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 Posted: Fri Nov 28th, 2008 11:28 pm
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pamc153PA
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Hi all,

I just started reading Forts Henry and Donelson: The Key to the Confederate Heartland by Benjamin Franklin Cooling. I've never read anything by Mr. Cooling before, and I also don't know a lot about the battles for the forts, so I'm striking into pretty unfamiliar territory (time to learn something new!).

I was always under the impression, based on what little I had learned about these two battles, that really they were a chance for the "Comeback Kid" U.S. Grant to show what he could do after a less than stellar performance earlier in the war, and that was pretty much the importance of the two battles. I was also aware of the importance of the border states, such as Kentucky, in the outcome of the Civil War. However, Cooling's premise is that the capture of these two forts signalled the start of the Confederate collapse in the West. If so, that's a huge significance to the two events that I had completely missed.

Do you folks agree with Cooling? What WAS the significance of Forts Henry and Donelson, in the war in the West and the war in general? Was I clueless, or ill-informed? Or uninformed?

Anyone willing to stir from their turkey-induced coma to give their two cents?

Pam



 Posted: Sat Nov 29th, 2008 12:41 am
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The Iron Duke
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The real significance of Fort Donelson is the capture of 15,000 men. Johnston's defense line collapsed and it never really recovered. Those extra men may have enabled the Confederacy to halt the bleeding early while the war was still relatively fresh. Donelson probably would have been a hollow victory like Yorktown. Nashville probably wouldn't have fallen as easily as it did. And if there still had been a battle at Shiloh, which I think is unlikely, it would probably be known today as the American Teutoburg Forest.

The battles gave Grant a jumpstart but they didn't cement his career.  I don't think his position was ever fully secured until his victory at Chattanooga.

Last edited on Sat Nov 29th, 2008 12:59 am by The Iron Duke



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 Posted: Sat Nov 29th, 2008 05:29 am
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ole
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Disagree, Duke, but I see where you're coming from. As an area commander, Chattanoog brought him to the Commanding General of all the Union Armies, but Forts Henry and Donelson secured Lincoln's notice and patronage.

I base this judgement on Lincoln's somewhat harsh "put up or shut up" message to Halleck which essentially asked Halleck to provide corroboration for his reasons for removing Grant from command.

Grant had taken Donelson and then, on pretty much his own hook, cooperated with Buell in taking Nashville. He had operated on his own initiative and I believe Lincoln noticed that. Then.

I think Lincoln saw beyond Grant's embarrassment at Shiloh to see the dogged and well run fight there. And, I also wouldn't be hard to persuade that Lincoln pulled Halleck east at least partly to get him out of Grant's way.

Then, mostly unnoticed now, was how securely Grant secured West Tennessee and began his moves on Vicksburg. (Lincoln took note of, but didn't fault occasional failures -- he could see that the general trend was up.)

By the time Vicksburg fell, I figure Lincoln needed only an excuse to put Grant in charge. That was Chattanooga.

To make a short story longer, you're a CEO of a giant conglomerate. Here you have a guy who's running one of your subsidiaries efficiently and effectively with a bottom line better than any other subsidiary chief. I suspect you'd notice and start paying attention to his books. Then you'd put him in a position to direct all your subsidiaries.

Ole



 Posted: Sat Nov 29th, 2008 05:37 am
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ole
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Pam:

I basically agree with Cooley. If we leave Grant out of it, without control of the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers, the Confederacy loses Kentucky and Nashville. And the chain of dominoes has started tumbling. Break the railroad at Corinth and and a wedge is driven between the east and west Confederacies. The loss of Memphis drives the wedge deeper. Lose New Orleans, Vicksburg and Port Hudson and you have two Confederacies.

Next is Chattanooga and Knoxville. They feed Sherman's Armies during the Atlanta Campaign. Mobile falls (as a port) to the navy at about the same time. The dominoes are falling, and the first one was tipped at Ft. Donelson.

Ole

Should have noticed the "Comeback Kid" comment. Grant's military performance wasn't remarkable and wasn't disastrous at Belmont and in SE Missouri. Whether Elihu Washburne had his fingers into getting Grant promoted to the District of Cairo, I can't say. Maybe it was Halleck grooming a promising subordinate. But, at Donelson, he certainly gained Lincoln's attention.

