In a letter to the Confederate House of Representatives, he is furious with the senior generals on the ground, saying their reports are “incomplete and unsatisfactory”, and that they “abandoned responsibility by transferring the command to a junior officer”
He announces they will be “relieved from command”
As 1862 opened, the war was going very well for the Confederacy. In the east, Bull Run had been a grand victory that shocked and disheartened the enemy. In the west, the win at Wilson’s Creek gave the Confederates the upper hand. There...
He announces they will be “relieved from command”
As 1862 opened, the war was going very well for the Confederacy. In the east, Bull Run had been a grand victory that shocked and disheartened the enemy. In the west, the win at Wilson’s Creek gave the Confederates the upper hand. There was a tangible hope among Confederate leaders that another defeat or two would lead the Union to sue for peace, and the war would be over in less than a year after it started in April 1861. There was also confidence in the quality of the Confederate soldiery, and the belief that they could beat the Yankees on any battle ground. The smell of victory was in the air.
But the Union wasn’t ready to throw in the towel. Its armies in the west next turned their attention to implementation of the Anaconda Plan proposed by Winfield Scott and approved by Abraham Lincoln – to cut the Confederacy in half by securing the Mississippi River from St. Louis all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, and clearing a maritime invasion route into the heart of the Confederacy by taking the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, which lay just to the east of the Mississippi. If successful, these maneuvers would cut Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana off from the main body of the South, hold Kentucky and Missouri firmly in the Union, and make it difficult for Tennessee to cooperate with her sister states. The first moves would be to take and hold commanding locations north on the Tennessee and Cumberland, and command of the operation was given to Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who was then an obscure and largely unproven leader. The choice startled people in the north, but it would prove a brilliant move.
On February 6, 1862, Fort Henry, commanding the Tennessee River, was captured by Grant’s forces. It had only 3,000 or so men defending, so was not a major facility. Nonetheless, its fall was the first Union victory of the war, and it opened the Tennessee River to Union gunboats and shipping past the Alabama border. Grant next focused his attention on Fort Donelson, eleven miles away on the more strategically important Cumberland River. This fort had a much stronger physical position, and the Confederates had placed close to 20,000 men and a number of senior commanders on site to engage in its defense. They were not about to concede the fort, and they were ready and waiting for Grant. Grant arrived at Fort Donelson late on February 12 and on the 13th established his headquarters near the left side of the front of the line. That day was spent in battle preparation, with a few small probing attacks being carried out against the Confederate defenses.
The battle was severe, with nearly 1,000 soldiers on both sides killed and about 3,000 wounded. When it became clear surrender was the only option, the Confederate commanding generals, Gideon Pillow and John Floyd, left the place, and left the dirty work to be done by their junior officer, Simon Buckner. When Buckner asked for surrender terms, Grant famously replied, “No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted,” adding “I propose to move immediately upon your works.” Buckner surrendered his command, by then about 15,000 men, on February 16; this was the first major defeat of Confederate arms of the war, and would prove to be just the first of three Confederate armies that Grant captured during the war.
The capture of Fort Donelson gave the North control of the Cumberland River, which provided the road that opened the Deep South to Union invasion. It boosted morale in the North, which now saw that the war could result in great victories and not just defeats. It gave President Lincoln the fighting general he was looking for, and it made Grant’s career in the process; he was soon promoted to major general of volunteers.
In Richmond, the Confederate capital, the fall of Fort Donelson brought dismay, disbelief and consternation. Some could not bring themselves to believe a defeat was possible, others accepted the news and saw that the war would now be harder and longer than they expected. As for President Davis, he said “Events have cast on our arms and hopes the gloomiest of shadows.” And later, in his magnum opus “The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government”, Davis wrote, “Both morally and materially the disaster was a severe blow to us.” Historians confirm this judgment. Author K.D. Gott even wrote a book entitled, “Where the South Lost the War : An Analysis of the Fort Henry-Fort Donelson Campaign”.
In the wake of the battle, Pillow and Floyd transmitted reports on the events to President Davis, who was himself an experienced military man and hero in the Mexican War, He read the reports and was furious to find them omitting any discussion about what measures were taken to avoid surrender of the entire army, or explaining why the surrender was necessary, or why Pillow and Floyd fled and left it to a more junior general, Simon Buckner, to do the dirty worth of surrender. It was Davis’s responsibility to send the reports to the Confederate Congress nonetheless, and he did so with a very uncharacteristic show of anger and admission that Fort Donelson had been a calamity.
Letter signed, Executive Department, Richmond, March 11, 1862, “To the Speaker of the House of Representatives”. “I transmit herewith copies of such official reports as have been at the War Department of the defense and fall of Fort Donelson. They will be found incomplete and unsatisfactory. Instructions will be given to furnish further information upon the points not made intelligible by the reports. It is not stated that reenforcements were at any time asked; nor is it demonstrated to have been impossible to have saved the army by evacuating the position; nor is it known by what means it was found practicable to withdraw a part of the garrison leaving the remainder to surrender; nor upon what authority or principle of action the senior Generals abandoned responsibility by transferring the command to a junior officer. In a former communication to Congress I presented the propriety of a suspension of judgment in relation to the disaster at Fort Donelson until official reports could be received. I regret that the information now furnished is so defective. In the meantime, hopeful that satisfactory explanation may be made, I have directed upon the exhibition of the case as presented by the two senior generals that they be relieved of command to await further orders whenever a reliable judgment can be rendered on the merits of the case.” Pillow and Floyd were indeed relieved from command. Letter has been reinforced at the folds.
We have had some fine Davis letters in our years, but never one this important, calling a defeat a “disaster” and showing these flashes of anger.
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