Foote's Fleet

Fort Donelson overlooking the Cumberland River in modern times.
Fort Donelson in Northern Kentucky betrays none of it's importance to the Civil War in 1862. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Foote's Fleet was a water-way expedition down the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers during the American Civil War. The Union army meant to open a route directly into the Confederate heartland and began in 1862. Under the command of future president Ulysses Grant with a compliment of 17,000 raw recruits the Union expedition sought to take the initiative at the Kentucky/Tennessee border by going up against two heavily fortified positions on the Tennessee River - Forts Henry and Fort Donelson.

Unbeknownst to General Grant or Flag Officer Foote both crucial forts were manned by a force of less than 3,500 soldiers, made up of conscripts and slaves, who were mostly stragglers cut off from a force of 12,000 based in Arkansas.

The Union, by sailing directly south down the Ohio River, were guaranteed a line of supply that greatly favored their troops while their Confederate counterparts relied on distant Richmond, Virginia for supplies and orders.

Confederate Forts Henry and Donelson were isolated but strategically important outposts. The two forts were located 12 miles apart. Henry on the Tennesee River and Donelson overlooking the Cumberland River. Both were badly under-manned but also massively fortified. Fort Donelson, located south of Fort Henry, had walls that stood 20 feet high and were 20 feet thick in places. This fort was nearly impervious to infantry and hardened against cannon fire.

To attack these kinds of cyclopean positions, the Union expedition massed to enormous numbers. Foote's Fleet consisted of 7 war vessels and troop carriers including the ironclad cannon boat the Essex and a rickety barge dubbed a gunboat named the Cincinnati.

Forts Henry and Donelson as described in 1862
Forts Henry and Donelson as described in a map made circa 1862. Photo courtesy of Wikisource.

At the outset of the battle 17,000 Union soldiers were held at bay by a handful of country-fried Confederate bastards at Fort Henry. The Confederates heavily mined the river channel and by doing so damaged or destroyed 2 boats including the Essex.

Fort Henry's own fortifications were not complete by the start of the battle. In fact the fort suffered from disastrous flooding and submerged artillery placements. It was eventually deserted, moving it's remaining defenders east to Fort Donelson under the orders of Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman, who was captured when Fort Henry fell after two days of constant raids by Union forces.

The Union Fleet disembarked and raised the Union battle flag on February 5th 1862 above Fort Henry. Union General Halleck, not part of the fighting force in Tennessee, received word of the victory and immediately telegraphed Washington reporting: "Fort Henry is ours. The flag is reestablished on the soil of Tennessee. It will never be removed...".

Fort Donelson, with it's legendary walls, took in the remaining Henry compliment of Confederate troops and was determined to make a heroic stand under the guidance of former U.S. Secretary of War and Tennessee State Attorney (Attorney General in today's terms) John B. Floyd who, without any previous militia or military experience was made General by the Governor himself.

Strengthened by the Tennessee Cavalry Regiment, led by Colonel N. B. Forest, Fort Donelson repelled raid after raid for 5 days - from February 11th to the 16th. On the 15th, General John Floyd himself led a charge into the 17,000 men gathered against him. Against all odds (less than 3000 raiders versus 17,000 dug in troops) succeeded in opening an escape route.

Yet, due to what is presumed to be an error made out of lack of experience, Floyd returned to Fort Donelson where he was quickly surrounded.

The first USS Cincinnati.
The first USS Cincinnati was a "timberclad" gunboat fortified for naval warfare. She would be sunk in Vicksburg in 1863.

There, surrounded and under increasing pressure, but facing only minor losses of 40 of his 3500 men, General Floyd saw only calamity and annihilation. Floyd resigned his commission as General and transferred his position to Brigadier General Gideon Pillow who immediately transferred this position to, of all people the Commander of the Tennessee Regiment, Colonel Forest.

This abrupt lack of meaningful leadership from an extremely strong but under-manned position would mean nothing but escape and surrender of Fort Donelson. Colonel Forest ordered a second full charge out of the Fort.

Again, against-all-odds the casualties were minor. God himself, however temporarily, seemed to shield these out-numbered men as they rode out to charge through a sea of Union blue uniforms. Floyd escaped, reaching Nashville where he sailed for Virginia and Confederate controlled Richmond.

Losing these two Confederate forces in decisive and relatively quick battles (two weeks for two forts) opened up Middle Tennessee to Union forces destined to reach towards Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi. Seizing Forts Henry and Donelson were the first important victories of Ulysses Grant's military career in the Civil War. General Floyd would be stripped of his command by Jefferson Davis himself, without a court of inquiry, on March 11th 1862 and die of a mysterious "ailment" the following year of 1963.

Wikipedia, Battle Of Fort Henry
Wikipedia, Battle Of Fort Donelson
Wikipedia, USS Cincinnati
Civil, The Fall Of Fort Henry
Old Court House, Civil War Era Vicksburg

No comments: