To all outward appearances, Southerners had reason to celebrate New Year's Day in 1862. During the previous eight months, the Confederacy had won most of the major land battles: Manassas; Wilson's Creek; Lexington, Missouri; Belmont; and Ball's Bluff. Confederate forces defiantly stood their ground from northern Virginia, through southern Kentucky, to the southwest comer of Missouri. The war had not yet turned vicious; Southern casualties totaled fewer than 5,000. Nor had the Richmond government felt the crushing weight of Northern industry and manpower. Hoped-for British intervention seemed closer than ever with the Federal seizure of two Confederate diplomats, James Mason and John Slidell, aboard the British steamer Trent. "King Cotton" diplomacy appeared to be working. More than 80 percent of England's cotton came from the American South, and the mills of England were already reduced to half-time. Although no official dialogue had occurred with Confederate commissioners, informal meetings had been conducted.
Bright sunshine and a springlike breeze warmed the streets of Richmond that New Year's Day. At 11 A.M., President Jefferson Davis hosted the first of what would become annual receptions at the Executive Mansion, the old three-story Brockenbrough house at East Clay and Twelfth Streets. The fifty-three-year-old president was frequently short-tempered, rarely compromising, and often impatient with disagreement. Although he had never fought in a duel, he had come dangerously close to it on no fewer than ten occasions. Davis's military as well as political background caused him to view himself as the emerging nation's war manager, a responsibility he probably could not have avoided even if he so desired. He was commonly seen as cold and aloof, and today proved no exception; several guests considered his cordiality forced and insincere. The wife of Colonel Joseph Davis, the president's nephew, stood in for the First Lady, Mrs. Varina Davis, who was indisposed. For four hours the chief executive, standing at the door of the main drawing room, greeted an uninterrupted line of visitors.
The sanguine veneer soon disintegrated. Even as Davis greeted guests that morning, information had reached the capital that the "Trent Affair" had been defused. The United States had offered a face-saving compromise that proved acceptable to the British. Confederate newspapers continued to carry articles for several days claiming that the British were preparing for war, but the peaceful resolution had dashed all immediate hope for intervention. This fact was not immediately evident to Davis and his Cabinet. John B. Jones, a perceptive clerk in the War Department, saw the situation clearly. He wrote in his diary that evening: "Now we must depend upon our own strong arms and stout hearts for defense."
Both the North and the South mistakenly believed that Great Britain desired to go to war with the United States. In truth, England had much more to lose in a war with the Union than she had to gain by diplomatic recognition of the Confederacy. The reason for the mill slowdown was not a cotton shortage (inventories were at an all-time high in December 1861), but, rather, that the market was already saturated with cloth. The British needed Northern grain far more than raw cotton, which could be purchased in Egypt and India. They were not going to risk their merchant shipping in a prolonged war that could not be won with the United States. For now, however, Davis continued to cling to the illusion of foreign intervention, a naivete that would have far-reaching implications for the Confederacy.
The administration had adopted a policy of territorial defense that called for protecting as much territory as possible. Troops were kept widely scattered rather than concentrated on a few strategic points. This policy was, to a degree, political appeasement, but it went deeper than that. The proverbial tail wagging the dog was foreign intervention. Davis considered it vital that the fledgling nation prove its viability by protecting its territory. To relinquish large chunks of land would send the wrong signal. Even after the flaws of the policy became blatantly apparent, Davis asserted that the gamble had been worth it.
Politicians, the Southern press, and the Davis administration had focused largely on the Virginia front. Popular sentiment dictated that it was there that the war would be won or lost. Ominous clouds soon began to loom, however, over the vast expanse west of the Appalachian Mountains known as the western theater.
A blast of arctic cold soon replaced the unseasonably mild temperatures. Snow blanketed the streets of Richmond on January 14 as Colonel St. John Liddell trudged to the door of the Executive Mansion. A black boy answered and showed him into a room where a lamp hung suspended over a center table. The setting offered Liddell a comfortable respite from his exhausting railroad journey from Bowling Green, Kentucky. Davis shortly entered the room. The two men had been formally introduced six months earlier, although Liddell vaguely remembered Davis from his childhood; they had lived in the same county in Mississippi, and their families were well associated. The colonel handed him a letter from General Albert Sidney Johnston.
Liddell's mission was an attempt by a frustrated Johnston to bypass the War Department and capitalize upon his long friendship with Davis. Their mutual admiration dated back to Transylvania College days in Lexington, Kentucky (Johnston was five years his senior), and to West Point. They subsequently fought Saux Indians together in the Northwest and Mexicans at Monterey. As secretary of war, Davis had appointed Johnston to the coveted position of commander of the 2nd United States Cavalry Regiment. Believing him to be the South's premier general, Davis wrote ecstatically when Johnston later tendered his services to the Confederacy: "I hoped and expected that I had others who would prove generals; but I knew I had one, and that was Sidney Johnston." Johnston's assignment in September 1861 to command the vast Department No. 2, which stretched from the Appalachians to the Ozarks, did not result from mere cronyism. Their prior association was probably not even necessary, the Johnston lobby being formidable. The general's appointment received support from a broad consensus.
The press coverage that preceded Johnston's odyssey from California would ultimately prove to his detriment; it produced exaggerated expectations on the part of both government officials and the populace. Historians' claims that he was overrated, though arguably true, have been influenced by subsequent events; the character flaws that marked his Civil War career were not apparent in the fall of 1861. The issue of whether he was the best selection for Department No. 2 must be seen in the context of "compared with whom." His prewar accomplishments exceeded those of Joseph E. Johnston, P. G. T. Beauregard, and Braxton Bragg.
Among his peers, only Robert E. Lee proved the exception. Although Lee graduated from West Point three years after Johnston and was subordinate to him in the 2nd Cavalry, he was offered top command of the United States Army at the beginning of the war, second only to Winfield Scott. When he declined, the position was offered to Johnston, who similarly refused. Davis subsequently made Lee commander of all the Confederate armies, where he functioned as a presidential chief-of-staff, while Johnston received the actual field command. How different the war might have been had the roles been reversed.
