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Civil War: Person of the Year, 1863

Today’s column is by guest author, Dr. John Coski. Dr Coski is the Historian and Vice President of Research and Publications at the Museum of the Confederacy.

February 1863 was a relatively slow news month in Richmond. No Federal army threatened Virginia’s capital city, and no dramatic event occurred on the home front. February, generally, was the “off-season” for the opposing armies as they prepared for their spring campaigns.

As the seat of government from which all Confederate military, political, and diplomatic efforts were directed, however, Richmond and its residents had a strong and abiding interest in what was occurring throughout the Confederate and United States. We get a better sense of what was happening and what concerned Richmonders in February 1863 from the diaries of two men who worked in the Confederate War Department: John Beauchamp Jones and Robert Garlick Hill Kean.

A native of Baltimore, Jones was a novelist who got a job as a War Department clerk primarily because it offered him a front-row seat from which to observe the operations of the Confederate government. The 51-year-old moved to Richmond with his wife and family in 1861.

Kean was a University of Virginia graduate and lawyer who married a descendant of Thomas Jefferson. Through his family connections, the 33-year-old became the head of the Confederate War Bureau in early 1862 and began keeping an episodic diary later that year.

Both men noted the news and the rumors related to military campaigns and movements, such as the imminent Federal operations against Charleston, South Carolina, or, possibly, Savannah, Georgia, and, closer to home, the expected next move of the Army of the Potomac–which had suffered a severe defeat at the hands of Gen. R. E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia at Fredericksburg the preceding December. The most prominent military news in February came from Vicksburg, Mississippi, where Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was persistently and creatively–but, so far, unsuccessfully–trying to capture the Confederacy’s last major stronghold on the Mississippi River. “We are more anxious regarding the fate of Vicksburg,” Jones wrote in his diary on February 7th.

Jones, Kean, and other Richmonders were aware that political events in the North would affect the fate of the Confederacy and followed them closely. Of particular interest was President Abraham Lincoln’s recently-announced Emancipation Proclamation and a “negro soldier bill” wending its way through the U.S. Congress. “This will prove a ‘Pandora’s Box,’ and the Federals may rue the day that such a measure was adopted,” Jones predicted, hopefully. Less familiar to modern Americans was the then widely-reported “Northwest Conspiracy” that Jones and Kean reported in their diaries: swelling political discontent in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois and even the prospect of those states seceding from the Union and making peace with the Confederacy.

John B. Jones, who, unlike Kean, was not a wealthy man, shared and recorded the economic hardships of life in wartime Richmond. “How can I live here?” Jones asked rhetorically in late January, complaining about the high cost of room and board. His first entry for February 1863 included a table showing the dramatic price inflation over the past three years. Snow and bitter cold weather (Jones reported a temperature of eight degrees below zero) exacerbated a looming food crisis in Richmond and throughout the Confederacy. Kean, too, was worried, confiding to his diary on February 17th: “The most alarming feature of our condition by far is the failure of means of subsistence.”

The concerns and rumors of February 1863 anticipated many of the major events and developments of the coming year.

— ∮∮∮ —

On Saturday, February 23, 2013, the events of the year 1863–and the people who shaped and reflected them–will be the subject of a day-long symposium in downtown Richmond. “Person of the Year 1863” is the topic of The Museum of the Confederacy’s annual symposium, co-sponsored and hosted by the Library of Virginia.

Modeled on Time Magazine’s much-anticipated “Person of the Year,” the symposium examines the individuals and groups who most influenced or exemplified events and developments in that year. During the symposium, five Civil War experts “nominate” candidates and give lectures supporting their nominations. At the end of the day, symposium attendees vote to decide the Person of the Year. In the two previous symposiums, the audience designated Abraham Lincoln Person of the Year for 1861 and Robert E. Lee Person of the Year for 1862.

