Excerpt: The Civil War in the West, by Earl J. Hess

The Western theater of the Civil War, rich in agricultural resources and manpower and home to a large number of slaves, stretched 600 miles north to south and 450 miles east to west from the Appalachians to the Mississippi. If the South lost the West, there would be little hope of preserving the Confederacy. Earl J. Hess’s comprehensive study of how Federal forces conquered and held the West examines the geographical difficulties of conducting campaigns in a vast land, as well as the toll irregular warfare took on soldiers and civilians alike. Hess balances a thorough knowledge of the battle lines with a deep understanding of what was happening within the occupied territories.

The Civil War in the West: Victory and Defeat from the Appalachians to the Mississippi is now available in hardcover, e-book, and large-print paperback. The following excerpt from the book describes the Union’s tactical moves to secure the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers in Tennessee and Alabama. (pp. 34-35, 36, 37-38):

~ ~ ~

Grant proposed moving against the Confederate posture in the West as early as January 1862. He suggested shipping his men up the Tennessee River to strike at Fort Henry and use it as a base to operate towards Columbus or Memphis or up the Cumberland River. “It will besides have a moral effect upon our troops to advance them towards the rebel states,” he added. Grant’s superior, Major General Henry W. Halleck, had suggested the same thing to the general in chief several days before Grant wrote his recommendation. Few other West Pointers could boast of such intellectual accomplishments as Halleck, who had graduated third in the Class of 1839 and who had rich experience in all manner of army work before the Civil War. Halleck saw the Tennessee and the Cumberland as “the great central line of the Western theater of war,” given that the Confederate guns at Columbus had blocked a major push down the Mississippi. In early January Halleck had shared his views with Sherman, who completely agreed with Halleck’s assessment that advancing up the Tennessee or the Cumberland could turn the Rebel position at Columbus. Buell was ready to postpone the invasion of eastern Tennessee even further in order to cooperate with Halleck’s move in western Kentucky, and one of Grant’s subordinates, Brigadier General Lew Wallace, was sure that the Federal gunboats could deal with any Confederate fortifications found on the way.[1]

Fort Henry

No more than thirteen steamers were available for Grant’s expedition, forcing him to transport seventeen thousand infantrymen in two stages. Four ironclads and two timberclad gunboats accompanied the first wave as Grant landed troops on the east bank of the Tennessee River a short distance downstream from Fort Henry on February 5. As the infantry sought to cut off the small garrison by land, the gunboats approached to bombard the fort. The Confederates gave a good account of themselves, badly damaging the Essex, but the Tennessee was on the rise and began to flood Fort Henry. Rebel engineers had located it on the bottomland of the river because better ground downstream lay on the Kentucky side of the state line, and they had honored that state’s proclamation of neutrality. Most of the defending force evacuated, but the Federals captured seventy-seven men when they entered the work on February 6. Even though poorly located, Fort Henry was impressive to those Yankee soldiers who saw it. “Many a poor fellow would have lost his life in trying to take it by storm,” thought George Carrington of the 11th Illinois.[2] [ . . . ]

Fort Donelson

Buoyed by the easy victory at Fort Henry, Grant planned on striking fort Donelson—sixteen miles away on the Cumberland River—very soon. He envisioned an easy capture followed by the return of his men to Fort Henry, which he intended to make his base of operations. Grant’s plan to move against Fort Donelson on February 8 was motivated by an assumption that General Albert S. Johnston would heavily reinforce that place, and it could take up to fifty thousand Federals to capture it if he had dawdled for a month. But rains delayed his move, and Captain Andrew H. Foote needed to take his gunboats down the Tennessee and up the Cumberland Rivers to cooperate with the infantry. As a result, Grant did not set out until February 12.[3]

The attack at Fort Donelson proved to be anything but easy. In fact, the Federals tackled a job that was far more difficult than taking Fort Henry. Closing the land routes to the fort, the Federals launched three small-scale probes on February 13 that resulted only in casualties. On the fourteenth Foote steamed up the river to bombard the fort’s water batteries, which were located on high ground at a bend of the channel. The Confederates pummeled his boats badly. The craft steamed as close as 350 yards from the guns, but all four ironclads were damaged and had to fall back. Worse still, on February 15 the Confederates launched a counterattack on land, taking the Federals by surprise and opening a line of retreat to Nashville. But the Rebel commanders foolishly dawdled rather than take advantage of their opportunity to save the garrison, allowing Grant to organize counterstrikes to recover his position. While reinforcements moved forward to reoccupy the road to Nashville on the Confederate left, Charles F. Smith’s division successfully attacked the fort’s outer defenses on the Confederate right.[4] [ . . . ]

