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River campaign on the Mississippi: 1861 - 1862


If the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers were all avenues for federal penetration into the heart of southern territory, the Mississippi Valley was even more strategically important. In northern hands, it would cut the Confederacy in two, depriving its armies of agricultural resources - especially in cattle and horses - in the western part of the country, Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas.

In addition, controlling the Mississippi would mean cutting off the important river navigation for the North. This brought large quantities of goods, starting with cotton, to New Orleans, the largest southern city, which were then exported to Europe. All of these reasons made the river a primary objective in carrying out General Scott's "Anaconda plan". In February 1862, the Northerners therefore embarked on a river campaign aimed at Memphis, the main southern port on the middle course of the Mississippi.

New Madrid and island number 10

Immediately after Tennessee had joined Confederation in June 1861, Southern forces began to search for suitable sites for the establishment of fortifications. In order to keep the Federals off the course of the Mississippi, one location in particular caught the attention: the "Madrid Meander" (Madrid Bend). Due to the low slope between its source and its mouth, a drop of only 450 meters over 3,734 kilometers, the Mississippi fairly quickly forms a very winding and thus draws countless meanders. In the middle of the XIXth century, the river is of course not developed. On both sides of its course, there are countless lakes, swamps and backwaters, not to mention the secondary channels that Americans call "bayous".

The Madrid Bend is actually a double meander: while following a general north-south direction, the Mississippi makes two 180-degree turns - first to the right, then back - in less than 20 kilometers. At the top of the second loop is the small town of New Madrid, in the state of Missouri, which gives its name to the meander. The strategic interest of the latter lies in the fact that its configuration allows, by installing a few well-placed forts, to control a large portion of the river. The two loops are indeed relatively tight, forcing Union ships to remain under fire from Southern cannons for a dangerously long period of time.

Given the gentle slope of its course and its colossal flow, the Mississippi also formed many islands. The latter frequently change location and configuration, depending on the alluvium carried by the river's floods. Vegetation sometimes grows on these islets, if however the vagaries of the river give it time. Due to their very ephemeral nature, these islands were not named and in 1862 they were referred to by numbering from the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. The tenth - "island number 10 », Therefore - is in the middle of the first loop of the meander of Madrid. About a mile long, 400 meters wide, it is large enough to make an acceptable fortress, even if it rises only three meters above the normal level of the river. There is no point looking for island number 10 on a current map, as it did not survive the development of the river in the XXth century and no longer exists today.

Map of the Mississippi Valley in the Madrid Meander Region (author's annotations on a map from the Official Records).

Apart from its location in the middle of the river, island number 10 has another advantage: it is very difficult to approach it by land. Swampy bayous, impassable for an army, block access. On the left bank of the river, in Tennessee, there is another obstacle, Reelfoot Lake. Its origin is not fluvial but seismic: the region is indeed located on a very active fault, and the lake formed around 1811 following an earthquake. 65 kilometers long and 15 miles wide in its largest dimensions, it is more like a pond than a real lake, being in places little deeper than a puddle. Despite this, it too remains inaccessible to the heavy equipment of an army. The only land access to island number 10 is a small country road connecting it to the hamlet of Tiptonville, a few kilometers to the south.

A political offensive

On the order of Leonidas Polk, Gideon Pillow in August 1861 began work on fortifications on and around island number 10. He did the same in New Madrid, which had remained under the control of the pro-Southern Missourian State Guard: the approximately 3,000 men of General Jeff Thompson, who would earn the nickname of "Swamp rats" (Swamp Rats) during their operations in the sector. However, the two generals agreed early the following month that Columbus, Kentucky, was in a better defensive position - not least thanks to its cliffs overlooking the Mississippi. They occupied the city and devoted most of their resources to fortifying it. As a result, work in New Madrid and on Island 10 ceased completely. Polk subsequently ordered them to be retaken, deeming it necessary to have a secondary position in case Columbus was lost.

The Missouri State Guard thus built Fort Thompson to defend New Madrid, while Confederate detachments set up batteries on Island Number 10 - including one floating - and a land position, Fort du Redan, on the shore. left of the river. The work lasted all winter, and it was still very incomplete in February 1862. By this date, the Confederates had about 2,000 men on site. By making Columbus virtually untenable, the fall of forts Henry and Donelson was a game-changer. Initiating the withdrawal that would lead him to Corinth, Polk evacuated Columbus. However, he diverted part of his forces to reinforce New Madrid and the number 10 island, in this case a division of 5,000 soldiers under the command of John mccown.

In the midst of unfathomable logistical difficulties, McCown succeeded in strengthening the defenses, installing 12 heavy guns at New Madrid and about 50 on Island 10. A second entrenched position, Fort Bankhead, was established to cover the eastern approaches to New Madrid. Finally, a flotilla of six gunboats, led by Commodore George Hollins, was urgently recalled from New Orleans. Going upstream, she reached New Madrid at the beginning of March. The bulk of the southern forces remained concentrated on the left bank of the river, around the Fort du Redan. The number 10 island garrison itself was led by James Trudeau, while the forces defending New Madrid, where McCown was in charge of all Confederate forces in the meander, were under the command of 'Alexander Stewart.

