On December 1, 1862, the Thirty-seventh Congress of the United States convened and received Lincoln’s annual State of the Union Message. After reviewing the foreign affairs of the nation and recommending to the Congress three constitutional amendments concerning American blacks, the president concluded his message, noting:
“Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history... In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give, and what we perceive. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best, hope of earth.”
December 1862 revealed a military picture quite different than the year before. While the Confederacy had prevailed on the Peninsula, at Second Manassas, and at Antietam, the long-term outlook for the Confederacy was not bright. Everywhere Confederate forces were on the defensive—at Fredericksburg in the East and Vicksburg in the West, in mid-Tennessee near Murfreesboro, etc.
Federal forces by the end of November 1862 realized that the winter would soon impede military activity in the American East. So, just as Union General Ambrose Burnside prepared to attack Lee’s Confederates at Fredericksburg, Virginia, other Union forces engaged in military activities.
On Wednesday, November 26, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln journeyed from Washington, D.C. to Belle Plain on Aquia Creek for a conference with Ambrose Burnside, commander of the Union Army of the Potomac. Lincoln was concerned about a direct assault at Fredericksburg, Virginia against Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
After meeting one week earlier with pro-Union Kentuckians and acknowledging that he “would rather die than take back a word of the Proclamation of Freedom” an ever increasingly depressed Abraham Lincoln on Monday, November 24, 1862 wrote his friend and fellow abolitionist Carl Schurz, admitting “I certainly know that if the war fails, the administration fails, and I will be blamed for it, whether I deserve it or not.”
On Saturday, November 22, 1862, Federal General Edwin Sumner, no doubt conveying Burnside’s decision, informed the city government of Fredericksburg, Virginia that Union forces would not bombard Fredericksburg despite the ultimatum of the prior day “so long as no hostile demonstration is made from the town.” That is to say, as long as Confederate forces occupying the city and surrounding hills did not fire on Union forces then Fredericksburg would not be harmed.
Friday, November 21, 1862, Union General Ambrose Burnside called upon the city government of Fredericksburg, Virginia to surrender or else risk bombardment. Burnside gave civil authorities sixteen hours to remove any *sick or wounded, women, children, and the aged.
Both sides continued to prepare for the next great confrontation in the eastern theatre of war, the Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia. On Thursday, November 20, 1862, General Robert E. Lee arrived at Fredericksburg, while General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s corps at Winchester was preparing to move toward Fredericksburg.
On Wednesday, November 19, 1862, Confederate forces of General James Longstreet assumed defensive positions on the heights above the city of Fredericksburg, Virginia. On Marye’s Heights and several other hills which dominated the area, Longstreet immediately began to concentrate his artillery so as to defend Fredericksburg from a possible Union assault.
On Tuesday, November 18, 1862, Union General Edwin Sumner’s Right Grand Division of the restructured Army of the Potomac arrived at Falmouth on the bluffs across the Rappahannock* River from Fredericksburg, Virginia.
A major conflict seemed inevitable as both Union and Confederate forces moved toward Fredericksburg. In other news, President Jefferson Davis, after the hasty resignation of George Randolph, appointed Major General Gustavus W. Smith temporary Secretary of War for the Confederate States of America.