This Day in the Civil War

Monday Feb. 17 1862

Today was the day that Gens. Floyd and Pillow, the two Confederate commanders of Ft. Donelson, Tenn., who had abandoned their 12,000 men there to capture by Gen. U.S. Grant, arrived in Nashville to face the music. Gen. Grant, when word of his triumph reached Washington, got a new nickname to go with his initials--”Unconditional Surrender Grant” the papers were calling him--as well as a new rank as he was promoted to Major General of Volunteers with amazing speed. The fall of Donelson had sealed the complete loss of Kentucky to the Union, and left Tennessee on the "severely endangered" list. Civilians in Nashville were packing frantically and leaving town in droves, to whatever rear areas they thought might be safer. Amazingly enough neither Floyd nor Pillow were ever court-martialed for their dereliction of duty. The other general who abandoned the fort to its fate, Nathan Bedford Forrest, at least brought his entire cavalry force through Union lines to safety. They would arrive in Nashville tomorrow.

Tuesday Feb. 17 1863

The captain of a ship is the last of the absolute monarchs, by law and custom, even when the ship in question is a lowly tugboat providing hauling services to the U.S. Navy. Thus it was today that the captain of the Federal boat Hercules was towing a chain of seven coal barges down the Mississippi River. Her captain had been warned that while his destination, Memphis, Tenn., was firmly in Union hands, the same could not be said about the Arkansas shoreline on the opposite side of the river. The captain, alas, ignored this wise advice and came down the channel on the Arkansas side. Sure enough, while his navigation was sound enough, his judgment of the political tides was not. His vessel was set upon by fierce Confederate and guerilla fire and was shortly captured. Hercules was soon seen to be burning, and the Confederates were making an effort to detach and save the coal barges. The Union gunboats, although not willing to venture into danger themselves, launched a barrage of long-range fire and drove the guerillas off.

Wednesday Feb. 17 1864

The history of the Confederate submarine force had by and large not been a happy one up to this point, as the various efforts promoted by different inventors had proven far more lethal to their own crews, often including the inventors, than they were dangerous to Union ships. All that changed today as the CSS “Hunley” did what she was built to do: attacked and sank a U.S. sloop of the blockade, the USS “Housatonic.” The “Hunley” was not, at this point, a true submarine but what was known as a “semi-submersible”, designed to ride so low in the water as to be very hard to see. As true torpedoes had not yet been invented, her offensive weaponry was a bomb attached to a long spar on the front of the craft. Detected, as planned, at the very last moment, ship, spar and bomb slammed into the “Housatonic” just forward of the mizzenmast as the sloop tried frantically to slip anchor and back up. The explosion of the bomb detonated the sloop’s magazine and she sank almost at once.

Friday Feb. 17 1865

Twin milestones were reached in the War of Southern Rebellion today, and both occurred in the state that had been the leader of the secession movement that had led to the war--South Carolina. On the coast, the guns of Charleston fell silent tonight after 567 continuous days of defensive combat operations, and the city was abandoned. Forts Moultrie, Sumter, Johnson, Beauregard and Castle Pinkney were closed, and the troops who had manned them so successfully and so long were sent North to join the final defenses of Richmond. Every gunboat in port was burned, blown up or scuttled; only the CSS “Columbia” was found in condition fit to be refloated and used by the Federal navy. Further inland another blow just as heavy was struck as the South Carolina capital of Columbia was taken after the defending troops, including a rearguard of Wade Hampton’s cavalry legion, departed. Civil leaders rode out to General Sherman’s lines and surrendered the town. In the midst of the Union celebrations catastrophe occurred: fire broke out, was fanned by strong winds, and destroyed much of the city. Sherman blamed Hampton’s men for setting fire to cotton bales to keep them from Union confiscation. Confederates blamed drunken Union troops, liberated slaves, just-released Union prisoners, or Sherman personally.

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