Saturday, February 4, 2012
One Hundred and Fifty Years Ago: Invasion of the Heartland Begins
From The Arkansas Toothpick:
It will be recalled from a previous column that St Louis was the base of operations for the upcoming river campaigns to seize control of Confederate positions. There were Southern troop concentrations between Nashville and Bowling Green KY, and the MS River. On the Mississippi there were heavy fortifications first at Columbus, then Island NO 10. Fort Henry was a short distance up the TN River and Fort Donelson was 12 miles away on the Cumberland. The latter two were in west TN near the KY border and were commanded by Brig Gen Lloyd Tilghman.
On January 30, Major General Henry W Halleck, commanding the Union Dept. of the Missouri authorized a land and Naval operation against Fort Henry, which had been proposed by Brig Gen U S Grant and endorsed by Flag Officer Andrew H Foote.
The expedition pushed off from the St Louis docks on February 2. The sharp end of the navy flotilla consisted of four ironclad behemoths built in St Louis and Cairo IL. The other three were old steamboat conversions without armor but all were essentially floating forts. Grant unloaded his first troops for encirclement four miles from Fort Henry on the 5th, and ordered the operation to begin at 11 o’clock next morning.
Gen Tilghman knew his few AR and AL regiments was no match to his opponents17000. On the 6th he decided to evacuate the stronghold and try to get his command to Fort Donelson, realizing he could not save Fort Henry, but that his troops might be able to save Fort Donelson. The evacuation began at once, leaving only a heavy artillery company to man the big guns and delay the fall of the fort as long as possible. No threat materialized from the land forces. A nighttime rainstorm made roads impassable and immobilized Grants long infantry columns like so many engorged serpents.
The attack came on fast and furious; one ironclad took a shot in the boiler and drifted downstream in a cloud of steam with 29 scalded sailors.
Inside the fort, a naval shell disabled two well served guns. Hours later the number of guns was reduced to four and the few remaining cannoneers were about to drop with exhaustion. Tilghman then assisted with one of the guns before surrendering.
The main body retreated to Fort Donelson in good order. However, in a rear guard skirmish, Major Benning of Colonel James M Gee’s 15th AR and an AL Captain were captured. All told 61 Confederates were casualties. Their opponents suffered 44 killed and wounded. Flag Officer Foote reported “Fort Henry was defended with the most determined gallantry by Gen Tilghman, worthy of a better cause.”
Major General Earl Van Dorn wasn’t in Little Rock long until he moved his HQ to Pocahontas and directed nearby AR units to that location. He also requested two infantry regiments from Texas to concentrate in that vicinity by March 1st. Additionally, on February 6, he ordered Gen McCulloch to move his infantry and mounted units there while informing General Sterling Price of postponing a visit to his Springfield location.
Van Dorn had an eye to seizing St Louis, but just now he thought his base of operations was being threatened by enemy forces.
By chance McCulloch had encountered Van Dorn at Little Rock a few days earlier and was informed of the latter’s plan to invade MO from northeast AR in the spring. On reaching Fort Smith McCulloch was notified by his officers that General Price at Springfield was having fits because a Federal concentration was boldly taking place at Lebanon, 50 miles to the northeast.
There was some foundation to his frantic behavior. Curtis decided to make that location his forward staging area on January 29, after an excruciating three day march from Waynesville. Here stockpiles of supplies would be warehoused to support the weary and dispiriting drive to Springfield.
Since Van Dorn wanted to shift his army to Pocahontas, McCulloch believed he had no authorization to march to Springfield to assist Price. After some contemplation that evolved into a surge of leadership, he concluded to take the responsibility to “unite with Price and win a battle”.
On the civilian front, the Memphis and Little Rock Railroad Company asked Congress to advance half a million dollars in Confederate bonds for completion of the “middle division” of the line. The company agreed to secure the advance with an equal amount of its own bonds, and also give whatever personal security might be approved by the Secretary of War. The estimated completion date was set for July 1st. The company pointed out the railroad was a military necessity and would save the Confederacy much time and money in transportation of troops and munitions of war to northeast AR and MO.
Two sections were already in operation. The eastern division from the Mississippi to Madison on the St Francis had been active during the past two years. The western division from DeValls Bluff on White River to Huntersville Station on the north side of the Arkansas was recently completed with ceremony.
The bridge on the St Francis River was finished and the heaviest part of the grading had been done. Also numerous crossties and enough iron for 15 miles of track had been brought to the section. Another 2500 tons of iron would be needed to complete the line. The rails were nearly impossible to buy, but the company officials thought they could obtain it from other railroads which had been forced to suspend construction after the war started. (Margaret Ross, Chronicles of Arkansas, Arkansas Gazette, February 1962)