Jefferson Davis– The Fall of Fort Henry
THE LOSS of Forts Henry and Donelson opened the river routes to Nashville and north Alabama, and thus turned the positions both at Bowling Green and Columbus. These disasters subjected General Johnston to very severe criticism, of which we shall take notice further on in these pages. A conference was held on February 7th by Generals Johnston, Beauregard (who had been previously ordered to report to Johnston), and Hardee, as to the future plan of campaign it was determined, as Fort Henry had fallen and Donelson was untenable, that preparations should at once be made for a removal of the army to Nashville, in rear of the Cumberland River, a strong point some miles below that city being fortified forthwith to defend the river from the passage of gunboats and transports. From Nashville, should any further retrograde movement become necessary, it would be made to Stevenson, and thence according to circumstances.
As the possession of the Tennessee River by the enemy separated the army at Bowling Green from the one at Columbus, Kentucky, they must act independently of each other until they could be brought together-the first one having for its object the defense of the state of Tennessee along its line of operation, and the other, of that part of the state lying between the Tennessee River and the Mississippi. But as the possession of the former river by the enemy rendered the lines of communication of the army at Columbus liable to be cut at any time by a movement from the Tennessee River as a base, and an overpowering force of the enemy was rapidly concentrating from various points on the Ohio, it was necessary, to prevent such a calamity, that the main body of the army should fall back to Humboldt, and thence, if necessary, to Grand Junction, so as to protect Memphis from either point and still have a line of retreat to the latter place, or to Grenada, and, if needful, to Jackson, Mississippi.
Captain Hollin's fleet of improvised gunboats and a sufficient garrison was to be left at Columbus for the defense of the river at that point, with transports near at hand for the removal of the garrison when the position became no longer tenable.
Every preparation for the retreat was silently made. The defenses of Bowling Green, originally slight, had been greatly enlarged by the addition of a cordon of detached forts, mounted with heavy field guns; yet the garrison was only sufficiently strong to withstand an assault, and it was never proposed to submit to a siege. The ordnance and army supplies were quietly moved southward, and measures were taken to remove from Nashville the immense stores accumulated there. Only five hundred men were in the hospital before the army commenced to retreat, but when it reached Nashville five thousand four hundred out of fourteen thousand required the care of the medical officers. On February 11th the troops began to move, and at nightfall on the 16th General Johnston, who had established his headquarters at Edgeville, on the northern bank of the Cumberland, saw the last of his wearied columns defile across and safely establish themselves beyond the river. The evacuation was accomplished by a force so small as to make the feat remarkable, not a pound of ammunition nor a gun being lost, and the provisions were nearly all secured. The first intimation which the enemy had of the intended evacuation, so far as has been ascertained, was when Generals Hindman and Breckinridge, who were in advance near his camp, were seen suddenly to retreat toward Bowling Green. The enemy pursued, and succeeded in shelling the town, while Hindman was still covering the rear. Not a man was lost.' At the same time Crittenden's command was brought back within ten miles of Nashville, and thence to Murfreesboro.
Scarcely had the retreat to Nashville been accomplished when the news of the fall of Donelson was received. The state of feeling which it produced is described by Colonel Munford, an aide-de-camp of General Johnston, in an address delivered in Memphis: "Dissatisfaction was general. Its mutterings, already heard, began to break out in denunciations. The demagogues took up the cry, and hounded on one another and the people in hunting down a victim. The public press was loaded with abuse. The Government was denounced for intrusting the public safety to hands so feeble. The Lower House of Congress appointed a select committee to inquire into the conduct of the war in the Western Department. The Senators and Representatives from Tennessee, with the exception of Judge Swann, waited upon the President." Their spokes-man, Senator G. A. Henry, stated that they came for and in behalf of Tennessee to ask for the removal of General A. S. Johnston, and the assignment of a competent officer to the defense of their homes 31 people.
Colonel R. W. Woolley, in Neu Orleans Picayitne, March, 1863.
