|View single post by Wrap10|
|Posted: Sat Dec 6th, 2008 06:25 pm||
|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.