CIVIL-POLITICAL-MILITARY RELATIONS OF 1863 The Change from Pessimism to Optimism for the Lincoln Administration Following Union Military Victories


First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln by Francis Bicknell Carpenter, courtesy of the U.S. Senate
First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln by Francis Bicknell Carpenter, courtesy of the U.S. Senate


     The events of the year of 1863 displayed the changing impact of the war on Americans. The military battlefield for the North was intrinsically connected to the success of the Lincoln administration, the economy at large, and the meaning of societal values. While the year started with pessimism in the North because of the defeat at Fredericksburg, this attitude gradually changed to optimism following Union military victories and the expansion of federal powers for the war effort. Ultimately, the year of 1863 brought the transformation of economic, social, military, and political uncertainty concerning the Civil War into the affirmed believe of Northern progress due to the strengthening of the Republican-dominated federal government and Union military victories.

            The year of 1863 started on a pessimistic note as Lincoln remained challenged by the lack of military success and by rival politicians. In the beginning of 1863, Lincoln faced the challenge of lethargic Union commanders, such as General Ambrose Burnside and General Don Carlos Buell, who remained inactive following campaigns that ended in failure, most notably the Union defeat at Fredericksburg in December 1862.[1] This military stagnation led to the venomous attacks of border state Democrats, the Copperheads, against President Lincoln, whom they held accountable for the failing war effort.[2] The Copperheads, under the leadership of the ambitious and armistice-seeking Clement L. Vallandigham of Ohio sought to “restore the Union, the Federal Union as it was forty years ago,” while other Copperheads sough to create a “Northwest Confederacy.”[3] Furthermore, if Lincoln could not legitimize the election of 1860 by securing the rule of law and the solidarity of the Union even by the force of arms, then the American democratic experiment would fail.[4] As nineteenth century critic Richard Henry Dana remarked that President Lincoln: “has no admirers, no enthusiastic supporters, none to be on his head. If a Republican convention were to be held tomorrow, he would not get the vote of a state. He is an unutterable calamity.”[5] The Lincoln administration struggled against military floundering and acidic Copperhead political attacks.

A key facet of change for the year of 1863 was the greater connection between economics and nationalism in the North. The decisive legislative enactment of the National Banking Act financed the war and created a uniform currency through the sale of five-twenty bonds and the use greenback currency.[6] This legislation tied economics to nationalism in the North, as Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Sherman commented “The policy of this country ought to be to make everything national as far as possible; to nationalize our country so that we shall love our country. If we are dependent on the United States for a currency and a medium of exchange, we shall have a broader and more generous nationality.”[7] The National Banking act led to greater interaction between the nation and economics to finance the war.

      Again, this tie between nationalism and economics became apparent again the in the West. On the frontier, there was a boom of production in agriculture due to mechanical innovations such as the McCormick reaper, and the 160 acres of land available through the Republican sponsored Homestead Act.[8] Thus, the American people through government legislation, such as the Homestead Act, created a truly national economy stretching from the East coast into the Western frontier.

Arthur Lumley (ca. 1837–1912), artist. Night. The Sacking of Fredericksburg—& Biovace [sic] of Union Troops, [December 12, 1862]. Pencil on paper. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (081.00.00) [Digital ID# LC-DIG-ppmsca-20787]
Arthur Lumley (ca. 1837–1912), artist. Night. The Sacking of Fredericksburg—& Biovace [sic] of Union Troops, [December 12, 1862]. Pencil on paper. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (081.00.00) [Digital ID# LC-DIG-ppmsca-20787

Another economic activity of the Civil War also was the rise of industrial elites.  These included such capitalist barons as John D. Rockefeller and his obsession with petroleum in Cleveland, John Pierpont Morgan and his gold speculation on Wall Street, and Andrew Carnegie and his investments in oil and iron.[9] These industrialists were protected by favorable governmental taxation policies, such as high import tariffs that protected their nascent industries from foreign competition.[10] Thus, the Civil War in 1863 gave rise to a young tycoon class that industrialized America.

The rise of this mechanical capitalist economy contrasted with the blockaded rural agricultural backwater of the South. At the end of 1863, While “poor Santa Clause could not pass through the Yankee lines” with even the basic staples of food and clothing, the catalogues of Northern luxury goods expanded to encompass the most exotic items, such as polar furs, silks from distant lands, and books bound in gold .[11] The North experienced an economic boom in the year of 1863 due to a greater harmonization between the federal government and finance.