RISE AND FALL OF THE CONFEDERATE GOVERNMENT It was further stated that they did not come to recommend anyone as the successor; that it was conceded that the President was better able than they were to select a proper officer, and they only asked that he would give them a general.
Painfully impressed by this exhibition of distrust toward an officer whose place, if vacated, I was sure could not be filled by his equal, realizing how necessary public confidence was to success, and wounded by the injustice done to one I had known with close intimacy in peace and in war, and believed to be one of the noblest men with whom I had ever been associated, and one of the ablest soldiers I had ever seen in the field, I paused under conflicting emotions, and after a time merely answered, "If Sidney Johnston is not a general, the Confederacy has 'none to give you.
On February 17th the rear guard from Bowling Green reached Nashville, and on the 18th General Johnston wrote to the Secretary of War at Richmond, saying:
I have ordered the army to encamp to-night midway between Nashville and Murfreesboro. My purpose is to place the force in such a position. that the enemy can not concentrate his superior strength against the command, and to enable me to assemble as rapidly as possible such other troops in addition as it may be in my power to collect. The complete command which their gunboats and transports give them upon the Tennessee and Cumberland renders it necessary for me to retire my line between the rivers. I entertain the hope that this disposition will enable me to hold the enemy for the present in check, and, when my forces are sufficiently increased, to drive him back.
The fall of Fort Donelson made a speedy change of his plans necessary. General Johnston was now compelled to withdraw his forces from the north bank of the Cumberland, and to abandon the defense of Nashville a word, to evacuate Nashville or sacrifice the army. Not more than eleven thousand effective men were left to him with which to oppose General Buel with not less than forty thousand men, moving by Bowling Green, while another superior force, under General Thomas was on the eastern flank; and the armies from Fort Donelson, with the gunboats and transport, had it in their power to ascend the Cumberland, so as to interrupt all communication with the south.
On February 17th and 18th the main body of the command was moved from Nashville to Murfreesboro, while a brigade remained under General Floyd to bring on the stores and property upon the approach of the enemy, all of which would have been saved except for the heavy and general rains. By the junction of the command of General Crittenden and the fugitives from Donelson, who were reorganized, the force of General Johnston was increased to seventeen thousand men. The stores not required for immediate use were ordered to Chattanooga, and those which were necessary on the march were ordered to Huntsville and Decatur. On February 28th the march was commenced for Decatur through Shelbyville and Fayetteville. Halting at those points for the purpose, he saved his provisions and stores, removed his depots and machine shops, obtained new arms, and finally, at the close of March, joined Beauregard at Corinth with twenty thousand men, making their aggregate force fifty thousand.
Considering the great advantage which the means of transportation upon the Tennessee and Cumberland afforded the enemy, and the peculiar topography of the state, General Johnston found that he could not with the force under his command successfully defend the whole line against the advance of the enemy. He was, therefore, compelled to elect whether the enemy should be permitted to occupy Middle Tennessee, or turn Columbus, take Memphis, and open the valley of the Mississippi. Deciding that the defense of the valley was of paramount importance, he therefore crossed the Tennessee and united with Beauregard.
The evacuation of Nashville and the evident intention of General Johnston to retreat still further, created a panic in the public mind which spread over the whole state. Those who had refused to listen to his warning voice, when it called them to arms, were loudest in their passionate outcry at what they considered a base surrender of them to the mercies of the invader. He was accused of imbecility, cowardice, and treason. An appeal from every class was made to the President demanding his removal. Congress took the matter in hand, and, though the feeling there resulted merely in a committee of inquiry, it was evident that the case was prejudged. The Confederate House of Representatives created a special committee "to inquire into the military disasters at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, and the surrender of Nashville to the enemy," and as to the conduct, number, and disposition of the troops under General Johnston. Great feeling was shown in the debates.
