On Tuesday, December 9, 1862 General Ambrose Burnside ordered his Union commanders to report to army headquarters at noon, by which time they would have alerted their troops, supplied each man with sixty rounds of ammunition, and started to issue three days’ cooked rations.
On Monday, December 8, 1862, President Jefferson Davis wrote Lee at Fredericksburg, “In Tennessee and Mississippi the disparity between our armies and those of the enemy is so great as to fill me with apprehension.” Davis explained to Lee that he must leave Richmond and visit the western states, if for no other reason than to bolster the flagging confidence of the Confederate people of that region.
On Sunday, December 7, 1862, Confederate forces under General Thomas Hindman attacked the Federals at Prairie Grove, twelve miles southwest of Fayetteville, Arkansas. Hindman knew that Union forces were stretched thin, defending both Missouri and Arkansas, and he hoped to engage and destroy the Union forces. However, Union troops after a hard march from Missouri reinforced Arkansas’ Union force and prevailed against Hindman’s Confederates.
During Ulysses S. Grant’s drive from Memphis, Tennessee toward Vicksburg on the Mississippi River, after successfully assaulting the town of Oxford, Mississippi, Union forces pursued the retreating Confederates toward the town of Coffeeville.
Why was it taking so long for Burnside to attack the Confederates at Fredericksburg? Burnside initially wanted to ford the Rappahannock at Skinker’s Neck, ten miles beyond Lee’s right flank, and march directly on the railroad in the Confederate rear. That would force a retreating Lee to protect his supply lines. However, the Union balloon corps reported that Lee had moved sufficient troops to cover his right flank, which stalemated Burnside’s intentions.
Early in December 1862 both the Union and Confederate armies clashed in a series of skirmishes in the East. In Tennessee forces of Rosecrans* and Bragg skirmished at Nolensville. Grant in Mississippi attacked Oxford, Hudsonville, and Mitchell’s Cross Roads on his relentless drive toward Confederate held Vicksburg.
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.