Friendship had not generated favoritism, however, and Johnston's frequent calls for additional troops even encountered occasional resistance. On September 30, 1861, Davis had labeled one of the general's early requests unwarranted. In December, Secretary of War Judah Benjamin insisted that Johnston had underestimated his Bowling Green force by one-half. Such looseness with the figures "made me very uneasy," Benjamin wrote, and the president was "equally at a loss to make out how matters stand." When Johnston attempted to raise troops himself, he was instructed by the War Department to cease.
Davis had not deserted his friend, however. After the early months of the war, few western regiments had been sent to Virginia, and some units en route to that state were diverted to Johnston. During the winter of 1861-62, the administration had even made a minimal effort to send troops from Virginia to the west. In December, Brigadier General John Floyd's brigade of Virginians was ordered to Bowling Green. The reinforcements proved insufficient.
During the fall and winter of 1861, Johnston watched nervously as Federal troop strength in the west far outpaced his forces. His impracticable four-hundred-mile line (east of the Mississippi River), with 57,500 troops, now faced twice that many Federals. Johnston's forces were concentrated in four key locations: 22,000 men under Major General Leonidas Polk at Columbus, Kentucky; 5,000 troops at the Tennessee and Cumberland River forts of Henry and Donelson; 24,500 troops at Bowling Green under Major General William J. Hardee; and 6,000 troops in eastern Kentucky commanded by Major General George Crittenden. Shortly after Liddell's departure from Richmond, Johnston had written Benjamin that he had 19,000 men (though his own reports revealed 4,000 more) to oppose a 75,000-man army under General Don Carlos Buell. The estimate of enemy troop strength was based upon a document stolen from Federal headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky. Indeed, an article had appeared in the Richmond Examiner, taken from the New York Tribune, that listed regiments and numbers in Kentucky.
Contrary to some modern assertions, Confederate administration officials fully understood Johnston's numerical weakness. Diarist John Jones noted this on January 23, 1862: "Again the Northern papers gave the most extravagant numbers to our army in Kentucky. Some estimates are as high as 150,000. I know, and Mr. Benjamin knows, that Gen. Johnston has not exceeded twenty-nine thousand effective men." Benjamin later conceded that the Bowling Green force had no more than twenty-four thousand effectives. What Davis may not have fully appreciated was the disproportionate numbers that Johnston faced. In a January 6 Cabinet meeting, the president had said that he did not accept the captured Louisville document, and that Buell's strength "could not exceed 45,000 effectives." He thought that the additional troops on the way to Bowling Green, although not giving Johnston parity, would close the numerical gap.
As Davis sat quietly reading Johnston's letter, his features grew pained, even angry. "My God," he erupted to Liddell. "Why did General Johnston send you to me for arms and reinforcements when he must know I have neither? He has plenty of men in Tennessee, and they must have arms of some kind." The brusque and opinionated Liddell, an unlikely emissary, retorted that the troops could come from the army at Manassas, Virginia, which was then not occupied. Davis insisted that Virginians were already angered about the loss of Floyd's brigade to Kentucky. Obstinately persisting, the colonel inquired whether troops could be spared from Charleston, Savannah, Pensacola, or even New Orleans. The president interrupted: "Do you think these places of so little importance that I should strip them of the troops necessary for their defense?" Liddell proved unrelenting, arguing that these locations were not as significant as the heartland of the Confederacy. Unless Johnston held his position, the Mississippi River would be lost and communications severed with the trans-Mississippi. "My God! Why repeat?" Davis again exclaimed, annoyed with Liddell's persistence. The colonel countered that he was simply attempting to make the facts of Kentucky and Tennessee known. The president quieted as Liddell explained Johnston desire that all available troops be concentrated in Kentucky and Virginia to take the offensive. Davis did not disagree, but he claimed that the time was not right. The conversation was cut short, but Davis invited the colonel to have dinner with him the next night.
The president's claim of inadequate troops was not true. There were armed units, but, in keeping with the administration policy of territorial defense, they were widely scattered. At the time of Liddell's visit, 25,000 Confederates (6,800 troops at Pensacola, 9,300 at Mobile, and 8,900 at New Orleans) sat idly on the Gulf Coast, not to mention 4,000 troops in eastern Florida. If Davis had taken advantage of interior lines and acted decisively at this moment (as he would three weeks later), events in the west might have taken a different turn. The subsequent chain of events must be viewed in the light of this mistaken administration policy.
The evening after his first confrontation with Davis, January 15, Liddell found the president more genial. He spoke of his earlier days and carefully avoided the subject of Johnston's dilemma. Liddell attempted to broach the issue, but the expression on the president's face made it apparent that he did not consider the subject appropriate table talk. Showing Liddell to the door at the conclusion of the evening, Dams said: "Tell my friend, General Johnston, that I can do nothing for him. He must rely upon his own resources." The colonel, rapidly coming down with a bronchial infection and a painful cough, found it cold on the streets of Richmond that night.
"We have heard bad news today from Kentucky." Thus began the January 23 diary entry of Thomas Bragg, Confederate attorney general. A dispatch had been received at the War Department via Johnston's headquarters at Bowling Green. Initial information was sketchy and came only from a Northern newspaper -- the Louisville Democrat of January 21. A Confederate division under Major General George Crittenden had been routed near Somerset, Kentucky, and Brigadier General Felix Zollicoffer was counted among the slain. Davis immediately canceled his Cabinet meeting for the day. "The President and Sec'y of War keep military matters to themselves -- they have been in conference today. I hope they have been able to devise some means to repair the disaster in Kentucky," Bragg concluded.
A second dispatch arrived at the War Department that evening from Johnston's headquarters. A Crittenden staff officer confirmed the repulse of the division "by superior numbers." The Southerners lost five hundred men, including all of their baggage and artillery, and the division was "in full retreat" southwest toward Nashville.