Generals Floyd and Pillow, the senior officers at Fort Donelson withdrew after it had been decided to surrender, in order to avoid being made prisoners. The Secretary of War (Benjamin) wrote to General Johnston on March 11th as follows:
The reports of Brigadier-Generals Floyd and Pillow are unsatisfactory, and the President directs that both these generals be relieved from command until further orders. In the mean time you will request them to add to their reports such statements as they may deem proper on the points submitted. You are further requested to make up a report, from all the sources of information accessible to you, of all the particulars connected with the unfortunate affair, which can con-tribute to enlighten the judgment of the Executive and of Congress, and to fix the blame, if blame there he, on those who were delinquent in duty.
This state of affairs under the command of General Johnston, was the occasion of the following correspondence:
LETTER FROM PRESIDENT DAVIS TO GENERAL A. S. JOHNSTON
Ricon, March 12,1862.
My Dear GEE: The departure of Captain Wickliffe offers an opportunity, of which I avail myself, to write you an unofficial letter. We have suffered great anxiety because of recent events in Kentucky and Tennessee, and I have been not a little disturbed by the repetitions of reflections upon yourself,... I expected you to have made a full report of events precedent and consequent to the fall of Fort Donelson. In the mean time I made for you such defense as friendship prompted, and many years of acquaintance justified; but I needed facts to rebut the wholesale assertions made against you to cover others and to condemn my administration. he public, as you are aware, have no correct measure for military operations, and the journals are very reckless in their statements.
Your force has been magnified, and the movements of an army have been measured by the capacity' for locomotion of an individual.
The readiness of the people, among whom you are operating, to aid you in every method, has been constantly asserted; the purpose of your army at Bowling Green wholly misunderstood; and the absence of an effective force at Nashville ignored. You have been held responsible for the fall of Donelson and the capture of Nashville. It is charged that no effort was made to save the stores at Nashville, and that the panic of the people was caused by the army.
Such representations, with the sad foreboding naturally belonging to them, have been painful to me and injurious to us both; hut, worse than this, they have undermined public confidence and damaged our cause. A full development of the truth is necessary for future success.
I respect the generosity which has kept you silent, but would impress upon you that the question is not personal but public in its nature; that you and I might be content to suffer, but neither of us can willingly permit detriment to the country. As soon as circumstances will permit, it is my purpose to visit the field of your present operations; not that I shall expect to give you any aid in the discharge of your duties as a commander, but with the hope that my position would enable me to effect something in bringing men to your standard. With a sufficient force, the audacity which the enemy exhibits would no doubt give you the opportunity to cut some of his lines of communication, to break up his plan of campaign, and, defeating some of his columns, to drive him from the soil as well of Kentucky as of Tennessee.
We are deficient in arms, wanting in discipline, and inferior in numbers. Private arms must supply the first want; time and the presence of an enemy, with diligence on the part of commanders, will remove the second; and public confidence will overcome the third. General Bragg brings you disciplined troops, and you will find in him the highest administrative capacity. General E. K. Smith will soon have in East Tennessee a sufficient force to create a strong diversion in your favor; or, if his strength can not be made available in that way, you will best know how to employ it otherwise. I suppose the Tennessee or the Mississippi River will be the object of the enemy's next campaign, and I trust you will be able to concentrate a force which will defeat either attempt. The fleet which you will soon have on the Mississippi River, if the enemy's gunboats ascend the Tennessee, may enable you to strike an effective blow at Cairo; but, to one so well informed and vigilant, I will not assume to offer suggestions as to when and how the ends you seek may be attained. With the confidence and regard of many years, I am
very truly your friend, JEFFERSON Davis.
LETTER OF GENERAL JOHNSTON IN ANSWER TO ABOVE
DECATUR, ALABAMA, March 18, 1862.
M DEAR GENERAL: I received the dispatches from Richmond, with your private letter by Captain Wickliffe, three days since; but the pressure of affairs and the necessity of getting my command across the Tennessee prevented me from sending you an earlier reply.
I anticipated all that you have told me as to the censure which the fall of Fort Donelson drew upon me, and the attacks to which you might be subjected; but it was impossible for me to gather the facts for a detailed report, or to spare time which was required to extricate the remainder of my troops and save the large accumulation of stores and provisions after that disheartening disaster.
