December 12, 1863 – The Federal Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia returned to their respective camps, as Major General George G. Meade waited to be removed from command.
After Meade withdrew from Mine Run and led his army back across the Rapidan River, he expected to be relieved as army commander. But, as he wrote his wife on the 3rd, “Two days have now elapsed since I officially announced the return of the army, and yet not a word or line has been vouchsafed me from Washington. I am somewhat at a loss to know what the silence of the authorities means.”
When Meade requested permission to come to Washington, General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck replied, “You have my permission to visit Washington whenever you deem proper, reporting to the Adjutant-General at the War Department.” Although this was standard protocol, it seemed strange to Meade, as he explained in another letter to his wife: “I telegraphed General Halleck that I desired to visit Washington, but his reply was couched in such terms that, though it gave me permission to go, clearly intimated that my presence was not desired, so far as he was concerned.”
Meade decided not to go to Washington, but instead wait for his superiors to contact him. As the days passed, rumors trickled in and spread throughout the army that the administration was indeed working to replace him. Meade wrote his wife on the 11th, “I take it my supersedure is decided upon, and the only question is who is to succeed me.”
He forwarded the rumor that some officials were “very anxious to bring (Joseph) Hooker back,” but others were adamantly opposed. He mentioned another rumor that Lincoln was looking to compromise by choosing Army of the Cumberland commander George H. Thomas. At any rate, Meade wrote, “I will not go to Washington to be snubbed by these people. They may relieve me, but I will preserve my dignity.”
The next morning, an article appeared in John W. Forney’s Washington Daily Morning Chronicle stating that the administration would not replace Meade. This newspaper was widely distributed throughout the Army of the Potomac because of its unabashed support for the Lincoln administration.
When Meade read the article, he wrote his wife, “As this paper is edited by Forney, who is supposed to have confidential relations with the Administration, I presume this announcement may be considered semi-official.” At least one previous army commander had learned they were being removed from a newspaper, and now a commander learned that he was being retained from the same medium.
Meade then wrote Halleck, “I have already reported that in my judgment nothing more can be done this season.” However, the “present position of the army invites an advance from the enemy in case he deems one justifiable.” Explaining that the Confederates were in much better position to attack than the Federals, Meade continued, “I should not like to weaken myself… but would rather propose taking up the line of the Warrenton Railroad, holding in force the covering of the Rappahannock at the railroad bridge.”
This meant that the Federal army would fall back across the Rappahannock River and take up winter quarters. Also, since the enlistments of many men would soon expire, Meade proposed granting one-month furloughs to every man who pledged to reenlist.
Halleck finally responded five days later. He approved Meade’s plan to grant the furloughs, and “no objections are made to the change” of base. Halleck also stated that the administration had provided “no intimation in regard to future enterprises.” Meade issued orders to initiate the furlough program, which ultimately netted 18,000 pledges to stay in the army past their enlistment terms.
On the Confederate side, Army of Northern Virginia commander General Robert E. Lee attended a series of conferences with President Jefferson Davis and other administration officials in Richmond. The meetings ended on the 21st, and rather than stay in town to spend Christmas with his wife and family, Lee returned to his headquarters at Orange Court House to set an example of duty to his men. Army chaplains reported a “high state of religious feeling throughout the army,” despite the sufferings among the troops due to lack of adequate food, clothing, or shelter.
In mid-month, Lee detached two infantry brigades and Major General Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry brigade to confront Brigadier General William W. Averell’s Federals raiding in the Shenandoah Valley and West Virginia. This new command was led by Major General Jubal Early. Just before Christmas, Lee wrote Early:
“I wish you to avail yourself to the present opportunity to collect and bring away everything that can be made useful to the army from those regions that are open to the enemy, using for this purpose both the cavalry and infantry under your command. I hear that in the lower (northern) valley, and particularly in the country on the South Branch of the Potomac, there are a good many cattle, sheep, horses, and hogs. Besides these, there is said to be a quantity of bacon, cloth, and leather, and all these supplies are accessible to and can be used by the enemy.
“You will buy from all who are willing to sell, and where you cannot buy, you must impress and give certificates to the owners. Of course you will not take what is necessary for the subsistence of the people… You will give out that your movement is intended as a military one against the enemy, and, of course, will do them all the harm you can.”
Thus, while Lee’s Confederates struggled to stay warm and fed through the winter, many of Meade’s Federals were going home to reunite with their families.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6581-93; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 447-48