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Tournailler une Fortification

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We all think we know the meaning of the idiom, “to turn a fort,” but do we? A military phrase taken from the French (as was most 19th century military terms) the French equivalent appears to be “tournailler une fortification” (literally “to spin the position like a toy top,” but militarily “to isolate the position; render it ineffectual.”) In the same way “piquet” became picket, the unpronounceable “tournailler” became turn; but the intended meaning remained unchanged.

Why is this important? The Confederate position at Fort Columbus, with its 140 guns manned by 13000 soldiers, sited on a high bluff overlooking the Mississippi River (where a stout barrier chain stretched across from Kentucky to Missouri, and that chain defended by torpedoes of proven ability) ...this position created and operated by Major General Polk was deemed “impregnable” in January 1862 by none other than Henry Halleck (who also labelled Fort Columbus as a “Gibraltar.”) It was acknowledged that any attempt to assault Fort Columbus directly would require tens of thousands of Federal troops. The position might be taken, but the resulting bloodbath would be deemed unacceptable by the people of the North.

To slant the odds more in favor of the North, and to “soften” the position prior to launching an infantry assault, it was deemed a requirement for the U.S. Navy to bombard Fort Columbus with 13-inch mortars. Besides wreaking havoc, the shrapnel created by each bursting 200-pound shell would tend to drive Rebel defenders to cover. Over time (perhaps three days or a week) it was anticipated enough men would be killed, and survivors become so demoralized, that Federal infantry could take the position “easily” (with casualties, but not on a massive scale.)

Problem was, the mortars did not arrive. So, another “method of attack” had to be substituted to “turn the fort” at Columbus. That other method was the assault on Fort Henry (and Fort Donelson) combined with destruction of the railroad bridge just south of Fort Henry.

References:  https://archive.org/details/frenchenglishmil00williala/page/326  French- English Military Terms.

The Life of Andrew Hull Foote by J.M. Hoppin (1874) https://archive.org/details/lifeofandrewhull00hopprich/page/n8

SDG topic "Foote and Grant want to Seize Fort Henry" (all posts).

SDG  "Urgent offer to Bragg" post of 17 May 2018.

SDG  "Rebel Intelligence" post of 2 August 2016.

SDG  "Hey! Look over there..." post of 13 JAN 2016.

SDG  "FEB 14 1862: Fort Donelson attacked by Union Ironclads" posts of 12 JAN & 21 JAN 2016.

SDG  "Civil War Cannon live fire Video" post of 26 December 2015.

 

 

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As we know, the operation against Forts Henry and Donelson, combined with destruction of the railroad bridge on the Tennessee River south of Fort Henry, “turned” Fort Columbus. And that Rebel stronghold was evacuated end of February (completed 2 MAR 1862). But, there were other Rebel Forts that were turned during the Civil War:

  • Island No.10 – This extremely strong position, occupying an S- bend in the Mississippi River was nearly surrounded by swamp (keeping infantry away.) Over seventy guns kept Union gunboats from attempting to force their way through the S- bend for the longest time. But the Achilles heel to Island No.10 was the protective swamp: a passage (Bissel's Canal) was cut through the swamp above Island Number 10 that looped west and south to re-enter the Mississippi River below Island No.10 at New Madrid (and New Madrid was captured earlier by John Pope marching his army across forty miles of swamp to reach that Rebel position.) Bissel's Canal allowed empty steamboats to reach Pope's Army at New Madrid for transport to the back of the Rebel defenses. And when Commander Walke's USS Carondelet “ran the gauntlet” at night, over sixty guns blazing away as he made the attempt, and reached Pope in early April 1862, the Carondelet provided the necessary protection for the transports loaded with Pope's men to make their passage: Island No.10 was turned at that point (and the garrison, unable to evacuate, surrendered April 8th.)

  • Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philip – Defending the Mississippi River below New Orleans, complete with barrier chain and fire rafts, and protected by a number of gunboats, these two powerful forts were surrounded by swamps that kept enemy infantry away. Flag-officer Farragut (in cooperation with David Porter's Mortar Schooner fleet) battered Forts Jackson and St. Philip from two miles away and eventually felt confident to break the barrier chain and attempt to race his heavily armed wooden ships upriver between the two forts, and past the Rebel gunboats. In process of executing the night passage, all of the Rebel gunboats were neutralized, with the loss of one U.S. Navy vessel sunk. The Forts Jackson and St. Philip remained strong and lethal; but once Farragut got north of them (with Porter's fleet south of them) the “Rebel position was turned.” And the two Rebel forts surrendered on 28 April 1862 (and New Orleans surrendered soon afterwards.)

  • Vicksburg. Each attempt by Williams and Grant to dig canals, re-channel the Mississippi River and leave Vicksburg high and dry was an attempt to turn Vicksburg... but the canal digging did not succeed. Instead, Vicksburg was passed, besieged, and ultimately forced to surrender (with food supplies almost exhausted.) Up until the day of surrender, the Rebel position remained strongly defended and effective in challenging ships on the Mississippi River.

 

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