Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Forts Henry and Donelson: Grant Opens the Road to Victory in the West

Grant In the winter of 1862, General Ulysses S. Grant would achieve the first in what would become a long résumé of stunning victories. His capture of Forts Henry and Donelson in Tennessee would begin a string of major Union victories in the Western Theater that would run virtually uninterrupted until Chickamauga in September 1863. His call for an unconditional surrender at Fort Donelson would stir the imagination of the northern population and give them their first true hero of the war. More so, however, these victories would serve as one of the many turning points of the war and, further, demonstrate some of the critical traits that would make Grant the great commander he would become.

January 30, 1862, was likely a day of anxiety and impatience for Grant. Recently promoted to brigadier general, Grant had been given command of the Federal garrison at Cairo, Illinois, with responsibility for operations from western Kentucky to the mouths of the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers in northwestern Tennessee. For weeks, Grant had been trying to convince his department commander in St. Louis, Major General Henry Halleck, to allow him to undertake the initiative against Confederate forts guarding the Cumberland and Tennessee. To Grant, the value of taking these forts was clear from a strategic point of view, as he would later describe in his memoirs:

The works on the Tennessee were called Fort Heiman and Fort Henry, and that on the Cumberland was Fort Donelson. At these points the two rivers approached within eleven miles of each other. The lines of rifle pits at each place extended back from the water at least two miles, so that the garrisons were in reality only seven miles apart. These positions were of immense importance to the enemy; and of course correspondingly important for us to possess ourselves of. With Fort Henry in our hands we had a navigable stream open to us up to Muscle Shoals, in Alabama. The Memphis and Charleston Railroad strikes the Tennessee at Eastport, Mississippi, and follows close to the banks of the river up to the shoals. This road, of vast importance to the enemy, would cease to be of use to them for through traffic the moment Fort Henry became ours. Fort Donelson was the gate to Nashville--a place of great military and political importance--and to a rich country extending far east in Kentucky.

Halleck However, Halleck dismissed Grant's arguments. Halleck was a student of strategy and his nickname in the Army was “Old Brains.” So, one wonders, why he could not see the logic of Grant’s arguments? Well, it would appear that Halleck’s lifelong interest in strategy and military history caused him to see dangers at every turn and potential catastrophic flaws in every strategy. As a result, he was a very cautious soldier, a “plodder,” a man often paralyzed by indecision. In Halleck’s mind, doing nothing was better than implementing the most sound plan if there was any chance whatsoever that the plan might fail. Further, he saw anyone who did not follow a prudent, cautious approach as utterly reckless and, possibly, even dangerous. And that is how he saw Ulysses Grant.

In early January, Grant decided to present Halleck with a plan for seizing Forts Heiman, Henry, and Donelson. In a report he sent to Halleck, he closed by stating, “If it meets with the approval of the general commanding the department, I would be pleased to visit headquarters on business connected with this command.” Grant’s plan had been bolstered by a recent expedition down the Tennessee by one of his subordinate commanders, a solid veteran professional soldier, General Charles F. Smith. Smith had been Commandant of Cadets at West Point when Grant went through the academy and he was greatly admired and respected. Smith’s expedition had reconnoitered Fort Heiman and found that it could be easily taken. Heiman dominated the high ground on the opposite side of the river from Fort Henry and, if you could seize it, Fort Henry should fall easily. Grant hoped that now his views on the potential of such a campaign had been confirmed by so able a general as Smith, Halleck would hear him out.

Halleck agreed to see Grant but, as Grant would later recall, “The leave was granted, but not graciously.” When Grant arrived in St. Louis and was ushered into Halleck’s office, the department commander displayed “little cordiality.” As Grant attempted to lay out the proposed plan for the campaign, Halleck abruptly cut him off, indicating that, in his mind, Grant’s ideas were “preposterous.” Grant returned to Cairo “very much crestfallen.”

Foote However, Grant was persistent and he would not give up easily. He consulted with his Navy counterpart, Flag Officer Andrew Foote. Foote was an experienced salt-water sailor, but the nature of the conflict now led him to apply his considerable skills on the waters of the Ohio and Mississippi. He was intense, tough, blunt, and, when he believed in something, he would become filled with an “implacable resolve” that let nothing stand in his way. He had assembled a flotilla of squat, ugly ironclad gunboats and he believed in their qualities as weapons. And, he also believed in Ulysses Grant’s plans for the forts on the Cumberland and Tennessee.

By late January, Grant calculated that General Smith’s official report must have fallen under Halleck’s eyes, so, on January 28, Grant and Foote sent separate telegrams to Halleck requesting permission to mount their expedition:

CAIRO, January 28, 1862.

Saint Louis, Mo.:

Commanding General Grant and myself are of opinion that Fort Henry, on the Tennessee River, can be carried with four iron-clad gunboats and troops to permanently occupy. Have we your authority to move for that purpose when ready?

A. H. FOOTE, Flag-Officer.

CAIRO, January 28, 1862.

Maj. Gen. H. W. HALLECK.
Saint Louis Mo.:

With permission, I will take Fort Henry, on the Tennessee, and establish and hold a large camp there.

U.S. GRANT, Brigadier General.

Their entreaties were greeted with cold silence as Halleck, again, was paralyzed by his thoughts of all that might go wrong. The next day, Grant would send a more lengthy telegram, urging Halleck to move forward.

Cairo, January 29, 1862.

Maj. Gen. H. W. HALLECK,
Saint Louis, Mo.:

In view of the large force now concentrating in this district and the present feasibility of the plan I would respectfully suggest the propriety of subduing Fort Henry, near the Kentucky and Tennessee line, and holding the position. If this is not done soon there is but little doubt but that the defenses on both the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers will be materially strengthened. From Fort Henry it will be easy to operate either on the Cumberland, only 12 miles distant, Memphis, or Columbus. It will, besides, have a moral effect upon our troops to advance them toward the rebel States. The advantages of this move are as perceptible to the general commanding as to myself, therefore further statements are unnecessary.

U.S. GRANT, Brigadier-General.

However, as fate would have it, Halleck was starting to change his mind, even as Grant sent his latest telegram. Late on January 29, Halleck received a report from General George McClellan indicating that General Beauregard was moving into Kentucky with a Southern army of 15 regiments. The report would prove to be false, but it spurred Halleck to action—it was now critical that the mouths to the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers be seized before Beauregard could move west to reinforce the forts. On January 30, he replied to McClellan that he would order Grant and Foote to “immediately advance, and to reduce and hold Fort Henry, on the Tennessee River.” He then cabled Grant, “Make your preparations to take and hold Fort Henry. I will send you written instructions by mail.”

However, Halleck’s instructions clearly indicated that he was only ordering the capture of Fort Henry and, by implication, Fort Heiman, but not Fort Donelson. His written instructions told Grant to simply take the fort and cut off the roads to Dover and Columbus to prevent either retreat or reinforcement of the Confederate garrisons. Apparently, Halleck intended to have Grant take Fort Henry, then dig in and await events, surrendering the initiative, a concept abhorrent to a commander like Grant.

Cairo embarkation Upon receiving Halleck’s telegram, Grant put his plan in motion, quickly issuing orders to his key commanders. On February 2, he began loading his force of 17,000 men on steamboats for the trip up the Tennessee River. The war’s closure of the Mississippi had left the Cairo riverfront filled with steamboats and experienced captains readily available for the work Grant now offered. However, despite this abundance of transport, it still was not enough to move all of Grant’s men in one movement. So, he elected to load the boats with a little more than half his force, under the command General John McClernand, an ambitious Illinois mcclernand Democrat and a political appointee. That day, the first increment of men would head upriver under the escort of Flag Officer Foote and seven of his river gunboats. Once McClernand’s men had been offloaded, the steamboats would return to Paducah to bring up the rest of Grant’s men, a division under General Smith’s command.

Grant followed the first group of men in one of the last boats to leave and, the next morning as they moved up the Tennessee, he found that McClernand had wisely ordered the boats to stop about nine miles below Fort Henry and its guns. Grant wanted to get his troops as near to Fort Henry as possible, but without coming within range of the Confederate guns. Grant decided the best way to determine that point was to test the range of Fort Henry’s guns. Therefore, he boarded the gunboat Essex and asked its commander, Captain William Porter, to move upstream, approach the fort, and draw its fire.

Essex-1 As the Essex moved in, Fort Henry’s artillery officer, Captain Jesse Taylor, held his fire until the Union gunboat was in range. Once he had her firmly in his sights, he fired a single shot with one of his best pieces, a 6-inch rifled cannon. The first shot fell short and Grant had his answer. However, as the Essex prepared to come about, the fort really opened up, with shots going over and beyond the gunboat. Just before they moved out of range, Grant recalled that, “One shot passed very near where Captain Porter and I were standing, struck the deck near the stern, penetrated and passed through the cabin and so out into the river.”

tilghman-2 Seeing the withdrawal of the gunboats, the fort’s commander, General Tilghman, and troops cheered mightily. Tilghman exuberantly wired his department commander, General Sidney Johnston, that he had turned back an initial Union attack and, if he could be reinforced, a great victory might be achieved. However, as he would soon learn, no reinforcements were coming to Fort Henry. However, as he sent the telegram, he was watching the approach of an enemy potentially more deadly to his fort’s survival than Grant’s men and Foote’s gunboats: the rising waters of the Tennessee River.

Heavy winter rains and even snow upstream was now being felt near the mouth of the river. The current became very swift, and the water was filled with debris in the form of trees, lumber, fences, and huge chunks of driftwood. Worst of all, however, was the rising level of the river. By February 5, as Grant got the last of his men in position north of the fort, the waters of the Tennessee were two feet deep at Fort Henry’s flagpole, and the guns positioned at the lowest level of the fort’s entrenchments were only hours away from being totally submerged. Knowing that Grant’s attack was imminent, Tilghman realized he could not save the fort. Therefore, he decided to send most of his men to Fort Donelson, some 12 miles to the east. He ordered Captain Taylor to remain behind with him, 54 infantrymen, and the gun crews. His hope was to hold for at least an hour once the Federal attack began, and allow the balance of his 2,500 men to reach Donelson.

