At the turning of the year, things did not look good for the Union cause. For starters, international events were going against Union interests. After two Confederate diplomats were seized on the RMS Trent in November, 1861, tensions were high between the U.S. and Great Britain, leading many to fear the outbreak of hostilities between the two nations. As Lincoln sat in the Executive Mansion, he was faced with the threat of not only trying to win the war against the Confederacy to reunite the Union, but to also solve a grave international diplomatic crisis. While the Lincoln administration decided to release the two Confederate diplomats in late December, 1861, tensions were still high. Many foresaw Britain eventually recognizing the Confederacy as an independent nation, a move which could possibly be seconded by France. If such European support were to materialize for the Confederacy, it would make the reunification of the country all but impossible. By the late summer months, Britain and France were on the verge of recognizing the South.
On the military front, George McClellan's Union forces in and around Washington were still idle after many months of planning. On New Year's Eve, 1861, several members of the Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War, as well as several Cabinet Members, tried to make their case to Lincoln that McClellan should be removed and Irvin McDowell reinstated to command the Union forces around Washington. Political fighting was growing exponentially in Washington, as the newly created Committee on the Conduct of the War began expanding its presence in the Union war effort. The North had the resources and manpower to put down the rebellion, yet the task of combining manpower, resources, generals, strategy, tactics, and leadership to form a victory still remained unfinished. Many throughout the North still looked to George McClellan to accomplish this task. McClellan embodied a strategy of moderation in dealing with the South. He was strongly opposed to emancipating slaves, and thought that the war could be one with one grand Napoleonic battle, after which the nation could reunite without having to undergo a bloody, revolutionary struggle. However, another man would make a greater and remarkably different mark on the strategy of the Union armed forces in the war. In February, this man achieved his first Civil War victories at two outposts in the west: Fort Henry and Fort Donelson. His demands would embody the victory which Union armies ultimately won in 1865: "Unconditional Surrender." That man was U.S. Grant. Grant's rise and McClellan's fall were major consequences of 1862.
For the Confederacy, at the start of 1862, Joseph Johnston in the east and Albert Sydney Johnston in the west were tasked with trying to fend off upcoming Union advanced with inferior numbers. Over the next few months, each general would face the trial of battle. Ultimately, the fate of both Joe Johnston and Albert Sydney Johnton would lead to dramatic changes for the South. Joe Johnston's failure in the Peninsula Campaign led to the rise of Robert E. Lee in the Eastern Theater, and Albert Sydney Johnston's demise at Shiloh led to the instability which plagued Confederate generals in the West. At the start of 1862, Stonewall Jackson was charged with protecting the Shenandoah Valley, a crucial bread basket for the Confederacy. While Jackson had already earned his famed sobriquet of "Stonewall" at first Manassas, his 1862 exploits in the Shenandoah Valley and at Second Manassas and Antietam made him the legend we know today.
In January of 1862, for 4 million slaves in the South, the question of freedom was yet to be decided. Despite the fact that the "irrepressible conflict" had arrived, and despite the fact that many recognized that slavery was indeed at the heart of the national crisis, the issue of slavery itself remained relatively unscathed. Union generals Benjamin Butler and John C. Fremont had tried in their own way to impact the matter in 1861. Butler refused to return slaves who made their way to Union lines at Fortress Monroe in Virginia; Fremont declared martial law for Missouri in August, including emancipation for slaves, which Lincoln ordered him to amend so as to conform with existing Federal law. In early August of 1861, Congress passed the Confiscation Act, declaring that Southern property used in the rebellion was liable to be seized by Federal forces. Because slave owners viewed their slaves as property, this act therefore allowed for the Federal confiscation of Southern slaves. These various proclamations, declarations, and acts represented small and individual attempts to deal with the overriding question of slavery, yet as 1861 turned to 1862, the matter of slavery and freedom still hung in the balance for millions. The events of the upcoming year would ultimately place American slavery on the path towards extinction.
All of these issues were dramatically affected by what occurred in 1862. In many ways, 1862 was the most important of the Civil War, and perhaps, one of the most important years in American history. During that year, America saw fundamental transformations. 150 years ago, in January of 1862, the nation was on the verge of revolutionary events that would make the upcoming year an epochal moment in American history. 1862 was the year where the moderate strategy of George McClellan fell apart, and the demands of "Unconditional Surrender" Ulysses S. Grant became the rallying cry for the nation. 1862 was the year when the nations of Europe began to realize that their recognition of the Confederacy would never become a fait accompli. 1862 was the year when Abraham Lincoln would lose a son to illness, but rise as one of the greatest statesmen the world has seen. 1862 was a year when new meaning was infused into the soil at places such as Shiloh, Antietam, and Fredericksburg. Finally, and most importantly, 1862 was the year which gave birth to emancipation, renewing the promise of freedom set forth in the Declaration of Independence. As Abraham Lincoln wrote that December:
"In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free--honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just--a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless."
Lincoln's words contain the true importance of 1862; it was a year which forever changed the future of freedom in America. Over the next 12 months, these will be the events to remember as we commemorate the 150th anniversary of 1862 and the American Civil War.