The Legal Tender Act

February 25, 1862 – President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill into law establishing the first Federal paper currency in U.S. history–the “U.S. Note.”

Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

By this time, the northern banking community was nearing collapse. Doubts about the Federals’ ability to win the war and a possible European recognition of Confederate independence had prompted panic buying of precious metals, resulting in a gold shortage. This shortage hindered Federal efforts to obtain loans or repay debts. In a message to Congress, Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase finally conceded: “I came with reluctance to the conclusion that the legal tender clause is a necessity. Immediate action is of great importance. The Treasury is nearly empty.”

The “legal tender clause” was a measure that would enable the U.S. Treasury to print paper money that was not backed by specie (i.e., precious metals such as gold or silver). Prior to this, all American currency had value based on its ability to be converted to specie. The printing of this new paper money would be financed by bond sales.

Chase called the issuance of paper money “indispensably necessary” as a means to increase the money supply and help pay for the war. Printing money out of thin air sparked intense debate in Congress, with most Democrats opposing and most Republicans favoring the move. Republican William P. Fessenden of Maine, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, acknowledged that it was “of doubtful constitutionality… It is bad faith… It shocks all my notions of political, moral, and national honor…” however, “to leave the government without resources in such a crisis is not to be thought of.”

Republican Congressman Elbridge C. Spaulding of New York, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee and chairman of a sub-committee working on wartime emergency measures, proposed printing $150 million in paper money. This would pay for all debts except import tariffs and interest on the national debt. Spaulding declared:

“The bill before us is a war measure, a necessary means of carrying into execution the power granted in the Constitution ‘to raise and support armies’… These are extraordinary times, and extraordinary measures must be resorted to in order to save our Government and preserve our nationality.”

Democratic Congressman George Pendleton of Ohio countered:

“The wit of man has never discovered a means by which paper currency can be kept at par value, except by its speedy, cheap, certain convertibility into gold and silver… prices will be inflated… incomes will depreciate; the savings of the poor will vanish; the hoardings of the widow will melt away; bonds, mortgages, and notes–everything of fixed value–will lose their value.”

A banker argued that “gold and silver are the only true measure of value. These metals were prepared by the Almighty for this very purpose.” Constitutionalists asserted that Congress only had the power to “coin” money, which meant create coin, not money based on worthless paper. Moreover, allowing for the payment of debts with this paper violated the Constitution’s contracts clause.

Republican Congressman Samuel Hooper of Massachusetts contended, “Every intelligent man knows that coined money is not the currency of the country,” because state banknotes were the prime medium of exchange, and they often depreciated in value. Hooper stated that the real question was whether national paper money would have “as much virtue… as the notes of banks which have suspended specie payments.”

Lawmakers added a provision authorizing payment of bond interest in specie, up to six percent. It was hoped that this would encourage more bond sales, which would finance the new currency. Tariffs would also continue to be paid in specie to finance interest payments on the bonds.

The Republican-dominated Congress, influenced by increasing pressure from the Treasury, business leaders, and bankers, ultimately cast the votes needed to approve the bill. Three-fourths of congressional Democrats opposed the measure, but their minority status could not overcome the three-fourths of Republicans in favor. Lincoln, admittedly no expert in finance, signed the measure into law.

The Legal Tender Act created the first national monetary system based on paper, or fiat, currency. The new currency, which featured the image of Treasury Secretary Chase, was called “greenbacks” due to the green ink used to print the notes. Issuing paper money in place of specie was intended as a wartime emergency measure only. Attorney General Edward Bates wrote a legal opinion arguing the law’s validity because it fell under the Constitution’s “necessary and proper” clause. Ironically, Chase himself would later rule this measure unconstitutional as Supreme Court chief justice after the war.

The first $150 million in notes were to begin issuance in April; ultimately $400 million was circulated. The paper money helped restore enough investor confidence to sell the $500 million in six-percent bonds issued at the same time. It also provided access to the funds that had been hoarded since the financial crisis of December. Paper money circulation ended when specie currency was finally restored in 1879.