A stunned populace read the story the next day in the Richmond press. Although there had been other Confederate reversals earlier in the war, at Rich Mountain in western Virginia and at Port Royal, South Carolina, the eastern-Kentucky loss was serious and had far-reaching implications. Johnston's right flank was now uncovered, exposing Cumberland Gap and the east-west rail link connecting Richmond, Virginia, and Memphis, Tennessee. Several poorly armed and widely scattered Confederate regiments protected Cumberland Gap, Knoxville, and Chattanooga, but for all intents and purposes, eastern Tennessee, already crawling with Union partisans, was open to invasion. Indeed, an unconfirmed report (false, as it turned out) stated that 22,000 Federals were advancing on Cumberland Gap against a Southern garrison of 1,500. The road to Nashville also lay exposed to the east.
Johnston clearly understood his difficulty and proposed plugging the breach around Burkesville, Kentucky, about a hundred miles from Nashville. Crittenden's troops would be of no assistance, however, for they were retreating along the south bank of the Cumberland River to Gainesville, Tennessee, eighty miles from Nashville, and the column would not stop until it reached Chesnut Mound, only fifty miles from the state capital. Widespread desertions marred the withdrawal. Johnston urgently warned the War Department that he was about to be overwhelmed: "All of the resources of the Confederacy are now needed for the defense of Tennessee."
"'Old Jeff's' blood is up, and he intends to repair the disaster in Kentucky at any cost whatsoever." That is what George Bagby's confidential sources related to him, as he gathered information in Richmond for his "News & Gossip" column in the Charleston Mercury. In a Cabinet meeting on January 31, Davis expressed concern about the situation and declared that "the place where troops were most needed now was East Tennessee." Nevertheless, by the end of the first week in February, two weeks after Johnston's urgent appeal, no decision had been made regarding reinforcements, and no additional arms had been sent.
Crittenden did not file his report on the Battle of Somerset until mid-February, but increasingly rumors were afoot in the capital. By the end of January, the western press had turned nasty, and the target was Crittenden. Serious allegations concerning the general's state of sobriety during the battle had cropped up. Thomas Bragg confidentially recorded his own concerns: "It is already circulated here that he [Crittenden] is very intemperate and that it was known when he was appointed. I fear it is too true." Bagby conducted his own personal investigation by mixing with the Tennessee congressional delegation. He discovered that fugitives in Knoxville were writing their congressmen that Zollicoffer had protested the attack at Somerset but Crittenden had refused to listen. Charges of treachery also surfaced, since Crittenden's brother Thomas commanded a division in the Federal army. The War Department directed Johnston to initiate an investigation.
Davis's role in the eastern-Kentucky front had been twofold. First, his faulty political/foreign policy had not allowed for timely reinforcements. Second, he failed to recognize the serious leadership gap that existed in the west. Both Zollicoffer and Crittenden were totally unfit for high rank, the former being a political general, and the latter being a known alcoholic who had close family ties to Davis. Additional troops would only be wasted if placed under the same incompetent commanders. Crittenden's later claim that his 4,000 men had engaged 12,000 Federals was untrue. At the actual point of contact in the battle, the two sides had been evenly matched. Somerset had been lost not because of inferior numbers, but because of inferior leadership. This would become a theme often repeated in the west throughout the war.
Zollicoffer was now dead, and as only the third Southern general to be killed in the war, he was a hero. As for Crittenden, the press quickly linked the president to this dishonored general. The anti-administration Mercury condemned Davis for "selecting a known drunkard for a Major General." Tennessee Senator Landon Haynes and Representative J. D. C. Adkins, a member of the powerful Military Affairs Committee, soon demanded Crittenden's ouster. A court of inquiry was ordered, but for now Davis continued to support his friend.
While Davis fretted over the western theater, certain politicians took more definite action. Shortly after the news of the Somerset defeat, Mississippi Valley congressmen met in conference with the Military Affairs Committee. In their view, the next crisis would be on Johnston's left flank, along the Mississippi River. Somerset had demonstrated that, even though Johnston had unified command in the west, his line was too extended to provide adequate supervision. The general needed help -- a second-in-command. The man they had in mind was the hero of Fort Sumter and Manassas -- General P. G. T. Beauregard.
From Davis's perspective, the flamboyant forty-four-year-old Louisiana general was scheming, contentious, and highly overrated. Although their feud may have had some prewar genesis, it did not grow serious until the months following Manassas. In October 1861, a synopsis of Beauregard's battle report found its way to the antiadministration Richmond Whig. The report claimed that he had a plan to capture Washington after the victory at Manassas, but that the president had prevented its execution. This was not true, and Davis angrily chastised the general. Instead of responding directly, Beauregard submitted his acid response in the Whig for publication. Even if the incident alienated some of his political friends, Beauregard maintained powerful contacts, including his father-in-law, Louisiana Senator John Slidell.
In approving the transfer to the west, Davis apparently had mixed motives. He had deep concerns about the Mississippi Valley, and the Louisiana general's name clearly had propaganda value. In a January 31 Cabinet meeting, he spoke of the general's engineering talent, although he left the distinct impression, according to Thomas Bragg, that he did not hold a high opinion of the general. Davis clearly detested the letter-writing Creole and was relieved at the prospect of moving him away from the capital. Some of Beauregard's friends believed that Davis initiated the scheme to exile him to the west. John Jones apparently believed such, for on January 24 he wrote: "Beauregard had been ordered to the West. I knew that doom was upon him."
Virginia Representative Roger Pryor, a Beauregard supporter, approached the general about the prospect of transferring to the west. Pryor related that he had been told by the War Department that Johnston had 40,000 troops in and around Bowling Green and Polk had 30,000 at Columbus. If such a figure was given, either Pryor misunderstood or Benjamin lied. The War Department knew that Johnston had no such force at his disposal. Beauregard eventually accepted the transfer, flattered by the attention and perceiving himself as the savior of the west. Since he was already serving as Joseph E. Johnston's second-in-command in Virginia, the offer (on paper at least) was not a demotion. On February 24, the general boarded a train at Centreville, Virginia, and departed amidst the shouts of his men: "Goodbye, General, God bless you, General."