I transmitted the reports of Generals Floyd and Pillow without examining or analyzing the facts, and scarcely with time to read them.
When about to assume command of this department, the Government charged me with the duty of deciding the question of occupying Bowling Green, Kentucky, which involved not only military but political considerations. At the time of my arrival at Nashville, the action of the Legislature of Kentucky had put an end to the latter by sanctioning the formation of camps menacing Tennessee, by assuming the cause of the Government at Washington, and by abandoning the neutrality it professed; and, in consequence of their action, the occupation of Bowling Green became necessary as an act of self-defense, at least in the first step.
About the middle of September General Buckner advanced with a small force of about four thousand men, which was increased by the 15th of October to twelve thousand; and, though accessions of force were received, it continued at about the same strength until the end of November-measles and other diseases keeping down the effective force. The enemy's force then was reported to the War Department at fifty thousand, and an advance was impossible. No enthusiasm, as we imagined and hoped, but hostility, was manifested in Kentucky. Believing it to be of the greatest moment to protract the campaign, as the dearth of cotton might bring strength from abroad and discourage the North, and to gain time to strengthen myself by new troops from Tennessee and other States, I magnified my forces to the enemy, but made known my true strength to the department and the Governors of States. The aid given was small. At length, when General Beauregard came Out in February, he expressed his surprise at the smallness of my force, and was impressed with the danger of my position. I admitted what was so manifest, and laid before him my views for the future, in which he entirely concurred, and sent me a memorandum of our conference, a copy of which I send to you. I determined to fight for Nashville at Donelson, and gave the best part of my army to do it, retaining only fourteen thousand men to cover my front, and giving sixteen thousand to defend Donelson. The force at Donelson is stated in General Pillow's report at much less, and I do not doubt the correctness of his statement, for the force at Bowling Green, which I supposed to be fourteen thousand effective men (the medical report showing only a little over five hundred sick in the hospital), was diminished more than live thousand by those who were unable to stand the fatigue of a march, and made my force on reaching Nashville less than ten thousand men. I enclose medical director's report. Had I wholly uncovered my front to defend Donelson, Buell would have known it, and marched directly on Nashville. There were only ten small steamers in the Cumberland, in imperfect condition, only three of which were available at Nashville, while the transportation of he enemy was great.
The evacuation of Bowling Green was imperatively necessary, and was ordered before, and executed while the battle was being fought at Donelson. I had made every disposition for the defense of the fort my means allowed, and the troops were among the best of my forces. The generals, Floyd, Pillow, and Buckner were high in the opinion of officers and men for skill and courage, and among the best officers of my command. They were popular with the volunteers, and all had seen much service. No reinforcements were asked. I awaited the event opposite Nashville. The result of the conflict each day was favorable. At midnight on the 15th I received news of a glorious victory; at dawn, of a defeat.
My column during the day and night was thrown over the river-a battery had been established below the city to secure the passage. Nashville was incapable of defense, from its position, and from the forces advancing from Bowling Green and up the Cumberland. A rear guard was left, under General Floyd, to secure the stores and provisions, but did not completely effect the object. The people were terrified, and some of the troops were disheartened. The discouragement was spreading, and I ordered the command to Murfreesboro, where I managed, by assembling Crittenden's division and the fugitives from Donelson, to collect an army able to offer battle. The weather was inclement, the floods excessive, and the bridges were washed away, but most of the stores and provisions were saved and conveyed to new depots. This having been accomplished, though with serious loss, in conformity with my original design, I marched southward and crossed the Tennessee at this point, so as to cooperate or unite with General Beauregard for the defense of the valley of the Mississippi. The passage is almost completed, and the head of my column is already with General Bragg at Corinth. The movement was deemed too hazardous by the most experienced members of my staff, but the object warranted the risk. The difficulty of effecting a junction is not wholly overcome, but it approaches completion. Day after to-morrow (the 22d), unless the enemy intercepts me, my force will be with Bragg, and my army nearly fifty thousand strong. This must be destroyed before the enemy can attain' his object.
