February 3, 1862 (Monday)
Three days had passed since President Lincoln, trying to borrow the army for a while, issued a specific order commanding the Army of the Potomac to move southward towards Manassas. Three days had also passed since General George McClellan, commander of that army, vowed to submit his objections and a plan to land the army on the Virginia Peninsula, attacking Richmond from the southeast.
Lincoln, amiable as ever, entertained the idea and worked on a few questions concerning what he believed McClellan would turn in. By this date, both the President and his General were ready.
It appears that Lincoln’s questions were received by McClellan before McClellan submitted his objections. Lincoln asked how victory was more certain, more valuable with McClellan’s plan, and, if defeated, how could they retreat back down the Peninsula?
McClellan had already been hard at work on a twenty-two page paper explaining why a plan such as Lincoln’s would ultimately fail. After tallying that history of the war thus far, McClellan’s report picked apart Lincoln’s proposal of an attack upon the Rebels at Manassas. Even if the Union army found victory upon those plains, the results could not decide the war. It would result in a long and costly march to Richmond where the Confederates were sure to concentrate their forces.
However, there was another option. If McClellan could land the entire Army of the Potomac on the Virginia Peninsula, between the York and James Rivers on the lower Chesapeake Bay, it would afford the shortest land route to Richmond. Lincoln’s worry of leaving Washington unguarded was unfounded since the Rebels at Manassas would pick up stakes and head for the Peninsula post-haste. McClellan regarded success as a certainty, even describing how the entire Confederacy would crumble with a victory on the Peninsula: Burnside in North Carolina would link with McClellan in Virginia, who would (somehow) link with Buell in Tennessee, who would link with Halleck in Missouri. The Peninsula, according to McClellan, was the key.1
Though McClellan had received Lincoln’s questions after completing his report, he felt that he had already answered the questions thoroughly enough. Lincoln must have thought so as well, and neither ever replied to the other.
Lincoln had given McClellan an order and McClellan did not wish to carry it out. He argued against it (with the permission of the President) and won the day, to an extent. President Lincoln was not attached to a specific plan. He simply wanted McClellan to submit one. After weeks and months of avoiding the subject and failing to comply, finally here was a plan. Lincoln could either accept it or find another commander.
Of course, he could have directly ordered McClellan to attack south towards Manassas (again), but Lincoln probably realized the his General was not about to follow an order he didn’t like.2
Union Troops En Route to Attack Fort Henry
On the inaccurate word of a Rebel deserter, who claimed that General P.G.T. Beauregard was heading to Kentucky with fifteen Confederate regiments, General Henry Halleck had ordered General Grant to take Fort Henry along the Tennessee River. After several days, Grant was ready to move from his base in Paducah, Kentucky.
Due to the winter roads, he was employing the western river fleet commanded by Flag Officer Andrew Foote, who would transport his troops, letting them off near the Fort. With a shortage of transport ships, Grant’s men had to be taken in two trips. General McClernand’s division was to ship out first.
By the morning of this date, McClernand’s men were on their way up the Tennessee. Their transports were escorted by the USS Essex and St. Louis, with orders to disembark at Pine Bluff, eight miles downriver from Fort Henry. It was a journey of sixty-five miles.3
Though there was much speculation, no one ranking less than General Grant knew the objective. Nobody on Grant’s staff, or even Generals McClernand and Smith, commanding the two divisions under Grant, knew. But when the transports began to head up the Tennessee River, it must have dawned upon them.
The Rebels, however, had no idea an attack would be coming so soon. In fact, the fort’s commander, General Lloyd Tilghman, and the department’s Chief Engineer, Jeremy Gilmer, had left Fort Henry to inspect her sister fort, Donelson, twelve miles east on the Cumberland River.4