Siege of Knoxville, Tennessee, begins

Year
1863
Month Day
November 17

On November 17, 1863, Confederate General James Longstreet places the city of Knoxville, Tennessee, under siege. After two weeks and one failed attack, he abandoned the siege and rejoined General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

The Knoxville campaign began in November when Longstreet took 17,000 troops from Chattanooga and moved to secure eastern Tennessee for the Confederates. Longstreet’s corps was normally part of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, but after the Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in July 1863, Longstreet took two of his divisions to shore up the Confederate effort in the West. He and his troops participated in the victory at Chickamauga in September and the siege of Chattanooga in October and November. Longstreet quarreled with Braxton Bragg, the Confederate commander in the West, and was given independent command of the Department of East Tennessee.

Longstreet took his troops and moved toward Knoxville. Facing him was General Ambrose Burnside and 5,000 Yankees. Burnside fought a delaying action at Campbell Station on November 16 before retreating into the Knoxville defenses. The next day, Longstreet pulled into position around the north side of the city, but could not cut off supplies to the Union troops. Longstreet waited for reinforcements to arrive, which they did on November 28. He attacked, but was repulsed with heavy loses. Longstreet continued the siege in order to draw troops away from Chattanooga. The ruse worked, and 25,000 Union troops were dispatched from Chattanooga to chase Longstreet’s force away.

Ultimately, Longstreet retreated back to Virginia. His Knoxville campaign was disappointing for the Confederates, who had hoped to secure eastern Tennessee. Longstreet rejoined Lee in the spring after his disappointing turn as head of an independent command.

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President Lincoln delivers Gettysburg Address

Year
1863
Month Day
November 19

On November 19, 1863, at the dedication of a military cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, during the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln delivers one of the most memorable speeches in American history. In fewer than 275 words, Lincoln brilliantly and movingly reminded a war-weary public why the Union had to fight, and win, the Civil War.

The Battle of Gettysburg, fought some four months earlier, was the single bloodiest battle of the Civil War. Over the course of three days, more than 45,000 men were killed, injured, captured or went missing. The battle also proved to be the turning point of the war: General Robert E. Lee’s defeat and retreat from Gettysburg marked the last Confederate invasion of Northern territory and the beginning of the Southern army’s ultimate decline.

Charged by Pennsylvania’s governor, Andrew Curtin, to care for the Gettysburg dead, an attorney named David Wills bought 17 acres of pasture to turn into a cemetery for the more than 7,500 who fell in battle. Wills invited Edward Everett, one of the most famous orators of the day, to deliver a speech at the cemetery’s dedication. Almost as an afterthought, Wills also sent a letter to Lincoln—just two weeks before the ceremony—requesting “a few appropriate remarks” to consecrate the grounds.

READ MORE: How the Battle of Gettysburg Turned the Tide of the Civil War

At the dedication, the crowd listened for two hours to Everett before Lincoln spoke. Lincoln’s address lasted just two or three minutes. The speech reflected his redefined belief that the Civil War was not just a fight to save the Union, but a struggle for freedom and equality for all, an idea Lincoln had not championed in the years leading up to the war. This was his stirring conclusion: “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Reception of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was initially mixed, divided strictly along partisan lines. Nevertheless, the “little speech,” as he later called it, is thought by many today to be the most eloquent articulation of the democratic vision ever written.

READ MORE: The Gettysburg Address 

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Congress passes Civil War conscription act


Year
1863
Month Day
March 03

During the Civil War, the U.S. Congress passes a conscription act that produces the first wartime draft of U.S. citizens in American history. The act called for registration of all males between the ages of 20 and 45, including aliens with the intention of becoming citizens, by April 1. Exemptions from the draft could be bought for $300 or by finding a substitute draftee. This clause led to bloody draft riots in New York City, where protesters were outraged that exemptions were effectively granted only to the wealthiest U.S. citizens.

