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The Battle for the Ohio Country Reconsidered
Belmont to Fort Donelson
The Breadbasket of North America
Both Lincoln and Davis grew up in the Ohio Country. Four rivers: the Ohio, the Cumberland, the Tennessee, and the Mississippi define the Ohio Country. Fully a quarter of the US population lived there. One-third of the continent’s agricultural output came from the Ohio river system—more than Canada and Mexico combined in 1860. Encompassing Pennsylvania, western Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Tennessee, and Illinois, the productive Ohio Country was the reason for both the Union’s eighteen-month campaign culminating at Vicksburg, and the Confederacy’s desperate two-year defense of Tennessee.
The Union and Confederacy fought over the Ohio Country with armies smaller than a modern brigade.
While George B. McClellan whipped the Army of the Potomac into shape in Virginia, a new general's star rose in Middle Tennessee: a quiet and unassuming officer named US Grant. On 7 November 1861, Grant took a little over 3,000 men to a “three-shack hamlet” called Belmont, Missouri, across the Mississippi from the Confederate stronghold at Columbus, Kentucky commanded by Leonidas Polk. Polk sent about 5,000 men across the river to confront Grant. Never intending to fight a battle, Grant got his troops back to their steamboats in fair order.
Belmont was indecisive…but Grant was not.
Unlike McClellan and the other Union generals, Grant didn’t plead for time or resources, nor make excuses for their failures. Grant was the kind of general Lincoln and the Union needed. But the Confederacy had a few good generals, too. At sunrise on 6 February 1862, a small Confederate army under George B. Crittenden attacked a small Federal force under George H. Thomas on the Cumberland River in Kentucky, about a week's march from Nashville, the capitol of Tennessee. As Civil War battles go, this one was fast and microscopic. The Confederates, in an attack that would be eerily similar to the attack two months later at Pittsburgh Landing, marched through the rain and fog with ancient weapons, poor organization and even worse discipline to surprise the Federals before their breakfast. The Confederates initially had success, but the Federals rallied under Thomas and the death of Felix Zollicoffer, Crittenden's second-ranking officer, stymied them. As the Confederates abandoned the battlefield, in their haste to cross the Cumberland, they abandoned precious artillery (about two batteries' worth) and supplies, as well as their wounded. Most of the battle was over by noon, incurring less than a thousand casualties.
We know the battle as Fishing Creek or Mill Springs in the North; Logan's Cross Roads in the South.
Tactically inconsequential, Fishing Creek/Mill Springs/Logan’s Cross Roads made both the Richmond and Washington governments pay closer attention to the Ohio country. The Confederacy sent PGT Beauregard, the victor of Mananas, to assist Albert S. Johnston, who commanded the Confederate Military District Number 2 that encompassed everything Confederate between the Appalachians and the Mississippi, the Ohio river and the Gulf of Mexico. The Union sent more troops and gunboats to aid Henry W. Halleck, the Federal commander of the Department of Missouri, which extended from the Cumberland Gap to Kansas and south to Mississippi.
The day before, the US Navy captured Fort Henry on the Tennessee River.
After a forced march of some five days, some 25,000 men under US Grant started his assault on Ft Donelson on the Cumberland on 12 February 1862. The weather on 6 February when they left Ft Henry was balmy, but by the time they were halfway to the Confederate fort on the Cumberland it turned cold and wet. The Federals, few of whom had ever heard a shot in anger or gone more than a day's walk from where they were born, suffered in the cold in part because they had discarded their heavy winter coats and blankets along the way.
Less than a week after losing Ft Henry, the Confederates scrambled to protect the last bastion protecting Nashville, just three days' march south of Ft Donelson.
Nearly all the Confederate uniform manufacturing west of Virginia, and half the ammunition manufacturing, was in Nashville. That and some 16,000 Confederate troops (probably more) at Ft Donelson, as well as 48 irreplaceable artillery pieces, were in peril from the larger Federal force. Johnston knew that holding Ft Donelson was the key to holding middle Tennessee and the gateway to the Southern interior.
But Johnston had nearly nothing to send to John B. Floyd, Donelson's commander.
As Grant began his siege (impractical, since his batteries only had the ammunition in their caissons, as his staff had neglected to send any more), he realized that if Ft Donelson held out more than a few days, he would have to withdraw or wait for reinforcements. Henry W. Halleck, Grant's boss, had already said that Grant had to win to get stronger. Excuses were not to be tolerated, for Grant's reputation in the upper ranks of the Army was not one of a stellar officer, but tainted by allegations of drink. To go any further at all just to provide for his family, Grant had to take Ft Donelson.
To hold the Ohio Country at all, Pillow had to hold Donelson.
If Grant informed Halleck that he had reached Ft Donelson, it would have been by horseback messenger to Ft Henry (or by steamboat to either Paducah or Galena), then by relays of telegraph stations to Halleck at St Louis. If Lincoln had heard about Ft Donelson before they captured it, it would have been at least a day after his 53rd birthday.
When Lincoln and the rest of the country heard about the fall of Fort Donelson, he regarded it as a wonderful gift.
The Devil's Own Day: Shiloh and the American Civil War describes the run up to the momentous April 1862 battle in the pine barrens of Tennessee. "No study of the war in Middle Tennessee is complete without a consideration of Beatty's ideas," one critic said. JD Communications, LLC, is releasing the Second Edition of The Devil’s Own Day on 5 June.
Modern Emperors of Japan II
And Everything After Them
On 22 April:
1870: Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov was born in Ulyanovsk, Russia. For those of you who don’t know, he was better known as Vladimir Lenin. As the leader of the Bolsheviks, he became the boss of Russia, then of the Soviet Union, before he was fifty.
1970: The United States first observed Earth Day. Sponsored by Gaylord Nelson, they chose that Wednesday because it fell between Spring Break and final exams. Apparently, it had nothing to do with the centennial of Lenin’s birth…not that one could tell of late.
And today is NATIONAL GIRL SCOUT LEADER’S DAY. Unclear why 22 April, but my mother was a Girl Scout Leader while my sisters were in the Scouts, which lasted until the oldest aged out.