Last edited on Sat Nov 29th, 2008 05:52 am by ole



 Posted: Sun Nov 30th, 2008 01:30 am
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izzy
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I agree with Ole.  Johnston's defensive line through KY has always been a puzzle to me.  The defenses on the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers were not up to the test.  Grant hit the Confederate line in just the right spot.



 Posted: Sun Nov 30th, 2008 07:56 pm
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pamc153PA
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Why was I under the impression that Halleck really wanted to relegate Grant to the far, far West, and make him pretty much a non-issue? I always got the feeling, based on what I read a long time ago, that Halleck didn't like Grant--or maybe thought he was a threat to his own position somehow? And that he wasn't thrilled with Grant's performance at Henry and Donelson.  Honestly, this goes back to when I first got interested in the CW, so I can't even give you a source for that.

Pam



 Posted: Mon Dec 1st, 2008 02:05 am
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ole
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A very complicated situation, pam, and not well understood to this day. So long as Grant was under Halleck's thumb he was really good. When he became a bit too independent, he was bad. Then he became good again outside of Halleck's supervision and he got demoted. But he came back and got the CnC's notice. After that, everything he did immediately came to Abe's attention, and everything he did earned Abe's approval.

His is your basic "dumb schmuck makes good" story. It makes a good story for the teeners. There's so much more to the story and it ain't soon going to leak out of the textbooks.

Ole



 Posted: Wed Dec 3rd, 2008 01:05 am
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Don
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Pam,

I agree with Ole.  Donelson and Henry started the dominoes falling.  Happened to be Grant as commander, but I don't think it would have mattered who did it.  Not that the two ddn't significantly help him, because they did.  I believe Winfield Scott actually gets credit for the overall concept, though, as part of his Anaconda Plan. 

As Izzy pointed out, the intial defensive lines didn't make sense.  There was simply no way to defend everything.  It's similar, but on a much larger scale, to the problems the other Johnston faced in Virginia during the winter/ spring of 1862.  Die-hards wanted to protect every foot of "sacred Virginia soil," but he didn't have the troops or terrain to do and realized it.  So he pulled back to the Rappahannock, which made a good defensive line for over a year and a half.

A.S. Johnston and his successors didn't have such a luxury, for several reasons.  First, rivers tend to flow more north-south in the western theater, so there aren't too many to make good defensive lines along.  Second, any major adjustment to the lines that might make them defensible was going to leave someone unprotected.  As in a major portion of one or more states, and this simply wasn't a politically viable option to the Confederacy or its generals. 



 Posted: Wed Dec 3rd, 2008 02:16 am
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ole
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Donelson was by far the most formidable. The navy might have taken it, but it would have been a dear price. It had to be taken from the landward side. And Ron is quite correct, another general might have taken it -- W.H.L Wallace for example. Or Smith. But it was Grant.

Mostly I think that Grant didn't take it, but Floyd and Pillow gave it away. And if Sid Johnston had properly manned it, not even Grant could have taken it. Big fubar.

Ole



 Posted: Sat Dec 6th, 2008 05:25 pm
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Wrap10
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It seems like there has always been a sense of inevitability about forts Henry and Donelson, that they were destined to fall no matter what. Maybe this is one reason why they seem to get so little attention relative to other battles and campaigns from the war. Even so, it's somewhat surprising that they garner so little attention, because I think it's very hard to overstate their importance. Everything that happened in the West can be traced back to the fall of these two forts. And the West is where the Union truly won the war.

So perhaps the real question is whether the South could have held those two forts, and the line they helped defend. As it turned out, those forts were the weakest link in the chain, and when they snapped, the chain itself became useless and had to be abandoned. But did it have to be that way? I'm not so sure it did. Neither fort was anywhere near as well prepared to receive an attack as it should have been, and as it could have been. It wasn't as if the Confederates did not have time. For the most part, it was simply a case of too little getting done, and far too late when they finally realized how serious the situation truly was. The lack of urgency displayed by the Confederates where the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers were concerned is truly astonishing.