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References

Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 134; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 7452; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 323; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 114; Jackson, Donald Dale, Twenty Million Yankees: The Northern Home Front (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 58-59; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 164; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 175; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 432-33; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 444-46

The Fall of Nashville

February 24, 1862 – Federal forces invaded Tennessee and seized the first Confederate state capital of the war.

The Federal capture of Fort Donelson opened an invasion route into Tennessee, making Nashville the next logical target. However, two Federal military departments operated in the area, and each seemed reluctant to cooperate with the other.

Gen Don Carlos Buell | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Gen Don Carlos Buell | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Brigadier General Don Carlos Buell, commanding the Department of the Ohio, had jurisdiction over eastern Tennessee. Buell had vacillated when asked to support Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant’s attack on Fort Donelson, but now that the path to Nashville was opened, Buell hurried to advance on the Tennessee capital.

Major General Henry W. Halleck, commanding the Department of Missouri from St. Louis, had control over western Tennessee. Halleck argued that if Buell moved toward Nashville, the Confederates could reverse their withdrawal by coming up the Cumberland River, defeating Grant at Fort Donelson, and isolating Buell deep in hostile territory.

Halleck, who had complained about the lack of coordination between the departments, had another idea in mind in a message to General-in-Chief George B. McClellan: “Make Buell, Grant, and (John) Pope (in Missouri) major-generals of volunteers, and give me command in the West. I ask this in return for Forts Henry and Donelson.” McClellan took no action at this time.

For the Confederates, the Fort Donelson defeat compelled General Albert Sidney Johnston, commanding the Western Theater, to pull his Army of Central Kentucky out of Bowling Green, Kentucky, and move it southward into Tennessee. Johnston wrote to Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin:

“I have ordered the army to encamp to-night midway between Nashville and Murfreesboro. My purpose is to place the force in such a position that the enemy can not concentrate his superior strength against the command, and to enable me to assemble as rapidly as possible such other troops in addition as it may be in my power to collect… I entertain hope that this disposition will enable me to hold the enemy for the present in check, and, when my forces are sufficiently increased, to drive him back.”

Johnston, who once held a defensive line across Kentucky from the Alleghenies to the Mississippi River, now had a fragile line of Confederates concentrated mostly at Cumberland Gap in the east, Murfreesboro-Nashville in the center, and Columbus, Kentucky, in the west.

Nathan Bedford Forrest | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Nathan Bedford Forrest | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Meanwhile, news of Buell’s impending advance spread panic throughout Nashville, as residents tried seizing the goods in the Public Square warehouse earmarked for the Confederate government. Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest, whose cavalry troopers had escaped Fort Donelson and were now stationed in Nashville, tried restoring order by appealing to the people’s patriotism. When that failed, his men rode through the mobs and cleared the streets with their sabers.

Forrest’s troopers then seized the warehouse and held the residents off with a firehose. The men took weapons and ammunition, 600 boxes of military uniforms, 250,000 pounds of bacon, and hundreds of wagons filled with flour and other provisions. Forrest shipped ordnance being developed in the Nashville foundry to Atlanta and destroyed the Nashville works. In addition, employees of T.M. Brennan & Company, which had been converted from manufacturing steam engines and farm machines to artillery, escaped with a valuable machine used to make rifled cannon.

Buell’s Federals began advancing along the railroad from Bowling Green on the 22nd. Advance elements and Federal gunboats approached Nashville the next day, sparking hysteria. Massive traffic jams prevented much of the food in storage from being hauled off. Therefore, tons of stores, including 30,000 pounds of bacon and ham, were burned.

Many residents joined Forrest’s cavalry headed southeast to Murfreesboro, where Johnston reorganized his Army of Central Kentucky into three divisions. Major Generals William J. Hardee and George B. Crittenden each led a division, while Brigadier General Gideon Pillow, one of the Fort Donelson escapees, led the third. Brigadier General John C. Breckinridge’s command and the cavalry units of Forrest and Colonel John A. Wharton remained unattached.

