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This Week in the Civil War

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The Associated Press | December 7, 2012 09:01 AM EST | AP


This Week in The Civil war, for week of Sunday, Dec. 9: Battle for Fredericksburg, Va.

This week 150 years ago in the Civil War, the North and South battled for Fredericksburg, Va. Midway between the federal capital of Washington, D.C., and the Confederate capital of Richmond, Va., Fredericksburg was a strategic point for both sides. On Dec. 11, 1862, Union troops sneaked forward under the pre-dawn fog to begin building pontoon bridges crossing the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg, drawing Confederate fire. Union commander, Gen. Ambrose Burnside, then ordered a bombardment opened up on the city. The fierce bombardment lasted nearly two hours as thousands of shells and projectiles rained down on the city. Amid the bombardment, Union soldiers crossed in boats to the other side and block-by-block street combat began – a rarity in the conflict. The full body of federal forces crossed the Rappahannock on Dec. 12, 1862, and Burnside ordered a series of deadly and ineffective frontal assaults on two heights in the city, leaving thousands dead and wounded. Even though Union forces briefly pierced the main Confederate line, they were repulsed By Dec. 15, Burnside had canceled the offensive and his battered and beaten forces retreated across the river. The fighting engaged some 100,000 Union troops and more than 72,000 troops under Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. When it was over, there were more than 13,000 Union casualties and some 4,500 others on the Confederate side. After the Union's defeat, Burnside would be replaced a month later at the head of the Union army by yet another general.

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This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, Dec. 16: the sinking of the USS Cairo.

This week 150 years ago in the Civil War, the Union lamented another kind of loss beyond its defeat at Fredericksburg. On Dec. 12, 1862, the USS Cairo – an ironclad river gunboat – was struck by two torpedoes and sank within minutes on the Yazoo River, about 10 miles north of Vicksburg, Miss. No one died but the sinking of one of the most feared gunboats was an embarrassing loss for the Union. The 175-foot vessel bristled with heavy weaponry, its guns menacing from turrets set about on all sides. A young crewmember, George Yost, later remarked: "Nothing of the Cairo could be seen 12 minutes after the first explosion, excepting the smokestacks, and the flag staff from which still floated the flag above the troubled waters." The ironclads played a crucial part in the Union's Western war aim of seizing and dominating the inland waterways that carried trade, people and foodstuffs through the heartland. It would only be rediscovered and salvaged in 1964, then put on display. Another ironclad, the Cincinnati, would be sunk during the siege of Vicksburg in 1863 by Confederate forces firing from bluffs lining the river bank. Also this week, the Macon Telegraph of Georgia clamors for information on the outcome of the fighting for Fredericksburg, in which the Confederates under the command of Gen. Robert E. Lee prevailed over a bigger Union force. "It is said our loss is 1,800 and the enemy's five times as much," the paper reports. "Somehow, we feel almost, as sure that Lee has got those rascals, as if we saw them already in his grip."

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This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, Dec. 23: A Confederate Christmas raid in Kentucky.

This week 150 years ago in the Civil War, a Confederate cavalryman with a knack for raiding and disrupting Union rail and supply lines, embarked on his famed Christmas raid into Kentucky. He was Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan. Morgan and nearly 4,000 Confederate cavalry troops under his command left Tennessee on Dec. 22, 1862, beginning a mission to harass and disrupt Union troops and supply lines in the key border state. All told, his troopers destroyed miles of railroad tracks, cut telegraph lines, burned supply depots and briefly occupied several Kentucky towns along the way, capturing and then paroling numerous Union troops. By Dec. 28, 1862, he approached a key objective: two tall railroad trestles of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad. After an artillery barrage on two nearby Union stockades, Morgan captured hundreds of prisoners and burned the trestles. Then, after New Year's Eve, his forces retreated into Tennessee. Many in the South would boast of his daring. By May he would be lauded by the Confederate Congress for his heroic service to the secession. Still later in the war, he would be captured and imprisoned by the Union. He would later escape, making his way back behind Confederate lines, only to be shot and killed in Tennessee in 1864.

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This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, Dec. 30: Fighting in Mississippi and Tennessee.

The run-up to New Year's Day 1863 brings no pause in the fighting 150 years ago in the Civil War. On Dec. 26, 1862, Union divisions approaching from the Yazoo River crash into Confederate forces in swampy terrain as they undertake an audacious bid to seize the rebel-held city of Vicksburg, Miss. The fierce battle of Chickasaw Bayou, or Walnut Hills, erupts. When Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman orders his forces to advance, his units are thrust backward by the Confederate defenders. Sherman was hopeful of capturing Vicksburg outright, but the battle leaves heavy Union casualties and dashes any Union hopes of a swift victory. The fighting, however, marks the start of the Vicksburg campaign, which would be renewed by the Union months later in 1863. The New Year would be only hours old when more fighting erupts, this time at Stones River near Murfreesboro, Tenn. Confederates under Gen. Braxton Bragg camp Dec. 29, 1862, not far from Union forces, and combat opens late on Jan. 1, 1863. Union fighters repulse at least one Confederate attack before the rebel forces withdraw in early January from the area near Murfreesboro.