By early March, General P.G.T. Beauregard had arrived in Tennessee to take command of Major General Leonidas Polk’s Confederates at Columbus, Kentucky, on the Mississippi River. The fall of Forts Henry and Donelson, along with Nashville, had left Polk isolated and, despite his assertion that Columbus was the “Gibraltar of the West,” Beauregard directed him to abandon the place and fall back southward, down the Mississippi.
A new defensive line was established from Corinth and Iuka in Mississippi on the right (east) to Island Number 10 and New Madrid in Missouri on the left (west). Beauregard notified General Albert Sidney Johnston, commanding the Western Theater, of this move. Johnston, reorganizing Confederates in Middle Tennessee, responded, “You must now act as seems best to you. The separation of our armies is for the present complete.”
About 7,000 Confederate troops, supported by a small flotilla of wooden gunboats and 140 guns, held Beauregard’s western flank at Island Number 10 in the Mississippi and New Madrid Bend, a peninsula created by an “S” bend in the river. The Confederates defended against western enemy advances and blocked the passage of Federal shipping. They also blocked the land route southward at Tiptonville. The Confederate commander in the New Madrid sector, Brigadier General John P. McCown, warned his superiors that the region would not last six hours if attacked. His artillery chief, James Trudeau, inspected Island Number 10 and reported that it was “in no measure fortified.” It was quickly reinforced with 10 artillery companies.
Meanwhile, Major General Henry W. Halleck, commanding the Federal Department of Missouri at St. Louis, feared that Polk’s Confederates might move north and attack the Federal supply base at Cairo, Illinois. To counter, Halleck assigned Major General John Pope to reinforce Cairo while leading a force down the Mississippi to attack the Confederates at New Madrid and Island Number 10. Pope raised a new 12,500-man “Army of the Mississippi” at Commerce, Missouri, about 50 miles from New Madrid. The force mobilized quickly but was soon slowed by steady rain and mud. Pope’s ultimate objective was Island Number 10, which was now highly fortified and most responsible for blocking Federal river traffic. But first Pope had to take New Madrid.
Pope’s advance units clashed with Brigadier General M. Jeff Thompson’s Missouri partisans, which were hopelessly outnumbered and forced to run 16 miles from Sikeston to New Madrid. The partisans left behind some of their new, experimental cannon, which Pope inspected and reported to Halleck, “The pieces of artillery are of small caliber, breechloading, beautifully rifled, and handsomely mounted on four wheels, drawn by two horses each. They have an ingenious repeating apparatus at the breech, and were undoubtedly made for service in this swampy, low region.”
Just as the Confederates from Columbus began manning the garrisons on the Mississippi, Pope’s Federals arrived outside New Madrid. Pope had a decisive advantage in troop strength, but he wanted to wait for support from Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote’s gunboat fleet before attacking. Pope’s main concern was nearby Confederate gunboats, which could stop an infantry attack. Pope also waited for his own artillery–three 24-pounders and an eight-inch howitzer. Pope seized Point Pleasant on March 5, which cut New Madrid off from the south. However, Foote would not be coming up any time soon, as he explained:
“The gunboats have been so much cut up in the late engagements at Forts Henry and Donelson in the pilot houses, hulls, and disabled machinery, that I could not induce the pilots to go in them again in a fight until they are repaired. I regret this, as we ought to move in the quickest possible time, but I have declined doing it, being utterly unprepared, although General Halleck says go, and not wait for repairs; but that can not be done without creating a stampede amongst the pilots and most of the newly made officers, to say nothing of the disasters which must follow if the rebels fight as they have done of late.”
During that time, Beauregard formally took command of the Confederates in western Tennessee and northern Mississippi, as well as those at New Madrid and Island Number 10. He called them the “Army of the Mississippi” (the “the” was dropped later) and proclaimed that so far in the war, their losses were “about the same as those of the enemy.” Despite recent setbacks, “those reverses, far from disheartening, must nerve us to new deeps of valor and patriotism, and should inspire us with unconquerable determination to drive back our invaders.”
As Pope continued waiting for support, Foote provided an update to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles:
“The Benton is underway and barely stems the strong current of the Ohio, which is 5 knots in this rise of water, but hope, by putting her between two ironclad steamers to-morrow, she will stem the current and work comparatively well… I hope on Wednesday (March 12) to take down seven ironclad gunboats and 10 mortar boats to attack Island No. 10 and New Madrid… We are doing our best, but our difficulties and trials are legion.”
On March 12, nine days after reaching New Madrid, Pope’s heavy siege artillery arrived. The Federals spent the night deploying the guns to begin laying siege to the two forts defending New Madrid, Thompson and Bankhead, as well as the 20 Confederate guns. With his troops in position, the Federal siege guns opened with a sudden and massive bombardment through the foggy dawn of the 13th. The barrage caught the Confederate gunboats by surprise; they had not even gotten started when the firing began. Soon the Confederate artillery responded, taking out one 24-pounder and some field pieces.
Pope planned to focus on capturing Fort Bankhead on the Confederates’ right, but their gunboats arrived and forced Pope to change his strategy. The Confederate artillery was strong enough to prevent a frontal assault, but General McCown, with just 3,500 men against Pope’s 12,500, received word that Brigadier General Franz Sigel was on the way with 40 Federal regiments to reinforce Pope. McCown knew it was just a matter of time before he would have to evacuate or surrender.
That night, Captain George N. Hollins withdrew his Confederate gunboat squadron (the C.S.S. Livingston, Polk, and Pontchartrain) and used steamers to evacuate McCown’s defenders. During a violent storm, they pulled back to more fortified positions at Island Number 10, about 10 miles upriver on the Mississippi’s east bank. The Confederates spiked their guns to render them useless to the enemy, but they left behind many other valuable supplies in their disorganized retreat.
The next day, Pope’s men discovered that McCown had abandoned his positions. The Federals entered New Madrid and the forts without opposition, recovering the supplies and artillery the Confederates had left behind. Pope began planning to attack his main target, Island Number 10, and fortifications along the Tennessee bank of the river. Meanwhile, Foote’s naval fleet finally left Cairo to support Pope; it consisted of seven ironclad gunboats, one wooden gunboat, 10 mortar boats, a coal barge, two ordnance steamers, and two army transports. Confederate cavalry stationed at Hickman, Kentucky, fled as the fleet approached.
The fall of New Madrid left the Confederates at Island Number 10 isolated from communications and supplies. It also trapped them in the swamps east of New Madrid, where Pope would confront them next month.
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