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Looking at Ft Henry 150 Years Later

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A very interesting post... and it encapsulates General Albert Sidney Johnston's dilemma, as the New Year began 153 years ago: where will the Federals strike? And when?

 

Meanwhile, what comes across as peculiar, when investigating the January 1862 commencement of Union offensive operations into Kentucky: why the hurry? Previous wars fought in snowy northern climes had allowed for 'winter encampments' -- almost no operations from December through March, while waiting for good weather and passable roads. But, Halleck, Grant and Foote commenced 'recon raids' and small force 'sorties' in the west, almost as soon as the New Year started; and in Eastern Kentucky, the action at Mill Springs was the culmination of weeks of jabs and feints.

 

It appears that the reasons for early action are these:

  • Pressure: exerted by the Northern media and political leadership, demanding substantial action, and soon;
  • Window of opportunity: it was common knowledge that the Cumberland River was navigable from December-April every year, all the way to Gallatin Landing (above Nashville);
  • Window of opportunity (part two): by late January, the Ohio River was experiencing a significant flood. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had uncovered a coincidence, years earlier: when Cincinnati experienced flood, so did Nashville and Chattanooga, although on different rivers [from Tennessee Tragedies by Allen R. Coggins; Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2011, and http://www.erh.noaa.gov/iln/RiverHistory.php ];
  • Confederate progress: the more time that passed, the stronger became the Kentucky Defensive Line: more Rebel troops; more Rebel gunboats; more and better torpedoes.

In the end, it appears it was the opportunity presented by availability of Union gunboats; and what would later be ranked as the 8th worst flood (at Nashville) in 200 years, that forced the Union's hand [ http://tn.water.usgs.gov/flood/TNFlood_May_12_2010.pdf  (from chart 'Cumberland River at Nashville') ]. Strike while the iron is hot...

 

Ozzy

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To follow up my post of 3 January 2015, I highly recommend four pages from The Life of General Albert Sidney Johnston, by his son, William Preston Johnston; New York: Appleton & Co. (1878). Pages 419-422.

 

You will find an excellent, surprisingly unbiased, and concise assessment of the events leading up to the Federal Campaign against Fort Henry. Of particular interest:

  • Who gets credit for planning the Federal move against Fort Henry;
  • The value of 'demonstrations,' especially the combined effort of John McClernand and C.F. Smith, 10-20 January 1862 [bottom, page 421];
  • A listing of the results of Phelp's 'recon raids' aboard the USS Conestoga, conducted 12 October 1862; 7 January 1862 and 16 January 1862.

http://archive.org/stream/lifeofgenalberts028942mbp#page/n451/mode/2up

 

 

Cheers

 

Ozzy

 

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I think I read a passage a long time back by Bruce Catton, where he said that between Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, Henry was the more important of the two. Oddly enough I can't recall what his exact reasoning was, but I'm sure it must have been the fact that the Union forces cracked the Kentucky Line at what was probably the worst possible spot, along the Tennessee. It outflanked their entire line, even if they held on to Donelson.

 

I think they're both important, but maybe for slightly different reasons. The big event at Fort Henry was simply breaking through, which was big enough to qualify as epic. At For Donelson, it was losing thousands of men who were needed very badly. Like I think Larry Daniel said in his book on Shiloh when he was talking about Johnston's 2:00 attack, it would have been a great time to unleash his Donelson veterans on Grant's army. Except they weren't there.

 

Anyway, good points about Fort Henry, Ozzy. Grant, especially, seems to have been chomping at the bit to hit the fort. Could the southerners have picked a worse location, and done a worse job of getting it ready for an attack? What a mess.

 

Perry

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Perry

 

Before the maturation of the internet, each of us was 'at the mercy' of our closest major library, and the whims of librarians determining, among all the resources available, what to include on the shelves. It was too difficult making long trips for research (unless you're writing a book), so we were a lot more reliant on secondary and tertiary sources.

 

I find now, with all the CDVs, autobiographies, letters, diaries... at one time, only available at one obscure location, but via my home computer, just two or three clicks away... without realizing, we have access to the world's largest and best library. And we don't have to go anywhere to get access (although visiting historical sites will always have a place.)

