On New Year's Day, 1863, the president was set to sign his Emancipation Proclamation, which, on paper if not yet in fact, would free 3 million slaves in 10 of the secessionist states that had gone to war in 1861 to keep their human property in servitude.
Lincoln needed a victory as North and South squared off at Stones River, near Murfreesboro. To sign the Proclamation in the shadow of yet another defeat would make it seem mere gesture, not the sweeping document Lincoln had crafted it to be.
He had waited months for the date of signing to arrive, months he had spent selling to a doubtful nation a preliminary proclamation he had issued on Sept. 22. For that occasion, too, he had waited months, praying for at least the semblance of a Union victory before making the document public. He barely got that at Antietam, which, with its 23,000 casualties on both sides, proved the bloodiest day of the war.
In marking Tuesday's 150th anniversary of the Emancipation, we thought it appropriate to revisit the four-year timeline of the Civil War sesquicentennial on the eve of New Year's Eve, 1863, when the outcome of the war seemed to the protagonists to hang in the balance. That profound uncertainty would last another six months, before Gettyburg and Vicksburg put it to rest.
Night had fallen on Dec. 30 with the 42,000 men of the Union Army of the Cumberland under Gen. William S. Rosecrans bedded down along Stones Creek.
Camped just a few hundred yards away was the South's slightly smaller Army of Tennessee, commanded by Gen. Braxton Bragg.
With the stage set for battle on the morrow, the bands of the two armies began playing songs most favored by the troops. Lusty renderings of "Yankee Doodle" and "Hail Columbia" began competing across no-man's land with equally spirited versions of "Dixie" and "The Bonnie Blue Flag."
This spontaneous pre-battle battle of the bands finally broke off when one group of musicians launched into the strains of "Home Sweet Home," a favorite both North and South, and soon, as the historian James McPherson noted, "thousands of Yanks and Rebs who tomorrow would kill each other were singing the familiar words together."
Kill each other they did, in vast numbers, with the din of rifle fire and artillery at tines so great that soldiers stuffed their ears with cotton plucked from the field.
At first, and for several hours, the southerners prevailed, and, but for a stubborn stand by troops under Philip Sheridan, the fierce fighting might have ended as Lincoln most feared with the Federals in full rout. But the Union forces recovered and, though the fighting continued at a lesser pitch through New Year's Day and the day after, Bragg, with nearly a third of his army dead, wounded or captured, withdrew from the field.
Rosecrans had won Lincoln his well-timed victory, but at no less a cost in blood as that paid by Bragg's Confederates.
Though Stones River no longer is alive in our collective memory, in proportion to the number of combatants, it was the deadliest battle of the war.
Below are some quotes gleaned from contemporary accounts of Lincoln's gloomy December:
God bless you and all with you, Lincoln wrote to Rosecrans after Stones River. I can never forget, whilst I remember anything, you gave us a hard earned victory, which, had there been a defeat instead, the nation could hardly have lived over.
The character of the war has very much changed within the last year. There is now no possible hope of reconciliation. ... We must conquer the rebels or be conquered by them Union General in Chief Henry Halleck, in a letter to General Ulysses S. Grant describing the immediate impact the Emancipation Proclamation.
It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, in a comment to Gen. James Longstreet on Dec. 13, 1862, as they watched a Union charge repulsed in the Battle of Fredericksburg.