In the wake of Grant’s important victory, many Federals assumed the war would end soon. They still hoped that the Confederacy was a balloon, easy deflated once its outer shell was penetrated. “Great numbers of Union people have come in to see us,” Grant reported to Halleck’s headquarters, “and express great hope for the future. They say secessionists are in great trepidation.” On February 28 Lincoln partially restored the opportunities for commerce between Northerners and residents of the rebellious states, subject to regulation promulgated by the Treasury Department. Because slaves had helped to construct the earthen walls of Fort Donelson, Grant issued a general order in his district forbidding citizens from entering the union lines to look for their runaways.[5] [ . . . ]

The first large catch of Rebel prisoners during the war fell into Federal hands at Fort Donelson. Grant found it difficult to guard the lot and find enough shipping to transport them north. Eventually, they were sent to several army camps in the North, where room was made to accommodate both the prisoners and Union soldiers. Out of 1,400 Confederate prisoners housed at Camp Chase near Columbus, Ohio, about 100 were black slaves. The Federals considered them prisoners of war for the time being and treated them as they did white prisoners. Many of the Donelson captives, especially members of Tennessee regiments, were willing to take the oath of allegiance to the U.S. government to secure their release. Those from eastern Tennessee had been forced into Rebel service against their will, and members of the Irish 10th Tennessee also expressed a readiness to serve in the Union army. Many Federal officers commented that the Rebel rank and file, once removed from the South and the influence of their officers, appeared “entirely harmless.”[6]

~ ~ ~

From The Civil War in the West: Victory and Defeat from the Appalachians to the Mississippi by Earl J. Hess. Copyright © 2012 by the University of North Carolina Press.

Earl J. Hess is Stewart W. McClelland Chair in history at Lincoln Memorial University and has written many books on Civil War history, including In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat, Trench Warfare under Grant and Lee: Field Fortifications in the Overland Campaign, and Field Armies and Fortifications in the Civil War: The Eastern Campaigns, 1861-1864.

  1. [1]Grant to Halleck, January 29, 1862, in Simon, John Y., ed., The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, 4: 103; Grant to William Tecumseh Sherman [WTS], [January 29, 1876], ibid., 27:17; Halleck to McClellan, January 20, 1862, The War of Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies [OR] 8:509; Marszalek, Commander of All Lincoln’s Armies, 4-104; WTS, Memoirs, 1:220; Buell to McClellan, February 5, 1862, OR 7:585; Wallace to Wife, February 5, 1862, Wallace Papers, Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis.
  2. [2]Cooling, Forts Henry and Donelson, 89-90, 98, 102-10; Woodworth, Nothing but Victory, 73-78; Grant to Julia, March 1, 1862, in Simon, Papers of . . . Grant, 4:307; Grant, Memoirs, 190; Carrington Diary, February 6, 1862, Carrington Papers, Chicago Historical Society, Chicago.
  3. [3]Grant to Kelton, February 6, 1862, OR 7:125; Grant, Memoirs, 196-97.
  4. [4]Cooling, Forts Henry and Donelson, 140-46, 155-59, 166-71, 177-80, 185-88, 191-95; Grant, Memoirs, 198, 201-5.
  5. [5]Hillyer to Wife, February 25, 1862, Hillyer Collection, University of Virginia, Special Collections, Charlottesville; Grant to Cullum, February 19, 1862, OR, ser. 2, 3:283; Order relating to Commercial Intercourse, February 28, 1862, in Basler, Collected Works, 5:139; General Orders No. 14, HQ, District of West Tennessee, February 26, 1862, in Simon, Papers of . . . Grant, 4:290.
  6. [6]Grant to Cullum, February 17, 1862, Mulligan to Halleck, February 27, 1862, Robb to Jefferson Davis, March 6, 1862, Hoffman to Meigs, March 7, 1862, and Jones to L. Thomas, April 6, 1862, OR, ser. 2, 3:271-72, 335, 357, 360, 427-29; Lamb to Allison, July 4, 1862, OR, ser. 2, 4:128; Allman to Johnson, March 8, 1862, and Bails to Johnson, March 28, 1862, in Graf and Haskins, Papers of Andrew Johnson, 5:190, 249-50; Cooling, Forts Henry and Donelson, 219-23.