Davis's one-man reinforcement did nothing to forestall the next Federal move. The congressmen had also been wrong in their projection; the target was not the Mississippi Valley, but the Tennessee Valley. On February 6, a joint Federal land-naval expedition captured Fort Henry, on the Tennessee River. That artery now lay open all the way to Florence, Alabama, where the shoals prevented further ascent. The War Department received the first news of the surrender at noon on February 7. A dispatch via Memphis stated that the fort had fallen after a two-hour struggle, the upriver railroad bridge was in enemy possession, and communications between Bowling Green and Columbus were now severed. Fearful that nearby Fort Donelson was in danger and that his forces would be caught north of the Cumberland River, Johnston withdrew his Bowling Green corps to Nashville.
Reaction throughout the War Department was of shock and dismay as Federal gunboats raided upriver. Jones feared the enemy would get a footing in northern Mississippi and Alabama; Robert G. H. Kean heard of the destruction of government stores at Florence. On February 11, Thomas Bragg wrote: "No news from Tennessee and [to] the South. The enemy have already I think cut off all communications South, crossing the Tennessee below Florence. Well -- it [is] a long road that has no turning."
Faced with twin disasters, Davis belatedly abandoned his policy of dispersed defense and ordered additional troops to Johnston. Despite Benjamin's assurances that heavy reinforcements would be sent to the west, even this move, undertaken on February 8, proved limited in scope. Major General Mansfield Lovell, commanding at New Orleans, was directed to send 5,000 troops to Polk at Columbus. To shore up Johnston's battered right wing, four regiments were ordered from Virginia to eastern Tennessee, and a like number from Major General Braxton Bragg's Gulf Coast department, between Pensacola and Mobile. Johnston's forces at Bowling Green also received 3,600 arms, including 1,200 imported Enfield rifles.
The troops would arrive too late to affect Fort Donelson, the fate of which was now very much in question. Johnston pieced together a force of 21,000 troops under Generals John Floyd, Gideon Pillow, and Simon Buckner for its defense. War Department officials believed the garrison (thought to be 15,000 strong) was being enveloped by 75,000 Federals. "Was ever such [mis]management known before?" John Jones disgustedly wrote. "Who is responsible for it? If Donelson falls, what becomes of the ten or twelve thousand men at Bowling Green?" Administration officials nervously awaited news from Tennessee.
A light rain and sleet tell in Richmond the greater part of February 17, covering the trees with ice. Despite the gloomy weather, initial reports from the west had been uplifting. Confederate forces at Fort Donelson had more than held their own. A Federal gunboat attack on the 14th had been repulsed. The next day, according to one dispatch, Southern forces had succeeded in driving the enemy from its position, inflicting over 1,500 casualties.
At 11:30 that night, officials at the War Department were shocked when a telegraph clicked over the wire from Johnston announcing the fall of Fort Donelson on February 16. Floyd and Pillow had escaped to Nashville with a thousand troops, leaving Buckner to surrender the fort. The Bowling Green corps had safely crossed the Cumberland River.
Depression spread throughout Richmond as the news was read in the morning papers. Few details were known, and Bragg conceded that he had "heard nothing but a thousand rumors." Northern press accounts claimed 15,000 prisoners. War Department insiders remained at a loss as to particulars; the Examiner even denounced the story as a false rumor. Confederate administrative officials obtained a February 17 issue of the New York Herald that confirmed earlier accounts of a mass surrender.
In his weekly column, George Bagby admitted that facts were "very obscure," but, even making allowance for exaggeration, it seemed clear that something of serious proportions had happened. The offices of the War Department, telegraph, and newspapers were so choked with citizens seeking information that Benjamin issued a public circular. In it he claimed that no news had been received other than on Saturday night, February 15, when a telegraph operator had sent a baseless rumor over the wires. No additional information had been received from Nashville, simply because of ice on the wires. The circular was a lie. It did not take long for the truth to emerge, for exhausted refugees from Nashville began arriving in Richmond on the 18th. Bagby's private sleuthing soon uncovered information that government officials had known the truth "as early as Sunday night [February 17]."
Davis received a telegram from Hardee on February 21 (dated the 19th) stating that his corps had withdrawn from Nashville to Murfreesboro, Tennessee. The message came via Atlanta, not Nashville, raising further speculation as to the status of the Tennessee capital. No additional information had been received by the evening of February 21, and Thomas Bragg and others were beginning to believe that initial reports were false, or at least exaggerated. Benjamin claimed that he had no concrete information.
The administration became increasingly concerned about the fate of Nashville. By February 21, the government acknowledged that the Nashville telegraph office had been closed and that the public must draw its own inference. Thomas Bragg feared that the city had probably fallen, a suspicion that was confirmed on February 24. "That the loss of Nashville is mortifying no one can deny but its fate was inevitable after the fall of Fort Donelson," the Richmond Dispatch concluded.
It began drizzling early in Richmond on February 22, and by midmorning a steady rain fell, attended by a cold wind. Indeed, Davis's inauguration on George Washington's Birthday -- his previous swearing in had been only provisional -- had more the quality of a wake than of a celebration. Just before he left the capital, Davis received confirmation of the extent of the Donelson loss; his worst fears were realized. Confederate forces in Tennessee were reeling back in confusion. Arriving in Washington Square at noon, Davis, who had been ill for weeks, delivered his address on a temporary platform before a statue of George Washington. About five hundred spectators milled about, and the pattering of rain on umbrellas drowned out his voice. A veiled statement in his address noted that the "tide for the moment is against us," but no specifics concerning Donelson were given. The president, according to Jones, appeared "self-poised in the midst of disasters."
Despite outward appearances, the executive branch was privately mortified at the turn of events. A melancholy Davis wrote a friend in New Orleans for solace, although he apparently had second thoughts and never mailed the letter. Vice-President Alexander Stephens, having just recovered from a severe attack of facial neuralgia, plunged into depression. "The Confederacy is lost," he confided to a friend one night as they left Congress.