 

Concerning Henry Halleck, I was never much of a fan. But, his important papers are still locked away in an obscure location in California, so we were reliant upon what General Grant, and others, said of Halleck (and Halleck's own performance once he arrived at Washington and was promoted.) I'm hoping someone is scanning Halleck's papers onto the internet, and soon.

 

Ozzy

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As regards which was most important... The vital Confederate military and political center of Bowling Green, Kentucky began evacuating on 10/11 February. The 'Gibraltar of the West,' Fort Columbus, was ordered evacuated by General Beauregard in late February (without Beauregard ever having seen the facility.)

 

A 'two-fer.'

 

By neutralizing Fort Henry first, Confederate defenders felt obliged to go east to Fort Donelson (instead of west to Fort Columbus, which would have been a much more difficult venture for the Federal forces. And General Polk would have welcomed the opportunity to 'fight his fort,' as opposed to the triumvirate of leaders at Fort Donelson.)

 

A smattering of facts, cloaked in my opinion...

 

Ozzy

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Good post, Ozzy.

 

It sure left them in a quandary, didn't it? The big big problem was that they could no longer stop the Union navy from going anywhere along the Tennessee that it wanted to go, and deposit U.S. army troops anywhere they were needed, and entirely behind the entire Confederate line. And they couldn't really recapture Henry without controlling the river. So to quote Chandler from an episode of Friends, can open, worms everywhere. :)

 

So what should Johnston have done that he didn't do? Or could he have done anything by that point that would have made a difference?

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Perry

 

One of the things that comes across, when reading Polk: Bishop and General, is how well-prepared Polk was, with a fortification that Halleck described as 'unable to be turned... by direct action.' And Polk had viable fall-back options, extending south down the Mississippi, to be used once Fort Columbus fell.

 

Reading about A.S. Johnston's preparations, what comes across, is he made lemonade out of lemons: he blocked access to the Cumberland River, north of Fort Donelson, with physical obstructions; he blocked access to Fort Henry with torpedoes (and rumors of 'masked batteries' at the base of Fort Heiman); he put qualified engineers to work, making recommendations about improving his defensive line, and followed those recommendations... 

 

Three things happened that ruined the situation for Johnston: first, he established his fall-back position too far north (along the line of the Cumberland). I believe this was done for political reasons: the city fathers of Nashville and Clarksville would not stand for a realistic fall-back option, sited a bit further south. (Lots of resources were wasted, creating this 'fall-back line.')

 

Second, it was envisioned that Kentucky would furnish the Confederacy with approximately 50000 troops, and it appears Johnston was counting on these... but they did not materialize. Meanwhile, Johnston needed to push harder for troops 'from elsewhere'... (Pensacola?)... to bolster his force. He always suffered manpower problems.

 

Third... The Flood. Possibly the 8th worst in Tennessee history. Overtopped his barrier on the Cumberland. Ruined his torpedoes on the Tennessee. Hope-against-hope: no flood this year, please... Oh, drat.

 

The next factor, Johnston had no control over: Foote and Grant.

 

 

Ozzy

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Following on to my post of February 14th,... in response to 'could Albert Sidney Johnston have done more [after the loss of Fort Henry?'] 

 

I believe the raid conducted by Naval Officer Phelps up the Tennessee River, all the way into the Deep South, would have rattled Johnston's cage. But, I also believe that he had confidence in a Confederate showing at Fort Donelson: make a stand; make the Federal force suffer some casualties; withdraw most of the Rebel force to the Clarksville Line for the next stand...

 

But, it must also be remembered: Johnston's area of responsibility was not constrained by the Mississippi River. It appears his overall strategy, upon taking control of Department No.2, was this: hold onto his current Kentucky Line, and make it stronger; conduct operations in Missouri, and use Missouri as a way of drawing Federal troops away from Kentucky; when the opportunity presented, advance his Kentucky Line to the natural boundary of the Ohio River.

 

Albert Sidney Johnston requested qualified officers be sent his way, in order to help accomplish his goals. One of these was Beauregard... and we know his story. One other was Earl Van Dorn, who arrived at Bowling Green in late January, before the attack on Fort Henry, with a 'Grand Scheme'... he was going to launch an offensive in Missouri, using the forces of Ben McCulloch and Stirling Price, with the intention of capturing St Louis. 

 

Unfortunately for Johnston, Grant and Foote acted before Van Dorn...

 

Timing is everything.

 

 

Ozzy

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