Grant’s plan now called for a simultaneous assault by both his naval and ground assets on the morning of February 6:

The plan was for the troops and gunboats to start at the same moment. The troops were to invest the garrison and the gunboats to attack the fort at close quarters. General Smith was to land a brigade of his division on the west bank during the night of the 5th and get it in rear of Heiman.

attack on ft henry At the precise time designated, the troops marched up the roads towards both Heiman and Henry, while the gunboats began their struggle to go upstream against the swift currents of the river. The soggy roads made for tough going, and both McClernand and Smith’s men could not keep to the planned schedule of attack. Further, once Smith reached Fort Heiman, he would find that it had already been abandoned by its defenders. As a result of the infantry’s trials, harpers-henry Foote’s gunboats went in alone. At 1,700 yards, the gunboats opened fire on Henry’s fortifications and pressed closer and closer, blasting the earthen embankments with a deadly cascade of solid shot and explosive shells. Tilghman’s men fought back and were soon giving as good as they were receiving. The gunboat Cincinnati took over 31 hits, disabling two guns, while the Essex was so badly damaged that she had to drop out of the fight with 32 killed and wounded onboard. Despite the gallant resistance of Fort Henry’s men, they could not stand against Foote’s relentless barrage. Hoping to hold for an hour, Tilghman had held for more than two. Now, he knew it was time to lower his flag and surrender.

henry-flag Upon seeing the Confederate colors go down, Foote brought his flagship, the Cincinnati, close in towards the shore and sent a launch to pick up General Tilghman. Tilghman returned to formally submit his surrender to Foote. As he boarded, Foote approached his Confederate opponent and said, “Come, general, you have lost your dinner, and the steward has just told me mine is ready.” With that, the two men retired to Foote’s wardroom where they dined and concluded the surrender of Fort Henry.

Late that afternoon, Grant sent Halleck the following telegram:

Fort Henry, February 6, 1862.

Fort Henry is ours. The gunboats silenced the batteries before the investment was completed. I think the garrison must have commenced the retreat last night. Our cavalry followed, finding two guns abandoned in the retreat.

I shall take and destroy Fort Donelson on the 8th and return to Fort Henry.

U.S. GRANT, Brigadier-General.

It is interesting to note that Grant chose to state his plan to immediately move of Fort Donelson, as his orders from Halleck only allowed him to seize Fort Henry. While this might be seen as grandstanding by Grant, that was simply not the case. To Grant, the military situation dictated he move now and seize Donelson, which was a mere 12 miles away. He figured that if he could see Donelson’s importance, surely the Confederates could, as well. With Fort Henry lost to them, Fort Donelson would now be even more critical. Therefore, Grant needed to take Donelson before reinforcements reached the garrison. Plus, he now had the initiative and, demonstrating a command trait that would always remain with him, he now steadfastly refused to surrender that initiative.

Halleck quickly responded to Grant that he was gathering reinforcements and would forward them as quickly as possible, but said nothing approving or disapproving Grant’s move to Fort Donelson. However, Grant inferred from Halleck’s dispatch regarding reinforcements that his superior wanted him to wait and consolidate with these new forces before attacking Fort Donelson. But, to Grant, “15,000 men on the 8th [of February] would be more effective than 50,000 a month later.” He, therefore, ordered Foote to move his gunboats to the Cumberland River and prepared to take Fort Donelson. Ironically, four days later, when he was in front of that very fort, he would finally receive instructions from the ever plodding Halleck to dig in at Fort Henry and await reinforcements. Given the immediate situation, Grant wisely chose to ignore those orders as irrelevant.

As Grant prepared to move on February 7, the weather would, once again, prove to be uncooperative. Torrential rains began to fall and he was forced to postpone his movement across the narrow neck of land between the two Confederate forts. While he delayed, his opponents were embroiled in their own debate as to what they should do about Fort Donelson. For his part, Sidney Johnston saw Grant’s seizure of Fort Henry had created a deep salient into his line in Tennessee and Kentucky. Despite the fact that he had 45,000 men at his command, they were spread thinly, trying to cover the many Federal avenues of attack. As a result, he feared what might happen if he concentrated them to counter Grant, while, at the same time knowing he could ill afford to lose Donelson. Johnston became convinced, however, that he must abandon Fort Donelson and, with it, Nashville, Bowling Green, and Columbus, if he was to save his army.

On that same day, February 7, Johnston went to Bowling Green to meet with General Beauregard, his newly arrived second-in-command, and decide upon a definitive plan of action. He soon found that the vain, touchy Beauregard had differing views. He proposed sending the entire western army to Fort Donelson to smash Grant, re-take Fort Henry, and then sweep into Kentucky to deal with the Union army under General Don Carlos Buell. However, Johnston saw this ambitious plan as fraught with danger. In his mind, if it failed, his army would be destroyed and the entire South west of the Appalachians would be defenseless. In his mind, a general retreat was the only recourse. Still, he needed to do something about Fort Donelson. He could not do what Beauregard proposed but, somehow, he could not bring himself to just abandon the 5,000 men holding the fort without a fight. Therefore, he elected a rather odd middle ground position by sending 12,000 more men to Donelson, hoping to hold it long enough to allow him to get the rest of his army away, then find a way to extract the fort’s garrison before Grant cut them off.

trio This might have proved a workable alternative had Johnston placed the job of holding Fort Donelson under a reliable commander. Unfortunately, there were not too many of those available. However, he did have one able soldier he could send: General Simon Bolivar Buckner, a West Point graduate, former U.S. Army officer, and, as it happened, a long-time friend of Ulysses Grant. In fact, Buckner had once generously loaned a then civilian Grant money at a time when the latter was nearly destitute. But, Johnston was then forced by politics to dilute Buckner’s ability by making him the junior member of a triumvirate along with two political generals, Gideon Pillow and John B. Floyd. Pillow was a self-important lawyer and politician who served as a volunteer in the Mexican War. His service there was undistinguished but was sufficient for him to truly be the epitome of a “legend in his own mind.” Floyd, meanwhile, was a former governor of Virginia and had been President Buchanan’s Secretary of War. However, he was completely out of his depth in the military and utterly incompetent. Plus, both men possessed a character flaw that would soon come to the forefront as the fighting approached: they were cowards. Fort Donelson could not have been placed in worse hands.

On February 12, the weather lifted and Grant’s small army made the march to Fort Donelson in mild, sunny weather. Unfortunately, in a move many of them would soon regret, his inexperienced volunteer soldiers were enjoying the spring like conditions so much, they elected to discard their heavy blankets and overcoats by the roadside. That night, the Union army arrived at Fort Donelson and began to deploy opposite the fort’s entrenchments. The next morning, February 13, Grant completed his deployments by placing Smith’s division on the left and that of the far less experienced John McClernand on the right.

soldiers in snow That afternoon, the winds suddenly shifted from a balmy southerly breeze to a vicious northerly gale. Temperatures soon plummeted and a cold, freezing drizzle followed. Within hours, the temperature dropped to 10° F and the drizzle quickly changed to sleet and snow. The men who had so gleefully thrown away their winter gear were now suffering horribly. Further, they had no tents and, because they were so close to Confederate lines, they could not light fires lest enemy sharpshooters pick them off. Conditions were so bad that Lieutenant W. B. Harland of the 18th Illinois Infantry would simply describe the night in his diary this way: “Suffered severely.”

In the midst of these trials, McClernand decided to make matters worse by ordering his men to assault a Confederate battery, whose dilatory fire apparently annoyed him. The attack was made without authorization from Grant and proved disastrous. The Confederate guns were well fortified and defended, and they dispatched McClernand’s men with ease while inflicting heavy casualties. Many of the Union wounded could not be retrieved and either were burned alive from small wildfires caused by the combination of artillery fire with dry grass and leaves, or slowly froze to death during the night. Needless to say, the morale of those who survived the assault was not high as evening fell.

That night, as his troops huddled in the cold, Grant put his plans for taking the fort into action. His approach would be similar to that employed at Fort Henry. The Navy would play a primary role in the assault, coming up the Cumberland River to bombard the fort, silencing her guns, and doing all the damage possible, while the infantry simply held the line and kept the Confederate garrison contained inside. Then, some of Foote’s small flotilla would run Donelson’s batteries, reaching a point above the fort and the nearby village of Dover, threatening any potential Confederate escape route. Once this was affected, it would be, as Grant would later recall, “but a question of time--and a very short time, too--when the garrison would have been compelled to surrender.”

Positions-Feb 14 Late on the afternoon of February 14, Foote had his boats in position, coming up river, fighting against the strong currents in battle line formation. The ironclad Louisville came up the western shore of the river, with Foote’s flagship, the St. Louis on its left, and the Pittsburgh and Carondelet next across the line of battle. The ironclads were followed by two wooden gunboats, the Tyler and Conestoga. They steamed relentlessly upriver, closing in on Fort Donelson, trailing a dense cloud of black smoke, looking for all the world like some hideous collection of huge, swimming black beetles. Foote planned to press his boats in, as he had done at Fort Henry, and blast the fort at close range—it would prove a fatal miscalculation. Donelson had far more and larger guns than Fort guns today Henry, they were well-manned, and none of them were half submerged.

At a range of 2,000 yards, the St. Louis opened fire, and the rest of the flotilla soon joined in, pounding the Confederate fortifications. Their shells slammed into the earthen walls with ferocity, sending great plumes of dirt skyward, shaking the earth, and creating a great, continuous roar of gunfire and explosions. As the gunboats continued their barrage, Donelson’s gunners did not respond, gunboats attack Donelson allowing Foote’s boats to be steadily drawn in. At 1,000 yards, the Confederates opened fire with their biggest guns, 10-inch smoothbore Columbiads and 32-pound rifled guns. The fusillade from the fort was massive, throwing round after round of solid shot at the gunboats in an attempt to pierce their armor plating. At 400 yards, every gun in the fort could now home in on the Union boats and they blasted away, firing, loading, and firing again and again.