On February 15, Major General Braxton Bragg, a Davis associate, had written him concerning a change in military strategy. Bragg believed that the policy of dispersal should be abandoned in favor of concentration for a few strategic points. "Kentucky is now the point," he judged. Davis discussed the proposal, virtually identical to the one that Colonel Liddell had presented a month earlier, during a Sunday, February 16, Cabinet meeting. On February 18, Bragg again suggested giving up the seaboard for "the vital point."
Bragg was not being totally selfless, as some historians have suggested. He did not volunteer his entire Gulf Coast corps for this concentration, as popularly believed. Indeed, he suggested that the needed forces not come from his department, but from an abandonment of the Florida interior, Texas, and possibly Missouri and portions of the Atlantic Seaboard. In response to an earlier request to send only four regiments to eastern Tennessee, Bragg had written: "I am not decided to send them." He subsequently did send the troops, but he was not beyond the parochialism that blinded other commanders.
Obviously a drastic policy change was in order, regardless of the political ramifications. Davis had slowly conceded that his policy of territorial defense had failed and, even before Bragg's letter, had contemplated abandoning the seaboard in favor of reinforcing Tennessee. Although still lacking information from Johnston, Benjamin notified Bragg on February 18 that he was to withdraw his forces from Pensacola and Mobile and proceed to Tennessee. On February 21, Davis informed his brother that he was determined to "assemble a sufficient force to beat the enemy in Tennessee, and retrieve our waning fortunes in the West."
The move may have been unprecedented, but its scope was not as great as some historians have suggested. Bragg, the advocate of concentration, decided to retain Mobile and 40 percent of his department's strength, and he sent only 10,000 troops, 7,700 of whom were "present for duty." No troops were ordered from the Atlantic Coast, Texas (where 11,000 men idled away), or Major General Earl Van Dorn's army in Arkansas. Even considering the 5,000 troops previously ordered to Tennessee, Davis still retained 14,000 men along the Gulf Coast and in eastern Florida.
An anxious Davis, his hand ever on the international pulse, was especially concerned about Britain. On February 27, the steamer Nashville came through the blockade at Beaufort, North Carolina, bringing encouraging news of popular sentiment in Europe. A single London mercantile house had advanced the captain £400,000 sterling -- $2 million. It was widely rumored abroad that Britain would soon recognize the Confederacy, to be followed shortly by Belgium.
Bad reports from the west now had serious repercussions. The pro-Southern London Times stated: "There are symptoms that the Civil War cannot be very long protracted." James Mason conceded that the lost forts "have had an unfortunate effect upon the minds of our friends here." Popular British sentiment held that the war might soon be over. John Slidell encountered a similar reaction on the Continent. Confederate officials attempted to mitigate the damage by assuring the British that the actual number of prisoners taken at Donelson was between 6,000 and 7,000.
Fort Donelson was not just a defeat; it was a catastrophe. The loss of the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers meant that the Federals had penetrated deep into the Southern interior. In two weeks, Johnston had fallen back a hundred miles, Nashville had been abandoned, and the forts along the Mississippi River appeared doomed. A Union army and a formidable river separated the corps of Polk and Hardee. Most significantly, at least 15,000 prisoners had been taken, about one-third of Johnston's forces east of the Mississippi River. Because of the policy of prisoner exchange, most of these regiments would be back in service again within seven months. The troops were not available when they were needed most, however -- the first day at Shiloh. Whether an additional corps would have made a decisive difference in the first day's battle can only be left to speculation, but it undoubtedly would have had a considerable effect.
As at Somerset, Davis had played a significant role in the defeat. He had ordered reinforcements to Tennessee too late and in piecemeal fashion. In failing to concentrate and take advantage of interior lines, the president had gone against the pleadings of Johnston. It took the shock of Henry-Donelson to give him a clear perspective.
Also as at Somerset, inadequate numbers cannot explain the loss at Fort Donelson. Despite the claim of overwhelming numbers, Floyd's 21,000 Confederates never faced more than 27,000 Federals. Indeed, for the first two days of the battle, the Southerners outnumbered the Yankees, even by their own estimates. The blunders at Donelson were the direct result of the inept leadership offered by Floyd and Pillow, two Davis political generals. It was Pillow's stupidity in ordering Confederate troops back into the fort after they had broken out that spelled the doom of three divisions. To complete the comedy of errors, both men had cowardly passed command and escaped before the surrender had been consummated.
Johnston's decision to abdicate command at Donelson has long been questioned. Since Johnston had chosen to play the role of corps commander rather than a department chief, he should have at least placed the experienced Hardee in charge of the Cumberland River defenses. Interestingly, Floyd had been a prewar ally of Johnston. As secretary of war he had strongly, but unsuccessfully, argued that Albert Sidney Johnston, not Joseph E. Johnston, should be quartermaster general. Whether or not the Fort Donelson command was a conscious reciprocation cannot now be determined.
Confusion and chaos continued to dominate Richmond throughout the latter half of February. Anger soon replaced shock, however, as politicians and the public demanded answers. The focus of their attention would be Albert Sidney Johnston.
There was a flurry of activity in the headquarters of Union General-in-Chief George B. McClellan on February 17, 1862. A telegraph had just arrived from Major General Henry W. Halleck, commanding the Department of Missouri, announcing the capture of Fort Donelson by combined land and naval forces under Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant and Flag Officer Andrew Foote. For half an hour, McClellan basked in the congratulations of his staff officers. The news arrived at noon in the office of Edwin M. Stanton, the newly appointed secretary of war. The morning assembly greeted the dispatch with loud cheering and a congratulatory telegram returned to Halleck.
Congress reacted to the news with elation. When the dispatch was read from the Senate floor, grave old men threw up their hats and canes. A similar reaction occurred in the House, where representatives and spectators in the gallery responded with deafening cheers. Although the House did not adjourn, further business proved impossible -- "The news is too good," proclaimed a congressman.
