The military movements of 1861 and the opening period of 1862 in the East were paralleled by as active operations in the West, in which the successes of the Union armies more than counterbalanced the Confederate victories in Virginia.
Among the earliest military movements were those which took place in Missouri. A convention in that State decided against secession, and in favor of compromise. The governor, however, at once proceeded to act as if the State had seceded, refused to furnish troops to the government, raised a militia, and attempted to seize the national arsenal at St. Louis. This was held by Captain Lyon, with five hundred regulars. Several conflicts succeeded, and, as the governor still sought to force the State into the Confederacy, a condition of actual war arose.
General (late Captain) Lyon defeated the State troops at Booneville, while, in retaliation, the governor took it on himself to declare the State seceded and to offer its aid to the Confederacy. General Fremont was now made commander of the troops in Missouri. A battle took place on August 10, at Wilson's Creek, in which Lyon was killed, while General Sigel, who had been sent to gain the enemy's rear, met with a disastrous repulse. Each side lost heavily, and the Confederates were unable to pursue the retreating Unionists. The armies on both sides gradually increased, until there were twenty-eight thousand Confederates and thirty thousand Unionists in the field. At this juncture Fremont was removed, as a punishment for issuing on his own authority a proclamation emancipating the slaves in his department. General Halleck, who eventually succeeded to the command of the Union forces, compelled the Confederate General Price to retreat to Arkansas. In February, 1862, General Curtis, at the head of a Union army, pursued Price into Arkansas. On March 7 a severe battle took place at Pea Ridge, in which Sigel completely routed the Confederate right, while on the next morning their whole army was forced to retreat. This ended all operations of any importance in Missouri and Arkansas. The bulk of both armies was transferred to the east of the Mississippi, and a few unimportant contests in Arkansas completed the war in that quarter.
Operations of more essential significance were meanwhile taking place in Kentucky and Tennessee. The political action of the former State resembled that of Missouri. The governor was of strong secession sympathies, but the legislature refused to support him in his purposes. The Unionists of the State were largely in the majority, and clearly showed their intention of supporting the administration, despite the rebellious sentiments of the governor. Yet the Confederate authorities felt it absolutely necessary to their cause to take military possession of the State, which was invaded on the west by General Polk, who seized Columbus, on the Mississippi, and by General Zollicoffer on the east. The first engagement took place at Belmont, on the Missouri side of the river, opposite Columbus. General Grant attacked and defeated the force at this place, but was himself assailed by a strong force under General Polk, through which he was forced to cut his way. Grant brought off his guns and some of those of the enemy. His loss was four hundred and eighty men; that of Polk was six hundred and forty-two.
These preliminary operations were succeeded by a vigorous effort on the part of the Confederates to form a powerful defensive line on the rivers leading south. Columbus was strongly fortified, to prevent the descent of the Mississippi, while accessory forts were built on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, just within the borders of Tennessee,--that on the former river receiving the name of Fort Henry, that on the latter, of Fort Donelson. An intrenched camp was also made farther east, at Bowling Green in Kentucky, an important railroad-junction. This camp covered the city of Nashville.
In November, 1861, General Halleck was placed in command of the Western Department. He assigned to General Grant the district of Cairo, which also included Paducah, at the mouth of the Tennessee. The Confederate line of defence was placed under General A. S. Johnston. It was held by about sixty thousand men, while the post of Columbus was so strongly fortified that the Confederates believed that it would effectually close the Mississippi till the end of the war. In this particular they were destined to be quickly undeceived.
The proposed Union plan of operation was the reduction of Forts Henry and Donelson. For this purpose two armies were available, that of Grant at Cairo, with seventeen thousand men and some ironclad gunboats, and that of Buell at Louisville, with forty thousand men. Halleck believed that if these forts were taken Columbus and Bowling Green must be abandoned, and Nashville fall into the Union hands. On January 30, 1862, Grant marched southward from Cairo along the Tennessee, the gunboats accompanying him on the river. On February 6 the gunboats attacked Fort Henry, which was reduced so quickly that the Confederate garrison escaped before Grant could get into position to cut off their retreat. He had been delayed by excessive rains, which flooded the roads.
Attention was now given to Fort Donelson, which was a strong work, about forty miles above the mouth of the Cumberland, with sixty-five pieces of artillery, and a garrison which was increased until it numbered twenty-one thousand men. Grant marched upon it from Fort Henry with fifteen thousand men, while the gunboats went round by way of the Ohio. The attack was made on February 14. The first assault by the gunboats and troops failed, but, as heavy Union reinforcements were coming up, General Floyd, who commanded in the fort, determined to abandon it and retreat. This design ended in failure. Grant had now reached the scene, and, perceiving the position of affairs, he ordered a general advance. This was pushed so vigorously that commanding points surrounding the fort were seized and retreat became impossible. During the night Floyd, with his Virginia brigade, made his escape by way of the river, and the next morning the fort was surrendered. Nearly fifteen thousand prisoners, seventeen thousand six hundred small-arms, and sixty-five guns were taken.
The effect of this great success was what Halleck had premised. The camp at Bowling Green was immediately evacuated, and Nashville abandoned. Buell at once occupied that city. Columbus, the "Gibraltar of the West," was quickly abandoned by General Polk, who fell back to Island No. 10. The first line of Confederate defence had been broken with remarkable ease and success. Nor did the Confederate misfortunes end here. Zollicoffer had invaded eastern Kentucky with five thousand men, and encamped at Mill Spring, in Wayne County. On January 17 he made a night-attack on the Union troops under General Thomas, encamped near him. The intended surprise failed, and the Confederates were driven back, Zollicoffer being killed. On the next day their camp was shelled, and there was reason to hope that the entire force would be captured. They escaped, however, during the night, leaving much material behind.
The next operations were directed against New Madrid and Island No. 10 on the Mississippi, near the northern border of Tennessee. These posts had been strongly fortified. General Pope commanded the assailing troops, and captured New Madrid with little difficulty. Thirty-three cannon and much other valuable war-material were here taken. Island No. 10 proved more difficult to capture. Yet by cutting a canal, twelve miles long, across a bend in the Mississippi, the gunboats were enabled to assail it on both sides, and Pope to transport his army across from Missouri to Tennessee. The advantages thus gained rendered the island untenable, and it was forced to surrender on April 8. There were captured six thousand seven hundred prisoners, one hundred heavy and twenty-four light guns, an immense quantity of ammunition, and many small-arms, tents, horses, wagons, etc. This capture was achieved without the loss of a single life on the Union side. The next battle took place between the Union and Confederate flotillas at Fort Pillow, above Memphis. Half the Confederate fleet was disabled. Soon after-wards the fort was abandoned, and the line of defence carried south to Memphis. On the 5th of June an assault was made on the Confederate fleet at that place. It ended in the capture or destruction of the whole flotilla, except one boat, and the necessary fall of Memphis into Union hands. Thus was lost the most important railroad-centre on the Mississippi between St. Louis and New Orleans.
Return to The Great Republic by the Master Historians (Vol 3)