Although the Civil War saw the first compulsory conscription of U.S. citizens for wartime service, a 1792 act by Congress required that all able-bodied male citizens purchase a gun and join their local state militia. There was no penalty for noncompliance with this act. Congress also passed a conscription act during the War of 1812, but the war ended before it was enacted. During the Civil War, the government of the Confederate States of America also enacted a compulsory military draft. The U.S. enacted a military draft again during World War I, in 1940 to make the U.S. ready for its involvement in World War II, and during the Korean War. The last U.S. military draft occurred during the Vietnam War.

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Battle of Gettysburg ends

Year
1863
Month Day
July 03

On the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s last attempt at breaking the Union line ends in disastrous failure, bringing the most decisive battle of the American Civil War to an end.

In June 1863, following his masterful victory at the Battle of Chancellorsville, General Lee launched his second invasion of the Union in less than a year. He led his 75,000-man Army of Northern Virginia across the Potomac River, through Maryland, and into Pennsylvania, seeking to win a major battle on Northern soil that would further dispirit the Union war effort and induce Britain or France to intervene on the Confederacy’s behalf. The 90,000-strong Army of the Potomac pursued the Confederates into Maryland, but its commander, General Joseph Hooker, was still stinging from his defeat at Chancellorsville and seemed reluctant to chase Lee further. Meanwhile, the Confederates divided their forces and investigated various targets, such as Harrisburg, the Pennsylvania capital.

On June 28, President Abraham Lincoln replaced Hooker with General George Meade, and Lee learned of the presence of the Army of the Potomac in Maryland. Lee ordered his army to concentrate in the vicinity of the crossroads town of Gettysburg and prepare to meet the Federal army. At the same time, Meade sent ahead part of his force into Pennsylvania but intended to make a stand at Pipe Creek in Maryland.

READ MORE: How the Battle of Gettysburg Turned the Tide of the Civil War

On July 1, a Confederate division under General Henry Heth marched into Gettysburg hoping to seize supplies but finding instead three brigades of Union cavalry. Thus began the Battle of Gettysburg, and Lee and Meade ordered their massive armies to converge on the impromptu battle site. The Union cavalrymen defiantly held the field against overwhelming numbers until the arrival of Federal reinforcements. Later, the Confederates were reinforced, and by mid-afternoon some 19,000 Federals faced 24,000 Confederates. Lee arrived to the battlefield soon afterward and ordered a general advance that forced the Union line back to Cemetery Hill, just south of the town.

During the night, the rest of Meade’s force arrived, and by the morning Union General Winfield Hancock had formed a strong Union line. On July 2, against the Union left, General James Longstreet led the main Confederate attack, but it was not carried out until about 4 p.m., and the Federals had time to consolidate their positions. Thus began some of the heaviest fighting of the battle, and Union forces retained control of their strategic positions at heavy cost. After three hours, the battle ended, and the total number of dead at Gettysburg stood in the thousands.

On July 3, Lee, having failed on the right and the left, planned an assault on Meade’s center. A 15,000-man strong column under General George Pickett was organized, and Lee ordered a massive bombardment of the Union positions. The 10,000 Federals answered the Confederate artillery onslaught, and for more than an hour the guns raged in the heaviest cannonade of the Civil War. At 3 p.m., Pickett led his force into no-man’s-land and found that Lee’s bombardment had failed. As Pickett’s force attempted to cross the mile distance to Cemetery Ridge, Union artillery blew great holes in their lines. Meanwhile, Yankee infantry flanked the main body of “Pickett’s charge” and began cutting down the Confederates. Only a few hundred Virginians reached the Union line, and within minutes they all were dead, dying, or captured. In less than an hour, more than 7,000 Confederate troops had been killed or wounded.

Both armies, exhausted, held their positions until the night of July 4, when Lee withdrew. The Army of the Potomac was too weak to pursue the Confederates, and Lee led his army out of the North, never to invade it again. The Battle of Gettysburg was the turning point in the Civil War, costing the Union 23,000 killed, wounded, or missing in action. The Confederates suffered some 25,000 casualties. On November 19, 1863, President Lincoln delivered his famous Gettysburg Address during the dedication of a new national cemetery at the site of the Battle of Gettysburg. The Civil War effectively ended with the surrender of General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in April 1865.

