June 5, 1862 (Thursday)
Everything was set. The infantry was ready and aboard the transports. Their colonel, Graham Fitch, had discovered Confederate Fort Pillow’s weakness and was determined to assault the Mississippi River bastion by land, supported by the Federal Navy, commanded by Captain Charles Davis. Both Fitch and Davis wanted to make the assault on the 4th, “but a foolish movement of Colonel Ellet prevented it in a way that could not be foreseen.”1
Neither Fitch, nor Davis had any inkling that the Confederates were pulling up stakes and abandoning the fort. They rescheduled the assault for the morning of this date, preparing the troops the night before, but were greeted by fireworks just after dusk.
All through the afternoon of the 4th, columns up black smoke appeared in the direction of Fort Pillow. As the sun sank, and as the fire began to consume the copious ammunition left behind, explosions accompanied the inferno. The conflagration continued into the night, bringing a telling hue to the Chickasaw bluffs. In one last detonation, the sky lit like dawn and gave proof that the Rebels were no longer there.2
With the Rebels clearly gone, before dawn, Col. Fitch called off the attack and took a small boat to the fort’s landing. As they cautiously neared the Confederate works, they saw for themselves that they has been abandoned. The explosions were the casemates, magazines, and breastworks being “blown to atoms.” Fitch described in his report that the Rebels “had destroyed or carried away nearly all the property of the fort; the gun-carriages were burned and burning, and many of the guns that could not be removed were burst.”3
Nearly everything was destroyed. Col Fitch didn’t believe that it was even worth garrisoning, as it would need new heavy artillery and a “corps of artillerists” to run the place. Instead, he detailed a company of infantry for clean up, as Captain Davis left behind a gunboat, and they both set their minds to the Confederate city of Memphis, which Davis swore to occupy “with the least possible delay.”4
The Federal fleet made their way down the river, towards the Tennessee city. In actuality, the fleet was made up of two separate fleets. Captain Davis commanded the ironclads and the mortar boats, and while his officers were from the navy, he was technically under the command of General Henry Halleck of the army. The fleet of rams, commanded by Col. Ellet, reported to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, and so were also part of the army, but under a different commander. Davis received his orders from Corinth, recently abandoned by Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard, while Ellet received his from Washington. Needless to say, this was a quite a hindrance, forcing both commanders to play nice in order to accomplish anything.5
They were, however, able to steam down the Mississippi, along with Fitch’s infantry transports, passing the abandoned Rebel Fort Randolph as they went. It was clear sailing to Memphis, but for a Confederate transport steamer that made an appearance in the afternoon.
The USS Benton, Davis’s flagship, spotted her, called all hands to quarters and fired eight shots. With such a welcome, the Rebel ship sped away. Davis ordered an armed tugboat to follow, and she was taken before the Rebels could blow her up.
Throughout the night, the Federal fleet assembled just north of Memphis, waiting to take the city the next morning.6
Lee Expects Jackson to Succeed
The men of Stonewall Jackson’s army had trudged over 100 miles in less than a week. As Jackson pitched his tent along the road from Harrisonburg to Port Republic, his marching troops ground to a halt, sleeping where the thick mud stuck them. They were stretched out for eleven miles, with their rear guard dangerously close to the advance Union guard of General John C. Fremont, pursuing along the Valley Pike.
Jackson’s only objective was to beat the Federals to Port Republic, where he could make a stand. He had been dogged by two separate Union commands under Fremont and General James Shields, each using parallel valleys in hopes of attacking him simultaneously in the front and rear. After stopping for the night, Jackson received the news that his cavalry, under newly-promoted General Turner Ashby, had burned the bridge across the Shenandoah River at Conrad’s store, completely cutting off Shields and giving the Rebels the time they needed to dig in at Port Republic.7
With Fremont more or less holding back around New Market, time had shifted to the side of the Confederacy. But time wasn’t all that Jackson needed. He also needed reinforcements. Though 16,000-strong, his army had been reduced by sickness and stragglers to about 13,000.8
To find these men, Jackson had turned to General Joe Johnston, who had commanded the Army of Northern Virginia until wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines, when he was replaced by General Robert E. Lee. All of this was unknown to Jackson.
Lee, along with Secretary of War George Randolph, was doing what he could to scrounge up the needed troops. Randolph suggested a few Georgia regiments, but Lee discovered that they were not under his command. Regardless, he proposed that Randolph combine them with troops from North Carolina as together “they will fill up his ranks.”
With the rains pouring upon Richmond, stalling the Union Army of the Potomac, Lee probably realized he could hold his own for a bit longer. Instead of recalling Jackson from the Shenandoah Valley, he flourished Jackson’s plan to the Secretary. “His plan is to march to Front Royal and crush Shields. It is his only course, and as he is a good soldier, I expect him to do it.”9
- Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 23, p53. [↩]
- “Operations of the Western Flotilla” by Henry Walke in Century Magazine, Vol. 29, 1885. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 10, Part 1, p900. Also “Operations of the Western Flotilla” by Henry Walke. [↩]
- Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 23, p46, 48. [↩]
- Thunder Along the Mississippi by Jack D. Coombe, Castle Books, 2005. [↩]
- Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 23, p670-671. [↩]
- Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson, MacMillan, 1997. [↩]
- Shenandoah 1862 by Peter Cozzens, University of North Carolina, 2008. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 3, p905-906. [↩]