To commemorate Washington’s Birthday today, Emerging Civil War is pleased to present an excerpt from the forthcoming book Seizing Destiny: The Army of the Potomac’s ‘Valley Forge’ and the Civil War Winter that Saved the Union by Albert Conner, Jr., with Chris Mackowski, published by Savas Beatie. The book contends that the AoP’s resurgence during its winter in Stafford County, Virginia, in ’62-’63 represented the most significant non-battle turning point of the war. Seizing Destiny will be available the third week of March.
Never did February of 1863 feel more like the Revolutionary era’s Valley Forge than on February 22 which, ironically, was also George Washington’s birthday.
“It commenced snowing about dark last night & when we got up this morning we found a pyramid of snow about three feet high in one corner of the tent. And an extra blanket of the same material covering our persons,” shivered one Union soldier, Edwin B. Weist, 20th Indiana Infantry, at Camp Pitcher. “The snow is deepest I remember to have seen it for several years.” If that didn’t evoke imaginings of the snow-swept winter at Valley Forge, cannon fire soon did. “Washington’s birth day was celebrated by a salute of thirty four guns from different batteries in the neighborhood,” Weist reported. The 34-gun salute honored the pre-secession Union. Consistent with Lincoln’s wishes, the national flag and such salutes never subtracted the 11 Confederate States.
America’s greatest founding father had also been Stafford’s most famous resident. His boyhood home, later known as “Ferry Farm,” was situated on the banks of the Rappahannock in Stafford. Indeed, the river that separated the two armies was the one that a ferry had regularly crossed and where Washington, as a boy, allegedly threw a coin from the farm to Fredericksburg. Federal troops occupied the grounds where the famous cherry tree, if chopped, would have been chopped. Vestiges of what they incorrectly believed were the Washington farm buildings were still visible.
Both armies sincerely believed Washington was their spiritual father— at once the creator of the Federal Union and leader of the First American Revolution. Postage stamps, patriotic envelopes, and stationary on both sides bore his image. One of the three most popular types of privately purchased identification disks worn by Union soldiers bore his profile and birth date. Meanwhile, the Great Seal of the Confederacy depicted Washington’s lone, mounted image and the date of the Confederacy’s formal creation: February 22, 1862, the anniversary of Washington’s birth. Even as Union soldiers heard the boom of the salute, the ammunition-deprived Confederate artillery responded on that same day with a small salute of their own. Band music was also heard from the Rebel side.
“The birth day of our great Father, Geo. Washington!” wrote a diarist from the 122nd Pennsylvania Infantry, encamped at Stoneman’s Station. His prose, while romanticized, was nonetheless sincere:
Our large guns have not forgotten the memorable day that brought forth the innocent babe which in its early youth manifested those rare qualities which mark the man. The Right Arm of the gallant army which secured us our liberty is still cherished in ‘the hearts of his countrymen.’ The troubles which he predicted, & against which he so warmly & earnestly bade us to strive have, in spite of his warnings, ripened to more than he dared apprehend. The house in which was born [sic] this noble ‘Chief’ stands but two miles from where we encamp, & is occupied by rebels [meaning the owners]. Time has wrought a wonderful change; the grounds which were trod by the very embodiment of innocence & truth & afterwards enjoyed by the standard of gallantry and virtue are now nourishing traitors, plotting to destroy that Government which was established for the security of their rights and liberties.
Ironically, the diarist was quoting “Light Horse Harry” Lee’s tribute, “First in War, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” As it was, the “rebels” and “traitors” on the opposite bank of the river were commanded by Light Horse Harry’s son, Robert, born just a few miles from Washington’s birthplace on Virginia’s Northern Neck. Robert E. Lee grew up trying to emulate everything about our first president. He even married into the Washington family. His mother-in-law, Molly Fitzhugh Custis, was born and raised at Stafford’s “Chatham” (known during this war as “Lacy House”), overlooking Ferry Farm, the Rappahannock River and Fredericksburg. This and other ties linked Lee to Stafford. As executor for father-in-law George Washington Parke Custis’s estate, Lee had been the de facto curator of the primary national collection of Washington memorabilia. No doubt for inspiration, Lee carried one of Washington’s swords in his military baggage.
