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1862: February

[ Burnside Expedition | Capture of Fort Henry | Battle of Fort Donelson | Battle of Valverde ]


While Lincoln continued to worry about the lack of activity from the main army located around Washington, February was a month of considerable success for Union troops elsewhere, with a new hero appearing in the west. Victories in the western theater, combined with a successful joint naval and army campaign along the Atlantic coast, had the Confederacy reeling, but Lincoln could not get McClellan to apply the final coup de grace.

Burnside Expedition

Burnside Expedition
Back in October, 1861, General Ambrose Burnside was instructed to create a Coast Division, comprised of ships and troops (mostly gathered from North Atlantic sea coast areas) intended to be used along the Atlantic Coast in order to maintain that blockade that was part of Winfield Scott's Anaconda Plan. By the beginning of January 1862, the ships (a rather motley fleet) and men were gathered in Annapolis.

McClellan ordered the division to head down to Pamlico Sound, supported by a U.S. naval squadron under Admiral Louis M. Goldsborough. They were to use the Hatteras Inlet, which had been captured by the Union in August, to enter the sound. Setting off in early January, the fleet ran into a gale and then had trouble getting through the inlet. Finally, the fleet and troops made it into the inland waters.

Landing troops on Roanoke Island
Burnside's first objective was the Confederate controlled Roanoke Island, which controlled access to Albemarle Sound. The island's fortifications were manned by about 3,000 men under Col. Henry M. Shaw. On February 7th, the Union force steamed north to launch its attack. Burnside's division, supported by Goldsborough, bombarded the Confederate position and landed the troops on the island by the end of that day. The following day, the Confederate fortifications were captured, along with over 2,500 prisoners and 32 cannon.

Capture of Fort Henry: February 6

Commadore Foote's flotilla
Two rivers, the Tennessee and Cumberland, their mouths just a few miles apart on the Ohio River in Kentucky, flowed in parallel courses from the southeast in Tennessee, at which point the former's course came from further south in Mississippi and Alabama, originating back north in Tennessee, while the later flowed from more to the east, its source further north in eastern Kentucky. As the Union army was sitting near the river mouths in Cairo, these waterways formed an threatening invasion route for the Northerners to sail into Tennessee and plunge further into the Confederacy. To prevent this from happening, the Confederates built a forts on each river, just south of the Tennessee border where they were but twelve miles apart. Fort Henry was built on the east bank of the Tennessee and Fort Donelson on the west bank of the Cumberland.

When Grant was making his advance against Belmont, a probing advance by a Union force led by General C.F. Smith along the Tennessee got within three miles of Fort Henry. Smith reported to Grant that "I think two ironclad gunboats would make short work of Fort Henry," so of course Grant asked for permission to move against the fort. In short order, Halleck ordered the attack and on February 3rd, Grant set off down river with 23 regiments, accompanied by a fleet, including four ironclad gunboats, led by Commodore Andrew H. Foote.

Attack on Fort Henry
Fort Henry, manned by forces under General Lloyd Tilghman, was located on the east side of the Tennessee River, so that it could have direct communication with Fort Donelson. This meant, however, that it was in a poor strategic position, for high banks on the west side of the river dominated its low-lying situation. Besides this disadvantage, the rising river actually put a number of the Confederate guns under water and threatened the fort's magazine. As Grant's forces gathered for their attack, Tilghman realized the futility of his position, so he evacuated the infantry to Fort Donelson, leaving only a small force to delay the inevitable capture of the fort by the Union. On February 6th, Foote's ironclads began their bombardment of the fort. The Confederates returned fire for about two hours, at which time Tilghman surrendered his command to Foote, Grant's troops not making it to the fort until about an hour after the surrender.

This was the first major Union victory in the western theater, and while Grant did not participate in the actual battle, his planning and determination were clearly demonstrated. The victory, which Halleck reported with the words "Fort Henry is ours. The flag of the Union is reestablished on the soil of Tennessee. It will never be removed," was great celebrated in North and had the important consequence of opening the Tennessee River to the Union ships. This was immediately demonstrated by a foray of three gunboats, led by Lieut. Phelps, as far up the river as Muscle Shoals, Alabama, the limit of navigation. Phelps was able to wreck an important railroad bridge, destroy Confederate supplies and capture several Southern vessels.

Battle of Fort Donelson: February 14-16

As soon as his expedition had captured Fort Henry, on February 6th, Grant sent a dispatch stating "I shall take and destroy Fort Donelson on the 8th and return to Fort Henry." Grant was a bit optimistic, but not by much.

After the loss of Fort Henry, the commander of Confederate forces in the western theater, General A.S. Johnston, considering the fact that his 14,000 troops in eastern Kentucky, under Gen. Hardee, faced Buell's 40,000, decided to pull his troops back behind the Cumberland, abandoning Kentucky to the Union. In order to buy time for this movement, he reinforced Fort Donelson, whose commander, General John B. Floyd, was expected to hold out as long as possible.

Storming of Fort Donelson
Meanwhile, Grant had to delay a bit, as he was gathering more troops and his naval support had to sail down the Tennessee and then back up the Cumberland to get to Fort Donelson. Donelson was a much stronger position than Henry, and was better defended. On February 12th, Grant moved his troops into position around Fort Donelson, then on the 14th, he ordered Foote's ships, which had finally arrived, to open their assault on the fort. They did, but the Confederate guns dug in along the bank were able to disable or force the retreat of the Union boats.

Storming Fort Donelson
Floyd knew he could not hold out for long, so he planned to escape with his troops to the south and march to join the main Confederate force at Nashville. The Confederates made an attempt to breakout, but despite initial success, they were eventually pulled back to their defenses. Meanwhile, Grant launched an attack on the northern end of the fort, gaining a position on a ridge which allowed Union guns to dominate the Confederate positions.

Capture of Fort Donelson
On Feb. 16th, a Confederate council-of-war decided that surrender was the only option and Gen. S.B. Buckner sent Grant a request for parley towards that end. Grant wrote back, "No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted." Buckner had no choice but to reply that he was compelled "to accept the ungenerous and unchivalrous terms which you propose." From thence, Grant was known as "Unconditional Surrender" Grant.

Thousands of Confederate prisoners were taken and the way opened for Union advance into Tennessee. In response, the Confederate forces and Tennessee government in Nashville were evacuated and the citizens were sent into a panic. The city was occupied by Buell's forces on Feb. 25th, the first Confederate capital captured by the Union.

Battle of Valverde: Feb. 20-21

From their base in the Confederate Territory of Arizona, General Henry Hopkins Sibley, with "Sibley's Texas Rangers," invaded northern New Mexico Territory as the opening gambit in an ambitious plan to occupy Santa Fe, then capture the important gold fields of Colorado, take Fort Laramie on the Oregon Trail, and finally head west to take control of Nevada and California.

Sibley's first objective was the main Union army post Fort Craig, in southern New Mexico--or according to the Confederates, in northern Arizona. The troops at Fort Craig were mostly raw volunteers and their commander, Colonel Edward Canby, would not offer battle to Sibley, so Sibley positioned his troops between Craig and the Union headquarters in Santa Fe. On February 20th, preliminary skirmishes took place, and then as Sibley moved north towards the town of Valverde, Craig sent out his troops to impede Sibley's advance. The forces met at a ford on Velvarde Creek. The bloody engagement ended with the Union troops forced to withdraw back to Fort Craig, but Selbey's losses, in men and horses and mules, hampering the rest of his campaign in New Mexico.

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