Brig Gen William "Bull" Nelson | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Brig Gen William “Bull” Nelson | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Bands playing “Yankee Doodle” signaled the arrival of Buell’s lead division across the Cumberland River from Nashville on the 24th. The bridge had been destroyed, along with any boats the troops could have used to cross the river. Buell awaited transports as well as the rest of his 9,000 men to arrive at the riverbank. Meanwhile, a 7,000-man division led by Brigadier General William Nelson approached Nashville aboard river transports, protected by the gunboat U.S.S. Cairo.

The next morning, Buell observed Nelson’s Federals entering the deserted city from their transports. Nelson met with Buell across the Cumberland and left Colonel Jacob Ammen to receive the city’s surrender from the mayor. Nashville fell without resistance, becoming the first Confederate capital to fall in the war. Grant’s victory at Fort Donelson had enabled Buell to capture this important city.

Buell soon began ferrying his men across the Cumberland to reinforce Nelson in case Confederate troops tried taking the city back. The Federals quickly occupied the state capitol and various other public buildings, chopping down trees for firewood. They also forced city officials to swear allegiance to the Union. A defiant woman cheered for Jefferson Davis as Buell rode down High Street, prompting him to report, “The mass of people appear to look upon us as invaders.” Federals seized the woman’s home and used it as a hospital.

In losing Nashville, the Confederacy lost one of its finest bases of weapons manufacturing. Professed Unionists among the citizenry led the Federals to massive stockpiles of supplies and munitions that the Confederates had left behind. Many of these supplies were to be sent to Confederates in Virginia.

The loss of the important industrial center of Nashville devastated southern morale. It also isolated Confederates in western Kentucky and Tennessee, compelling them to eventually fall back southward. The city became a vital base of Federal operations for the rest of the war.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 12707; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 130, 132-34; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 113-15; Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (New York: Da Capo Press, 1982 [original 1885, republication of 1952 edition]), p. 166; Harrison, Lowell H., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 123; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 174-76; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 402; Nevin, David, The Road to Shiloh: Early Battles in the West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 98-99; Street, Jr., James, The Struggle for Tennessee: Tupelo to Stones River (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 68, 89

The Official Inauguration of Jefferson Davis

February 22, 1862 – Jefferson Davis took the oath of office to become the first official president of the Confederacy.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Confederate President Jefferson Davis | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Davis and Vice President Alexander H. Stephens had been elected to their posts by delegates of the Montgomery convention the previous February on a provisional basis only, pending a general election. That general election had officially elected Davis and Stephens as Confederate president and vice president in November. Under the Confederate Constitution, they were to serve one six-year term and were ineligible for reelection.

Confederate officials selected February 22, George Washington’s Birthday, as the presidential inauguration day at the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. Thousands of people attended the ceremonies, which began in the Virginia Hall of Delegates and then moved outside to a canopied platform beside the statue of Washington in the Capitol Square. Davis was escorted to the platform by his black footmen; they all wore black because, as one of them said, “This… is the way we always does in Richmond at funerals and sichlike.”

On the platform, Davis took the chief executive’s oath, kissed the Bible, and delivered his inaugural address. He declared: “Whatever of hope some may have entertained that a returning sense of justice would remove the danger with which our rights were threatened, and render it possible to preserve the Union of the Constitution, must have been dispelled by the malignity and barbarity of the Northern States in the prosecution of the existing war.” He cited as evidence:

“Bastilles filled with prisoners, arrested without civil process or indictment duly found; the writ of habeas corpus suspended by Executive mandate; a State Legislature controlled by the imprisonment of members whose avowed principles suggested to the Federal Executive that there might be another added to the list of seceded States; elections held under threats of a military power; civil officers, peaceful citizens, and gentle-women incarcerated for opinion’s sake–proclaimed the incapacity of our late associates to administer a Government as free, liberal, and humane as that established for our common use.”

Davis contrasted these Federal actions to those of his administration, stating that “through all the necessities of an unequal struggle there has been no act on our part to impair personal liberty or the freedom of speech, of thought, or of the press.”

