150 Years Ago in the Civil War
After several months of relatively little action, the pace of the fighting picked up in February 1862. Although the Army of the Potomac stayed in winter quarters around Washington, Federal forces in other locations took to the field in several significant offensive operations.
Surrender of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, Tennessee
On February 6th, a joint Army-Navy operation under Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant and Flag Officer Andrew Foote captured Fort Henry on the Tennessee River near the Kentucky/Tennessee border, opening up the river to Federal shipping as far south as Alabama. Grant immediately began preparations to attack the much larger and better defended Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River 12 miles away.
Grant’s 15,000 Union soldiers arrived at Fort Donelson on February 12th. Brigadier General John McClernand’s division was on the Union Right and Brigadier General C.F. Smith was on the left. On the 13th, both generals attacked to test the Confederate defenses, and found them formidable.
Foote arrived that night with his flotilla consisting of the ironclad river gunboats St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Louisville along with the wooden gunboats Tyler and Conestoga. They joined the ironclad Carondelet already present. Grant ordered a naval bombardment the next day. But Foote brought his ironclads in too close to the Forts’ heavy guns and in the exchange of fire all four were damaged seriously enough that they had to drop out of the fight. Unlike Fort Henry, which was surrendered after a naval bombardment alone, Fort Donelson would have to be taken by the army.
Despite their success against the gunboats, the defenders of Fort Donelson were still surrounded on all sides. The Confederate command decided to try to break out by attacking the Union right on February 15th. The attack on the Union right initially was successful, and McClernand was pushed back. Grant, who had been a few miles away conferring with Foote, arrived on the scene and ordered a successful counterattack that drove the Confederates back.
That night, Generals John B. Floyd, Gideon Pillow, and Simon Buckner met to discuss a plan of action. Another attempt at a breakout was deemed a nonstarter against Grant’s now 24,000 troops, and the decision was made to surrender. Floyd, the commanding general, decided he would not surrender. He had been Secretary of War under President James Buchanan and was accused of corruption while in office. Floyd did not want to end up in a Yankee courtroom–or worse. He seized two steamboats docked on the river and escaped with 1500 troops. Pillow was the next ranking general, but he too decided to escape, passing command on to Buckner.
Appalled at the behavior of his superiors, Buckner stayed on with his men at the garrison and prepared to ask for surrender terms. He did allow Lt. Col. Nathan Bedford Forrest and 700 cavalrymen to escape. Forrest, who would soon earn a reputation as a brilliant cavalry tactician, was not about to surrender. His command slipped through the Union lines unimpeded.
Buckner asked Grant for terms, and was shocked when Grant replied “No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately on your works”. Though he didn’t like it, Buckner had little choice and surrendered his approximately 13,000 men on February 16th.
The victory at Fort Donelson was the largest and most strategically significant one to that time for the North, and it was widely celebrated by a population that had endured significant setbacks at First Bull Run and Wilson’s Creek in 1861. With the fall of Fort Donelson, Confederate forces withdrew from most of Kentucky and large parts of Tennessee. The Union Army occupied Nashville on February 25th. Grant, who was nicknamed “Unconditional Surrender” Grant by the newspapers, was promoted to major general by President Lincoln.
Invasion of Roanoke Island, North Carolina
On February 8th, a 7500 man expedition under the command of Brigadier General Ambrose Burnside landed on Roanoke Island, North Carolina. The land force was supported by sixteen gunboats that blasted the Confederate shore defenses and allowed a relatively safe landing for the invaders. The Union troops moved inland and overwhelmed the 3000 or so Confederate defenders, most of whom surrendered. Roanoke is situated between Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds, and its capture was a prelude to the securing of all the ports along the sounds, tightening the Union blockade of the southern coast.
In Washington, President Lincoln’s celebration of these Union victories was tempered by personal tragedy. The Lincolns’ third son, 11 year old Willie, died of Typhoid Fever on February 20th. The family’s youngest son Tad was also ill with Typhoid Fever, but pulled through.
Confederates Win at Valverde, New Mexico
The Confederate expedition into New Mexico led by Brigadier General Henry Sibley engaged a force of Union Army Regulars plus New Mexico and Colorado volunteers under Colonel E.R.S. Canby at the Rio Grande River crossing at Valverde, New Mexico Territory on February 21st. Sibley had bypassed Canby’s garrison at Fort Craig, and intended to cut off communication with the Federal Headquarters at Santa Fe to the north. Canby left Fort Craig with 3000 troops to prevent Sibley’s 2500 man invasion force from crossing the river. After sharp back and forth fighting, Canby withdrew to Fort Craig. Sibley decided not to attack the fort directly and continued north. By doing so, Sibley left in place a Federal stronghold in his rear that could harass his supply lines.
The victory at Valverde was a small bright spot in a month of defeat for the Confederacy. As the winter was winding down, the fighting was picking up, and would continue to do so as February turned into March.