There was a seemingly endless string of foul-ups made by the Confederates where the Kentucky line was concerned. Mostly, I think, by A.S. Johnston and Leonidas Polk. It's hard to know where to start, but maybe one of the most glaring was the tunnel vision that Johnston and Polk seemed to have regarding their own little corners of the world. Johnston at Bowling Green and Polk at Columbus.

Another is that unlike their defenses along the Mississippi River, there was no in-depth defense along either the Tennessee or Cumberland rivers. If Fort Henry fell on the Tennessee, or Fort Donelson on the Cumberland, that was it - there was nothing else behind them. No more forts, no obstructions, no nothing. Not even at Nashville, to speak of at least, which is almost beyond belief. Nashville was one of the most important southern cities in the Western Theater, if not the most important, and there was practically no defenses there. The fight for Nashville took place at Fort Donelson. The city itself fell without any fight at all.

Concerning Fort Henry, looking at a map shows how devastating it was for the South once it fell. The capture of this single fort allowed the Union navy to control the Tennessee River clear down to Alabama. In a single afternoon, they completely outflanked the entire Confederate defensive line in Kentucky. Just like that. That's a big reason why when the Confederates finally fell back, they ended up retreating all the way down into Alabama and Mississippi - they had to get south of the Tennessee before the Yankees used that river to get behind them.

In fact, that's the real importance of the fall of Fort Henry. Fort Donelson is the one that gets most of the attention, but once Fort Henry fell, the Union had the ability to outflank fort Donelson even if the Confederates held onto it. The real significance of Fort Donelson's capture wasn't so much the fort itself, as the 12,000 to 15,000 defenders taken prisoner there. This was an incredible blow to the South, and Johnston especially. Had he had those troops at Shiloh, there's no telling what the difference might have been.

From start to finish in fact, the entire Fort Donelson affair was mishandled by the Confederate leadership. There were some excellent chances that were missed to deal Grant a serious blow, and possibly even cripple his army as it approached Fort Donelson. But the main point to me is that nothing about either Fort Henry or Fort Donelson was inevitable. Perhaps both forts would have fallen in any case, even with better preparation and leadership. But we'll never know, since they had neither.

As for Grant, his leadership in this campaign is in stark contrast to that of Johnston, Polk, Floyd, or Pillow on the Confederate side. He was not yet the Grant of 1863 or 1864, and he made mistakes, but compared with some of the generals on the southern side, he was a model of decisiveness and daring. He was also seriously overconfident in his ability to capture Fort Donelson quickly, and got burned by the same penchant for underestimating the enemy that got him in trouble at Shiloh. But as he later did at Shiloh, he kept his head when the crisis hit, and eventually won the day. I do think he had an assist from Floyd, Pillow, and Buckner - as well as Johnston in the bigger picture - but that doesn't take away from his response to what could have been a staggering blow to his army.

Perry



 Posted: Sat Dec 6th, 2008 05:59 pm
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ole
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Another super post, Wrap 10. Donelson was the lead domino. Without Donelson, there was no Nashville. Without Nashville, there was no Atlanta. Right there, at that time, the CSA lost it. That it took another three years is a tribute unmatched in anyone's history. But there is where the collapse started.

Ole



 Posted: Mon Dec 8th, 2008 03:05 pm
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HankC
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The Confederate strategy is to defend everything, everywhere but with few resources that precludes a defense in depth. This strategy does not waver through the war. Nashville is very easily attacked from any side (similar to Atlanta and unlike Richmond in the east) so defending it requires many more resources. To directlry attack Nashville renders it useless to the defenders except as a symbolic token of resistance.

At the time of Donelson everyone is still an amateur. Remember that a small civil war *division* is larger than any previous US *army* other than Scott's in the Mexican war.

Won oneders if anyone other than Grant would go directly after Henry and Donelson and in winter to boot. One of his traits is not committing strategy to paper except in the form of orders to subordinates. Hence he maintains both security and flexibilty.

I think that anyone else would have go after territory; Grant wants to capture the armies, not land.


HankC



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