Noting the financial troubles in the North, Davis predicted a Federal economic collapse: “The period is near at hand when our foes must sink under the immense load of debt which they have incurred, a debt which in their effort to subjugate us has already attained such fearful dimensions as will subject them to burdens which must continue to oppress them for generations to come.”

Davis expressed his view that the war was a test of what the southern people were willing to endure to defend their freedom: “It was, perhaps, in the ordination of Providence that we were to be taught the value of our liberties by the price which we pay for them.”

Trying to turn a negative into a positive, Davis cited unexpected benefits from European powers adhering to the Federal blockade:

“If the acquiescence of foreign nations in a pretended blockade has deprived us of our commerce with them, it is fast making us a self-supporting and an independent people. The blockade, if effectual and permanent, could only serve to divert our industry from the production of articles for export and employ it in supplying the commodities for domestic use.”

However, he also acknowledged the recent defeats in the Western Theater and North Carolina:

“After a series of successes and victories, which covered our arms with glory, we have recently met with serious disasters. But in the heart of a people resolved to be free these disasters tend but to stimulate to increased resistance. To show ourselves worthy of the inheritance bequeathed to us by the patriots of the Revolution, we must emulate that heroic devotion which made reverse to them but the crucible in which their patriotism was refined.”

Davis concluded:

“With humble gratitude and adoration, acknowledging the Providence which has so visibly protected the Confederacy during its brief but eventful career, to thee, O God, I trustingly commit myself, and prayerfully invoke thy blessing on my country and its cause.”

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References

Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 217-18; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 113; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 84-85; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 174; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 402-03, 433; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 265-67; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q162

The Battle of Valverde

February 21, 1862 – Brigadier General Henry H. Sibley’s Confederate Army of New Mexico began its mission to conquer the New Mexico Territory, culminating in a fight at a ford on the Rio Grande.

As the year began, Sibley began his drive into the territory by advancing from El Paso, Texas, to Fort Thorn at present-day Hatch, New Mexico. His force consisted of three infantry regiments and the 5th Texas Mounted Volunteers, which totaled about 2,600 men.

Edward R.S. Canby | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Edward R.S. Canby | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Sibley planned to destroy Colonel Edward R.S. Canby’s 3,800-man Federal garrison at Fort Craig, 80 miles up the Rio Grande. From there, Sibley sought to capture Albuquerque and the territorial capital at Santa Fe, and then move into either the Colorado Territory or California (he had already put this plan in motion by dispatching 60 Confederates to capture Tucson).

The Confederates advanced northward out of Fort Thorn, with the Texans in the lead. Canby, aware of Sibley’s plan, deployed scouts and bolstered defenses while awaiting his arrival. The Confederates moved to within about a mile south of the fort on February 16. Unwilling to attack Canby’s strong defenses, the Confederates hoped to lure the Federals out to fight them in the open floodplains. Canby would not oblige.

With Sibley out due to recurring kidney disease, Colonel Tom Green met with his fellow Confederate officers to discuss their options. They could not wait Canby out because their supplies were dwindling. Thus they decided to cross to the east side of the Rio Grande, move north past Fort Craig, and seize Valverde Ford, a key point on Canby’s supply line five miles above the fort. If the Confederates could control the ford, they could live off the Federal supplies coming along that route and force Canby to come out and try taking it back.

The Confederates moved out on the 19th, crossing the Rio Grande and camping for the night at Paraje de Fra Cristobal. Federal scouts reported the move, leading Canby to conclude that Sibley aimed to occupy the bluff overlooking Fort Craig. He dispatched two regiments under Colonels Miguel Pino and Christopher “Kit” Carson to block them.

Brig Gen H.H. Sibley | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Brig Gen H.H. Sibley | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

The Confederate march resumed the next morning, with Sibley in an ambulance due to either illness or drunkenness. The men struggled forward in deep sand until they ascended the bluff and saw a large Federal force awaiting them at Valverde Ford. Sibley (or Green) trained artillery fire on the Federals, who responded with cannon of their own. The 5th Texas then charged the Federal line and sent the enemy rushing back to Fort Craig as night fell.

