January 22, 1862 (Wednesday)
Since learning of the defeat of General George Crittenden’s Rebels at Mill Springs, General Albert Sidney Johnston was in a near panic. With only 2,000 or so Southern soldiers at Cumberland Gap, there was little stopping Union General Buell from advancing. While the defeat was a major blow to stopping the Union from entering Eastern Tennessee, his eyes were turned towards the center of the state.
Johnston suspected that Buell’s true objective was Nashville. He knew that Union forces were slowly closing in on him from the north. Though the winter roads were mired in thick mud, he ordered General Hardee in Bowling Green to detach General John Floyd’s brigade (and a bit of another) to cut off the Union advance from the north at Russelville, KY.1
The Union advance was commanded by General Thomas Crittenden, brother of the recently-defeated Rebel general.2 Buell had ordered Crittenden, with two brigades, to stay north of the Green River near Calhoun. However, unable to find defensible ground, he violated the spirit of the order and crossed the Green at South Carrollton. There, he found good ground rising 150 feet above the valley.3
From the west, General Ulysses Grant had just completed a diversion in western Kentucky that he and his commander, General Henry Halleck, hoped would aid General Buell in launching the advance that never came in Eastern Tennessee. The diversion was to hold the Rebel troops in western Kentucky, stopping them from reinforcing their comrades in the east. This was successful, but Buell did nothing to take advantage of it.
Grant advertised that his ruse was headed towards Forts Henry and Donelson, and Johnston believed it. The Federal advance was in two columns. The first, under General McClernand, was, by this date, already back at their base in Cairo, IL. The other, under General Smith, was at Callowaytown on the Tennessee River, just above Fort Henry. To cover Fort Henry, Johnston sent two regiments of reinforcements and hoped for more from New Orleans.
Putting all of this together, Johnston reasoned that the ultimate objective was Nashville. The Union force from the north, under General Thomas Crittenden, and the force of General Grant’s from the east were working in concert, believed Johnston, both cruising towards Nashville. To cut off Grant, Johnston moved 8,000 troops to Clarksville, TN, 100 miles northwest of Nashville.4Two days prior, General Henry Halleck, Union commander in Missouri, mused that if both Grant and Buell (via Crittenden) were to move on Nashville simultaneously, it would be a recipe for disaster, as they would be operating on converging exterior lines. This, however, was exactly what Johnston believed was happening.5
Basically, Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston was nearly certain that the Union army was way more organized than it actually was.
Johnston also predicted that there would be no action in Missouri for the near future, and that McClellan would wait till spring before doing anything in Virginia. While he was saying this in a letter to Richmond in hopes of getting more troops, he was correct about McClellan. About Missouri, however, General Henry Halleck would do his best to prove Johnston wrong.6
Foote Still Doesn’t Want To Use The Mortar Boats
General Halleck, in his attempt to do something, anything, to dislodge the Rebels under General Johnston from western Kentucky and Tennessee, was now seriously considering an attack up the Tennessee and/or Cumberland Rivers. These rivers led to the heartland of Tennessee and the doorway to Nashville. Guarding these rivers, however, were two forts, Henry and Donelson.
Fort Henry, along the Tennessee River, was the closest to the left wing of Halleck’s command, under General Grant. During his diversion, Grant sent a brigade under General Charles Smith to the Tennessee River. Once he reached the river, his brigade rested and received supplies.
On this date, realizing that it would take some time for his men to be resupplied, he decided to hitch a ride on the USS Lexington to see Fort Henry for himself.
As the Lexington steamed to within two and a half miles of the fort, they saw two small Rebel steamers quickly chuff away. Drawing nearer, the Lexington fired several shots at the fort, which replied with a single shot that fell about a half mile short.
While firing upon the fort, General Smith was overcome by a sense of optimism. Though he believed that there were up to 3,000 men in the fort (a very accurate guess, as it turned out), he was sure that “two iron-clad gunboats would make short work” of Fort Henry.7
Meanwhile, General Halleck, Flag Officer Andrew Foote and Lt. Todd Phelps of the USS Conestoga continued their debate over how best to reduce the forts. The previous day, Foote, who commanded all of the ships in the western waters, argued that the use of mortar boats on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers would make little difference. Phelps, who commanded only a single vessel, believed “an efficient mortar boat would be worth a gunboat in the reduction of Fort Henry.”
After reading and considering all the reasoning that Lt. Phelps could put to paper, Foote was still unimpressed. While he admitted that Phelps “frequently run up the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers,” and thus knew them well, he also asserted that “the difficulty of towing boats of their construction against the strong current” was the primary reason that he did not “consider it feasible to attempt to take the mortar boats up these rivers.”8
Lt. Phelps, however, wasn’t the only one who wanted to use the mortar boats. Washington, especially President Lincoln, was excited to see them in action.
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p844. [↩]
- George and Thomas Crittenden were the only two brothers to serve as generals on opposing sides of the conflict. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p558. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p845. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 8, p508-511. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p845. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p73-73; 561. [↩]
- Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 22, p514. [↩]