Rivers Campaign

            Background to the Campaign

            After Lincolnıs election, and the parade of Southern states seceding from the Union, it was not at first thought that any grand scheme or strategy for defeating the strong Confederate armies would have to be devised. Aged USA General Winfield Scott, Commander-in-Chief of all Union armies, suggested early on a plan that would cut off trade and supply to the South, effectively starving it into submission. This so-called ³Anaconda Plan² was initially rejected by Northern politicians, who in the manner of politicians everywhere and throughout history, demanded a ³quickınıeasy² solution to a complex and deadly problem. Their idea, unfortunately happily carried out by the army, was to simply march out, ³show the grand old flag,² and the Southerners would run screaming from the field.

             Southerners proved a bit more intractable than the Northern politicians had predicted. With the Union disaster at the First Manassas (First Bull Run to the Yankees), realization set in that this was not going to be any sort of ³90-day war,² and that a real, workable strategy would have to be adopted. Based on Scottıs plan, a three-part strategy was approved and adopted; first, a tight naval blockade of the entire Southern Atlantic and Gulf coasts, to cut off supplies and trade with foreign nations; second, an invasion of VIrginia as soon as possible with the goal of capturing the Confederate capital of Richmond; and third, the capture and control of the major river systems in the heartland of the Confederacy, the Mississippi, Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers.

            The naval blockade was effectively put into place on over 3,500 miles of Southern coastline by July, 1861, but USA Major General George Brinton McClellanıs feeble attempts to take Richmond proved much less successful. To carry out the third portion of the grand plan, USA Brigadier General Ulysses Simpson Grant and USA Flag-Officer Andrew Hull Foote (various sources list him as a Captain, Commodore or Admiral at this point in time) were given the mission of opening up the great Southern rivers to Union control. Together, they decided to initially concentrate on taking control of the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers in northern Tennessee.

 

            The Union Army-Navy Plan

            Grant and Foote agreed to start they campaign on the Cumberland River at Fort Donelson, near the Tennessee-Kentucky border, which would open up a river corridor to Nashville. Foote had overseen the construction of a new class of navy craft specifically designed for such inter-service operations, the ironclad riverboat. These boats were relatively small, 75 feet long and 50 feet wide on average, shallow draft craft with protected mid-ship paddlewheels for propulsion, ironclad either entirely or at  least protecting the gun decks, with rectangular casements covered by sloping iron armor with a small opening for cannon.

            Early on, most of these gunboats were simply modified civilian riverboats, with widely varying sizes and gun capacities. One carried only four 8-pounder guns, while others carried guns as heavy as 42-pounders and mounting as many as 12 guns. Foote commanded three unarmed boats and four ironclads in the opening battles, manned by a rather motley assortment of 500 sailors who were formerly riverboat crewmen, Maine lumberboat sailors, New England whalers, New York ferrymen, and some only described as ³Philadelphia sea-lawyers.²

            On the army side, Grant had about 15,000 soldiers organized into a two divisions with five brigades. USA Brigadier General Charles Ferguson Smith took charge of three brigades, while USA Brigadier General John Alexander McClernand had two brigades under his command.

 

            The Confederate Plan

            In overall charge of the defense of the Mississippi River and itıs approaches was CSA Major General Leonidas Polk, an Episcopalian Bishop who was quite frankly more at home in the ministry than the military. He was convinced that the main Union attack would move down the Mississippi, and accordingly placed most of his men and material in the buildup of fortifications at Columbus, Kentucky, for the defense of Memphis. He refused several requests for manpower and supplies to build up defenses on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, believing that these were ³backwater accesses with no real strategic value.²

            Tennessee Governor Isham G. Harris, more concerned about the loss of the middle of his state than Polk was, personally ordered CSA General Daniel S. Donelson to construct fortifications on these two rivers at the Kentucky border, where they are only 12 miles apart. Donelson choose a very poor site for the post guarding the Tennessee River; later named Fort Henry, it was placed on a flood plain that frequently flooded, and was commanded by high ground across the river.  The Cumberland RIver post was much better; later named Fort Donelson in his honor, the earthwork fort consisted of 2 1/2 miles of fortifications surrounding two heavily entrenched artillery emplacements atop a 70-foot bluff overlooking the river.

 

            The Battle of Fort Henry

            Grant and Foote agreed to start their campaign by capturing Ft. Henry. Foote started up the Tennessee River with his seven gunboats closely followed by Grantıs force loaded on transport barges. Grantıs plan was to land his force on either side of the fort, to prevent escape of the garrison, and march overland towards an assault while Footeıs gunboats weakened the Confederate defenses by continuous bombardment.

            Inside Ft. Henry, things were getting soggy. The river was flooding again, and water was standing two feet deep in parts of the fort. Post commander CSA Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman was disgusted, calling the fortıs condition ³wretched,² he sent most of the 2,500 man garrison to nearby Ft. Donelson and kept only a single 60-man artillery company to man the 17 guns.

            On February 6, 1862, with Grantıs troops landed and on their way over muddy, flooded roads, Foote sailed his gunboats nearly to the ramparts of the fort and opened fire. With the fort continuing to flood, Tilghmanıs gunners returned a telling fire, disabling two gunboats and killing or wounded nearly two score of their crew. The fortıs crew faired little better, with four guns flooded out or disabled by enemy fire and 20 men killed or wounded. After less than two hours of bombardment, Tilghman surrendered his post, before Grant had a chance to close in. The fort was so flooded by that point that the Union officers accepting the surrender floated in the main gate by boat. Lost in the brief confrontation was 11 killed, 31 wounded and five missing for the Union force; Tilghman reported his losses at 20 killed or wounded, and the rest made prisoner.