The fighting intensified on the 21st, as a large Federal force met the Confederate advance toward Valverde Ford. The Confederates fell back, and the Federals crossed the river in pursuit, pushing the outnumbered Texans into a ravine where they made a defensive stand. A brief lull ensued around 2 p.m. while the Federals brought their artillery across to the east side of the river.

Canby arrived on the scene and, determining that the Confederate line was too strong to attack frontally, directed his men to attack the enemy’s left flank. The Federals fended off a reckless cavalry charge as they prepared their assault. But then Green sent nearly his entire force forward in a full-scale frontal attack that the Federals had not expected.

The Confederates soon approached a six-gun artillery battery led by Captain Alexander McRae. Canby reported: “Armed with double barreled fowling pieces and revolvers, and converging as they approached, a rapid and destructive fire was poured into the battery.” The Confederates captured the guns and killed McRae after desperate fighting, a remarkable feat considering that most of the men were armed with just shotguns, muskets, and revolvers.

The Confederates then turned the cannon on the Federals, compelling many of the unseasoned volunteers to run back to Fort Craig. Canby initially believed that he could still win before acknowledging “that to prolong the contest would only add to the number of our casualties without changing the result.” He ordered a retreat, leaving his dead, wounded, and artillery on the east side of the Rio Grande.

A Confederate pursuit ended when Green accepted Canby’s flag of truce to collect the dead and wounded; both sides spent the next several days tending to the casualties. The Federals lost 263 men (68 killed, 160 wounded, and 35 missing) while Sibley lost 187 (36 killed, 150 wounded, and one missing). Most of the Federal casualties occurred during the Confederates’ full-scale frontal attack, which had turned the tide of the battle.

The nine-hour fight ended with the Federals falling back to Fort Craig, just as Sibley had hoped. But holding Valverde Ford proved untenable because the Confederates had just three days’ rations and not enough firepower to blow Canby into submission. Sibley therefore resolved to continue northward to Albuquerque, where the Federals had $250,000 worth of supplies. Although Sibley did not destroy Canby as planned, he now hoped to starve Canby out by cutting his northern supply routes at Albuquerque and Santa Fe. However, Canby’s Federals remained a threat to Confederate communication lines.

News of this Confederate victory, which did not reach the eastern states until weeks later, boosted flagging southern morale after a series of defeats in the East. Meanwhile, Sibley continued his northward advance.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 776; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 296; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 103, 110-13; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 23-27; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 173; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 287-88; Smith, Dean E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 528-29; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 687

The Death of Willie Lincoln

February 20, 1862 – President and Mrs. Lincoln’s 12-year-old son died of what doctors called “bilious,” or typhoid, fever.

Willie Lincoln | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Willie Lincoln | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

William Wallace “Willie” Lincoln had been critically ill for most of this month, with First Lady Mary Lincoln becoming increasingly hysterical as his condition worsened. Doctors tending to him speculated that the unsanitary conditions in the White House may have caused his illness. Willie finally succumbed at 5 p.m. on the 20th. This was the second of four sons the Lincolns lost; Edward Baker Lincoln had died of “consumption” at age three in 1850.

Mary Lincoln was inconsolable, prompting some to wonder if she had gone insane. For President Lincoln, this tragedy offset the recent military victories in the Western Theater. He visited his secretary, John Nicolay, after Willie’s death and said, “Well, Nicolay, my boy is gone–he is actually gone!” Sobbing, Lincoln went to tend to his eight-year-old son Tad, who was also suffering from Willie’s illness. Tad eventually recovered.

The president conducted no official business for four days, during which time he received a letter of condolence from General-in-Chief George B. McClellan:

“You have been a kind true friend to me in the midst of the great cares and difficulties by which we have been surrounded during the past few months. Your confidence has upheld me when I should otherwise have felt weak. I am pushing to prompt completion the measures of which we have spoken, and I beg that you will not allow military affairs to give you a moment’s trouble.”

