November 21, 1861 (Thursday)
“Tories now quiet, but not convinced. Executions needed,” wrote S.A.M. Wood, the brash Confederate Colonel from Alabama, who referred to General William Carroll as “stupid, but easily controlled” to Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin, concerning the Unionist uprising in Eastern Tennessee.1
Also writing to Benjamin was Col. William B. Wood (no relation to the previous Wood): “The rebellion in East Tennessee has been put down in some of the counties, and will be effectually suppressed in less than two weeks in all the counties.”
Now that many of the Unionist bridge burners had been captured, it was a question of what to do with them. “It is a mere farce to arrest them and turn them over to the courts,” figured W.B. Wood, as “instead of having the effect to intimidate it really gives encouragement and emboldens them in their traitorous conduct.”
Wood had an idea of what to do with leaders like Judge David Patterson, son-in-law of Andrew Johnson, and other men of distinction. Though they had not been found bearing arms against the Confederacy, “these men have encouraged this rebellion […] all their actions and words have been unfriendly to the Government of the Confederate States […] they are the parties most to blame for the troubles in East Tennessee. They really deserve the gallows, and if consistent with the laws ought speedily to receive their deserts.”
In closing, he reiterated his plea: “I have to request, at least, that the prisoners I have taken be held, if not as traitors, as prisoners of war. To release them is ruinous; to convict them before a court at this time next to an impossibility; but if they are kept in prison for six months it will have a good effect. The bridge-burners and spies ought to be tried at once, and I respectfully request that instructions be forwarded at as early a day as practicable, as it needs prompt action to dispose of these cases.”2
Secretary Benjamin would reply in less than a week.
On the Union side, Col. Samuel P. Carter, a former Naval officer, now near London, Kentucky, wrote to Horace Maynard, Congressman from East Tennessee who was instrumental in planning the bridge burnings. He was angry that the Union forces under General Thomas had been halted before they could enter Tennessee to assist the Unionists as originally planned. His men of the 3rd Kentucky, many actually from Tennessee, were livid and heartbroken over not being able able to help. Over forty fell out and deserted the regiment because of it.
“Our men are most anxious to return to Eastern Tennessee, not so much to see their families as to drive the rebels from the country,” wrote Carter. “We are all inclined to think that help will be deferred until it is too late to save our people. This ought not to be so.”
“Can you not get those in power to give us a few more men and permission to make at least an effort to save our people?” he pleaded. “Do try. They are even now in arms, and must be crushed unless assistance soon reaches them.”3
It was, however, already too late.
Slaves Needed and Coming to Forts Henry and Donelson
Confederate General Lloyd Tilghman, a West Point graduate turned railroad engineer, was, on this date, placed in charge of Forts Henry and Donelson, along the Tennessee and Cumberland River, respectively. These northern central Tennessee forts, twelves miles apart, were built to obstruct Union gunboats from moving upriver from Kentucky into the heart of Tennessee.4
As Tilghman would soon find out, while, more or less, formidable, they were not built to withstand an infantry assault.
Knowing that the forts might not be in the best shape, Lt. Joseph Dixon, Fort Donelson’s engineer, was ordered by General Gideon Pillow in Columbus, Kentucky, to make plans for another fort, this one across the river from Henry [this would later become Fort Heiman]. “A large force of slaves,” wrote Pillow to Dixon, “with troops to protect them, from Alabama will report at Danville for this work, the construction of which you will superintend and push to completion as early as possible.”
Dixon had just finished work on a river battery at Donelson, complaining that the work needed to complete the fort was more than the 200 man garrison could handle. “I wish you would get the general to give an order to press labor,” he wrote to Gilmer, “for it cannot be obtained here in any other way.”5
Though Dixon was told by Pillow that slaves from Alabama would soon be coming, he was hoping for a more immediate fix. Forts Henry and Donelson, judging by their half-finished states and skimpy, sickly garrisons, were at the bottom of the Confederate totem pole. Money to hire slaves from local masters simply wasn’t there. The only other option, thought Dixon, was to force local slave owners to give up their slaves to work on the Confederate forts.