The American Civil War Overview

CHAPTER III
THE WESTERN THEATER: THE OPENING MOVES

       When the other states initially began choosing sides, Kentucky, which was of strategic importance to the control of the Mississippi River, had declared its neutrality. Both sides hesitated to violate that neutrality by bringing in troops. Confederate Major General Leonidas Polk made the first move by occupying Columbus on September 4, 1861. Although Polk did not know it at the time, Grant had planned to occupy the city on the following day. Since the Confederates however, had been the first to violate Kentucky's neutrality, the state declared in favor of the Union.
       Albert Sidney Johnston, who was regarded by many as the South's finest general, arrived to take command of the Western Department in mid-September, 1861. He could hardly have been pleased with the situation he found. He counted but 20,000 troops, most raw and ill-equipped, between the Appalachian Mountains to the east and the Mississippi River. In the Trans-Mississippi Theater, despite a Confederate victory at Wilson's Creek, Missouri on August 10, 1861, Southern Generals Price and McCulloch exhibited a lack of cooperation which only vaguely suggested they were on the same side.
       To correct these shortcomings, General Johnston immediately appealed for more troops and appointed Major General Earl Van Dorn as the ranking general over both Price and McCulloch as the new year of 1862 rolled in. Brigadier General Felix Zollicoffer was ordered to occupy the Cumberland Gap with a command of raw recruits to bolster Johnston's weak right flank.
       Even with these measures however, the Federal forces opposing Johnston could have easily advanced right over his makeshift defenses. Johnston kept them from doing this by a combination of bluff and bluster. The theatrics were brilliant while they lasted but the first crack in Johnston's facade appeared on his right flank. It came about, not due to any Federal offensive movement, but because of General Zollicoffer's inexperience. Brigadier General Crittenden was sent east to assume command of the right wing and found Zollicoffer was camped on the wrong (north) side of the unfordable Cumberland River. He was facing Brigadier General George H. Thomas' Federal command which was twice as large as his own. Crittenden ordered him to move back to the south bank, but in early January, Zollicoffer was still on the north side of the river. To compound problems, the Federal forces were starting to advance. Suddenly realizing his desperate circumstances, Zollicoffer launched a dawn attack on the Federal encampment at Mill Springs, Kentucky during a rain-soaked, dreary, January day. The attack failed and Zollicoffer was killed when he mistakenly rode into the Federal lines thinking the troops were his own men, although most of his command managed to escape to the south bank of the river.
       Johnston's right flank had collapsed, but it did not prove to be his undoing. Thomas attempted to advance toward Nashville, but the barren nature of the region during the winter months stopped him about sixty miles short of his objective.
       Johnston's cordon defensive line did not actually come unhinged until February, 1862. However, when it did start to give way, the disintegration was, to say the least, spectacular. Johnston's Achilles' heel proved to be the combination of the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers and their paths into vital Confederate territory. Although the Tennessee plunged deep into the heart of the Confederacy, Johnston's immediate concern was the Cumberland which curved past Clarksville, Tennessee (the site of the South's second largest ironworks) and Nashville, his base of supply. If Union gunboats were allowed to freely ply this river, his railway bridges would be quickly destroyed and his supply situation rendered untenable.
       Fort Henry and Fort Donelson were built by the Confederates on the Tennessee and Cumberland, respectively, to block the rivers and prevent just this type of disaster. The forts were constructed at a point where the rivers were only twelve miles apart. However, all was not well. Fort Henry had been badly sited and was located on low ground subject to flooding and dominated by high ground across the river. Johnston's engineer had arrived in late November, 1861 and noticed the problem immediately. However, by mid-January, he had still not arrived at a solution. Fort Henry fell to Flag Officer Foote's Federal ironclad fleet and the rising flood waters on February 6, 1862. Fort Donelson was sited much better, and Foote's fleet came out on the worse end of a heavy artillery duel with the fort. It was left to U.S. Grant's infantry to take Fort Donelson. The Confederate garrison attempted a breakout, and seemed to have been successful in opening the road that would allow their escape, but for some yet unexplained reason were ordered to fall back to their trenches. Thus about 15,000 badly needed Southern troops would become prisoners of war with the fall of Fort Donelson on February 16, 1862.
       Johnston now knew he could no longer hold Nashville. He left Nathan Bedford Forrest in charge of the rear-guard to salvage what he could and fell back to Murfreesboro. Major General Buell, still advancing cautiously, did not reach the now undefended city of Nashville until February 23. With the fall of Nashville, Major General Polk's position at Columbus, Kentucky was now untenable. He abandoned his fortifications and fell back. 7,000 Southern troops were sent to New Madrid and the fortress at Island #10 to block the Mississippi River. Another 10,000 were moved to the railway junction at Humboldt, Tennessee from which they could be rapidly shifted as the situation dictated.
       In the Trans-Mississippi Theater, Confederate fortunes were also on the decline. General Van Dorn had been defeated on March 7-8, 1862, by Federal forces under Brigadier General Curtis at Pea Ridge, Arkansas, effectively losing the state of Missouri to Federal control. Brigadier General Sibley's New Mexico campaign, aimed at gaining the eventual control of California and giving the Confederacy unblockaded access to Pacific ports, came to an abrupt end when he lost his wagon train following the fight at Glorieta on March 28, 1862. New Madrid, on the Mississippi River, fell to Federal forces on March 13, 1862. Island #10 however, held out until April 7.
       Meanwhile, on April 6, 1862, the largest battle on the North American continent up to that time was being fought near a unassuming West Tennessee Methodist meeting house called Shiloh Church. Grant's Army of the Tennessee was camped near Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River with about 48,000 men. He was awaiting the arrival of General Buell's Army of the Ohio with another 30,000 troops so they could combine and advance on Corinth, Mississippi. Johnston and Beauregard, commanding the Confederate Army of the Mississippi, could not afford to wait until the two Federal forces united. With about 44,000 men, they advanced north from Corinth with the intent of striking Grant before Buell could join him. Ideally, Johnston would have preferred to await the arrival of Van Dorn's Trans-Mississippi command with another 15,000 men, but time was running out.
       The Confederate attack on the morning of April 6 came as a complete surprise to Grant. Following the Confederate defeats at Forts Henry and Donelson, and their subsequent evacuation of Nashville, Grant had believed the Southern forces to be demoralized. He therefore did not bother to fortify his camps at Shiloh, nor did he send out adequate reconnaissance parties to warn of the impending Confederate attack. The initial Southern attacks overran many of the Federal camps and rapidly pushed toward Pittsburg Landing. However, as the initial shock wore off, the veteran troops among the Federal forces began to stiffen their resistance. Prentiss' stand in the Sunken Road bought Grant the time he needed to patch together a final defensive line covering Pittsburg Landing. With the death of General Johnston and the resulting command confusion, the Confederates were not able to consolidate their forces for a final push against the Landing before evening. That afternoon and night, the lead elements of the Army of the Ohio began to arrive and take position. The Federal armies began a general advance on the morning of April 7, and the now outnumbered Confederates were forced to withdraw back to Corinth. Casualties were about 13,000 Federal and 10,000 Confederate for the two-day fight.

This Page last updated 11/22/03

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CHAPTER IV, The Eastern Theater: The Peninsula Campaign