The effects were telling. The Carondelet began taking damage almost immediately, as her commander, Commander Henry Walke, would later report:

Soon a 128-pounder struck our anchor, smashed it into flying bolts, and bounded over the vessel, taking away a part of our smoke-stack; then another cut away the iron boat-davits as if they were pipe-stems, whereupon the boat dropped into the water. Another ripped up the iron plating and glanced over; another went through the plating and lodged in the heavy casemate; another struck the pilot-house, knocked the plating to pieces, and sent fragments of iron and splinters into the pilots, one of whom fell mortally wounded, and was taken below; another shot took away the remaining boat-davits and the boat with them; and still they came, harder and faster, taking flag-staffs and smoke-stacks, and tearing off the side armor as lightning tears the bark from a tree.

explosion-carondelet Then, as Walke’s gunners worked furiously to return fire, one of their own guns exploded. One seaman would later tell Walke:

I was serving the gun with shell. When it exploded it knocked us all down, killing none, but wounding over a dozen men and spreading dismay and confusion among us. For about two minutes I was stunned, and at least five minutes elapsed before I could tell what was the matter. When I found out that I was more scared than hurt, although suffering from the gunpowder which I had inhaled, I looked forward and saw our gun lying on the deck, split in three pieces. Then the cry ran through the boat that we were on fire, and my duty as pump-man called me to the pumps. While I was there, two shots enter our bow-ports and killed four men and wounded several others. They were borne past me, three with their heads off. The sight almost sickened me, and I turned my head away.

This sort of pounding was occurring on all four of the lead ironclads and all were soon in trouble. First, the Louisville dropped out, unable to setter against the current because of damage to her rudder. Aboard the St. Louis, Foote was wounded, the pilot was dead, and the wheel had been blown away. As a result, the flagship of the flotilla was soon out of control, drifting downstream. Meanwhile, both the Pittsburgh and Carondelet were taking on water and had to withdraw, using the smoke from the own guns to mask their retreat. And, despite the resounding barrage from the gunboats, not a single man inside Fort Donelson had been even slightly wounded. As the Union gunboats limped away, the fort’s gunners cheered, having attained a complete and total victory.

With his gunboats damaged and unavailable, Grant now assumed that he would have to lay siege to Donelson until the naval force could return and support his infantry with a long range bombardment. He went to bed on the night of February 14 convinced that he would have to dig in, bring up tents for his troops, and settled in for an extended period. For an aggressive commander, constantly seeking the initiative, this was a gloomy prospect.

Oddly, however, things were even gloomier among Donelson’s commanding triumvirate. Despite their incredible triumph over Foote’s gunboats, they stilled viewed their position as untenable. As the only professional in the group, Buckner could correctly see that it was only a matter of time before Grant would gain the upper hand, trapping the garrison completely and requiring their surrender. Therefore, it would be wise and prudent to affect a breakout, get their men away, and join the main army under Johnston. Floyd and Pillow, meanwhile, agreed simply because they lacked any courage or conviction.

Buckner put together a plan that called for Pillow’s men to come out of their works at first light and attack McClernand’s division on the Federal right. Buckner, meanwhile, would shift all but a regiment of his men from the Confederate right, facing Smith’s division, to the center. Once Pillow had pushed the Union flank back away from the fort, Buckner’s men would attack, holding the door created by Pillow’s attack open, allowing Pillow’s men to march along the river to safety. Buckner would then fight a rear-guard action until he too could escape. If Grant pursued, the entire Confederate force would find ground to their liking, and then turn and fight in the open.

As February 15 dawned, the Confederates inside Fort Donelson were ready. They had prepared all during the cold, wintry night and lay poised to breakout. As they crouched in their trenches, Ulysses Grant rode his horse down the frozen roads to the north to meet with Foote for discussions on the status of the fleet and the fate of their joint expedition. Grant had no reason to expect an attack and he directed his staff to let all division commanders he would be absent and to do nothing that might spark an engagement. But, while Grant was meeting with Foote, the Confederates launched their own attack.

Feb 15-A.M. At the appointed time, Pillow’s men poured out of their trenches, screaming the “rebel yell” at the tops of their lungs. They crashed into John McClernand’s unsuspecting troops, quickly cutting them to pieces. The Federal flank bent back as terrified Union troops stampeded for the rear. Some units began to fight, slowing Pillow’s advance, as they moved back in order, pouring a steady return fire into the attacking Confederates. A messenger was sent to find Grant and bring him back. When the commanding Union general did arrive, he found a disaster in the making. Some of McClernand’s men were fighting, others skulked about in fear, and no one seemed to be trying to lead. Quickly assessing the reports his officers provided, Grant realized that this was a breakout attempt and that he must find a way to quickly close the door. Worse, he also knew that, given the rapid gains Pillow’s men were making, this breakout could turn into a total Confederate victory if something was not done soon. Grant told General Smith that he would rectify things on the right if Smith would advance on the left and get into Fort Donelson’s walls. Smith, ever the tough, crusty old veteran, rose out of his chair, mounted his horse, and shouted, “I will do it!”

Luckily for Grant, Gideon Pillow was not up to carrying out the limited assignment he had undertaken. As his men surged forward, Pillow suddenly decided to fall back to the entrenchments. Buckner, meanwhile, had moved his men and secured the road to Nashville for their escape, as planned. Furious, he strode up to Pillow and told him to get his men moving, as the door to escape was now open. Pillow refused and ordered Buckner to bring his men back to the fort. Buckner angrily refused to do so. At this moment, General Floyd appeared, listened to Buckner’s arguments, and agreed that it was time to escape. However, Pillow quickly took his fellow politician aside, whispered to him, and Floyd changed his mind, agreeing that they must return to the trenches. In disgust, Buckner returned to his men and began withdrawing them from the Nashville road.

Feb 15-P.M. Grant, meanwhile, having seen the Confederates fall back to their entrenchments, decided to immediately assault their position. However, while the state of McClernand’s troops appeared to make that idea impractical, Grant took control of the situation, demonstrating both his tactical insights as well as his understanding of how to best lead volunteer soldiers:

I turned to Colonel J. D. Webster, of my staff, who was with me, and said: “Some of our men are pretty badly demoralized, but the enemy must be more so, for he has attempted to force his way out, but has fallen back: the one who attacks first now will be victorious and the enemy will have to be in a hurry if he gets ahead of me." I determined to make the assault at once on our left. It was clear to my mind that the enemy had started to march out with his entire force, except a few pickets, and if our attack could be made on the left before the enemy could redistribute his forces along the line, we would find but little opposition except from the intervening abatis. I directed Colonel Webster to ride with me and call out to the men as we passed: "Fill your cartridge-boxes, quick, and get into line; the enemy is trying to escape and he must not be permitted to do so." This acted like a charm. The men only wanted some one to give them a command.

2d Iowa attacks With that, McClernand’s division launched a counterattack on Pillow’s position, and did so just as the troops from Smith’s division started assailing the lone regiment Buckner had left on the Confederate right during the abortive breakout attempt. Led by the 2nd Iowa Infantry, Smith’s men poured over the barricades, overrunning the small force of Confederated defenders. They now used the Confederate trenches against the former occupants, pouring a deadly hail of rifle fire into the fort’s interior. Within minutes, the Federals had moved their own guns forward and positioned them inside the fort as well, covering every angle of potential counterattack. For the next two hours, Buckner would try to dislodge Smith’s men, but to avail. At the same time, McClernand’s battered division found renewed courage and regained all of the ground they had lost to Pillow in the morning’s fighting.

Grant-Donelson Nearby, at the Dover Inn, Donelson’s command trio met to decide the fate of the fort and their command. As nightfall approached, the fighting might subside, but Grant had them penned in and their men were exhausted. They all decided that surrender was their only option. At that moment, their cavalry commander, Nathan Bedford Forrest, a young amateur soldier who was a fast learner, walked in on the discussion. Forrest, who would become, perhaps, the war’s greatest cavalry officer, could not believe that surrender was being contemplated. Protesting angrily, he believed that the army could still escape via a narrow, seldom used road his scouts had found along the Cumberland River.

The three generals listened, but, in the end, they all agreed to surrender. However, both Floyd and Pillow had one reservation to the surrender plan. It seems that, while they were willing to surrender the fort and all of their men, they were unwilling to surrender themselves. Pillow, seeing himself as a very important figure in the Confederacy, stated that his capture by the Federals would be a disaster. Floyd, meanwhile, feared that he might be tried on old charges that, while serving as Secretary of War, he had made fraudulent deals, misappropriated funds, and secretly transferred arms to the emerging Confederate government. There then followed a truly bizarre conversation in which Buckner, ever the soldier, said that he would surrender the fort and share his men’s fate. Floyd then announced that he was passing overall command to Pillow, who summarily stated that he, in turn, was passing it on to Buckner. So, the professional soldier would be left to his fate while the two politicians headed for the hills and saved their own skins.

Young Forrest listened to all this in complete amazement, then barked that he had no intention of surrendering his men. He stormed out, collected his officers and told them they were going to escape or die trying. They all stood with him, then assembled the regiment and made a daring nighttime escape attempt via the narrow road the scouts had discovered earlier. The road was partially submerged under the freezing waters of the Cumberland in places, but Forrest’s men would make a successful escape.

The next morning, Buckner called for a courier, and gave him a message to be carried under a flag of truce to his old comrade, General Grant:

HEADQUARTERS, Fort Donelson, February 16, 1862.

SIR: In consideration of all the circumstances governing the present situation of affairs at this station I propose to the commanding officers of the Federal forces the appointment of commissioners to agree upon terms of capitulation of the forces and post under my command, and in that view suggest an armistice until 12 o'clock to-day.

I am, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

S. B. BUCKNER, Brigadier-General, C. S. Army.

Grant received the message and considered the idea of holding a conference with Buckner, given their former friendship and the kindness Buckner had once done him. But, he could not bring himself to do so and quickly penned a reply that would become famous for its direct and unambiguous nature:

Camp near Fort Donelson, February 16, 1862.

SIR: Yours of this date, proposing armistice and appointment of commissioners to settle terms of capitulation, is just received. No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.

I am, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

U.S. GRANT, Brigadier-General, Commanding.

