It was the longest lasting insurgency in post-partition Poland. The conflict engaged all levels of society, and arguably had profound repercussions on contemporary international relations and ultimately provoked a social and ideological paradigm shift in national events that went on to have a decisive influence on the subsequent development of Polish society.
It was the confluence of a number of factors that rendered the uprising inevitable in early 1863. The Polish nobility and urban bourgeois circles hankered after the semi-autonomous status they had enjoyed in Congress Poland before the previous insurgency, a generation earlier in 1830, while youth encouraged by the success of the Italian independence movement urgently desired the same outcome. Russia had been weakened by its Crimean adventure and had introduced a more liberal attitude in its internal politics which encouraged Poland's underground National Government to plan an organised strike against their Russian occupiers no earlier than the Spring of 1863. They had not reckoned with Aleksander Wielopolski, the pro-Russian arch-conservative head of the civil administration in the Russian partition, who got wind of the plans. Wielopolski was aware of his fellow countrymen's fervent desire for independence was coming to a head, something he wanted to avoid at all costs. In an attempt to derail the Polish national movement, he brought forward to January the conscription of young Polish activists into the Imperial Russian Army (for 20-year service). That decision is what triggered the January Uprising of 1863, the very outcome Wielopolski had wanted to avoid.
The rebellion by young Polish conscripts was soon joined by high-ranking Polish-Lithuanian officers and members of the political class. The insurrectionists, as yet ill-organised were severely outnumbered and lacking sufficient foreign support, and were forced into hazardous guerrilla tactics. Reprisals were swift and ruthless. Public executions and deportations to Siberia eventually persuaded many Poles to abandon armed struggle. In addition, Tsar Alexander II hit the landed gentry hard, and as a result the whole economy, with a sudden decision in 1864 to finally abolish serfdom in Poland. The ensuing break-up of estates and destitution of many peasants convinced educated Poles to turn instead to the idea of "organic work", economic and cultural self-improvement.
Despite the Russian Empire losing the Crimean war and being weakened economically and politically, Alexander II warned in 1856 against further concessions with the words, "forget any dreams". There were two prevailing streams of thought among the population of the Kingdom of Poland at the time. One consisting of patriotic stirrings within liberal-conservative usually landed and intellectual circles centred around Andrzej Zamoyski. They were hoping for an orderly return to the constitutional status pre-1830. They became characterised as the Whites. The alternative tendency, characterised as the Reds represented a democratic movement uniting peasants, workers, and some clergy. For both streams central to their dilemma was the peasant question. However estate owners tended to favour the abolition of serfdom in exchange for compensation, whereas the democratic movement saw the overthrow of the Russian yoke as entirely dependent on an unconditional liberation of the peasantry.
Just as the democrats organised the first religious and patriotic demonstrations in 1860, covert resistance groups began to form among educated youth. Blood was first shed in Warsaw in February 1861, when the Russian Army attacked a demonstration in Castle Square on the anniversary of the Battle of Grochów. There were five fatalities. Fearing the spread of spontaneous unrest, Alexander II reluctantly agreed to accept a petition for a change in the system of governance. Ultimately he agreed to the appointment of Aleksander Wielopolski to head a commission to look into Religious Observance and Public Education and announced the formation of a State Council and Self-governance for towns and Powiats. These concessions did not prevent further demonstrations. On 8 April there were 200 killed and 500 wounded by Russian fire. Martial law was imposed in Warsaw and brutally repressive measures taken against the organisers in Warsaw and Wilno by deporting them into deepest Russia. In Vilno alone 116 demonstrations were held during 1861. In the autumn of 1861 Russians had introduced a state of emergency in Vilna Governorate, Kovno Governorate and Grodno Governorate.
These events led to a speedier consolidation of the resistance: Future leaders of the uprising gathered secretly in St. Petersburg, Warsaw, Wilno, Paris and London. Two bodies emerged from these consultations. By October 1861 the urban "Movement Committee" (Komitet Ruchu Miejski) was formed and in June 1862 the "Central National Committee", CNC came into being. Its leadership included, Stefan Bobrowski, Jarosław Dąbrowski, Zygmunt Padlewski, Agaton Giller, and Bronisław Szwarce. This body directed the creation of national structures intended to become a new secret Polish state. The CNC had not planned an uprising before the Spring of 1863 at the earliest. However, Wielopolski's move to start conscription to the Russian Army in mid January, forced its hand to call the uprising prematurely on the night of 22-23 January 1863.
The uprising broke out at a moment when general peace prevailed in Europe, and although there was vociferous support for the Poles, powers such as France, Britain and Austria were unwilling to disturb international calm. The revolutionary leaders did not have sufficient means to arm and equip the groups of young men who were hiding in forests to escape Alexander Wielopolski's order of conscription into the Russian army. Initially about 10,000 men rallied around the revolutionary banner. The volunteers came chiefly from city working classes and minor clerks, although there was also a significant number of the younger sons of the poorer szlachta (nobility) and a number of priests of lower rank. Initially, the Russian government had at its disposal an army of 90,000 men under Russian General Anders Edward Ramsay in Poland.