Funeral services for Willie took place in the White House at 2 p.m. on the 24th. Congress adjourned for that day so members could attend the services in the midst of one of the worst wind and rainstorms in Washington history. Willie was temporarily interred in Oak Hill Cemetery at Georgetown before he could be permanently buried in Springfield. The president quickly returned to work while he continued grieving.

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References

Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 74; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 122, 131, 133; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 7076-87; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 251; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 112; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 418-19; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 167-68, 173-75; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q162

The Fall of Fort Donelson

February 16, 1862 – Federals scored their greatest victory of the war up to this time, generating a new northern military hero.

Late on the 15th, the Confederate commanders surrounded in Fort Donelson had agreed to surrender their force. As the two ranking generals, John B. Floyd and Gideon Pillow, escaped across the Cumberland River, Brigadier General Simon B. Buckner sent a message to the Federal commander, his old friend Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant:

“Sir: In consideration of all the circumstances governing the present situation of affairs at this station, I propose to the Commanding Officer of the Federal forces the appointment of Commissioners to agree upon the terms of capitulation of the forces and fort under my command, and in that view suggest an armistice until 12 o’clock to-day.”

Federal General U.S. Grant | Image Credit: Wikispaces.org

Federal General U.S. Grant | Image Credit: Wikispaces.org

Grant shared Buckner’s message with Brigadier General Charles F. Smith, a division commander in Grant’s army and a senior officer whom Grant admired. Smith advised, “No terms with traitors, by God!” Grant directed his men to prepare for an attack as he sent a messenger to Buckner with his reply:

“Sir: Yours of this date, proposing armistice, and appointment of Commissioners, to settle terms of capitulation is just received. No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.”

This response shocked Buckner, considering his relationship with Grant before the war; he had even loaned Grant money when he fell on hard times. Compared to the liberal terms that General P.G.T. Beauregard had offered to Major Robert Anderson at Fort Sumter, Buckner considered this insulting. But having no choice in the matter, he responded:

“Sir: The distribution of the forces under my command, incident to an unexpected change of commanders, and the overwhelming force under your command, compel me, notwithstanding the brilliant success of the Confederate arms yesterday, to accept the ungenerous and unchivalrous terms which you propose.”

Grant and Buckner met to discuss the surrender, where they soon rekindled their pre-war friendship. Grant ordered rations distributed to the Confederates and allowed their burial details to enter Federal lines to inter their dead comrades. After the terms were settled, Grant offered to repay Buckner’s old loan to him; Buckner politely declined.

Toward the day’s end, Grant dispatched Brigadier General Lew Wallace’s division to return to Fort Henry and guard against any possible Confederate attack from Columbus, Kentucky. Grant then directed his remaining troops to occupy Fort Donelson. The troops ignored orders against looting and pillaging.

Fort Donelson was a tremendous victory that included the largest capture in American history: 12 to 15,000 Confederate troops, 20,000 stands of arms, 48 cannon, 17 heavy guns, around 4,000 draft animals, and vast amounts of supplies and provisions. The Federals had sustained 2,691 casualties (507 killed, 1,976 wounded, and 208 missing) in the operations in and around Fort Donelson, while the Confederates lost an estimated 1,454 (327 killed and 1,127 wounded) in addition to the prisoners taken. Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest’s 700 Confederate cavalry were not part of the surrender; they had slipped through the Federal lines during the night and escaped by crossing an icy swamp too deep for infantry.

The dual victories at Forts Henry and Donelson permanently destroyed the Confederates’ defensive line across Kentucky by punching a hole between Confederate forces at Bowling Green and Columbus, and opening Tennessee for a Federal invasion. The wins also gave the Federals control of the important Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. The gunboat fleet soon continued up the Cumberland to Dover, where it destroyed the important Tennessee Iron Works before continuing on toward Clarksville.

With Nashville and the Deep South now vulnerable to Federal advances, General Albert Sidney Johnston, commanding the Confederate Western Theater, withdrew the Army of Central Kentucky from Bowling Green to Murfreesboro. This meant that it was only a matter of time before the Confederates at Columbus would have to fall back as well.