Buckner would reply that, while he saw Grant’s answer as “ungenerous and unchivalrous,” he had no real alternative. A few minutes later, to the resounding cheers of Grant’s soldiers, the Confederate colors flying over Fort Donelson were lowered. A short while thereafter, Grant would meet Buckner at the Dover Inn. Dover Inn He found his old friend having breakfast, awaiting his arrival. Buckner told Grant that he was concerned how an ex-officer and West Point graduate would be treated as a Federal captive. He wondered if he would be tried for treason or considered a prisoner of war. Grant assured him that the latter was the case and then gave Buckner his purse with all the cash he had on his person, returning the favor Buckner had once done him.

Grant then asked about the whereabouts of General Pillow. Buckner replied that he had fled, telling Grant that Pillow “thought you’d rather get hold of him than other man in the Southern Confederacy.” Grant smiled at that, saying, “Oh, if I had him, I’d let him go again. He will do us more good commanding you fellows.”

Grant then telegraphed Halleck to inform him of Fort Donelson’s fall. The word quickly spread across the North, and touched off celebrations everywhere. In St. Louis, the Union Merchant’s Exchange closed down, as members sang patriotic songs, then marched to Halleck’s headquarters to cheer with the rest of crowds converging there in celebration. Grant became an overnight hero, much to Halleck’s chagrin. His call to Buckner for surrender electrified the populace and he became known everywhere as “Unconditional Surrender” Grant.

In a the larger picture, however, the mouths of the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers were now in Union hands, and the two rivers pointed south like daggers poised at the heart of the Confederacy. Sidney Johnston would be forced to withdraw from Tennessee and Kentucky after all, and now with 12,000 men less than he had before. Within days, Nashville fell to Union forces, never to return to Confederate control again. As for Ulysses Grant, he had started a bow wave of victorious momentum in the West that would not be stopped. And, in doing so, he displayed for the first time, a few of the skills that he would demonstrate as a commander over and over: tenacity despite adversity, seizure of the initiative, and a clear, common sense vision of the tasks that must be done.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Two Days in April, Part 2: Breakthrough at Petersburg

With the Confederate disaster at Five Forks on April 1, 1865, Robert E. Lee knew that he and his army were in dire straits. Not only was the Southside Railroad cut, but Sheridan’s cavalry was now poised to potentially cut off his lines of retreat. Further, Pickett’s men had functioned as Lee’s only mobile reserve. With the loss of those men, he had been forced to begin emptying the fortifications in front of Richmond, ordering Longstreet to bring his force south. This might allow him enough strength to forestall another calamity should Ulysses S. Grant attack, giving the Army of Northern Virginia a chance to escape, which now seemed their only option. He was hoping to buy time, but must have feared that his opponent, the always aggressive Grant, might see the opportunity before him and strike quickly.

imageIn fact, Grant had already ordered a massive attack on Petersburg’s entrenchments for the next morning, Sunday, April 2. Grant’s plan for the assault was fairly simple. A massive bombardment would begin around midnight and continue until 4:00 a.m., when the infantry of IX and VI Corps would move forward. IX Corps would form on the right and attack the trenches in and around Fort Mahone, while the VI Corps assaulted the Confederate trenches along the so-called Boydton Plank Road line. Meanwhile, the newly formed XXIV Corps would form on the left of VI Corps and either swing in behind them to exploit any breakthrough or attack the Confederate line to VI Corps’ left, as the situation dictated.

image That night, as the orders for the next morning were distributed in the Union camps, the soldiers received them with a fatalistic resolve. They had all participated in previous attacks on the formidable Confederate defenses and had seen them all turned back. Just before midnight, the men of VI and IX Corps began to form up. The night was chilly and damp, which added to what was a growing sense of dread. One officer in VI Corps heard a soldier tell his comrades, “Well, goodbye boys; this means death.” Another, Captain Thomas Beals of IX Corps, would later write, “There can be no doubt that few of us expected to emerge alive from this affair: for one, I did not.”

image At midnight, the Union guns opened fire on the Confederate fortifications. In the ten months that Lee’s army had held the line at Petersburg, they had endured many bombardments, but nothing like this one. The Union artillerymen were using every gun available and the night sky was filled with the burning arcs of shells as they made their way towards the Confederate fortifications. The noise was deafening, so much so that, when the signal gun for the attack was fired, no one could hear it.

Around 4:00 a.m., both IX and VI Corps advanced with teams of “pioneers” in the lead. These men carried axes and their job was to quickly hack through the hedges of abatis and chevaux-de-frise that formed the first line of Confederate defense. The pioneers were followed by rank upon rank of infantry, who advanced with fixed bayonets. Their rifles were loaded, but not capped, to prevent an accidental firing that might reveal their position. The hope was that the infantry could approach the first line of Southern pickets in their rifle pits undetected, then quickly rush and subdue them. This, they hoped, might limit the warning to the main Confederate defensive line.

imageGeneral Parke’s IX Corps reached the Confederate lines first, attacking Fort Mahone, known to the Union troops as “Fort Damnation.” The lines around Mahone were defended by about 3,600 men under General John B. Gordon. Their numbers were so small, that they could only post about 1,000 men per mile. However, despite the thinness of their ranks, they made "Fort Damnation” live up its name as they raked the waves of Union infantry with salvos of double-canister and volley after volley of rifle fire. Despite this, the Union troops kept coming, tearing their way through the abatis, and plunging into the rain-flooded ditch at the base of the Confederate breastworks, where many wounded Federals would fall and drown. From there, they scrambled up the sides of the earthworks, and jumped into the stronghold, fighting hand-to-hand with bayonets and rifle butts.

imageAt first the IX Corps attack was successful, taking three Confederate batteries and gaining partial possession of another. But, soon, the attack bogged down amid the maze of entrenchments and no breakthrough could be made. One Confederate soldier recalled that, “the open space inside Fort Mahone was literally covered with blue-coated corpses.” By 11:00 a.m., Gordon and his men had contained Parke's breach and began to work on counterattacks to push the Union attackers out of the fort.

imageMap image used with permission by the Civil War Preservation Trust

However, further to the west, things were not going so well for Lee’s men. There, the battle-hardened VI Corps, under the command of General Horatio Wright, advanced in a massive wedge formation, sweeping over the Southern rifle pits and crashing into the fortifications like a great surging wave. The Confederate lines here were held by Wilcox's and Heth's divisions of A.P. Hill's Corps, a total of six brigades holding a front of about six miles along the Boydton Plank Road. As was the case at Fort Mahone, the Confederate line was very thin. As a result, the Federal infantry breached the entrenchments at several points as the defenders clawed and fought hand-to-hand with their attackers.

imageThe first man into the Confederate trenches was Captain Charles Gould of the 5th Vermont Infantry. As he leaped into the trench leading his men, he was bayoneted through the cheek and mouth by a North Carolinian. imageGould killed his assailant with a saber as he fired his service revolver at other converging Confederates. One of the defenders then struck him down with a rifle butt, while yet another bayoneted Gould in the back. Gould, who would be awarded the Medal of Honor, fought back ferociously and was finally saved by his color sergeant, who clubbed the attackers with his own rifle, then grabbed the young captain by the collar and pulled him up out of the trench, sending him to safety in the rear.

image All along the Boyden Plank Road line, men of the VI Corps poured over the Confederate entrenchments and all resistance was “swept away and scattered like chaff before a tornado.” Wright’s troops boiled over and through the trenches, pushing past the Boyden Plank Road and reaching the Southside Railroad, a mile behind Confederate lines. By shortly after 5:00 a.m., the Confederate line was completely smashed, and the defenders were fleeing in all directions. Wright managed to reform his exuberant men and swing them left, sweeping down the Confederate line toward Hatcher’s Run, where they linked up with General Gibbon’s XXIV Corps, which had achieved an easier breakthrough.

image As the VI Corps was overrunning the Boyden Plank Road line, General James Longstreet arrived at Lee’s headquarters. He found Lee still in bed, not asleep but suffering from rheumatism. Longstreet sat on the edge of the bed as Lee discussed the events at Five Forks and instructed him where to place his men once they arrived. While they were talking, one of Lee’s staff burst into the room, telling him, “General, the lines have broken out front. You’ll have to go.” Lee calmly rose from his bed and walked to the front door, where he could clearly see the lines of blue-clad infantry advancing towards them. The general quickly dressed, mounted his horse, and rode off with his staff. Knowing that all was lost here, he put a plan in motion to send his army into retreat through Petersburg, across the Appomattox River, then west where he hoped to eventually link up with Joseph Johnston’s Army of Tennessee. Before leaving, he sent one last telegram to his Secretary of War, John C. Breckenridge, in which he told him, “I advise that all preparation be made for leaving Richmond tonight.”

image When Lee’s message reached Breckenridge, he sent a copy via messenger to President Jefferson Davis, who was attending Sunday morning services at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Davis was sitting his usual pew when the messenger strode up the aisle and handed him the telegram. Davis read it silently, and then he “arose, and was noticed to walk rather unsteadily out of the church.” Parishioners said later that they could read nothing by his expression, but, as more messengers arrived and more government officials hurried out, they all knew what must be happening: the Yankees had finally broken through.

Back in front of Petersburg, the fighting continued. The breakthrough by Wright’s corps, now threatened the entire Confederate position at Petersburg. If the Federal troops could advance quickly enough, they might actually enter the city and seize the bridges over the Appomattox River, the very ones the Lee needed to get his army safely away. Lee needed to slow that advance until Longstreet could get into position. The only things stopping the Federals now were Fort Gregg and Fort Whitworth, occupied by about 300 troops from various Mississippi, North Carolina, and Georgia brigades.

