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Following the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 11- 15,1862) and Major General Ambrose Burnside’s final offensive resulting in the “Mud March” (January 20, 1863), Orrin wrote in Chapter 3 to his brother-in-law Ebenezer F. Witherell in Anson, Maine that “…in the night in the cover of darkness, we retired from the field that we had so dearly won, having lost all confidence in our leaders if not the administration at Washington … the army is completely disheartened and may safely be described as greatly demoralized.” Based on his introspection and observations of other soldiers’ attitudes in the Army of the Potomac, Orrin carefully parsed his words:  “disheartened,” meaning having destroyed a person’s courage and resolution, and “demoralized,” meaning having undermined a person’s confidence and morale.

Beginning with the US Army’s surrender of Fort Sumter to Confederate forces in South Carolina in April, 1861 through the Battle of Fredericksburg in December, 1862, the military engagements between Union and Confederate armies in the Eastern Theater resulted in several major and unexpected defeats for the North, including the First Battle of Bull Run/Manassas in July, 1861 under Brigadier General Irvin McDowell (total casualties, 4,700 soldiers) and the Second Battle of Bull Run/Manassas in August, 1862 under Major General John Pope (total casualties 22,180). As the South mobilized their armies into northern Virginia and Maryland to threaten the heavily fortified US capital at Washington, D.C., which was surrounded by the slave states of Virginia, Maryland and Delaware, the North boldly implemented the Peninsula Campaign to capture the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia from the south. During the 14 battles of the Peninsula Campaign in March – July, 1862 under Major General George B. McClellan, there were only 3 Union victories; the outcomes of 9 battles were inconclusive, and the Confederates gained 2 victories. But the toll was terrible, with over 59,000 soldiers killed, wounded or missing. The Battle of Antietam in September, 1862 under McClellan (total casualties 23,100) was a strategic victory at best for the Union. These battles tested the wills of the North to preserve the Union and of the South to establish an independent Confederate nation. With each battle, with increasing Union casualties, the Confederates gained confidence that their goal of independence would be won while the North grappled unsuccessfully for military and political strategies to preserve the Union.

President Lincoln systematically appointed, fired and replaced Union generals after each major battle loss. The appointment of Major General Ambrose E. Burnside came  on November 7, 1862 following McClellan’s equivocal victory at the Battle of Antietam and prior to the Battle of Fredericksburg. After the Union’s defeat at Fredericksburg followed by Burnside's tactical blunder during the “Mud March,” Burnside was replaced by Major General Joseph Hooker on January 26, 1863. Clearly, Orrin’s trust in President Lincoln’s leadership as Commander-in-Chief was shaken as he wrote: “… having lost all confidence in our leaders if not the administration in Washington …” and in the Union’s military leaders when he wrote: “… Hooker, or Fighting Joe as he is called, has command of us now. Whether he will do any better than Burnside remains to be proved.” When Brigadier General Nelson Taylor, who organized Orrin’s 72nd NY Volunteer Infantry Regiment of the Excelsior Brigade in Dunkirk, New York, resigned his commission on January 19, 1863, it likely added an another element of discouragement for Orrin and his comrades recruited from New York State. Orrin and his fellow soldiers in the Union’s Army of the Potomac were equally aware of the inspiring leadership of the Confederate army under General Joseph E. Johnson and General Robert E. Lee. The intertwined policies of Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis coupled with military operational strategies have been ably described in the recent book The Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S.Civil War by Donald Stoker (Oxford University Press, 2010).

Lost battles resulting in thousands of casualties, a potentially inept Commander-in-Chief, incompetent military generals, the appointment of another probably ineffectual Union general coupled with a sequence of battles won by the rebels who were led by inspiring Confederate generals throughout several campaigns resulted in Orrin’s pessimistic view of the Army of the Potomac as being “disheartened” and “demoralized.” These and related factors contributed greatly to the debilitating discouragement in the cause of preserving the Union during the Army of the Potomac’s winter encampment of 1862 - 1863. How did newly appointed Major General Joseph Hooker confront this discouragement? Whether or not the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 raised the spirits of Union soldiers will be the topic of our New Year’s Day blog.


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