Confederate officials quickly began looking for someone to blame for the devastating loss. Some blamed Navy Secretary Stephen R. Mallory for failing to develop a naval squadron that could match the Federal gunboats. However, while Fort Henry had been won by the navy, Fort Donelson was won by Grant and his army. Grant’s victory, along with his unequivocal message, made him an instant hero throughout the northern states, as some newspapermen quipped that the “U.S.” in his name now stood for “Unconditional Surrender.”

Mass celebrations swept the northern states when news first arrived on the 17th that Fort Donelson had fallen. An editorial in the Chicago Tribune noted that the city “reeled mad with joy.” A Cincinnati correspondent reported, “Everybody was shaking hands with everybody else, and bewhiskered men embraced each other as if they were lovers.” Some pundits even began predicting that these victories would soon end the war.

At Washington, officials planned to hold a grand celebration to commemorate the victories alongside George Washington’s Birthday. At St. Louis, the Union Merchants Exchange closed temporarily as speculators sang patriotic songs and cheered Major General Henry W. Halleck at his headquarters.

President Lincoln quickly promoted Grant to major general of volunteers. In signing the commission, Lincoln explained that while he could not adequately judge the fighting ability of eastern men, the fighting spirit of Grant and other fellow Illinoisans proved that “if the Southerners think that man for man they are better than our… western men generally, they will discover themselves in a grievous mistake.”

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 70-71; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (16 Feb 1862); Cochran, Michael T., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 694-95; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 272-73 | 280-81; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 129-30; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 7055; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 211-14, 315; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 111; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 417-18; Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (New York: Da Capo Press, 1982 [original 1885, republication of 1952 edition]), p. 158-59; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 106-07; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 171-72; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 735; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 401-02; Nevin, David, The Road to Shiloh: Early Battles in the West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 95-97; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 251; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 98, 267

Fort Donelson: The Confederate Breakout

February 15, 1862 – The Confederates tried breaking out of the Federal grip around Fort Donelson before deciding on whether to surrender.

Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant, commanding the Federal troops surrounding Fort Donelson, met with Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote, commanding the naval flotilla that had been severely damaged in the aborted attack on the fort the previous day. Foote, nursing his wound from that engagement, informed Grant that the gunboats would have to return to Mound City for repairs. This left Grant to place Fort Donelson under siege. However, the siege plans changed when the Confederates attacked on the morning of the 15th.

At 5 a.m., Brigadier General Gideon Pillow assembled his Confederates for their attempt to break through the southern part of the Federal line around Fort Donelson and escape to Nashville. Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry troopers began the action by skirmishing with the Federal pickets in the northern sector to divert Federal attention from Pillow’s impending assault to the south.

Kentucky militia commander Simon B. Buckner | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Kentucky militia commander Simon B. Buckner | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Pillow’s advance began in full force around 7 a.m., aided by Confederates under Brigadier General Simon B. Buckner. The Federals blocking them were commanded by Brigadier General John A. McClernand. Fighting soon raged all around the Wynn’s Ferry road leading directly to Nashville.

After several hours of hard combat, the breakout appeared successful. McClernand had been pushed back nearly a mile, and the road to Nashville was open for the Confederates to take. Both Pillow and the overall commander, Brigadier General John B. Floyd, telegraphed General Albert Sidney Johnston, commanding the Confederate Western Theater, that they had won a great victory.

Grant, hearing the gunfire, hurried back from the river to prepare for a counterattack. He told his officers: “The position on the right (south) must be retaken. Some of our men are pretty badly demoralized, but the enemy must be more so, for he has attempted to force his way out, but has fallen back; the one who attacks first now will be victorious and the enemy will have to be in a hurry if he gets ahead of me.”

Grant was correct–the enemy had indeed “fallen back” as the Confederate victory began turning sour. Buckner’s diversionary attack on the Federal left had been stopped cold, and the commanders had not decided on whether to immediately escape or fall back and regroup before taking the road to Nashville. Pillow chose the latter, ordering a withdrawal back to the trenches.