About 11:00 a.m., Wright’s VI Corps was approaching Fort Gregg. However, Wright deferred the attack to Gibbon and XXIV Corps. VI Corps had been up for almost 18 hours straight, and had been fighting and marching since before 5:00 a.m., so Gibbon's men would have to make the effort to take Fort Gregg. Gibbon was more than happy to take on the assignment and his men advanced at 1:00 p.m.

image The fort's garrison, outnumbered 10 to 1, was too small to break up the attack, but in too strong a position to be overrun by brute force. Plus, they fought with uncommon ferocity, cutting down the attacking Federal infantry with a deadly hail of cannon and rifle fire. Each defender had two rifles and, as they fired one, a man behind them would reload the other. Still, Gibbon’s men pressed forward and, soon, they were piling in and over the ramparts. The fighting inside Fort Gregg and Fort Whitworth would be some of the most desperate of the war. The Confederate defenders refused to go down, despite calls for their surrender. Finally, they would be subdued, but, of the 300 Confederate defenders inside Fort Gregg, only 30 were left standing. Gibbon, meanwhile, had lost 714 men killed, wounded, or missing.

image The determined defense of Fort Gregg gave Lee time to deploy Longstreet’s men. As Longstreet watched the assault through his glasses, he saw his old friend, John Gibbon, near the front. Longstreet raised his hat, hoping Gibbon would see the salute of his old comrade. However, Gibbon did not see his friend in the distance across the lines of battle. Then, Longstreet recognized another man through his glasses, someone for whom he had stood up as best man at a wedding long ago in St. Louis: Ulysses Grant. Longstreet did not know it at that moment, but they would be reunited in only a week’s time.

image As the firing at Fort Gregg died down, on the other end of the Petersburg line, John Gordon launched his counterattack at Fort Mahone. The assault hit the Union IX Corps hard, nearly driving them out of the fortifications. However, the timely arrival of reinforcements from the Army of the Potomac provost brigade, plus one brigade from VI Corps, stopped Gordon in his tracks, and the Georgian fell back. Gordon, however, would not give up and he prepared his men for another counterattack. But, just as he was about to move forward, word came that VI Corps had broken through to the west and the evacuation of Petersburg was inevitable. So, he abandoned his plans and, instead, began the retreat.

image Grant now ordered his corps commanders to push forward and close the ring around Lee. However, Longstreet’s men were able to hold them back, and, with no fresh troops available, the exhausted soldiers of VI, IX, and XXIV Corps could not continue the fight. By late afternoon Grant decided to call a halt to the offensive and plan an attack for the next morning. However, during the night, Lee would get across the river and begin his retreat. Grant, for his part, would then mount the great pursuit that would end a week later at Appomattox Court House.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Two Days in April, Part 1: Five Forks

In late March 1865, central Virginia was awash in steady rain. Streams and rivers were swollen, and even roadways seemed to disappear, either turning into small streams themselves or simply becoming deep, muddy quagmires. The rain made life in the trenches around Petersburg even more miserable for the men of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. This once proud army was a mere shadow of the one that had seen such brilliant victories over the Union’s Army of the Potomac in the three years preceding. Now, with the war’s tide having steadily turned, casualties, desertions, and disease had withered the ranks. As the men huddled in their trenches, where they had been since the summer before, their rations consisted primarily of parched corn and their patchwork uniforms literally fell from their backs. Still however, among the core of the army’s men, among those who resolutely remained in the line, there still was a belief that, somehow, Lee would find a way. As a result, they had stubbornly held on, throwing back every attempt the Union forces made to break through.

image Across the way, the Union Army of the Potomac was poised firmly inside their own entrenchments. Unlike their counterparts on the Confederate side, their ranks were still strong, supported by a seemingly bottomless supply of men and material. Here, there was food and plenty of it, abundant ammunition, and no shortage of anything, even fighting spirit. Both the soldier in the line and the generals could see the end was in sight and that they merely needed to find an opening, exploit it, and the infant Confederacy would fall, like the house of cards it was rapidly becoming. The problem was finding that opening, that weakness in the solid line Lee had created in front of Petersburg.

Throughout the summer and fall the year before, there had been attempts to break the Confederate fortifications using bombardment, direct frontal assaults, and even mining underneath the trenches to set off an enormous explosion. All had failed and, with winter, both sides settled in to watch one another across what was, arguably, warfare’s first “no man’s land.” However, as spring arrived, the indomitable Ulysses S. Grant began to once again actively seek that opening, and believed he saw one on Robert E. Lee’s right flank.

image Lee’s entrenchments ran from the banks of the Appomattox River just northeast of Petersburg to a point far southwest of the city, where they turned back to the northwest, anchored on a stream called Hatcher’s Run. However, there was one other factor just as crucial to Lee’s survival as the network of trenches and fortifications: the Southside Railroad. This rail line had become the sole source of supplies for Lee’s embattled army and, if it were cut, he might be forced to withdraw out of the trenches, causing both Petersburg and Richmond to fall. Further, once the Confederate army was out in the open, Grant might bring it to a final, climactic battle and destroy it, effectively ending the war.

Grant envisioned a field of operations bounded by the Southside Railroad on the north, the Weldon Railroad on the east, Vaughn Road to Dinwiddie Court House on the south, and on the west by the road leading north from Dinwiddie Court House to the Southside Railroad through a crossroads known as Five Forks. Grant’s original plan was to march two infantry corps, the II and V, to a position on the Confederate far right, then have them move towards the Southside Railroad, forcing Lee’s men to come out of the trenches and fight. image But, more importantly, this would occupy Lee while Federal cavalry under General Phil Sheridan swung around the Union infantry through Five Forks to move behind the Confederate lines. Once there, if Lee did not, in fact, come out to fight the infantry, Sheridan’s troopers were to destroy the Southside Railroad, cutting Lee off from his source of supply, and possibly even cut off his escape routes to the northwest.

image As Sheridan’s cavalry and the II and V Corps moved forward in a driving rain on March 29, Lee learned of Grant’s movements and dispatched General George Pickett’s infantry along with what cavalry he could scrape together to protect his right. He placed his nephew, Fitzhugh Lee in command of the mounted force, giving him the cavalry divisions of his son, Rooney Lee, and Thomas Rosser, a total of some 5,500 troopers to counter Sheridan’s 12,000. As both sides slogged through the rain, one Union soldier noted that, “We went slipping and plunging through the black slimy mud in which pointed rocks were bedded, now stumbling over a rotten tree, now over a stiffening corpse of some poor comrade by whose side we might soon lie.”

The rains continued unabated on March 30, and both the Federal infantry and cavalry made slow progress. As they continued a slow advance, Grant had a change of heart, either because he saw an opportunity or a long desired plan now seemed possible. With Lee’s movement of cavalry and infantry to the Confederate right, Grant told Sheridan to abandon the plan to raid the railroad, stick close to the infantry, and see if there was an opportunity to turn Lee’s right and get behind him. Sheridan responded by sending Generals Merritt and Devin’s cavalry to Five Forks to see if they could occupy and hold it. However, a few miles from the crossing, they ran into Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry and a nasty skirmish ensued. Hearing that Confederates cavalry was already at Five Forks and with the continuing deluge, Grant sent word to Sheridan to suspend the attack planned for the next day, March 31.

When Sheridan received Grant’s note, he was utterly distraught. He mounted his horse and rode through the driving rain to Grant’s headquarters, his mount “plunging at every step almost to the knees in mud.” Horace Porter, a member of Grant’s staff, later recalled the meeting with Sheridan:

As soon as Sheridan dismounted he was asked with much eagerness about the situation on the extreme left. He took a decidedly cheerful view of matters, and entered upon an animated discussion of the coming movements. He said: "I can drive in the whole cavalry force of the enemy with ease, and if an infantry force is added to my command, I can strike out for Lee's right, and either crush it or force him to so weaken his intrenched lines that our troops in front of them can break through and march into Petersburg." He warmed up with the subject as he proceeded, threw the whole energy of his nature into the discussion, and his cheery voice, beaming countenance, and impassioned language showed the earnestness of his convictions.

As he paced up and down, “chafed like a hound in the leash,” Sheridan told Porter and the staff that, “I 'm ready to strike out to-morrow and go to smashing things!" Porter wrote that Sheridan was hesitant to give the general-in-chief advice when none had been requested. So, one of the staff went in to tell Grant that Sheridan was outside with some interesting news. The commanding general asked that they let Sheridan into his tent so that he could discuss this news with him. After listening to Sheridan, Grant was impressed with the Irishman’s arguements, as well as his enthusiasm:

Sheridan felt a little modest about giving his advice where it had not been asked; so one of my staff came in and told me that Sheridan had what they considered important news, and suggested that I send for him. I did so, and was glad to see the spirit of confidence with which he was imbued. Knowing as I did from experience, of what great value that feeling of confidence by a commander was, I determined to make a movement at once…Orders were given accordingly.

However, things did not go well and, initially, certainly not as Sheridan had hoped. The same evening Sheridan met with Grant, Merritt’s cavalry discovered that Pickett’s division of infantry was entrenched at Five Forks. image Sheridan sent a dispatch to Grant, telling him of this latest development. He would now need infantry if he was going to push Pickett out of the vital crossing and requested Horatio Wright’s VI Corps be sent forward. He had fought with VI Corps in the Shenandoah Valley and had every confidence in their fighting ability. Unfortunately, as Grant would point out to him, VI Corps was too far away and that V Corps, under General Gouverneur Warren was all that was available. This choice did not please Sheridan.

The problem was not with the men of the V Corps, but rested with Warren himself. A fine officer who had accumulated an enviable war record, Warren had become increasingly unstable in the last few months. He now tended to be slow and overly cautious. This concerned both Sheridan and Grant, and, as Grant later wrote,

I was very much afraid that at the last moment he would fail Sheridan. He was a man of fine intelligence, great earnestness, quick perception, and could make his dispositions as quickly as any officer, under difficulties where he was forced to act. But I had before discovered a defect which was beyond his control, that was very prejudicial to his usefulness in emergencies like the one just before us. He could see every danger at a glance before he had encountered it. He would not only make preparations to meet the danger which might occur, but he would inform his commanding officer what others should do while he was executing his move.

As a precaution, Grant sent one of his staff to Sheridan, telling him that, “as much as I liked General Warren, now was not a time when we could let our personal feelings for any one stand in the way of success; and if his removal was necessary to success, not to hesitate.”

On March 31, as Warren’s V Corps slowly moved to join with Sheridan, Pickett surprised Sheridan by moving his force of cavalry and infantry forward from Five Forks. His plan was to push Sheridan back by attacking the Union left flank near Dinwiddie with infantry, as his cavalry wheeled in from the west. The plan worked to near perfection and, rather than advancing, Sheridan found himself falling back to just north of Dinwiddie, where he established a defensive line that was able to finally stop Pickett. As this was occurring to Sheridan and his cavalry, V Corps was attacked by Confederate infantry under General Bushrod Johnson as they moved up the White Oak Road. The fighting was brief, but savage, with V Corps being pushed back at first, then finally counterattacking to regain the lost ground. But, this fighting had further delayed their progress to get into position.