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Abraham Lincoln signs the Emancipation Proclamation


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Year
1863
Month Day
January 01

On January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln signs the Emancipation Proclamation. Attempting to stitch together a nation mired in a bloody civil war, Abraham Lincoln made a last-ditch, but carefully calculated, decision regarding the institution of slavery in America.

By the end of 1862, things were not looking good for the Union. The Confederate Army had overcome Union troops in significant battles and Britain and France were set to officially recognize the Confederacy as a separate nation. In an August 1862 letter to New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley, Lincoln confessed “my paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or to destroy slavery.” Lincoln hoped that declaring a national policy of emancipation would stimulate a rush of the South’s slaves into the ranks of the Union army, thus depleting the Confederacy’s labor force, on which the southern states depended to wage war against the North.

READ MORE: What Abraham Lincoln Thought About Slavery

Lincoln waited to unveil the proclamation until he could do so on the heels of a Union military success. On September 22, 1862, after the battle at Antietam, he issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation declaring all slaves free in the rebellious states as of January 1, 1863. Lincoln and his advisors limited the proclamation’s language to slavery in states outside of federal control as of 1862, failing to address the contentious issue of slavery within the nation’s border states. In his attempt to appease all parties, Lincoln left many loopholes open that civil rights advocates would be forced to tackle in the future.

Republican abolitionists in the North rejoiced that Lincoln had finally thrown his full weight behind the cause for which they had elected him. Though slaves in the south failed to rebel en masse with the signing of the proclamation, they slowly began to liberate themselves as Union armies marched into Confederate territory. Toward the end of the war, slaves left their former masters in droves. They fought and grew crops for the Union Army, performed other military jobs and worked in the North’s mills. Though the proclamation was not greeted with joy by all northerners, particularly northern white workers and troops fearful of job competition from an influx of freed slaves, it had the distinct benefit of convincing Britain and France to steer clear of official diplomatic relations with the Confederacy.

Though the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation signified Lincoln’s growing resolve to preserve the Union at all costs, he still rejoiced in the ethical correctness of his decision. Lincoln admitted on that New Year’s Day in 1863 that he never “felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper.” Although he waffled on the subject of slavery in the early years of his presidency, he would thereafter be remembered as “The Great Emancipator.” To Confederate sympathizers, however, Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation reinforced their image of him as a hated despot and ultimately inspired his assassination by John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865.

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President Lincoln proclaims official Thanksgiving holiday

Year
1863
Month Day
October 03

On October 3, 1863, expressing gratitude for a pivotal Union Army victory at Gettysburg, President Abraham Lincoln announces that the nation will celebrate an official Thanksgiving holiday on November 26, 1863.

The speech, which was actually written by Secretary of State William Seward, declared that the fourth Thursday of every November thereafter would be considered an official U.S. holiday of Thanksgiving. This announcement harkened back to when George Washington was in his first term as the first president in 1789 and the young American nation had only a few years earlier emerged from the American Revolution. At that time, George Washington called for an official celebratory “day of public thanksgiving and prayer.” While Congress overwhelmingly agreed to Washington’s suggestion, the holiday did not yet become an annual event.

READ MORE: How the ‘Mother of Thanksgiving’ Lobbied Abraham Lincoln to Proclaim the National Holiday

Thomas Jefferson, the third president, felt that public demonstrations of piety to a higher power, like that celebrated at Thanksgiving, were inappropriate in a nation based in part on the separation of church and state. Subsequent presidents agreed with him. In fact, no official Thanksgiving proclamation was issued by any president between 1815 and the day Lincoln took the opportunity to thank the Union Army and God for a shift in the country’s fortunes on this day in 1863.

The fourth Thursday of November remained the annual day of Thanksgiving from 1863 until 1939. Then, at the tail-end of the Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, hoping to boost the economy by providing shoppers and merchants a few extra days to conduct business between the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, moved Thanksgiving to November’s third Thursday. In 1941, however, Roosevelt bowed to Congress’ insistence that the fourth Thursday of November be re-set permanently, without alteration, as the official Thanksgiving holiday.