Who will it be for 1863? The pool of potential candidates includes:

  • The presidents of the divided country, Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, who worked to hold their nations together in the face of the enormous human and financial cost of war and whose bold statements about African-American freedom and slavery raised the stakes.
  • Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia and his lieutenant, whose campaigns made them international celebrities. Jackson’s mortal wounding at the May 1863 battle of Chancellorsville was one of the war’s most significant events and his absence was keenly felt at the war’s largest battle: Gettysburg, fought in July.
  • Ulysses S. Grant, the hero of Fort Donelson, whose months-long campaign against Vicksburg riveted the divided nation’s attention; his loyal lieutenant, William T. Sherman, who emerged as a major player in the war; and John C. Pemberton, the embattled northern-born commander of the Vicksburg garrison.
  • Braxton Bragg, the commander of the Confederate Army of Tennessee, who became a celebrated hero for winning the battle of Chickamauga, Georgia, but ended the year as the goat for the stunning defeat at Chattanooga that pushed the army out of its namesake state.
  • Raphael Semmes, the Confederate admiral whose ship, the CSS Alabama, spent the year devastating U.S. commercial shipping; Capt. James D. Bulloch, the Confederate officer who skillfully acquired and outfitted the Alabama and other ships in Great Britain; and Earl John Russell, the British foreign secretary who tried to prevent Confederate violations of British neutrality acts–or did he?
  • John Hunt Morgan, the dashing Kentucky general who led a Confederate cavalry raid across the Ohio River through the Midwest, only to be captured and imprisoned, then escape from a Federal penitentiary back to the South,
  • William Clarke Quantrill, a different kind of Confederate guerrilla–an irregular–whose deadly assault on Lawrence, Kansas, was the most infamous of the many bloody acts that occurred in the Missouri-Kansas theater of war.
  • Clement Vallandigham, the Ohio Democratic congressman who became the symbol of discontent in the Northwest and whose fate revealed the limits of dissent in wartime.
  • The United States Colored Troops, a product of the Emancipation Proclamation, which gave African Americans an opportunity to fight for their own freedom, but whose participation many believed would undermine the Union war effort.
  • Southern women, whose support and sacrifices for the Confederate war effort was vital, but who, in the spring of 1863, rioted against shortages and high prices in Richmond and other cities and towns.

The five nominees will remain a secret until the speakers reveal them.

The speakers for the 2013 are University of Richmond President, Dr. Edward L. Ayers; historian and attorney Kent Masterson Brown; University of North Carolina Stephenson Distinguished Professor of Military History, Dr. Joseph T. Glatthaar; Queen Mary, University of London professor and Virginia native, Dr. Thomas Sebrell; and Kansas University professor, Dr. Jennifer L. Weber.

To hear the nomination speeches and to have a voice in determining the “Person of the Year, 1863,” you must attend the symposium. It runs from 9:30 AM — 4:00 PM on Saturday, February 23rd at the Library of Virginia, 800 E. Broad Street. You may register on line at moc.org or contact Dr. John Coski at 855.649.1861×131 or via email (jcoski@moc.org) to obtain a registration form.

The cost is $35 for Museum of the Confederacy members or Library of Virginia donors and $50 for others. The registration includes a box lunch. You may get tickets at the door, but same-day registration will not include a lunch.

Photo by: Bilal Kamoon

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3 comments

  1. #1 · Phil · February 06, 1863 at 9:35 am

    Really exciting to have a guest columnist offer additional perspectives, especially with awesome access to original source material like these War Department journals.

    Looking forward to finding out the Person of the Year 1863!

  2. #2 · J Smith · February 06, 1863 at 9:36 am

    Wow, this is a good list. I had to think for a while of who else I would add and can only think of JEB Stuart who:
    1. in January 1863, authorized John S Mosby to form a Partisan Ranger Battalion, changing the War in the East (the principal theater of the war)
    2. Took command of Jackson’s Command at Chancellorsville following the wounding of A. P. Hill
    3. Fought Pleasanton to a standstill at Brandy Station, and
    following his failure at Gettysburg,
    4. Organized and commanded the Cavalry Corps (upgraded from a division) of the ANV.

  3. #3 · J Smith · February 27, 1863 at 8:05 am

    OK, it’s the 27th. Can you tell us who won? Curious minds want to know!!

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