At this moment, as members of Sheridan’s staff wondered aloud if the planned attack should be shelved, Sheridan continued to show his determination. He told Porter, whom Grant had dispatched to assess the situation, that Pickett was now the one in trouble and that the situation presented even more of an opportunity. He told Porter, “This force is in more danger than I am. If I am cut off from the Army of the Potomac, it is cut off from Lee's army, and not a man in it ought ever be allowed to get back to Lee. We at last have drawn the enemy's infantry out of its fortifications, and this is our chance to attack it.”

For his part, Warren, despite receiving confusing and contradictory orders from Sheridan, Meade, and Grant, conceived a plan for employing his corps that would trap Pickett. He proposed that he move V Corps west, striking Pickett from one side, while Sheridan and the cavalry hit the Confederates from the other side. Grant approved the idea and told Warren to get his corps in motion and not to stop for anything. Then, he sent word to Sheridan of the plan, telling him that Warren would be in position by midnight. Unfortunately, however, Warren’s march became a confused mess and he did not even start to move until 6:00 a.m. the morning of April 1.

Across the lines, George Pickett had his own worries. Just as Sheridan had observed, Pickett knew that his force was very exposed in this advanced position. His worries only increased when he heard about the fighting on White Oak Road and learned that Federal prisoners taken in the battle were from V Corps. Realizing that he might not only be facing Sheridan’s cavalry but also infantry, Pickett knew he had to fall back to a more defensible position. He immediately retreated back to the lines commanding the crossroads at Five Forks and had his men work to build up their field fortifications. Once his men were back in position at Five Forks, Pickett informed Lee of his decision, and the commanding general was not pleased. Lee responded tersely, “Regret exceedingly your forced withdrawal, and your inability to hold the advantage you had gained. Hold Five Forks at all hazards.”

As a result of Pickett’s retreat, when Warren finally got his first divisions in place near Dinwiddie at 7:00 a.m., they discovered that Pickett was gone. Sheridan was furious and felt that Warren was “living down” to his already low expectations. Still, upon learning that Pickett was back in his fortifications at Five Forks, Sheridan devised an innovative plan of attack. He would dismount his cavalry and attack in a feint designed to pin down Pickett’s right and center, while Warren’s infantry attacked the Confederate left from the southeast at a 45-degree angle, striking the point where Pickett had bent his line at 90-degrees to protect the left flank.

Warren met with Sheridan early that afternoon to discuss the plan and seemed to grasp it immediately. However, Sheridan still worried that Warren’s heart was not in the job at hand and, soon, reports were coming in indicating that, once again, the V Corps was not moving swiftly into place. Sheridan fretted that Warren would not be ready to attack before sunset and that his tardiness would allow another day to slip away. But, by 4:00 p.m., Warren’s men were in-place and ready for the attack.

On the Confederate side, the afternoon of April 1 was a quiet one. As yet, Pickett had received no more information on the presence of V Corps and was confident for now that his men could turn back any attack by Sheridan’s cavalry. As a result, he and Fitzhugh Lee accepted an invitation from Thomas Rosser to attend a shad-bake at his camp on the north bank of Hatcher’s Run. Shad were a local fish and shad-bakes were a regional rite of spring for Tidewater Virginians. As there seemed no immediate threat, Pickett decided that he could use a good meal and a few hours of relaxation, so, around 2:00 p.m., he and his cavalry companion rode off without telling anyone where they might be found or when they would return. In fact, Pickett’s other cavalry division commander, Rooney Lee, did not even know Pickett had left the area and Pickett did not assign anyone to be in command during his absence.

A few hours after Pickett left, Confederate observers at Five Forks could clearly see the blue-clad infantry of V Corps moving into position on their left. One of Pickett’s division commanders, Thomas Mumford, sent a courier in search of Fitzhugh Lee and Pickett to inform them that an attack by Federal infantry was imminent But, the courier could not find either officer. Other riders were sent out but they were also unsuccessful in their search for the missing commanders. As a result, when the attack came, no one was in overall command.

imageMap image used with permission by the Civil War Preservation Trust

As it happened, the Federal attack did not go as planned. The angle in Pickett’s line was actually concealed in dense woods and was much further west than Sheridan believed. As a result, the division intended to strike the front of Pickett’s line under General Ayres actually ended up attacking the angle itself. Ayres wheeled his men toward the angle while the divisions of Crawford and Griffin, whom Ayres needed for support if he were to carry the Confederate barricades, marched off past the angle and both missed Pickett’s line completely. However, quick thinking by Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the professor-soldier and hero of Little Round Top at Gettysburg, helped turn things right. Commanding a brigade in Griffin’s division, he noted with grave concern the growing gap between his brigade and Ayres division, which he could see was heavily engaged attacking the angle. Exercising superb command judgment, he turned his brigade and attacked on Ayres right. Upon seeing Chamberlain’s bold move, Griffin realized what was happening and followed with the rest of his division.

image The fire from Pickett’s men was deadly and, while Ayres’ and Chamberlain’s men were virtually on top of the Confederate breastworks, the attacks began to lose momentum. At that moment, just as he had at Cedar Creek in the Shenandoah Valley, Sheridan rallied his men using his own physical courage. Mounted on his black Morgan, Rienzi, Sheridan rode among the men shouting encouragement, “We’ll get the twist on ‘em, boys! There won’t be a grease spot of them left!” Finally, he actually rode to the front, exposing himself to enemy fire. Horace Porter remembered the scene, describing it in his memoirs:

Sheridan now rushed into the midst of the broken lines, and cried out: "Where is my battle-flag?" As the sergeant who carried it rode up, Sheridan seized the crimson-and-white standard, waved it above his head, cheered on the men, and made heroic efforts to close up the ranks. Bullets were now humming like a swarm of bees about our heads, and shells were crashing through the ranks. A musket-ball pierced the battle-flag; another killed the sergeant who had carried it; another wounded an aide, Captain McGonnigle, in the side; others struck two or three of the staff-officers' horses. All this time Sheridan was dashing from one point of the line to another, waving his flag, shaking his fist, encouraging, entreating, threatening, praying, swearing, the true personification of chivalry, the very incarnation of battle.

As the men of the V Corps climbed over the barricades and into the Confederate line, Sheridan spurred Rienzi forward, leaping the breastworks, landing among a group of quickly surrendering Confederate soldiers. Some of the prisoners called out to Sheridan, saying, "Wha' do you want us all to go to?" Sheridan's rage turned quickly to humor, and, as they filed past, the general shouted, "Go right over there," pointing to the rear. "Get right along, now. Oh, drop your guns; you'll never need them any more. You'll all be safe over there. Are there any more of you? We want every one of you fellows."

image Ironically, the error in the location of the Confederate works now turned in Sheridan’s favor. As Crawford continued past Pickett’s main line and turned west, instead of encountering the enemy’s breastworks, he found that he was actually in their rear and soon cut off Pickett’s only line of retreat up the Ford’s Depot Road.

As for General Pickett, once the Federal attack was underway, he was still unaware of what was happening to his command. He and Fitzhugh Lee had lingered at Rosser’s headquarters after lunch, savoring what was probably the best meal they had in weeks, and sharing some alcoholic beverages with their comrades. Soon, a courier dashed into the camp to tell the Confederate generals that Union forces were moving up on the White Oak Road. Pickett listened intently for the sounds of gunfire, but heard nothing, as the dense pine forest between them and Five Forks muffled the sound of battle.

As a precaution, Pickett asked Rosser to send two men as couriers to determine what might be happening at Five Forks, with one following the other by several hundred yards to prevent both from falling captive should they be intercepted. The riders dashed out of camp and, within minutes, Pickett and his cavalry generals heard the sounds of gunfire. They looked down the road and saw Federal cavalry dash out from the woods to seize the first courier. The second courier turned about and galloped back to Pickett, shouting, “Woods full of ‘em, sir! They’ve got behind the men at Five Forks, too!”

Pickett immediately leaped on his horse and headed for Five Forks. However, he found the way blocked by Union infantry from Crawford’s division. He appealed to his cavalry escort to punch a hole for him to ride through, which they did. Riding “Indian-style,” with his head bent down behind his horse’s neck, Pickett dashed through a hail of Federal bullets to finally reach his command. However, it was too late. Attacked from three sides by Warren’s infantry and Sheridan’s cavalry, Pickett’s line had disintegrated. The astonished Confederate general tried to fight a final stand using a single Virginia brigade but Crawford’s men soon overran the outmatched Confederates.

image By 6:45 p.m., the shadows were growing long and all Confederate resistance had collapsed. With Sheridan’s cavalry sweeping in from the west and east, they pushed aside the last of Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry. When the firing ended, Sheridan’s forces had captured over 5,000 of Pickett’s men. More importantly, however, they had made Lee’s line in Petersburg utterly untenable and a withdrawal from Petersburg was inevitable—it was just a matter of when. Lee responded to the news of the disaster at Five Forks by ordering James Longstreet to move his corps south from their positions defending Richmond to bolster the line at Petersburg, implementing the first of a series of emergency measures. All he could do now was buy time, but how much time he did not know.

imageAt Grant’s headquarters, there was much celebration the night of April 1. The only pall on the moment was the news that, in the midst of the fighting at Five Forks, Sheridan had relieved Warren of command. But, Grant knew that probably had to be done and, now, there were bigger issues. Grant knew the pressure the fall of Five Forks had put on Lee and he saw what was, perhaps, the greatest opportunity of the war in front of him. After a brief moment of reflection, he penned an order for a massive assault along the entire Petersburg line for the next morning, 4:00 a.m. on April 2. The door had been pushed ajar; all he need do now was open it.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Grierson’s Cavalry Raid: Knocking the Heart Out of Mississippi

imageIn the early morning hours of April 17, 1863, a bright sun crested the horizon east of La Grange, Tennessee, promising a warm spring day. However, for the men of the 2nd Iowa, 6th Illinois, and 7th Illinois Cavalry Regiments, the dawn also brought intense anticipation. In the preceding days, they had been ordered to prepare to move out, to prepare five days rations, and cull down their equipment. The latter not only included their entire supply train, but they were even told to carry no more than 100 rounds of ammunition per man. It was apparent that, wherever they were headed, that they would be moving quickly and that nothing would be taken that might slow them down. Still, despite whatever apprehension they might feel, these Union troopers were happy to finally leave a long, wet winter in camp behind them. They chatted about where they might be headed and some even broke out in song. Little did they know that they were departing on what would be one the most daring and audacious cavalry raids of the Civil War.

