On January 2, 1863, the outcome of the bloodiest conflict in the nation’s history remained very much in doubt. In the West, the previous year had seen the Union capture the critical port of New Orleans, and Ulysses S. Grant prevail, albeit barely, at the battle of Shiloh. But in the East, the war remained a stalemate.
Under Robert E. Lee, the Confederacy had decisively defeated two Union thrusts against its capital. In August, Lee had gone on the offensive himself, only to be turned back at Antietam. But with Lee’s army still largely intact to defend Richmond, and with the Northern public growing impatient with the costs of the war, many informed observers remained confident that the war would end with an independent Confederacy.