March 16, 1862 (Sunday)
Though the Confederates had given up New Madrid, Missouri on the Mississippi, it was not the key to the river. Fortified much stronger than the abandoned town was Island No. 10, so named as it was the 10th island downstream from Cairo, Illinois. Island No. 10 anchored the Confederate left upon the river, while keeping it open to that point.
The Confederates, under a string of different officers, had been building up the island’s formidable defenses since summer. By this time, they had twenty guns overlooking the island and commanding the river. On the island itself were fifteen guns, as well as a floating battery holding nine additional pieces. In addition to the batteries, the Rebels had seven gunboats, commanded by George Hollins, carrying thirty-two guns in total. Roughly 4,000 Rebel troops were stationed on and around Island No. 10. When New Madrid fell, much of the garrison was taken south to Fort Pillow.
Union General John Pope, recently victorious at New Madrid, commanded roughly 22,000. They were, of course, on the Missouri side of the river, while the Rebels held the island and the Kentucky/Tennessee side. Finally coming to Pope’s aide was the Western Flotilla, led by Flag Officer Andrew Foote, with seven gunboats and nearly 1,500 infantry. Other ships towed ten mortar boats to place Island No. 10 under siege.
The Union flotilla arrived the previous day, lightly skirmishing with their Rebel counterparts. The next day, that is to say, this date, Commodore Foote, aboard the flagship USS Benton, ordered the USS Cincinnati and St. Louis to fall into line with his ship. Three-abreast, they slowly crept down the river towards the Rebel fortifications. By 8:30am, they got their first look at the Confederates camped along the shore, about two miles distant. A half hour later, a small enemy craft stuck its nose out from around a bend. The Benton lobbed several shells at her and she quickly begged off.1
All day, the Union flotilla continued shelling the island and the bluffs, nearly a mile off. At 11:30am, the mortar boats joined the action, lobbing 13-inch iron balls at the Rebel positions. Finally, at 1pm, the Rebels returned fire from the island batteries, hurling shells at the Federal ships. This, more or less, kept them at bay.2
Towards evening, a Union transport landed some Illinois troops to help in building a bridge across a slough. The Rebels caught sight of this and fired a shell across the three mile span between them, missing their mark by a mere twenty yards. The Federals soon reboarded their transports and moved a bit farther away.
As night fell, Flag Officer Foote continued to bombard the Rebel batteries, which replied once every thirty minutes. Unlike Fort Henry, it did not appear that Island No. 10 could be taken without the infantry.3
Jackson Retires Farther South
Stonewall Jackson and his army had camped for three days near Strasburg, in the Shenandoah Valley. They had vacated Winchester, which had been immediately occupied by the Federals, marching twenty miles south along the Valley Turnpike.
Though morale within his army was strong, he was not yet ready for them to fight. They were growing in number, thanks to the Confederate conscription, but many of the new troops were poorly armed (or not armed at all). Rumors from Winchester to the north were thick and unfortunately believable. When Jackson heard that Union General Nathaniel Banks had dispatched General James Shield with 9,500 men to attack him, he decided to put an even greater distance between his army and the Federals.
On the 15th, Jackson began his move. Throughout the day, they passed small town after small town, with scenes of women weeping over being left to the hands of the Union invaders. Jackson’s supplies came via the Virginia Central Railroad’s hub at Staunton, seventy-five miles south of Strasburg. Moving closer to it would hurry along the rebuilding of his army.
Jackson’s army came to rest at Red Banks, a few miles north of Mt. Jackson, which they found on the afternoon of this date, naming it Camp Buchanan.
Jackson had to keep several things in mind as he strengthened his force at Red Banks. First, he had to keep General Banks from reinforcing McClellan around Manassas. Jackson, of course, had no idea that McClellan’s Army of the Potomac would soon be boarding steamers to the Virginia Peninsula. To do this, he had to make sure that Banks knew he was still in the Shenandoah Valley, but could not get so close as to bring on a battle. Also, he had to keep a pass over the Blue Ridge Mountains open, so that if he were called upon to reinforce General Joe Johnston’s Army, currently holding a line upon the Rappahannock River, he could easily make the trek.
For the time being, the area around Mount Jackson perfectly suited his needs.4