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Newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst is born

Year
1863
Month Day
April 29

The newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst is born in San Francisco. He was the only son and principle heir to western mining magnate George Hearst.

George Hearst had made a fortune with his shrewd investments in successful western mining operations. His son William, however, had little interest in the mining industry. While attending Harvard, he became an admirer of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and briefly worked as a reporter for the paper after being expelled from college. In 1887, he returned to San Francisco and convinced his father to put him in charge of the Examiner, a paper that the senior Hearst had bought to back his successful 1886 bid for the U.S. Senate.

With a tremendous fortune at his disposal, William Hearst spared no expense in obtaining the best eastern reporters and techniques for the Examiner. Eager to give the people what they wanted, he filled the pages of the newspaper with sensationalism and scandal. Some complained that he showed poor taste, but many San Franciscans considered the paper to be required reading.

Having made the Examiner a brilliant success, Hearst began acquiring newspapers elsewhere in the country. He soon controlled one of the largest newspaper empires in America. Like his father, Hearst also used his papers to promote his political ambitions. Relocating to New York, he twice won election to the House of Representatives, in 1902 and 1904. Although some championed him as a possible presidential candidate, Hearst’s failed attempt to win the New York governorship in 1906 raised questions about his chances in a presidential campaign. He tried to win the presidency by organizing his own Independence Party in 1908, but his third-party candidacy gained few followers. For all his wealth and influence, Hearst could not obtain the political power he craved.

Returning to California, Hearst continued to expand his media empire and contented himself with being a behind-the-scenes political powerbroker. When his mother died in 1919, he inherited the family ranch at San Simeon. During the next six years, he built a massive castle on a hill at the ranch. In 1924, he became involved in the Hollywood movie industry by relocating his motion picture company to Los Angeles. A year later, he took charge of the Los Angeles Examiner, and he soon controlled many of California’s top newspapers.

With a vast media empire at his disposal, Hearst exercised tremendous influence over California and national politics during the 1930s. Often the subject of news stories in his own right, Hearst was one of the most prominent Americans to emerge from the Far West during the first half of the 20th century.

READ MORE: Did Yellow Journalism Fuel the Outbreak of the Spanish-American War?

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A Nebraska farmer files the first homestead claim


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Year
1863
Month Day
January 01

A farmer named Daniel Freeman submits the first claim under the new Homestead Act for a property near Beatrice, Nebraska.

Signed into law in 1862 by President Abraham Lincoln, the Homestead Act essentially legalized the long-standing American practice of squatting on the vast federal landholdings in the West. Ever since the United States became a nation, intrepid pioneers rushed westward well before the government was prepared to oversee an ordered transfer of land into private hands. Ignoring legal niceties like titles or rent payments, the pioneers began farming and ranching wherever they found promising land, and often the government simply looked the other way.

By the mid-19th century, illegal squatting had become such an established practice in the Far West that pioneers began to argue for its legalization. Settlers pointed out that they were building a new civilization in the West with their own money and sweat. Why should they have to pay for public land when they had already shouldered the heavy cost of clearing, breaking, and fencing it? Since the government clearly wanted Americans to settle the West, settlers argued that the government should give land to anyone willing to work hard and sacrifice enough to develop it.

Congress eventually agreed, and it passed a weak version of a homesteading bill in 1860. However, President James Buchanan vetoed the bill under pressure from pro-slavery southerners who wanted to slow the development of non-slave-holding western states. With the outbreak of the Civil War the following year, southern opposition was no longer a consideration, and Lincoln signed the even stronger Homestead Act into law in May 1862. The act authorized any citizen or intended citizen to settle on any surveyed but unclaimed 160-acre tract of public land. If settlers made the specified improvements to the land and paid a small fee, they would gain full title to the property after five years.