 

            The Battle for Ft. Donelson

            The day after the fall of Ft. Henry, Commander of the Western Theater, CSA General Albert Sydney Johnston ordered the abandonment of Columbus and Bowling Green, Kentucky, and the movement of most of his armies south of the Cumberland RIver. To facilitate this movement and make safe his new positions, he ordered that Ft. Donelson must be reinforced and held.

            Ft. Donelson originally held a garrison of 5,000 troops, soon reinforced to a total of 18,000 (as few as 12,000 by some accounts) but burdened with a weird command structure where three generals shared the responsibility; CSA Brigadier General John Buchanan Floyd, CSA Brigadier General Gideon Pillow and CSA Brigadier General Simon Bolivar Buckner. To add to the unworkable situation of having three commanders, Buckner and Pillow were bitter political enemies back home in Kentucky, Pillow was a lawyer with no formal military training and a bad case of arrogance, Buckner was the only professional soldier of the three, and Floyd was a weak-willed politician who had been Buchananıs Secretary of War. Floyd took over as senior commander, strictly by virtue of his earlier date of commission.

 

            The Advance to Ft. Donelson

            Grant waited several days before marching on Ft. Donelson, building up his forces to as many as 27,000, with about 15,000 ready for an immediate investment of the Confederate stronghold. On the afternoon of February 13, the Union troops were in position to the south on west of the fort, with Foote on the way upriver with his gunboats and more troops to land on the north side of the fort. The day was clear and sunny, with quite warm temperature for a winterıs day, leading many of the Union soldiers to ditch their heavy overcoats by the side of the road as they marched in.

            The night of February 13 a winter storm blew in, dropping the temperature down to 10 degrees and set off a raging blizzard on the unprotected troops. Campfires had been forbidden, as any light brought a barrage from Ft. Donelsonıs guns. A brief skirmish earlier in the day had resulted in numerous Union wounded, many of whom froze to death during the long night.

 

            The Gunboats Enter the Action

            Late in the afternoon of February 14 Foote arrived and swung into action. His four heavily armored gunboats closed within 400 yards of the fort, exchanging heavy fire with the Confederate artillery crews until darkness set in. Foote was decisively defeated, his gunboats raked with heavy cannon fire until rendered useless, and most of his sailors aboard killed or wounded. Foote himself was seriously injured aboard his flagship, the St.Louis, ultimately dying of complications caused by the wound 16 months later.

            Although the Confederate force had been quite successful resisting the waterborne assault, it was obvious that they would not be able to make much of a stand against Grantıs land based assault, sure to come in the following days. The three generals agreed to break out towards the east and rejoin the rest of Johnstonıs force in Nashville. Launching a strong attack on the Union lines across the Nashville Road at daybreak, Pillow and Buckner managed to force the road open by noon. Unbelievably, though,  Pillow ordered a retreat back into the fort on hearing a report that the Union troops in the area might be receiving reinforcements. Floyd, still in the fort, supported Pillow and all the Southern soldiers who had forced the breakout were smartly marched back into the besieged garrison.

            Pillow later claimed that he ordered the return to the fort because of a ³confusion over orders², stating that he thought the men were to go back, back their belongings and presumably tidy up the place before leaving. Once back in the fort, he insisted that his men needed food and rest before embarking on such a long march, and Floyd timidly backed him up against the violently agitated Buckner, who rightfully insisted they had to leave immediately for any hope of escaping the Union envelopment. As they stood arguing, Grant launched his own attack.

            Correctly assessing that, as the attack had come from the Confederate left, their right must be weaker, he ordered an assault on that part of their line. USA General Charles Ferguson Smith led his division in a strong assault against the Confederate trenchlines, now held only by a single regiment of infantry. Buckner immediately moved his men back to counter-attack, but Smith was able to capture and hold the outer line of defenses on that side of the fort before darkness brought an end to the days fighting.

 

            The Surrender of the Fort

            The three Confederate generals again conferred, Pillow and Floyd in a shear panic at their own capture, and Buckner disgusted with their amateurish attempts at command. Floyd passed command of the post to Pillow, who immediately passed it to Buckner, who had made it clear that the only choice available was surrender. As Buckner made ready to end his resistance, Floyd and Pillow commandeered a steamboat and got themselves to safety across the river, along with a few hundred soldiers of Floydıs command. Newly appointed cavalry officer, CSA Lieutenant Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest, disgusted with Bucknerıs intention to surrender, received his permission to escape through the surrounding swamps with as many men as possible.

            On the morning of February 16, Buckner sent a message across to Grant asking for his surrender terms. Grant replied in a famous message (later used as his nickname), ³No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender.² Meeting at the Dover Inn later that afternoon, Buckner surrendered his command and the post. Casually discussing the action later with his pre-war friend Grant, Buckner mentioned that he must have been disappointed not to have captured Pillow and Floyd as well. Grant, well aware of Pillowıs alleged ³abilities² as a battlefield commander, remarked that had he captured him, he would have immediately released him, as he was more a danger to the Confederacy than an asset!

            Numbers of those engaged, casualties and prisoners made vary wildly from source to source, but somewhere in the neighborhood of 27,000 Union and 21,000 Confederate troops were involved in the action, with Grant losing about 2,800 dead, wounded or missing. The Confederate force lost about 2,000 dead or wounded, and had about 14,500 made prisoner, the rest escaping with Forrest or ³bugging out² on their own.

 

 



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