Press accounts from across the country told of the electrifying response. In Chicago, business suspended on the Board of Trade, and on the streets complete strangers embraced one another. A national salute was fired on Bunker Hill in Boston, where the celebration was described as unequaled in the memory of living men. Shrieking newsboys made the announcement known in New York City, where Horace Greeley's Tribune printed an extra: "Freedom! Fort Donelson Taken!" Business ceased on the Merchant's Exchange, and "The Star-Spangled Banner" echoed throughout the building. Despite a drenching rain in Baltimore, the streets quickly filled with cheering people.
The enthusiasm continued on February 18. Congress directed that, immediately following the reading of George Washington's Farewell Address on February 22, a citywide celebration would be held in Washington. Several captured Rebel flags, trophies from Mill Springs (the Northern name for Somerset) and Fort Henry, had been rushed to the War Department by Adams & Company Express. A public viewing of the flags would take place in the House of Representatives. That night all government buildings would be illumined.
Throughout the next few days, midwesterners caught a glimpse of the Fort Donelson captives on their way to prison camps. New York and Chicago correspondents snobbishly observed that the privates appeared to be "ignorant and ordinary men," the type of common laborers seen working along the roadside. With disdain they noted that the privates' uniforms were "just no uniforms at all." Thousands of citizens showed up at the Camp Douglas rail station to see the famished prisoners file out. Midwesterners quickly acquired an attitude of superiority.
Such unrestrained euphoria inevitably led to overexpectation. Many people rushed to the conclusion that the war would be over by year's end -- perhaps by the Fourth of July. The Chicago Tribune described Fort Donelson as the turning point of the war. The New York Tribune concluded, "The monster is already clutched in his death struggle," and a correspondent of that paper proclaimed, "The end is at hand."
A few weeks earlier, such a joyful spree would have been considered a sacrilege. The war had not been going well for the North. The Army of the Potomac, in winter quarters along the Potomac River, appeared more like a beached whale than a caged tiger. Halleck and Brigadier General Don Carlos Buell, commanding the Missouri and Kentucky departments respectively, remained at loggerheads and in virtual competition for top command in the west. As late as February 20, Charles Francis Adams, the United States minister to London, had written that a war with England over the Trent incident was imminent and that it might even spread to the Continent. Although the incident was peacefully resolved, many believed British recognition of the South still possible.
A White House ball announced for early February brought an angry response, including eighty declined invitations. Unable to cancel the ball, President and Mrs. Abraham Lincoln announced there would be no dancing. The affair proved ghastly. Lincoln's eleven-year-old child, Willie, idolized by his parents, was deathly ill with fever, incurred while riding his pony on a chilly day. Dorothea Dix noted that the Marine band played at the foot of the steps while the child lay dying upstairs. The president and the First Lady sadly greeted guests at the large door of the East Room. Dix expressed hope for the lad's recovery.
It was not to be. On the afternoon of February 20, at 5 P.M., Lincoln slowly walked into the office of his secretary, John J. Nicolay. With a choked voice he said: "Well, Nicolay, my boy is gone -- he is actually gone!" He then broke down and wept. With funeral services planned for February 22, Congress, out of respect, canceled the planned celebration. The Lincolns' personal loss in the midst of national celebration served as a sobering note. Certain senators began to caution that the war had not yet ended. That night of February 22, some children in the capital city, feeling cheated of the festivities, set off Chinese firecrackers and ran through the streets with torches.
Lincoln hoped that the Fort Donelson victory would stir new volunteers. By the winter of 1861-62, interest had waned even in the west, where recruiting had been successful. The apathy in Iowa, noted Illinois Governor Richard Yates, had spread into his state. Increasingly there was talk of a draft. The cries of Northern generals to the contrary, the problem had never been a shortage of raw manpower. By January 1862, more than 700,000 men filled the Union ranks, twice the number of Confederates. Sufficient troop strength existed to crush the rebellion, but McClellan (in his role as commander of the Army of the Potomac), Halleck, and Buell insisted that their forces were each too weak for a forward movement. As in the South, the problem was not lack of numbers but lack of leadership.
This fact was easily demonstrated in Buell's Department of the Ohio. Throughout the winter of 1861-62, Buell placed Rebel troop strength at Bowling Green at 40,000 -- an overestimate of 15,000. In February he stated that his forces contained 61,000 present for duty, with an aggregate of nearly 80,000. McClellan desired Buell to send 50,000 troops against Bowling Green and 15,000 to liberate eastern Tennessee, a pet project of Lincoln's. This arrangement would have given Buell superiority of numbers against Johnston even by his own inflated estimates and, in actuality, an army twice that of the Rebels. He nonetheless refused to move against Johnston and instead argued strategy with Halleck and McClellan.
Fort Donelson not only gave the North its greatest tactical win in the war to date but also marked the emergence of Ulysses S. Grant. Overnight, he became a national hero. His initials earned him the sobriquets "Unconditional Surrender," "United States," and "Uncle Sam." Lincoln and Grant had never met, and the administration, preoccupied with the Virginia front, was frankly taken aback that such an unknown as Grant had gained such a significant victory.
From the outset of the war, Grant had proved inept in cultivating political ties. He wrote his father that he was "perfectly sickened at the political wire pulling for all these commissions," yet he was not beyond intra-army politics himself. His awkward attempts to get a commission through old army connections were all rebuffed; McClellan, once his junior, refused even to see him. Despite his disdain for political pull, Grant would finally emerge from the shadows through a Washington connection -- Illinois Representative Elihu Washburne.
Forty-six years old and a Harvard law graduate, Washburne had won the Galena seat in the House of Representatives as a Republican in 1852. Grant, clerking at his father's leather store at the time, became a street acquaintance of the congressman. It was thus a curiosity that Washburne would sponsor Grant (a nominal Democrat) for his colonelcy and later for a brigadier's commission. The general would later recall that he believed Washburne never liked him well. Washburne, of course, cared nothing for personal relationships. If this local West Pointer did well, then the congressman, as his patron, would have his own career enhanced.