Unfortunately, the government failed to reserve much of the best western land for claim under the Homestead Act and instead let it pass into the hands of railroads and speculators. By the 1890s, many homesteaders found that only marginal semi-arid tracts were still available for homesteading. Profitable farming on only 160 acres of such dry land was nearly impossible, and at least half of the original homesteaders abandoned their claims before they gained title to the property. In the early 20th century, the claim sizes were gradually increased to as much as 640 acres, making irrigation and efficient large-scale farming techniques feasible. Thus, while the majority of early homesteads failed, more than 1.6 million farmers and ranchers eventually fulfilled their contracts and became landowners in the West.

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Draft riots continue to rock New York City

Year
1863
Month Day
July 16

The draft riots enter their fourth day in New York City in response to the Enrollment Act, which was enacted on March 3, 1863. Although avoiding military service became much more difficult, wealthier citizens could still pay a commutation fee of $300 to stay at home. Irritation with the draft dovetailed with opposition to the Emancipation Proclamation of September 1862, which made abolition of slavery the central goal of the war for the Union. Particularly vocal in their opposition were the Democratic Irish, who felt the war was being forced upon them by Protestant Republicans and feared that emancipation of formerly enslaved people would jeopardize their jobs. 

Discontent simmered until the draft began among the Irish New Yorkers on July 11. Two days later, a mob burned the draft office, triggering nearly five days of violence. At first, the targets included local newspapers, wealthy homes, well-dressed men, and police officers, but the crowd’s attention soon turned to African Americans. Several Black people were lynched, and businesses employing Black people were burned. A Black orphanage was also burned, but the children escaped.

Not until July 17 was the violence contained by the arrival of Union troops, some fresh from the battlefield at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. More than 1,000 people died and property damage topped $2 million. The draft was temporarily suspended, and a revised conscription began in August. As a result of the riots and the delicate political balance in the city, relatively few New Yorkers were forced to serve in the Union army.

READ MORE: The Most Violent Insurrection in American History

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Battle of Chancellorsville begins

Year
1863
Month Day
May 01

On May 1, 1863, the Battle of Chancellorsville begins in Virginia. Earlier in the year, General Joseph Hooker led the Army of the Potomac into Virginia to confront Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Hooker had recently replaced Ambrose Burnside, who presided over the Army of the Potomac for one calamitous campaign the previous December: the Battle of Fredericksburg. At that conflict, the Yankees amassed over 14,000 casualties while the Rebels suffered some 5,000 casualties.

After spending the spring retooling his army and boosting their sinking morale, Hooker advanced toward the Confederate army, possessing perhaps the greatest advantage over Lee that any Union commander had during the war. His force numbered some 115,000 men, while Lee had just 60,000 troops present for service. Absent from the Confederate army were two divisions under General James Longstreet, which were performing detached service in southern Virginia.

Hooker had a strategically sound plan. He intended to avoid the Confederate trenches that protected a long stretch of the Rappahannock River around Fredericksburg. Placing two-thirds of his forces in front of Fredericksburg to feign a frontal assault and keep the Confederates occupied, he marched the rest of his army up the river, crossed the Rappahannock, and began to move behind Lee’s army. The well-executed plan placed the Army of Northern Virginia in grave danger.

But Lee’s tactical brilliance and gambler’s intuition saved him. He split his force, leaving 10,000 troops under Jubal Early to hold the Federals at bay in Fredericksburg, and then marched the rest of his army west to meet the bulk of Hooker’s force. Conflict erupted on May 1 when the two armies met in an open area beyond the Wilderness, the tangled forest just west of the tiny burgh of Chancellorsville. Surprisingly, Hooker ordered his forces to fall back into defensive positions after only limited combat, effectively giving the initiative to Lee. 

Despite the fact that his army far outnumbered Lee’s, and had the Confederates clamped between two substantial forces, Hooker went on the defensive. In the following days, Lee executed his most daring battle plan. He split his army again, sending Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson further west around the Union’s right flank. The crushing attack snapped the Union army and sent Hooker in retreat to Washington, D.C., and, perhaps more than any other event during the war, cemented Lee’s invincibility in the eyes of both sides.

READ MORE: American Civil War: Causes and Dates 

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