With the Rebels on the Run, the Union Brass is in the Dark

February 18, 1862 (Tuesday)

Little in this war existed in a vacuum. The fall of both Forts Henry and Donelson had wide and immediate effects.

Union General Grant had captured not only the fort, but up to 14,000 Confederate prisoners at Fort Donelson. This was not, however, the entire Rebel force. Some of Col. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s command, and about half of General John B. Floyd’s brigade had escaped with their commanders to Nashville.

Before the refugees from Donelson even arrived, General Albert Sidney Johnston, who had based his army in Nashville, ordered a retreat to Murfreesboro. When completed, Johnston’s Kentucky line would have but a tiny foothold in Kentucky. It’s left, along the Mississippi River, was to be commanded by General P.G.T. Beauregard in Columbus. Murfreesboro would hold the center, while a small contingent under Col. Rains held Cumberland Gap in the east. Struggling to keep at least a sliver of the Bluegrass State, Richmond ordered the Gap reinforced as quickly as possible.1

While the right was reinforced and the center retreated, the Confederate left, at Columbus, for the time being, remained little-changed. General Beauregard had left Nashville to take command of all the troops between the Tennessee and Mississippi Rivers, only to fall ill and have to stop in Jackson. Beauregard’s poor health was a temporary boon for General Leonidus Polk, who was able to retain his position for a little while longer.

Beauregard’s plan would have infuriated Polk, who wished to hold Columbus. He had great faith in the defenses of the city, which he described as the “Gibraltar of the West.” Polk believed that he could hold out there for six months against a force many times his number.

Because he was ill, Beauregard sent a scout to check out the condition of the Columbus defenses. The scout reported that things were pretty shabby along the Mississippi and so Beauregard decided that Columbus had to be abandoned. This would allow the Confederates to focus their Mississippi River defense upon Island No. 10 near New Madrid.

Johnston generally agreed with Beauregard, but by this time, had given his subordinate what amounted to an independent command. “You must now act as seems best to you,” wrote the retreating Johnston to Beauregard. “The separation of our armies is for the present complete.”

Polk’s blissful ignorance would be short-lived as Beauregard requested him to drop by Jackson for a chat.2

The Confederates weren’t the only folks thinking about the Mississippi River. Union General Halleck, commander of the Department of Missouri, had lived in fear of Polk moving north against Cairo, and cutting off Grant’s supply line. Thanks to Polk’s disposition, the fears were unfounded, but Halleck couldn’t have known that.

With the fall of Henry and Donelson, Halleck called General John Pope, who had been more or less languishing in central Missouri as a glorified provost marshal, to come to St. Louis. Halleck, like Beauregard, had his eye upon New Madrid and Island No. 10. He wanted Pope to organize a force to attack the Rebel strongholds.3

Pope would first stop in Cairo to make sure that Polk was staying where he was supposed to stay, and then he would head to Commerce, Missouri, basing his operations from the small Mississippi River town, sixty miles upstream from Cairo. To add to Pope’s Army of the Mississippi, Halleck sent all new recruits and reinforcements that were headed for Grant’s army to Pope’s.4

Halleck had his eye upon more than just New Madrid. While Grant was still busy sorting out his victory, the prisoners and the spoils, the commander of the District of Missouri recognized the limitations of the Union command structure in the west.

All of Missouri and the western part of Tennessee were within Halleck’s department. The rest of Tennessee was under the Department of the Cumberland, commanded by General Don Carlos Buell. Previous attempts at a harmony of action between the two generals never worked out and now that Grant, under Halleck, was poised on the Cumberland River, something had to change.

In a series of telegrams between Buell, Halleck and General-in-Chief McClellan the previous day, Buell had told McClellan that he planned on taking Nashville. Halleck, however, thought that it was a horrible idea. Apparently unaware that Nashville was being abandoned by the Rebels, Halleck nervously mused that Johnston’s force could steam down the Cumberland River, defeat Grant, and return to Nashville to ensure that Buell met the same fate.

When McClellan asked Halleck to elaborate with facts, Halleck shot back: “Make Buell, Grant, and Pope major-generals of volunteers, and give me command in the West. I ask this in return for Forts Henry and Donelson.” McClellan did not reply.5

After asking Buell if he could send a force from Bowling Green to attack Clarksville, and after Buell replied that he would love to, but couldn’t, Halleck invited Buell to take command at Donelson so that he (Halleck) could focus upon the perceived threat to Cairo. Halleck’s letter to Buell is full of flattery and encouragement. He did not, however, mention that he wanted command of all of the western forces.6

Little did the Union commanders know, but they had the Rebels in the west in a precarious situation. Beauregard was in bed, Polk in Columbus wasn’t budging, and Johnston, in the center, was retreating with both his Fort Donelson and Bowling Green forces. While Beauregard wanted to concentrate the army, Johnston had effectively split it in two. Amid their bickering and politicking, the Union high command was in great danger. Not from the Rebels, but from themselves.



  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p888. []
  2. The Military Operations of General Beauregard in the War Between the States, 1861 to 1865 by Alfred Roman. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1. Vol. 8, p79. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1. Vol. 8, p599. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p626-628. []
  6. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p632-633. []
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With the Rebels on the Run, the Union Brass is in the Dark by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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