That very morning, their commander, Colonel Benjamin H. Grierson had returned from Memphis with orders to carry out a raid deep into Mississippi. The goal would be to destroy as much as possible of the vital rail lines crossing the state between Jackson and Vicksburg, the Confederate fortress stronghold on the bluffs above the Mississippi River. But, beyond damaging the rail infrastructure, there was a greater goal: to distract General Pemberton in Vicksburg, confuse Southern military authorities across the state, and prevent them from effectively blocking General Ulysses Grant’s bold plan to run the guns defending the river at Vicksburg, march his army south along the opposite bank, and then move them across the river, landing them on firm, dry ground somewhere south of Vicksburg. How, exactly, Grierson was to accomplish all this was left to his discretion—his job was to create as much mayhem in the Confederate rear as possible, then return to the safety of Union lines.

In some ways, General Stephen Hurlbut, commander of XVI Corps, could not have picked an odder candidate for this assignment. Benjamin Grierson was a 35-year old music teacher when Fort Sumter was fired upon. He and his wife, Alice, lived quietly in Jacksonville, Illinois, raising a family of seven children. With the onset of the war, Grierson volunteered to be an aide-de-camp to General Benjamin Prentiss, who was forming volunteer units across the state. Soon, however, Grierson, who had been kicked by a horse at age eight and harbored a deep fear of the animals, found himself assigned to the 6th Illinois Cavalry. image Somehow, he managed to overcome his childhood phobia and proved a reliable and resourceful cavalry commander while fighting guerrillas in west Tennessee, attracting the notice of General William Sherman, who had recommended him for promotion to colonel and command of his regiment. Sherman said that Grierson was “the best cavalry commander I have yet had.” Grierson’s most notable attributes seem to have been his toughness combined with a quiet, modest, and unassuming demeanor that earned him the respect of men under his command.

Now, 1,700 Union cavalry troopers from the 6th and 7th Illinois Cavalry along with the 2nd Iowa Cavalry, led by a former music teacher who feared horses, would descend deep into the Confederacy. Their mission would require that they maintain a delicate balance between causing enough harm to create fear and confusion in the enemy’s ranks, while confusing him sufficiently to not get caught in the process. Had those troopers known that their commander had only a vague notion of how he was going to do this, they might not have been quite so happy to see La Grange disappear behind them. Grierson had orders only to disable the section of the railroad that ran east from Jackson to an intersection with the Mobile & Ohio Railroad near Newton Station. Beyond that, what he did with his command and, most importantly, how he got back to safety was up to him. As the column left La Grange that morning, Grierson’s only tools were a small pocket compass and a map of Mississippi, and his sole source of intelligence was a written description of the countryside. Everything else would be discovered as the column moved south and Grierson would have to improvise, using his best judgment and ingenuity.

The first 48 hours of the raid was marked my torrential downpours, causing the Mississippi roads to turn into quagmires. Despite this, Grierson’s men still managed to travel 30 miles per day. Thus far, they had encountered a scattered home guard picket or two, but nothing substantial in terms of resistance. On the morning of April 19, Grierson heard that Confederate cavalry might be forming to the east near Chesterville and also in the vicinity of New Albany and King’s Bridge. As Colonel Hatch’s 2nd Iowa had been paralleling Grierson and the main column to the east, he sent word for the Iowans to make a demonstration toward Chesterville. At the same time, he dispatched a detachment from his own regiment to New Albany, and another northwest toward King's Bridge. His goal was twofold; first, to make Confederate authorities aware that his troopers were in the area and, second, to create the impression that his goal was merely to break up these groups of Confederate cavalry.

image The expedition to New Albany came upon 200 Confederate troops near the town, and engaged them, killing and wounding several. Meanwhile, the one moving northwest to King’s Bridge found that Southern cavalry under a Major Chalmers had suddenly fled westward in the night upon hearing Grierson’s troopers were nearby. Once his detachments were back in the fold, including the 2nd Iowa, which now rejoined the main column, Grierson moved south to Pontotoc, arriving around 5:00 p.m. As his skirmishers dashed into the town, they encountered minor resistance, killing one militia member and wounding and capturing several others. Once the town was secure, Grierson ordered his men to destroy a large mill, including 400 bushels of salt and camp equipment. Once this task was complete, the column moved forward and encamped for the night on the Daggett plantation, five miles south of Pontotoc.

During the evening, Grierson met with his staff and informed them that he was taking additional action in the morning to further confuse the enemy as to his intensions. First, he detached 175 men from the 2nd Iowa, along with one piece of artillery, all prisoners, led horses, and captured property, and ordered them back to La Grange, marching in column of fours, before daylight, through Pontotoc, thus leaving the impression that the whole command had returned to Tennessee. At the same time, he told Major Love, who commanded the small detachment, to send one scout off and have him cut the telegraph lines to Oxford.

With Love’s detachment safely off to La Grange, Grierson ordered the rest of his force onto the road toward Houston, Mississippi at 5:00 a.m. They would travel without event, passing through Houston at 4:00 p.m., and encamping after dark on April 21. Once again, Grierson made plans to divide his force and, thereby, further confuse the Confederate forces, which were closer than Grierson realized. As he made his plans, a Confederate cavalry detachment under Lieutenant Colonel C.R. Barteau was closing in. They had entered Pontotoc well behind Grierson on the morning of April 20, but soon closed the gap. By daybreak on April 21, they were only a few hours behind the Union troopers. While Grierson was unaware of Barteau, logic told him that, by now, there might very well be someone in pursuit of the main column. Therefore, he ordered Colonel Hatch to leave the main column the next morning with the remaining 500 men of the 2nd Iowa plus one artillery piece. Hatch was to proceed to the Mobile & Ohio Railroad near West Point, Mississippi, destroy the railroad and wires; then move south, destroying the railroad and all Confederate government property as far south as Macon. Once at Macon, he was then to find his way north back to La Grange by the most practical route.

image The next morning, Grierson’s column moved out at 6:00 a.m. and, two hours later, upon reaching the road leading southeast, Hatch’s command turned off towards West Point. As he detached from Grierson, Hatch ordered one company and his sole artillery piece to trail the main column for three miles toward Starkville. Once there, the Iowans wheeled about and returned in columns of fours, obliterating the hoof prints left by Grierson’s force. They even turned their cannon about at four different places, leaving distinct sets of wheel impressions, suggesting that four different cannon had turned. If this little ruse worked, Barteau and his men would think that the entire column had turned eastward toward the Mobile & Ohio.

In fact, the ruse did work as planned and Hatch’s diversion worked flawlessly. Barteau, arrived at the junction shortly before noon, and, seeing the hoof prints and tracks, headed eastward in pursuit. Shortly thereafter, as Hatch approached the town of Palo Alto, Barteau attacked him from rear and on each flank, and blocked the road to West Point with an Alabama regiment supported by artillery.

In the attack made by the enemy, a company in the rear was cut off and nearly all taken. The enemy then closed in on my flanks, and advanced in two lines on my rear, with two flags of truce flying, enabling him to approach very close, my command being at that time in a lane, with high fences and hedges upon either side, my men dismounted and well covered. Changing my front to the rear, I waited until the enemy were close upon me, and opened with my rifles and one 2-pounder from the front and with carbines on the flanks, breaking his lines and driving him back, pushing the enemy about 3 miles, capturing arms and horses, and retaking the company lost in the first attack. From that time until dark it was a constant skirmish, the enemy having taken me for the main column. Believing it was important to divert the enemy's cavalry from Colonel Grierson, I moved slowly northward, fighting by the rear, crossing the Houlka River, and drawing their forces immediately in my rear.

As Hatch was fighting off Barteau, Grierson journeyed southward along the road to Starkville with the remainder of his command, now numbering about 950 men. After destroying mail and government property in Starkville, they turned on the road to Louisville, Mississippi. This led the Union troopers through a dismal swamp almost belly-deep in mud and, at several points, the men were forced to swim their horses across deep, murky streams. At noon that day, Grierson dispatched a small group of troopers ahead of the column. In his official report, Grierson called these men “scouts.” But, they were a little more than that. Each of these scouts would replace their Union uniforms with “liberated” civilian clothing. Each would ride ahead carrying a shotgun or long rifle, looking to all the world like a group of hunters. This unit became known as the “Butternut Guerillas” and was the brainchild of Lieutenant Colonel William D. Blackburn of the 7th Illinois. Commanded by Quartermaster Sergeant Richard W. Surby, these men would serve as Grierson’s eyes and ears as they moved further south.

image On April 22, Grierson resumed his march towards Louisville, some 28 miles ahead. Once again, his men faced a day of riding through dense swamp, this time along the Noxubee River bottom. The water here was up to their mounts bellies and, as a result, the Union cavalrymen could not even make out the roadway. Despite these challenges, the column made good time and arrived in Louisville soon after dark. Grierson ordered a battalion of the 6th Illinois to enter ahead of the main body to picket the town and remain until the column had passed, when they were relieved by another battalion from the 7th Illinois, who were ordered to remain for an hour. The goal of this effort was to prevent anyone from leaving with information on which way the column was headed and also to quiet the fears of the people. They had heard the Union cavalry was coming and many had fled, taking only what they could hurriedly move. Grierson’s column moved quietly through the town without halting, and his men were careful not to cause any disturbance. Grierson wrote in his final report that, “Those who remained at home acknowledged that they were surprised. They had expected to be robbed, outraged, and have their houses burned. On the contrary, they were protected in their persons and property.”