The thirty-nine-year-old Grant had little to recommend him. His father had arranged his appointment to West Point without his knowledge or approval. He later resigned from the Regular Army under a cloud, the rumors being that he could not leave the bottle alone. Grant went to New York City in a futile attempt to collect an old debt and in the process ran up a hotel bill. He was on the verge of being ejected when his old army friend Simon Buckner came to his rescue and guaranteed his debt. The next time the two would meet would be in a hotel at Dover, Tennessee, at the surrender of Fort Donelson.
Grant moved to St. Louis, where he lived in a log house and worked cutting firewood. A reputation for intemperance continued to dog him. After failing at farming and real estate, he moved to his father's home at Galena. His shabby appearance and his penchant for drinking and smoking (he switched from a pipe to cigars after 10,000 congratulatory cigars were sent him following Donelson) made him thoroughly western, although he did not swear; indeed, he was soft-spoken. His background showed little promise.
There was, nonetheless, more to Grant than a simple talent for being at the right place at the right time. If he did not excel in a peacetime army or civilian pursuits, he did in battle. It was precisely this, his love of battle, that separated Grant from McClellan. Schooled in the art of European tactics, McClellan was a maneuverer. Grant, who cared little for Napoleon, was a fighter.
Grant insisted that he had never asked anyone to intercede in his behalf. He nevertheless acknowledged his congressman's role in securing a brigadier's commission. "That's some of Washburne's work," he related to a chaplain upon hearing the news of his promotion. By October 1861, the congressman was promoting his protégé for major general.
Grant first came to national attention when, in November 1861, he led an expeditionary force of 3,000 troops against the Confederate outpost at Belmont, Missouri, across the river from Columbus, Kentucky. Although initially driven back, the Rebels received reinforcements and counterattacked; Grant's force narrowly escaped. The engagement was severely criticized in the North as having been unnecessary and barren of results. The word spread that Brigadier General John McClernand, a Grant rival, had saved the day, and Lincoln even sent him congratulations. The engagement did, nonetheless, reap some benefits. It served to turn Confederate attention away from the twin rivers. The Battle of Belmont established the significance of joint land-naval operations, which proved to be the key to success at Fort Donelson. Also, Grant's name had emerged from the pack.
The Grant-Washburne relationship proved significant not only for jump-starting the general's career but also because the congressman assumed the role of Grant's Washington defender. In mid-December, Washburne received the disturbing news that Grant had resumed his hard drinking. The congressman wrote Grant's chief-of-staff, John Rawlins, a former Galena lawyer, who denied the charge. tie insisted that Grant adhered to strict abstinence and that, according to those who knew him well, such had been his habit for five or six years. The rumors did not die, but time and again the Illinois congressman would provide defensive cover for the general on the Washington scene. Because of this role, Washburne would become a significant player in the Shiloh campaign.
When the Fort Donelson victory was announced in the House of Representatives on February 17, Congressman Washburne boasted to his peers: "I want...to state that General U.S. Grant, who commanded the land forces that captured the fort, is from Illinois, and from Galena, in my district." The next day the Chicago press confidently predicted that the Senate would quickly confirm Grant as major general. On February 21, Grant wrote Washburne expressing thanks for placing him in a position to command and voicing his hope that he would not disappoint him. Washburne's protégé was performing well.
A power struggle that developed among Stanton, McClellan, and Halleck added another dimension to the Fort Donelson story. Differing strategies were at stake, but personalities also lay at the root of the problem. Although all three proved highly competent organizers, they were also intense, scheming individuals who sought complete autonomy for themselves. Not surprisingly, each detested the others.
The feud between Stanton and Halleck started before the war. Sporting a long beard streaked with gray, the cantankerous Stanton developed a national reputation as a lawyer and served as attorney general under President James Buchanan. In 1858, the Ohio Democrat became a special counsel to the United States government in prosecuting fraudulent land claims in California. Stanton first encountered Halleck during the Almaden Quicksilver Case and became convinced that Halleck had perjured himself in court. As secretary of war, Stanton publicly stated that he harbored no grudges against Halleck and that his feelings remained "neutral." In private, however, he passionately berated him. He warned McClellan that Halleck was "the greatest scoundrel and the most barefaced villain in America," a person "totally destitute of principle." When Halleck later met McClellan in Washington, he reciprocated the warning about Stanton. On January 15, 1862, Halleck wrote his wife: "Mr. Stanton does not like me, and of course will take the first opportunity to injure me."
McClellan and Halleck also held each other in mutual contempt. Halleck became increasingly resentful of his superior (who was eleven years his junior), who differed in strategy, refused to send reinforcements, remained preoccupied with matters in his own theater of operations, and had denied Halleck's request for overall command in the west. For his part, McClellan was convinced that former General-in-Chief Winfield Scott had favored Halleck as his successor and had even outstayed his usefulness in the hopes that Halleck would come east and replace him. McClellan later characterized Halleck as "hopelessly stupid" and never having "a complete military idea from beginning to end."
Stanton disliked McClellan from the outset, and their relationship quickly deteriorated. The arrogant general had opposed Lincoln's policies, held professional disdain for civilian leadership, and was not above being personally rude to the commander-in-chief. Stanton became irritated at McClellan's inaction. Also, the cold and dictatorial secretary of war liked subordinates to defer to him; McClellan crawled to no one. Stanton undoubtedly influenced the president's unusual decision of January 27, 1862, ordering a simultaneous move by all Federal armies to begin on February 22.
When the capture of Fort Donelson was announced, McClellan's friends absurdly claimed that he had personally directed the operation from his headquarters on the Potomac. Stanton facetiously commented to correspondent Charles Dana: "Was it not a funny sight to see a certain military hero [McClellan] in the telegraph office organizing victory, and by sublime combinations capturing Fort Donelson six hours after Grant and [C. F.] Smith had taken it....It would be a picture worthy of Punch."