The Civil War in 1863 also brought about great social change through the works of Abraham Lincoln, such as the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address, leading to change from all Americans, especially blacks. The Emancipation Proclamation signed into effect on January 1, 1863, freed the slaves in rebellious states to support the Northern war effort.[12] While some Southerners viewed the freeing of slaves as an unconstitutional seizure of property, author Joseph Stevens contended that this proclamation, “unleash[ed] the moral force of an idea.”[13] This idea was the Union’s war aim went from “a struggle against secession” into “a crusade for human freedom,” giving the North the “moral high ground.”[14] This proclamation would allow the North to save the democratic experiment by securing the liberty of all men, including freed slaves and blacks.[15] The Emancipation Proclamation changed ‘the cause’ from preventing the South from seceding to securing the notion of liberty for all men.

This notion of securing liberty for all became apparent in the creation of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry and the Gettysburg Address. This unit was an all-black Union combat regiment.[16] President Lincoln reiterated this defense of universal liberty in his Gettysburg Address, speaking “not of the battle or the cemetery, but of liberty and equality, and rather than eulogizing the dead, he called on the living to rededicate themselves to the ideals enunciated in the Declaration of Independence so that the nation might know a new birth of freedom.”[17] Thus, through the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation and the subsequent creation of the 54th Massachusetts along with the Gettysburg Address, President Lincoln created a revolution in society by transforming the war into a struggle to preserve freedom for all men.

Battle Map of Chattanooga, courtesy of the LoC
Battle Map of Chattanooga, courtesy of the LoC

The tactical agent of change, the Union Army, became more effective due to the pugnaciousness and reliance of new commanders taking key objectives through smashing victories, which weakened and geographically split the Confederate States of America. Lincoln sought to eliminate the Confederate presence around Vicksburg, Chattanooga, and Richmond by the end of 1863.[18] In January 1863, General William S. Rosecrans and his Army of the Cumberland won the Battle of Stones River against General Braxton Bragg and his Army of the Tennessee, which legitimized the Emancipation Proclamation through force and buoyed the Union’s morale after the defeat at Fredericksburg.[19] The early success of General Rosecrans in the Battle of Stones River turned the momentum in favor of the Union Army in Tennessee.

While General U.S. Grant’s initial amphibious operations around Vicksburg, Mississippi failed to create tangible results on the Western front, he kept persisting in his attacks around the entrenched city on the Mississippi River. Later, Grant’s pugnacious audacity manifested in multiple attacks, such as his bold Mississippi landing, Sherman’s diversionary attack at Chickasaw Bluffs, and the long range Grierson Raid which all caught the Confederate Army in disarray.[20] Finally, after cutting the Confederates’ communication and transportation, Grant attacked Vicksburg in a lengthy siege, leading to its ultimate surrender on July 4, 1863.[21] Grant’s Vicksburg campaign secured the Mississippi for Northern logistics and trade while cutting the Confederacy in two, and led to the South losing 45,000 soldiers for only 9,000 Union troops.[22] Lincoln praised Grant, as the president simply said, “he fights.”[23] Grant’s victory in Vicksburg geographically split the Confederacy and gained the Union a strategic logistical route on the Mississippi River.

Map of Vicksburg, courtesy of the LoC
Map of Vicksburg, courtesy of the LoC

The Union blocked the second invasion of the North at Gettysburg. On the Eastern front at the Battle of Gettysburg from July 1-3, 1863, entrenched Union infantry under General George Meade and cavalry under General George Armstrong Custer repulsed the massive attacks of General Robert E. Lee’s infantry and J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry.[24] This smashing victory rebuffed Lee’s second invasion of the North and crippled his manpower in the Army of Northern Virginia, which ended his offensive excursions in favor of defending Richmond.

Battle Map of Gettysburg, courtesy of the LOC
Battle Map of Gettysburg, courtesy of the LOC

General Grant secured Chattanooga after a lengthy campaign. Despite the setbacks of Chickamauga and General Rosecrans’s mental breakdown on the central front, General Grant secured Chattanooga with his new powers of commander of the Military Division of the Mississippi and with the support of his competent subordinates, such as General William Tecumseh Sherman, General George Thomas, and non-commission officers, securing Union victory for Chattanooga at Missionary Ridge.[25] Despite the hiccup of the Battle of Chickamauga, Union military forces pushed the Confederacy out of Chattanooga through the Battle of Missionary Ridge.

