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This Week in the Civil War

  • Article by: The Associated Press
  • Associated Press
  • December 14, 2012 - 8:01 AM

This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, Dec. 16: the sinking of the USS Cairo.

This week 150 years ago in the Civil War, the Union lamented another kind of loss beyond its defeat at Fredericksburg. On Dec. 12, 1862, the USS Cairo — an ironclad river gunboat — was struck by two torpedoes and sank within minutes on the Yazoo River, about 10 miles north of Vicksburg, Miss. No one died but the sinking of one of the most feared gunboats was an embarrassing loss for the Union. The 175-foot vessel bristled with heavy weaponry, its guns menacing from turrets set on all sides. A young crewmember, George Yost, later remarked: "Nothing of the Cairo could be seen 12 minutes after the first explosion, excepting the smokestacks, and the flag staff from which still floated the flag above the troubled waters." The ironclads played a crucial part in the Union's Western war aim of seizing and dominating the inland waterways that carried trade, people and foodstuffs through the heartland. It would only be rediscovered and salvaged in 1964, then put on display. Another ironclad, the Cincinnati, would be sunk during the siege of Vicksburg in 1863 by Confederate forces firing from bluffs lining the river bank. Also this week, the Macon Telegraph of Georgia clamors for information on the outcome of the fighting for Fredericksburg, Va., in which the Confederates under the command of Gen. Robert E. Lee prevailed over a bigger Union force. "It is said our loss is 1,800 and the enemy's five times as much," the paper reports. "Somehow, we feel almost, as sure that Lee has got those rascals, as if we saw them already in his grip."

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This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, Dec. 23: A Confederate Christmas raid in Kentucky.

This week 150 years ago in the Civil War, a Confederate cavalryman with a knack for raiding and disrupting Union rail and supply lines, embarked on his famed Christmas raid into Kentucky. He was Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan. Morgan and nearly 4,000 Confederate cavalry troops under his command left Tennessee on Dec. 22, 1862, beginning a mission to harass and disrupt Union troops and supply lines in the key border state. All told, his troopers destroyed miles of railroad tracks, cut telegraph lines, burned supply depots and briefly occupied several Kentucky towns along the way, capturing and then paroling numerous Union troops. By Dec. 28, 1862, he approached a key objective: two tall railroad trestles of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad. After an artillery barrage on two nearby Union stockades, Morgan captured hundreds of prisoners and burned the trestles. Then, after New Year's Eve, his forces retreated into Tennessee. Many in the South would boast of his daring. By May he would be lauded by the Confederate Congress for his heroic service to the secession. Still later in the war, he would be captured and imprisoned by the Union. He would later escape, making his way back behind Confederate lines, only to be shot and killed in Tennessee in 1864.

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This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, Dec. 30: The Emancipation Proclamation, Fighting in Mississippi.

President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation takes effect on Jan. 1, 1863. This landmark document comes as a divided nation nears its third year of grinding, grueling warfare. The proclamation doesn't end slavery outright, but it declares that those held as slaves in the states in rebellion against the Union "are, and henceforward shall be free." The immediate effect is to make the nation's Civil War far more than a fight to restore the Union, transforming the scope of the conflict as a key step toward the eventual demise of slavery. The run-up to New Year's Day 1863 brings no pause in the fighting 150 years ago in the Civil War. On Dec. 26, 1862, Union divisions approaching from the Yazoo River crash into Confederate forces in swampy terrain as they embark on an audacious bid to seize the rebel-held city of Vicksburg, Miss. The fierce battle of Chickasaw Bayou, or Walnut Hills, erupts. When Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman orders his forces to advance, his units are thrust backward by the Confederate defenders. Sherman was hopeful of capturing Vicksburg outright, but the battle left heavy Union casualties and dashes any Union hopes of a swift victory. The fighting, however, augurs the start of the Vicksburg campaign, which would be renewed by the Union months later in 1863.

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This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, Jan. 6: Fighting in Arkansas.

The week of Jan. 9-11, 1863 witnesses fighting in Arkansas. There, Confederate forces arrayed along the Mississippi River at Fort Hindman harass Union river trade and shipping on the vital waterway. As 1863 opens, Union troops land nearby in a coordinated offensive and head toward the Confederate defenses, forcing the rebels back from their initial positions in trenchworks. Union vessels launch raking artillery fire at Fort Hindman, a prelude to an infantry attack. Ultimately on Jan. 11, 1863, the Confederate command surrenders. More than 6,500 dead, wounded or missing are reported in the wake of the Union victory in Arkansas County. But the offensive does little to aid Union commanders increasingly anxious to overrun Vicksburg, Miss., and gain a greater grip on the Mississippi River corridor. The Associated Press this week reports initial accounts of the fighting in Tennessee days earlier, at the outset of the New Year. AP reports federal troops have cleared rebel forces on the roads around Murfreesboro, Tenn., after fierce fighting and what was described by one correspondent as "a terrible slaughter." The fighting at the outset of 1863 comes as the nation gets set to enter its third year of the conflict.

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