The Federal Stalemate in the Western Theater

As the year began, the Western Theater of operations for the Federal government consisted of the Department of the Ohio, commanded by Major General Don Carlos Buell at Louisville, and the Department of Missouri, commanded by Major General Henry W. Halleck at St. Louis. Buell’s jurisdiction included eastern and central Kentucky and Tennessee, while Halleck’s included Missouri and western Kentucky and Tennessee. Neither Buell nor Halleck was eager to coordinate his operations with the other, and this was straining the Federal war effort in the West.

With General-in-Chief George B. McClellan incapacitated by typhoid, President Abraham Lincoln had tried to step in and get Halleck and Buell to work together. Near the end of 1861, Lincoln had urged Halleck to move against Columbus, Kentucky, on the Mississippi River. This would prevent Confederates in western Kentucky from reinforcing Bowling Green, which was within striking distance of Buell at Louisville. Buell could then move his army into eastern Tennessee or possibly to Nashville. Lincoln followed up on New Year’s Day, urging both generals not to disturb McClellan and instructing them “to be in communication and concert at once” with each other.

Halleck responded, “I have never received a word from General Buell. I am not ready to cooperate with him. Hope to do so in a few weeks. Have written fully on the subject to Major General McClellan. Too much will ruin everything.” Buell replied, “There is no arrangement between General Halleck and myself. I have been informed by General McClellan that he would make suitable disposition for concerted action. There is nothing to prevent Bowling Green being reinforced from Columbus if a military force is not brought to bear on the latter place.”

Lincoln wrote back with nearly identical messages to both generals. He addressed the concern that Buell’s advance on Nashville would prompt Confederates to come out of Columbus by proposing that a “real or feigned attack on Columbus from up-river at the same time (as Buell’s advance) would either prevent this or compensate for it by throwing Columbus into our hands.” Lincoln reiterated that the commanders should work in concert, “unless it be your judgment and his that there is no necessity for it.” Acknowledging that they would “understand much better than I how to do it,” Lincoln warned, “Please do not lose time in this matter.”

Halleck contacted Buell as Lincoln had urged, but he did not offer to work with him: “I have had no instructions respecting co-operation. All my available troops are in the field except those at Cairo and Paducah, which are barely sufficient to threaten Columbus, etc. A few weeks hence I hope to be able to render you very material assistance, but now a withdrawal of my troops from this state (Missouri) is almost impossible. Write me fully.”

By the 3rd, McClellan had recuperated enough to send a message to Halleck. He wrote that preventing Confederates in western Tennessee from reinforcing those in the eastern part of the state was of the “greatest importance” due to the large number of Unionists in the East. McClellan directed Halleck to dispatch gunboats and one or two infantry divisions up the Cumberland River while demonstrating against Columbus to keep the Confederates occupied.

Buell also wrote Halleck, “I do not underrate the difficulties in Missouri, but I think it not extravagant to say that the great power of the rebellion in the West is arrayed on a front, the flanks of which are Columbus and Bowling Green and the center about where the railroad between those points crosses the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, including Nashville and the fortified points below.” Halleck continued insisting that he needed more men to suppress the Missouri State Guards and partisans, while Buell, McClellan, and Lincoln continued insisting that men were also needed in Kentucky and Tennessee.

The following day, Lincoln asked Buell for a progress report on the movement into eastern Tennessee that had been requested. The president was unaware that, despite the repeated urgings by himself and McClellan to liberate the Unionists in eastern Tennessee, Buell had deemed such a movement militarily expedient and decided not to comply. Lincoln asked if any arms had been sent to Unionists in that region and, as a sign of his frustration, ended the message sternly: “Answer.” On the 5th, Buell replied that “arms can only go forward for East Tennessee under the protection of an army.” He then finally explained why he had resisted moving into eastern Tennessee:

“I will confess to your excellency that I have been bound to it more by sympathy for the people of east Tennessee and the anxiety with which you and the General-in-Chief have desired it than by my opinion of its wisdom as an unconditional measure. As earnestly as I wish to accomplish it, my judgment from the first has been decidedly against it, if it should render at all doubtful the success of a movement against the great power of the Rebellion in the west, which is mainly arrayed on the line from Columbus to Bowling Green and can speedily be concentrated at any point of that line which is attacked singly.”

Lincoln wrote back expressing grave concern about “our friends in East Tennessee.” Lincoln again urged Buell to move, but he would not order him to do it. The president then visited McClellan, who was slowly recovering from his illness, and showed him Buell’s latest message. McClellan immediately wrote Buell:

“There are few things I have more at heart than the prompt movement of a strong column into eastern Tennessee. The political consequences of the delay of this movement will be much more serious than you seem to anticipate… I was extremely sorry to learn from your telegram to the President that you had from the beginning attached little or no importance to a movement in east Tennessee. I had not so understood your views, and it develops a radical difference between your views and my own which I deeply regret.

“My own general plans for the prosecution of the war made the speedy occupation of east Tennessee and its lines of railway matters of absolute necessity. Bowling Green and Nashville are in that connection of very secondary importance at the present moment. My own advance cannot, according to my present views, be made until your troops are soundly established in the eastern portion of Tennessee. If that is not possible, a complete and prejudicial change in my own plans at once becomes necessary… Halleck, from his own account, will not soon be in a condition to support properly a movement up the Cumberland. Why not make the movement independently of and without waiting for that?”

Meanwhile, Halleck reported that at best he could send 10,000 troops to aid Buell. He added, “It would be madness to attempt anything serious with such a force, and I cannot at the present time withdraw any from Missouri without risking the loss of the state.” He complained that the Federals in Missouri were demoralized by State Guards and partisans destroying bridges and telegraph wires. He stated, “I am in the condition of a carpenter who is required to build a bridge with a dull ax, a broken saw, and rotten timber.”

Besides, Halleck argued, any proposed movement against Bowling Green or Columbus would be doomed to fail: “To operate on exterior lines against an enemy occupying a central position will fail, as it has always failed in 99 cases out of a hundred. It is condemned by every military authority I have ever read.” He predicted that “it will be a repetition of the same strategic error which produced the disaster of Bull Run.”

This flurry of correspondence in the first six days of the year seemed to accomplish nothing.


  • Catton, Bruce, Grant Moves South. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, Inc., 1960.
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
  • 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.

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