Union military victories on the battlefield were supported from events in the home front. These victories were supported by Union troops mustered through the drafts created under auspices of the Enrollment Act, which allowed the federal government rather than the state government to enlist men directly into the army.[26] The long term naval blockade strategy, the Anaconda Plan, became so effective by 1863 that the Confederate soldiers lacked munitions and the women of Richmond rioted and looted stores for supplies screaming, “bread or blood!”[27] Thus, at the end of a year filled with vicious combat:

The Mississippi Valley was gone [from the Confederacy], eliminating Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas from the strategic equation. Tennessee had been lost for good, and Grant’s Yankees were poised to drive toward Atlanta and the Sea. Bled white in the epic struggles of the spring and summer, Lee’s army was no longer capable of offensive warfare; safeguarding Richmond was all it could do.[28]

The Union military, now led by charging generals such as Grant, Sherman, and Thomas, advanced using sheer audacity on all fronts against the dwindling Confederate military forces as supported by the draft and by the Anaconda Plan.

The Union military victories empowered vast political change, including giving extended powers to the federal government and boosting Lincoln’s popularity among his constituents. The federal government went from compromising for regional state interests to “a government that was a major player in the national economy, a government that dominated the states and localities, a government that was capable of reaching into every city and town and compelling individual citizens to do its bidding.”[29] This federal dominance became apparent through wartime legislation such as the previously mentioned National Banking Act and the Enrollment Act.[30] One extraordinary measure to improve Lincoln’s power base was the suppression of dissent through martial law actions, such as General Ambrose Burnside’s General Order 38 claiming that “anyone making seditious utterances in the area under his control would be subject to arrest, trial by military tribunal, and punishment by death or imprisonment.”[31] This quelling of dissent through military victories and silencing the opposition led to the Copperheads being “vanquished at the polls.”[32] Victories on the battlefield and the political sphere gave Lincoln the popularity to be effective in office.

Following the smashing victories of Gettysburg and Vicksburg, Lincoln gained so much power that he was even able to start to draft post-war legislation, such as the Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction, to reunite the entire national Union.[33]  Furthermore, Lincoln’s election prospects for a second term went from Dana’s pessimistic claims of “not get[ting] the vote of a state” to the optimistic claim of being a “distinct possibility[y].”[34] The victories of the Union Army allowed for Lincoln’s popularity to soar and for increasingly centralized political control and drafting post-war legislation out of military necessity.

Thus, the year of 1863 was the decisive turning point of the Civil War. The National Banking Act and the Homestead Act tied nationalism to economics for the North. The Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address changed the war aims to universal freedom, leading to the creation of the black 54th Massachusetts Infantry to fight for the cause. Military victories under dynamic commanders at Vicksburg, Gettysburg, and Missionary Ridge split the South into two and exacerbated the lack of Confederate manpower and supplies. These victories promoted Lincoln’s popularity and the centralization of the American government. Eighteen-Sixty-Three was the turning point from civic-political-military pessimistic uncertainty on the Civil War to optimistic hope for a nationalized Union the future.








Class Notes. History 386-A. Taught by Dr. Keith Burich.

Grant, Ulysses S. MEMOIRS OF GENERAL U. S. GRANT, COMPLETE. Ebook. Last updated October 16, 2012. Accessed November 24, 2013. Accessed through

Stevens, Joseph E. 1863: The Rebirth of a Nation. New York: Bantam Books, 1999.



[1] Joseph E. Stevens, 1863: The Rebirth of a Nation. (New York: Bantam Books, 1999) 4-8.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 72-73.

[4] Ibid., 6.

[5] Joseph E. Stevens, 1863, 75.

[6] Ibid., 106.

[7] Ibid., 107.

[8] Ibid., 120-121.

[9] Joseph E. Stevens, 1863, 124-129. 

[10] Class Notes.

[11] Joseph E. Stevens, 1863, 408-409.

[12] Ibid., 12.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Joseph E. Stevens, 1863, 34.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 112.

[17] Ibid., 376.

[18] Ibid., 9.

[19] Joseph E. Stevens, 1863, 59.

[20] Ibid., 197.

[21] Ibid., 204-212.

[22] Ibid., 290.

[23] Ibid., 8.

[24]Ibid., 284-285, 288.

[25] Joseph E. Stevens, 1863, 346-358, 384-384, 391-395.

[26] Ibid., 108.

[27] Ibid., 136.

[28] Ibid., 401.

[29] Joseph E. Stevens, 1863, 106.

[30] Ibid., 106-108.

[31] Ibid., 109.

[32] Ibid., 403.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Joseph E. Stevens, 1863, 75, 404.


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