Confederate General John B. Floyd | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Confederate General John B. Floyd | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Buckner protested to Floyd, who had ordered Buckner’s men to hold the road so the rest of the army could escape. Floyd went to Pillow and demanded an explanation for the withdrawal. Pillow convinced him that the road would stay open long enough to reorganize. Floyd changed his mind and sided with Pillow.

This dispute gave Grant time to direct Brigadier General Charles F. Smith’s division to attack from the north. Grant told Smith, “All has failed on our right–you must take Fort Donelson.” Smith’s Federals quickly captured the fort’s outer ramparts. Meanwhile, Grant’s third division under Brigadier General Lew Wallace shifted southward to help McClernand stem the Confederate advance. The Federal gunboats renewed their bombardment as well until the escape route was blocked and the fort surrounded.

When the fighting ended for the day, both sides held roughly the same positions they did before the battle began, but they had suffered a combined 4,000 casualties (1,000 killed and 3,000 wounded). Mary Ann “Mother” Bickerdyke tended to the cold, wounded men left lying on the battlefield and gained fame for her role in caring for Federal troops.

That evening, the Confederate commanders held a council of war at the Dover Inn. Their troops had been in their trenches for several days, exposed not only to enemy fire but the brutal rain, sleet, wind, and cold. Floyd began discussing plans to take the road to Nashville the next morning, but those plans were dashed by reports that the Federals had regained all their lost ground.

Pillow and Buckner blamed each other for failing to capitalize on the initial Confederate success that morning. Colonel Forrest, who had two horses shot out from under him in the fighting, argued that a path to escape was still open on the extreme Federal right, along the river. However, the army surgeon warned that a nighttime escape attempt could cause many deaths from exposure to the extreme cold.

Buckner urged surrender, saying, “It would be wrong to subject the army to a virtual massacre when no good would come from the sacrifice.” Pillow wanted to try another breakout, but Floyd and Buckner asserted that it could cost them three-fourths of their men, and they were not willing to sacrifice that many just to save the remaining fourth.

The three commanders finally agreed that surrender was the only option. However, Floyd and Pillow had become generals mostly due to their political careers, and as such, neither wanted to surrender personally. In particular, Floyd feared that Federal authorities might punish him for arms deals he had allegedly made with southern states as U.S. secretary of war in late 1860.

Floyd asked Pillow, his second-in-command, if he would surrender the fort if Floyd passed command to him. Pillow declined; he had vowed never to surrender and insisted that breaking his pledge would demoralize the Confederacy. Buckner said that he would surrender if the command was passed to him, if only to avoid further bloodshed without hope of victory. The men may have also thought that Buckner might get better terms from Grant, who was his friend before the war.

Floyd asked, “General Buckner, if I place you in command, will you allow me to get out as much of my brigade as I can?” Buckner said, “I will, provided you do so before the enemy receives my proposition for capitulation.” In accordance with military protocol, Floyd motioned to Pillow and said, “I turn over my command, sir.” Pillow said, “I pass it.” Buckner said, “I assume it. Give me pen, ink and paper, and send for a bugler (to sound the parley).”

This deal was unacceptable to Forrest, who declared, “I did not come here for the purpose of surrendering my command.” Pillow advised him to “Cut your way out,” and Buckner authorized Forrest to try escaping. Forrest took the route he had noted on the extreme right, leading his 700 cavalry troopers along a narrow path through a freezing swamp and snowy woods to Nashville.

On the early morning of the 16th, Floyd and Pillow slipped out of Fort Donelson, rowing across the Cumberland River under cover of freezing darkness with about 2,500 of their men.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 70-71; Bearss, Edwin C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 585; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (15 Feb 1862); Cochran, Michael T., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 694-95; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 180-81; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 12624; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 272-73; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 128-29; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 207-11; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 110; Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (New York: Da Capo Press, 1982 [original 1885, republication of 1952 edition]), p. 155-57; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 171; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 400-01; Nevin, David, The Road to Shiloh: Early Battles in the West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 82, 93-94; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 250; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 96-97