As April 23 dawned, Grierson was edging closer to his original target: the railroad at Newton Station, Mississippi. He pushed his men forward all through the day and halted to rest and feed the horses until around 10:00 p.m. that evening Then, he dispatched Lieutenant Colonel Blackburn and two battalions of the 7th Illinois towards Newton Station, with the rest of the column following an hour behind. Blackburn, of course, was preceded by the Butternut Guerillas, who arrived at the rail junction just before dawn. The scouts learned a train was expected soon, and, within minutes, they heard the shrieking whistle of a westbound freight train. At the same time, Blackburn and his men had arrived, concealing themselves behind the depot buildings just as a 25-car freight train pulled into the station. As the locomotive drew abreast of the depot, Blackburn’s men leaped into cab, pistols drawn, ordering the surprised engineer to stop the train.

image They quickly pulled the train off the main track and discovered yet another train was inbound to the station. Using the same tactics, they seized the second locomotive, which was pulling 13 cars filled with weapons, ammunition, and supplies. An additional car held passengers fleeing Vicksburg with their furniture and other personal belongings. Blackburn’s men removed both passengers and the private property, then gleefully set fire to the train. When the flames reached the ammunition cars, the train exploded with great fury. Five miles away, Grierson heard the explosions and feared a fight was under way. He moved the column forward at a gallop, but was soon relieved to discover that what he had heard was just destruction of enemy ammunition.

Grierson now set about destroying as much rolling stock and track as possible. Both locomotives were blown up, track was pulled up, and a bridge west of the depot was also destroyed. Now, having damaged as much as possible of the railroad in and around Newton Station, Grierson led his exhausted command south about four miles, then stopped. They had been riding for almost 48 hours straight and it was time to rest, if only briefly. As his men took a much needed break, Grierson began to contemplate his next move. He had completed the material portion of his mission, but he now had to continue to create some mayhem, while figuring out how best to get his men back to Union lines. As he later reported,

From captured mails and information obtained by my scouts, I knew that large forces had been sent out to intercept our return, and having instructions from Major-General Hurlbut and Brigadier-General Smith to move in any direction from this point which, in my judgment, would be best for the safety of my command and the success of the expedition, I at once decided to move south, in order to secure the necessary rest and food for men and horses, and then return to La Grange through Alabama, or make for Baton Rouge, as I might hereafter deem best.

After only three hours rest, he ordered his weary men to remount and move out. Upon reaching Garlandville, they found the local populace armed and organized to resist them. The citizens of the town opened fire, wounding one trooper. The Union column charged and captured several of the would-be defenders, some of whom were quite elderly. Rather than being harsh, Grierson lectured them and quickly released them to their homes. Expressing surprise at this benevolent treatment, one man “volunteered his services as guide, and upon leaving us declared that hereafter his prayers should be for the Union Army.”

Grierson then continued south, slowing his rate of march and taking rest whenever he could. By this time, his activities had created a state of alarm across Mississippi, and confusion reigned supreme. Telegrams sent among generals Pemberton, Loring, Buckner, and Johnston indicated conflicting stories of disaster and phantom columns of Union cavalry were reported everywhere, going in every possible direction.

To add to the mix, Grierson decided to send a single scout, Samuel Nelson, to “proceed northward to the line of the Southern Railroad, cut the telegraph, and, if possible, fire a bridge or trestle-work.” Nelson left about midnight, and soon came upon a Confederate cavalry regiment searching for the Union column. Using a slight stutter in his speech, he convinced the Southern commander that he had been forced to serve as a guide for Grierson and, having escaped, would gladly tell them where to find the dreaded Yankees. Nelson then spun a tale, informing them that Grierson’s force totaled over 1,800 men, who were now heading east towards the Mobile & Ohio Railroad. The Confederates thanked him, mounted up, and dashed off to the east in headlong pursuit.

During the night, Grierson learned from other scouts that all his potential routes of escape east and north were effectively blocked by reinforcements of both infantry and cavalry. Therefore, knowing that General Grant might very well be moving his troops across the Mississippi near Port Gibson, he decided to make a rapid march, crossing the Pearl River to strike the New Orleans, Jackson & Great Northern Railroad at Hazlehurst. Then, after destroying as much of the railroad as possible, he would get his small force on the enemy flank and harass them as much as possible.

image After getting a full night’s rest, Grierson’s column began its march to the Pearl River on April 26. As they neared the crossing, two battalions of the 7th Illinois galloped ahead to secure the ferry and landing. They arrived just in time to capture a Confederate courier who had come to warn of the approaching Federal column and order the destruction of the ferry across the river. With the crossing captured, Grierson’s men were able to ferry and swim their horses across by mid-afternoon.

As the column crossed the Pearl, Grierson sent his two advance battalions toward Hazelhurst, with the Butternut Guerillas in the lead. Just outside Hazelhurst, Colonel Prince, the commander of the small advance force, handed the scouts a forged dispatch addressed to General Pemberton in Vicksburg, informing him that the Yankees had advanced to Pearl River and, having discovered the ferry destroyed, they could not cross and had turned to the northeast. With all the apparently considerable theatrical skills they could muster, two of Grierson’s scouts rode into Hazelhurst, walked up to a small group of Confederate officers at the train depot, and calmly handed them the dispatch. The officers thanked them, then gave the message to the telegraph operator, who promptly typed the misleading telegram and sent it racing across the wires to Confederate headquarters.

As soon as Colonel Prince returned, Grierson sent him to strike the New Orleans, Jackson & Great Northern Railroad at Hazlehurst. Galloping into town, Prince’s men found a number of cars containing about 500 loaded artillery shells and a large quantity of commissary and quartermaster's stores, intended for Grand Gulf and Port Gibson. They set fire to these and destroyed as much of the railroad and telegraph as possible.

When Pemberton heard that Grierson was in Hazelhurst, he sprung into action, sending everything he had to intercept the Union column. Pemberton feared that Grierson would now swing back to the northwest in an attempt to disrupt communications between Jackson and Vicksburg. Not knowing which way the wily Grierson might go, however, he spread his forces thinly, trying to cover every possible route and every conceivable target.

With the Confederates now gaining on him, Grierson broke camp at 6:00 a.m. on April 28 and he sent a detachment forward to destroy the rail lines at Bahala, Mississippi. When the detachment returned the next morning, they told him that scouts had learned Grierson was riding into a trap set by Colonel Wirt Adams’ Confederate cavalry between Union Church and Fayette, a few miles ahead. Unable to turn back, Grierson decided to boldly spring the trap, and then change direction.

Early on the morning of April 29, Grierson galloped directly into Adams’ ambush, setting it off. However, just as Adams attacked, the main Union column veered sharply from its westward course toward the Mississippi River and headed southeast toward Brookhaven, leaving behind a company to fight a rear guard action. After waiting several hours for the anticipated arrival of the main Federal body, Adams realized he had been duped. He sent a dispatch to Pemberton informing the general that he would now attempt to intercept the Grierson’s new route of march.

After destroying a conscript’s camp in Brookhaven, Grierson’s men moved south along the railroad, destroying all the bridges and trestles along the way. At Bogue Chitto Station, they burned the depot and 15 freight cars, and “captured a very large secession flag.” From there, they continued south, destroying more bridges and freight cars, and adding water tanks to the list of destruction.

Now, Grierson and his men could hear Admiral Porter’s guns bombarding Grand Gulf in the distance, but, with Wirt Adam’s cavalry between him and the river, Grierson decided to head south to Union lines at Baton Rouge. Moving southwest and away from the rail line, Grierson headed for Baton Rouge. That night, his column camped 15 miles southwest of Summit, Mississippi. As they rested, Confederate cavalry continued to close in. One unit had been following the path of destruction Grierson had left behind him, reaching Summit at 3:00 a.m. on May 1, a mere nine hours behind the Federal cavalry. However, Grierson had carefully planted a rumor that he was headed for Magnolia and Osyka, the next stations on the rail line. Hearing that news, the eager Confederates pressed southward in the hope of falling upon the Union column’s rear.

After a few hours of sleep, Grierson roused his men and, initially, they left the road and made a feint towards Magnolia and Osyka, seeming to confirm the rumor he had spread in Summit. Instead, however, Grierson then veered due south, marching through dense woods, narrow country lanes, and, finally, back on the main road. Unbeknownst to Grierson, more Confederate cavalry was trying to close the door ahead of him. Adam’s cavalry was only five miles away and Lieutenant Colonel George Gantt’s 9th Tennessee Cavalry Battalion, which had been chasing rumors of Grierson’s whereabouts for days, had deployed near Osyka, covering the roads to Liberty and Clinton right ahead of Grierson.

As Grierson approached the bridge over the Tickfaw River, his scouts reported that the 9th Tennessee was blocking the crossing. Grierson had no choice but to engage the enemy and, after deploying his artillery, his column charged the bridge. The first two charges were pushed back by withering rifle fire from the Confederates, so Grierson had two companies dismount and pin the enemy cavalry down with rifle fire of their own. Then, he had his artillery blast the woods where the Confederates were positioned with shot and canister, quickly silencing the opposition. As the Tennessee cavalry abandoned the bridge to Grierson, the Federals had only two obstacles ahead, the Amite and Comite Rivers.

Both of these rivers were crossed without major incident, but Grierson was now pushing his men hard to reach Baton Rouge. Many troopers were falling asleep in their saddles and Grierson and his officers worked hard to keep men awake and moving forward. Finally, on the afternoon of May 2, Grierson’s column would finally reach Baton Rouge, where they were given a hero’s welcome. They had traveled over 600 miles in less than 16 days, covering over 76 miles in the final 28 hours without food or rest. During the raid, Grierson inflicted about 100 casualties, while losing three killed and seven wounded. His men had destroyed “between 50 and 60 miles of railroad and telegraph, captured and destroyed over 3,000 stand of arms, and other army stores and Government property to an immense amount.”

image Most importantly, however, Grierson had spread panic and confusion in the Confederate rear as Grant made his successful crossing of the Mississippi. And, perhaps just as important, Grierson’s raid severely depressed Confederate morale. Parts of Mississippi were already somewhat Unionist in sentiment and Grierson’s raid, along with Grant’s invasion of the state, heightened popular distrust of Confederate authority. Upon hearing from a Unionist informant about the progress of Grierson’s column, Grant wrote to General Halleck saying,

He has spread excitement throughout the State, destroyed railroads, trestle works, bridges, burning locomotives & rolling stock taking prisoners destroying stores of all kinds. To use the expression of my informant “Grierson has knocked the heart out of the State.”