I have given this sketch, so that you may appreciate the embarrassment which surrounded me in my attempts to avert or remedy the disaster of Fort Donelson, before alluding to the conduct of the generals.
When the force was detached, I was in hopes that such disposition would have
been made as would have enabled the forces to defend the fort or withdraw without sacrificing the army. On the 14th I ordered General Floyd, by telegraph, "If he lost the fort, to get his troops to Nashville." It is possible that might have been done, but justice requires us to look at events as they appeared at the time, and not alone by the light of subsequent information. All the facts in relation to the surrender will be transmitted to the Secretary of War as soon as they can be collected, in obedience to his order. It appears from the information received that General Buckner, being the junior officer, took the lead in advising the surrender, and that General Floyd acquiesced, and that they all concurred in the belief that their force could not maintain the position. All concurred that it 'should involve a great sacrifice of life to extricate the command. Subsequent events show that the investment was not so complete as their information from their scouts led them to believe.
The conference resulted in the surrender. The command was irregularly transferred, and devolved on the junior general; but not apparently to avoid any just responsibility or from any want of personal or moral intrepidity. The blow was most disastrous, and almost without a remedy. I therefore, in my first report, remained silent. This silence you were kind enough to attribute to my generosity. I will not lay claim to the motive to excuse my course. I observed silence, as it seemed to be the best way to serve the cause and the country. The facts were not fully known, discontent prevailed, and criticism and condemnation were more likely to augment than to cure the evil. I refrained, well knowing that heavy censures would fall upon me, but convinced that it was better to endure them for the present, and defer for a more propitious time an investigation of the conduct of the generals; for, in the mean time, their services were required and their influence was useful. For these reasons Generals Floyd and Pillow were assigned to duty, for I still felt confidence in their gallantry, their energy, and their devotion to the Confederacy.
I have thus recurred to the motives by which I have been governed, from a deep personal sense of the friendship and confidence you have always shown me, and from the conviction that they have not been withdrawn from me in adversity.
All the reports requisite for a full official investigation have been ordered. Generals Floyd and Pillow have been suspended from command.
You mention that you intend to visit the field of operations here. I hope soon to see you, for your presence would encourage my troops, inspire the people, and augment the army. To me personally it would give the greatest gratification. Merely a soldier myself, and having no acquaintance with the statesmen or leaders of the South, I can not sound springs familiar to you. Were you to assume command, it would afford me the most unfeigned pleasure, and every energy would be exerted to help you to victory and the country to independence. Were you to decline, still your presence alone would be of inestimable advantage.
The enemy are now at Nashville, about fifty thousand strong, advancing in this direction by Columbia. He has also forces, according to the report of General Bragg, landing at Pittsburg, from twenty-five to fifty thousand, and moving in the direction of Purdy.
This army corps, moving to join Bragg, is about twenty thousand strong. Two brigades, Hindman's and Woods's, are, I suppose, at Corinth. One regiment of Hardee's division (Lieutenant-Colonel Patton commanding) is moving by cars
RISE AND FALL OF THE CONFEDERATE GOVERNMENT 37
today (March 20th), and Statham's brigade (Crittenden's division). The brigade will halt at luka, the regiment at Burnsville; Cleburne's brigade, Hardee's division, except the regiment, at Burnsville; and Carroll's brigade, Crittenden's division, and Helm's cavalry, at Tusaimbia; Bowen's brigade at Courtland; Breckinridge's brigade here; the regiments of cavalry of Adams and Wharton on the opposite bank of the river; Scott's Louisiana regiment at Pulaski, sending forward supplies Morgan's cavalry at Shelbyville, ordered on.
Tomorrow Breckinridge's brigade will go to Corinth, then Bowen's. When these pass Tuscumbia and luka, transportation will be ready there for the other troops to follow immediately from those points, and, if necessary, from Burnsville. The cavalry will cross and move forward as soon as their trains can be passed over the railroad-bridge. I have troubled you with these details, as I can not properly communicate them by telegram.