As idealistic as the Pennsylvanian had been in his diary, he wasn’t blind to the day’s weather. “The snow is 10 or 12 inches deep and the weather is very cold,” he wrote. “The boys are content in their little tents, so the streets are clear from all animals in shape of soldiers.” Others made mention of the poor conditions, too. “[A] heavy snow storm visited the country around Fredericksburg and added somewhat to the discomforts of the army,” reported Sidney Morris Davis of the 6th U.S. Cavalry. “As this was the anniversary of Washington’s birthday, we had expected a sort of holiday, but the chilly blasts and driving snow obliged each of us as were fortunate enough to be off duty to keep under our frail shelters.”
In fact, the weather did much to steal the Federals’ celebratory thunder. Lieutenant John H. Stevens of the 5th Maine, accustomed to northern New England winters, mentioned that the regiment had been called out to hear Washington’s farewell address and a prayer from the chaplain. Other diarists, however, seemed only to notice the cold. “On the 22nd we started at seven in the morning in four inches of snow and I never saw it snow and blow so hard in my life,” wrote a soldier from the 140th Pennsylvania Infantry. “It snowed about 18 inches and we were from seven until two o’clock going six miles. Sometimes we went through drifted snow shoulder deep.” He added ruefully, “I thought the weather could not be any worse, but I was wrong.”
“There’s about a foot of snow on the ground and it’s falling yet,” exclaimed Lt. Sam Partridge of the 13th New York Infantry. “How I’ve pitied the pickets today, how I pity them tonight—no tents, no fire, no comfort—lonely and vigilant. There’s a picket of 2,000 some four miles out. [Lt.] Col. [Francis A.] Schoeffel is in command of the whole—214 are from this regiment. It took a mounted messenger four hours to come in this morning.”10 The 24 year-old graduate of the City College of New York found the blizzard particularly shocking because, just days earlier, he’d sensed a taste of spring. “Since the last snow storm we have been enjoying warm pleasant days and very cold, very damp nights, and I spent every moment I could out of doors enjoying the sunshine,” he’d written about the days leading up to Washington’s birthday:
In the afternoon I was riding cross country from Stafford Court House and thinking how soon the tulip trees and azaleas and cotton woods, and magnolias, would be in blossom and how dense the foliage would be, and looking at the briar thickets and Virginia creepers, and the laurel bushes growing on the edges of the cypress swamps, and thinking how many in striving for the laurel crown, had found a grave beneath the gloomy cypress. It was so warm and so pleasant that I rode slowly for the sake of enjoyment. In the woods furthest from camp, I saw robins and quail and started from the cedar brush two or three rabbits, not hares such as run in New York but genuine rabbits.
This description belied oft-heard statements that the surrounding landscape had been denuded of trees.
“It snowed here on the 22nd, but it did not stop with four or five inches, it was a foot or more,” bemoaned Pvt. Samuel Trimble of the 4th Pennsylvania Cavalry; he wrote from (aptly named) “Camp Mud and Misery” on February 27. “[I]t is pretty much gone by now. The roads are near belly deep with mud and when horses get so near done out that they can’t get along they just shoot them and let them lay there.” The opportunity for Americans in both armies to share their common history soon faded. Instead, Washington’s birthday exposed civil war sorrow among a patriotic people.
As a counterpoint, in Richmond, Jefferson Davis’s January 5, 1863, speech to “the People of the Free States by the President of the Southern Confederacy” had set that same February 22 as the effective date for a counter-emancipation. The most tyrannical document ever issued in America, it at once enslaved all free-blacks in the South and promised capture and enslavement of any blacks in free-states subjected to future Confederate operations—relegating such military actions to nothing more than “slave-hunts.” For anyone taking note, there was no longer a question about whether this war centered on slavery.
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Footnotes have been deleted from this excerpt but are available in the print volume, which will be available in hardcover.