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Old 11-10-2016, 04:18 PM
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Default Book Review: "Where the South Lost the War," Ft.s Henry and Donelson

Book Review: "Where The South Lost The War," Ft.s Henry And Donelson
(Apollonian, 10 Nov 16)

Kendall D. Gott's work, "Where the South Lost the War: An Analysis of the Fort Henry-Fort Donelson Campaign, February 1862," Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, PA, 2003; xviii, 346 pp, 280 text, appendix, notes, Bibliography, index, is outstanding for the little-known but truly momentous episode in the War Btwn the States regarding extremely important and strategic Confederate forts (Henry and Donelson) which guarded entry to the Cumberland (Donelson) and Tennessee (Henry) rivers, which in turn led into the very heart of Conf. territory in the West of Appalachians, the "Western Department."

Thus the Ft.s Henry and Donelson disaster of Feb. 1862 placed Confederates on the defensive early in the war, less than a year after the war began w. the firing on Ft. Sumter in April 1861 and the initial large battle, First Bull Run (Manassas), in July 1861. Robt. E. Lee didn't take command of Army of N. Virginia till June 1862. Thus Confederate strategy in the West, as well as overall, was one of static defense when it rather had to be offensive in order to make the more powerful Northern Union states willing to make peace and to keeping them off-balance for their own offensive operations.

The strategic weakness and incompetence of the south was well demonstrated in choice of sites for defense of the rivers in question, Tennessee and Cumberland, Ft. Henry sited on a flood-plain which was regularly inundated w. water fm the river during the high-water season during the late winter and early spring. Ft. Donelson was far better sited for the water-level problem, essentially dug out fm a hill-side, near the small town of Dover. The highest pt. of Ft. Henry, however, was under 2 ft. of water when the river was at its highest pt. And it wasn't as if the Confederates weren't aware of the problem w. Ft. Henry as the appropriate military officers were informed by Sept. of 1861.

Amazingly, the forts were originally chosen in May 1861 for the siting by an appointee of the Gov. of Tennessee, the states Atty. Gen., Daniel Donelson, who was informed of the problem for the water level, but who then called-in a Confederate officer of engineers, Col. Bushrod Johnson, who amazingly and for whatever reason, agreed w. Donelson upon suitability of the site. Tennessee finally seceded in June of 1861. When the water-level problem was brought-up again by the engineer officer sent to actually build the fortifications in Sept., the issue was bandied about by the department command fm Albert Sidney Johnston, to the local commander, Gen. Leonidas Polk, back to Johnston, who sent a staff engineer, who amazingly, decided that since it was so late in the season, and work had already commenced, the site would have to do. By the time Union Brig. General U.S. Grant laid siege to the fort, in Feb. 1862, there was already 2 ft. of water in which Conf. soldiers had to wade as they struggled to defend the fort. Had Grant only waited two days, the entire fort would have been totally under water and there would have been no battle at all.

Thus essential strategic incompetence of Confederate high command and leadership, fm Pres. Jefferson Davis to department commander, A. S. Johnston, is well demonstrated in the particular episode of Ft. Henry siting problem in practically every detail, fm the late season construction of fortifications, which was still going on as Grant's forces approached, months after start of hostilities, and including even simple, basic supervision by Generals Johnston and Polk.

The next problem for Confederates was the command structure. Aside fm the not entirely competent A. S. Johnston at top of department command (consisting of the entire West, far too large, in the event), the local commanders actually on scene at Ft.s Henry and Donelson, weren't all so bad (though a couple were), but as they were all brigadier generals there was some confusion for who would actually lead.

Thus when Gen. Grant showed-up to begin the assault he had the help of iron-clad federal gunboats, a relatively new thing for USA military, and these were truly formidable weapons. Ft. Henry was first on the menu, Grant coming fm Cairo Ill., Ft. Henry on the Tennessee river, west of the Cumberland, just over the state line fm Kentucky in Tennessee. Ft. Henry was still under construction, still being fitted-out for gunnery, and as it happened the fort fell to Navy bombardment after little more than an hour, the commander, Conf. Gen. Tilghman, surrendering to Union Flag Officer Foote while Grant's army was still in process of surrounding the fortifications on 6 February 1862.

Grant and Foote immediately then sent a detachment of gunboats to steam further up the river to destroy bridges and other military installations which was done, the detachment working all the way into Alabama before returning to rejoin the general assault upon Ft. Donelson which was a larger installation, much more formidable, w. several thousand infantry. There was no other Confederate military defense for the rivers than Ft.s Henry and Donelson. Nashville, the Tenn. state capital, was just up the river on the Cumberland, an important manufacturing center for the under-supplied South, and would fall in only a few more days.

The real battle then took place at Ft. Donelson which had been reinforced by Johnston and Confederates to 15,000 or more men, these under no less than four brigadier generals, the top-ranking, however, John B. Floyd, having no military experience, so the command situation was quite seriously muddled. On morning of 15 Feb. the Confederates executed a surprise attack which, however, was poorly co-ordinated, but it was still largely successful, forcing the Yankee right wing, under divisional commander Gen. John McClernand, to fall back w. serious casualties, giving the Confederates excellent opportunity to break-out and evacuate, saving army man-power which the south, out-numbered by nearly 3 to one by the North could not easily spare.

But amazingly, after the Confederates were halted for their initial attack impetus, the Yankees not organized for immediate counter-attack, the Confederates, rather than evacuating according to plan, decided they might continue to fight and save the fort, and returned to the original trench lines. Later in the afternoon, Grant returned fm a conference w. the naval commander and launched an attack on the Conf. right wing, pushing the southerners back in that sector, and the Conf. leaders decided to surrender the force the next day.

Such were the horrific developments of the Ft.s Henry and Donelson campaign for the rebel cause, which subsequently placed the South on even more urgent defensive and soon led to loss of the whole state of Tennessee. Six weeks later came the battle of Shiloh where A. S. Johnston tried to recoup Confederate military fortunes, but which failed w. further heavy casualties and where Johnston himself was killed. And by means of the Tennessee river route, the North was later able to take the southeastern part of Tennessee and commence the march on Atlanta, further cutting the south into pieces.

Gott's book is extremely well written, organized, and researched, w. numerous maps and diagrams throughout the work for illustration. There's further expo upon the Yankee side of things describing, for example, the interplay btwn Gen. Grant and his superior, Gen. Halleck, the resentful insubordination of Gen. McClernand, and the good work of Gen. Lew Wallace who moved to reinforce McClernand and finally staunch the Confederate onslaught. Thus the book by Gott does brilliantly for fullest military expo for a particular episode of the war, the Ft.s Henry and Donelson campaign, esp. as it reflects upon the entire larger effort of Southern independence; the spirit was present, soldiers fighting bravely, but basic leadership and strategy were sadly lacking.
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