The test of merit in my profession, with the people, is success. It is a hard rule, but I think it right. If I joined this corps to the forces of Beauregard (I confess a hazardous experiment), then those who are now declaiming against me will be without an argument.
Your friend, A. S. JOHNSTON.
To this letter the following reply was made:
RICHMOND, VIRGINIA, March 26, 1862.
M DEAR GENERAL: Yours of the 18th instant was this day delivered by your aide, Mr. Jack. I have read it with much satisfaction. So far as the past is concerned, it but confirms the conclusions at which I had already arrived. My confidence in you has never wavered, and I hope the public will soon give me credit for judgment, rather than continue to arraign me for obstinacy.
You have done wonderfully well, and now I breathe easier in the assurance that you will be able to make a junction of your two armies. If you can meet the division of the enemy moving from the Tennessee before it can make a junction with that advancing from Nashville, the future will be brighter. If this can not be done, our only hope is that the people of the Southwest will rally and task with their private arms, and thus enable you to oppose the vast army which will threaten the destruction of our country.
I have hoped to be able to leave here for a short time, and would be much gratified to confer with you, and share your responsibilities. I might aid you in obtaining troops; no one could hope to do more unless he underrated your military capacity. I write in great haste, and feel that it would be worse than useless to point out to you how much depends on you.
May God bless you, is the sincere prayer of your friend,
Let us now review the events which had brought such unmeasured censure on General Johnston for some months preceding this correspondence. We have seen him, with a force numerically much inferior to that of the enemy in his front, holding the position of Bowling Green, and, by active Operations of detached commands, keeping up to foe and friend the impression that he had a large army in position. With self-sacrificing fortitude he remained silent under reproaches for not advancing to attack the enemy. When Forts Donelson and Henry were more immediately threatened, he gave reinforcements from his small command until his own line became more like one of skirmishers than an entrenched line of battle; when those forts were surrendered, and his position became both untenable and useless, he withdrew in such order and with such skill that his retreat was unmolested by the army. Though he continued to be the subject of unreasoning vituperation, he sought not to justify himself by blaming others, or telling what he would have done if his government had sent him the arms and munitions he asked for, but which his government he learned did not possess.
There are yet those who, self-assured, demand why Johnston did not go himself to Donelson and Henry, and why his forces were not there concentrated. A slight inspection of the map would suffice to show that, Bowling Green abandoned, the direct road to Nashville would be open to the advance of Buell's army. Then the forts, if held, would cease to answer their purpose, and, being isolated and between hostile armies above and below, would be not only valueless but only temporarily tenable; of his critics it may be asked, Who else than himself could, with the small force retained at Bowling Green, have held the enemy in check so long, and at last have retired without disaster?
To collect the widely separated troops of his command so as to form an army which might offer battle to the invading foe was a problem which must have been impossible, if the organized armies by which he was threatened had been guided by a capacity equal to his own. It was done, and with the genius of a great soldier he seized the opportunity, by the rapid combination of new levies and of forces never before united, to attack the armies of the enemy in detail while they were endeavoring to form a junction.
The southwestern states presented a field peculiarly favorable for the application of a new power in war. Deep rivers, with banks frequently but little elevated above the water, traverse the country. On these rivers iron-plated steamboats with heavy guns may move with a rapidity incomparably greater than that of marching armies. It is as if forts, with armaments, garrison, and stores, were endowed with locomotion more swift and enduring than that of cavalry.
The Ohio, Mississippi, Cumberland, and Tennessee rivers all were in the field of General Johnston's operations, and at the stage of water most suited to naval purposes. Apart from the heavy guns which could thus be brought to bear at interior places upon an army having only field artillery, the advantage of rapid transportation for troops and supplies can hardly be overestimated. It has been seen how these advantages were utilized by the enemy at Henry and Donelson, and not less did they avail him at Shiloh.