther back, the paper reflected upon the land battles and the purport of the loss of the Mississippi: “The advantages gained at Chancellorsville and Chickamauga have had heavy counterpoises. The one victory led to the fall of Jackson and the deposition of Hooker, the other led first to nothing and then to the indelible disgrace of Lookout Mountain. The Confederacy has been cut in twain along the line of the Mississippi, and our enemies are steadily pushing forward their plans for bisecting the eastern moiety.”

John Moncure Daniel, editor of the Richmond Examiner.
John Moncure Daniel, editor of the Richmond Examiner.

Turning the piece into a sort of State of the Disunion Address, the Examiner turned to financial matters, where things seemed darker still, describing the chaos as “becoming wilder and wilder.” The rich were still rich, of course, but the financially competent were becoming poorer, while “poverty has become penury, penury is lapsing into pauperism.” The idea that intellectual professionalism was held in less regard than “any mechanical occupation” seemed foreign. Due to the financial chaos, there was a “complete upturning of our social relations, the only happy people are those who have black hearts or black skins.”

Speaking of slavery, the missive looked heavenly. “Theologians will tell us that the disasters of the closing year are the punishment of our sins,” it reasoned. “This is true enough; but a cheap penitence will not save us from the evil consequences.” But the editor was no Abraham Lincoln preparing for his Second Inaugural Address. It was not slavery that was the sin, but political corruption. Forgiveness was neither sought nor dealt for the true cause of the war, but for how the war was being carried out.

“There is no forgiveness for political sins,” it firmly stated, “and the results will as certainly follow as if there had been no repentance. As all sins are, in a higher sense, intellectual blunders, we must strain every fibre of the brain and every sinew of the will if we wish to repair the mischief which our folly and our corruption have wrought.”

Though the corruption of political figures was an unforgivable sin, “the responsibility does not end there; the guilt does not rest there alone.” Speculators and those who horded essentials while others starved have “done his worst to ruin the country.” Even those who have “yielded to the solicitations of vanity or appetite” have done their part to contribute “to the general demoralization.”

All were suffering through this war – and many were doing so in the same way. “We can no more avoid the loss of property than we can the shedding of blood,” continued the paper. “There is no family in the Confederacy that has not to mourn the fall of some member or some connection, and there is no family in the Confederacy which ought to expect to escape scathless in estate. The attempt is as useless, in most cases, as it is ignoble in all.”

But perhaps not everyone’s suffering was equal. Focusing shortly upon the wealthy who could afford to pay for substitutions for the draft, the Examiner lamented that so many refused to serve and instead tried to profit off the war through speculation and extortion. This, it claimed “deprived them of all active sympathy.”

Now it closed, and perhaps this wasn’t the end. This might somehow work out – though the editorial made no speculations as to how.

“We all have a heavy score to pay, and we know it. This may depress us, but our enemies need not be jubilant at our depression, for we are determined to meet our liabilities. Whatever number of men, or whatever amount of money shall be really wanting will be forthcoming. Whatever economy the straightening of our resources may require, we shall learn to exercise. We could only wish that Congress was not in such a feverish mood, and that the government would do something toward the establishment of a statistical bureau, or some other agency, by which we could approximately ascertain what we have to contribute, and to what extent we must husband our resources. Wise, cool, decided, prompt action would put us in good condition for the spring campaign of 1864, and the close of next year would furnish a more agreeable retrospect than the annus mirahilis of blunders which we now consign to the dead past.”

Perhaps 1864 would be a better year for the Confederacy. Maybe they could actually turn things around. Maybe the unmentioned Gettysburg wasn’t the last chance General Lee had to invade. Maybe Davis would give up his policy of holding territory rather than reinforcing armies in the field would wane, and a new strength untapped could be brought to bear upon the Yankee invaders. And so ended another year.1

  1. Source: Richmond Examiner, December 31, 1863, as printed in The Rebellion Record, Vol. 8. []
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