The Northern press increasingly credited Stanton with the Donelson victory. The fort had surrendered one month to the day after his assumption of office, a fact widely noted by journalists. The Chicago Tribune flatly stated that McClellan had contributed nothing to the campaign, and that in fact his plan had greatly differed from that of Stanton and Halleck. The Fort Donelson victory was "due to Stanton, in large measure, and in part to the President himself." Greeley's New York Tribune echoed a similar theme. Attorney General Edward Bates believed that Fort Donelson had greatly enhanced Stanton's reputation.
As for McClellan, the western successes placed greater pressure upon him to act. Presidential secretary John Hay concluded that Forts Henry and Donelson "showed that Halleck was doing his share," an obvious comparison to McClellan. Despite this pressure, Washington's Birthday came and went with no movement by the Army of the Potomac. Stanton subsequently wrote a letter that appeared in Greeley's paper in which he extolled Grant and the Donelson victory. He obviously intended the words to point at McClellan's inaction. The Washington Star attempted to downplay the schism, stating that Stanton and McClellan were friends and the entire affair had been an Abolitionist attempt to create discord.
On February 17, Halleck proposed a western reorganization that would combine the departments of Missouri and Kentucky with him at the head. Some 50,000 troops of the Army of the Potomac would be sent to the west to reinforce him, followed by a concerted effort up the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers. Despite his dislike for Halleck, Stanton took the proposal seriously, believing that the war might be won in the west. McClellan, not unexpectedly, rejected the plan. The secretary of war (unknown to Halleck) had previously attempted to lure McClellan to top command in the west, a move to get a more active general over the Army of the Potomac without causing a political eruption.
The power struggle intensified. Halleck, claiming that he had fathered the Henry-Donelson operation (although pushing on to Donelson had been Grant's idea), attempted to ride the victory to top western command. "I ask this in return for Forts Henry and Donelson," he boldly wrote. Receiving no reply from McClellan, he wired again the next day. "May I assume command? Answer quickly." The general-in-chief tersely refused. McClellan had not sought a unified command in the west because he thought departmentally. He believed the mission of Buell's army to be the capture of Nashville (equal, he thought, in political prestige to Fort Donelson) and the liberation of eastern Tennessee, while Halleck concentrated on Memphis and the Mississippi River. If Halleck had his way, Buell would be drawn away from Chattanooga.
Unswayed by McClellan, Halleck ignored chain of command and wrote directly to Stanton. The secretary approved the idea of western reorganization, but felt constrained to present the idea to Lincoln, "so much depressed by anxiety" over his son Willie. The otherwise heartless Stanton may have genuinely sympathized with the president, for his own youngest son, James, was dangerously ill at the time. Not similarly moved, Halleck wired back the same day (February 21) urgently requesting that Stanton break in on Lincoln -- "there is not a moment to be lost. Give me authority and I will be responsible for results." Stanton replied the next day, stating that Lincoln had rejected any departmental changes. Historians have generally denounced the decision, but the Federals had won their greatest victory in the west with a divided command, against a Confederate general who had unified command.
Further attempts by Halleck to get Buell's cooperation proved fruitless. Halleck, hardly able to control himself, bitterly wrote McClellan: "You will regret your decision against me on this point [unified western command]. Your friendship for individuals [Buell] has influenced your judgement. Be it so." The tide was beginning to turn, however: Lincoln, disgusted with McClellan's inactivity, began to take a second look at western reorganization.
Prior to Fort Donelson, the administration had been fixated on the war in the east. Bates, a prowestern advocate, proved to be the exception on the Cabinet. Westerners were aware of their stepchild status. An Indianapolis paper questioned whether the eastern press would ever give as much value to a western victory as they would to an eastern defeat. The same paper questioned the perceived administration policy of "stripping the West to protect the East, and the capital."
Lincoln remained mindful of certain problems in the west. Sectionalism was strong there, and the people looked with distrust upon the east. A soured economy fueled the disenchantment. Midwestern Democrats also harbored intense racism. Critics of change and peace Democrats (Copperheads) flourished. The Democratic antiwar leaning had, nonetheless, cost the party heavily. The Republicans had scored big in the 1860-61 elections, nearly sweeping the midwestern governorships. The Democrats did remain strong in Congress. In an attempt to tie down the war cause in southern Illinois, the president had appointed John McClernand, a popular prowar Democrat congressman, as brigadier.
The Fort Donelson victory was thus particularly well timed, for it helped consolidate the war movement in the west. Westerners gloated that they, not the east, were successfully prosecuting the war. The success on the Cumberland was specifically seen as an "Illinois victory," especially pleasing to the native Lincoln. The Chicago Tribune boasted, "Every school district in the State had its representative there [Fort Donelson]." Illinois had, in fact, provided the life's blood for Grant's command, with twenty-one regiments present. Governor Richard Yates promptly left for Fort Donelson, ostensibly to supervise the care of the state's wounded but probably also to gain favor with voters and an identification with the victory.
The political ramifications went beyond the emergence of western recognition. Many of the top generals at Donelson had been Democrats, which broadened Lincoln's war coalition. The Democratic Cincinnati Commercial crowed that Grant "certainly had never shown a symptom of anti-slaveryism" and that C. F. Smith was "rather proslavery than otherwise." McClernand of Illinois and Brigadier General Lew Wallace of Indiana were both widely known Democrats. Indeed, all Grant's division commanders save one were "anti-Republican," according to the paper.
The news of Fort Donelson also temporarily stimulated the western economy. "The fate of Fort Donelson has caused a corresponding rise in pork," proclaimed the Chicago press. In Dubuque, Iowa, buyers began paying more for pork and wheat. On February 25, the Legal Tender Act became law over Democratic opposition, and greenbacks were successfully floated -- in part because of the buoyant national mood over the recent western victories.
Geopolitical ramifications aside, the primary benefit of the campaign had been military. The Confederate defensive line in the west had been pierced. The Federals had exploited the cordon defense of the Southerners by concentrating on a single point. Grant desired to push forward and, on February 24, wrote his wife, Julia, "Gen. Halleck is clearly of the same way of thinking."
Copyright © 1997 by Larry J. Daniel