The first northern movements against New Madrid were motivated by purely political imperatives. Indeed, the Missourian deputies who remained loyal to the pro-southern governor Claiborne Jackson were to meet there in March. It was therefore to prevent them that General Halleck confided to a former officer of the corps of topographic engineers, John Pope, a force of 12,000 men to capture New Madrid. The latter was the son of an Illinois lawyer, a personal friend of President Lincoln. This political mission was thus entrusted to a general no less political. Pope established his base in Commerce, Missouri, on February 21. Climatic conditions made its approach difficult: rain and snow had swelled the course of the Mississippi, and its banks were partially inundated, sometimes several kilometers inland.

The battle for New Madrid

After having delivered the first skirmishes on March 2, Pope arrived in force the next day in front of New Madrid. He was unpleasantly surprised to find the Hollins gunboats there, which the height of the Mississippi provided the defenders with appreciable support. Island 10 made it impossible to call for support from the Northern River Flotilla, which Commodore Foote was repairing after the damage suffered at Fort Donelson. Unaware of his opponent's real strength and unwilling to risk his army prematurely, Pope refrained from launching an immediate assault, and called upon Halleck for reinforcements and siege artillery. His goal, however, had been achieved before the fight even began: escorted by Thompson and his troops, the pro-Southerner Missouri legislature fled south upon arrival.

In the days that followed, the northern general launched a series of reconnaissance in force, with the aim of assessing the strength of his adversary and if possible to push him out of his entrenchments. He had little success, the fire of the southern cannons proving to be a deterrent in each of his attempts. He nevertheless won a strategic success on March 6 by occupying and fortifying the village of Point Pleasant, 8 kilometers downstream from New Madrid. The Federals installed there a battery intended to prevent the Confederates from supplying the defenses of New Madrid by the river. The next morning, Pope began a show of force against Fort Bankhead, but once again the Confederate gunboats dissuaded his subordinates from engaging in a frontal assault.

Map of operations around the meander of Madrid, from March 2 to 17, 1862 (author's notes on a map taken from Official Records).

Building on this success, Commodore Hollins' flotilla set sail for Point Pleasant to silence the Northern Battery. She cannonaded it until the evening, but to little effect. Hollins persisted for two more days, but on March 9 he had to face the facts: his unarmoured gunboats were too much. vulnerable fire from the Northerners, and they lacked firepower. He brought his hard-hit ships back to New Madrid. On the evening of March 11, the siege cannons requested by Pope were delivered to Cairo. The Northern forces succeeded in the feat of dispatching them to Pope and making them operational in less than 36 hours, catching the Confederate defenders by surprise.

These guns began to bomb New Madrid on the morning of March 13. They aimed primarily at the gunboats, to which they inflicted heavy damage. Infantry attacks had been planned, but they were unsuccessful, limiting casualties to around 100 in all. The bombardment was not very effective against the land fortifications, and the northern heavy cannons soon ran out of ammunition - but the southern generals ignored this crucial detail. After dark, McCown consulted Stewart and Hollins. All three agreed that the place was untenable, as the Federal siege artillery was now able to cut off all supplies and all retreat by the river.

McCown accordingly ordered to ’clear out hastily New Madrid. He was both helped and hampered in this by a violent storm which broke out around 11 p.m. The rain added to the confusion and made the evacuation work difficult, but it also concealed from Northerners the true nature of the traffic on the river. Fearing that it would be reinforcements, Pope refrained from launching a night assault, which allowed the Confederates to shift the bulk of their forces to the Left Bank when the day came. Even so, the southern sentries had been forgotten there, no one had thought of nailing the guns, and some of the ammunition evacuated had to be thrown into the water so as not to overload the boats. When Pope's men realized the city had been abandoned, they got hold of enough material to equip an army of 10,000 men.

Siege of an Island

Pope immediately pointed the captured artillery at the river, effectively cutting Island 10 downstream from the Mississippi. The New Madrid garrison remained all day of the 14th in front of its old positions, in the unlikely event that the Federals attempted to cross the stream to pursue them, then fell back in the direction of island number 10. Most of them had left so hastily that they had not brought any coats or blankets, and many fell ill in the following days. Their situation was all the more precarious that reinforcements and supplies should now be routed by land from Tiptonville, the Northerners having quickly installed a battery on the opposite bank, prohibiting Confederate ships from docking there. In addition, one of the gunboats and several transports now remained stranded around Island 10 as the rest of the southern naval force retreated to the south.

Also on March 14, Commodore Andrew Foote's flotilla sailed from Cairo heading south. The officer had at his disposal six armored gunboats (the USS Benton and five ships of the class City - USS Mound City, USS Carondelet, USS St. Louis, USS Cincinnati and USS Pittsburg) as well as a dozen armed barges, each of which had been fitted with a 13-inch coastal mortar. This improvised bombardment force gave the Union's river flotilla considerable firepower, but the heavy losses at Fort Donelson had made Foote overly circumspect. If he reached Island 10 on March 15, he contented himself with bombarding it from a distance with his mortars.

Foote nonetheless attempted - albeit timidly - further action on March 17, launching three of his gunboats against Fort du Redan. Contrary to the engagements of the forts Henry and Donelson, the Northerner ships would advance in the direction of the current. This meant that if any of them became ungovernable or lost their propulsion, they would drift into enemy positions rather than to the safety of the rear. Therefore, Foote fit tie the three gunboats together to deal with this eventuality. The strange assembly attacked around 11 a.m. with distant support from the rest of the flotilla, and bombarded the fort - partially inundated - until sunset, with no tangible result.

For his part, Pope received significant reinforcements, bringing his total strength to 25,000 men organized into five divisions. The Northerner general urged Foote to force the passage of Island 10 to join him in New Madrid, and allow his army to cross the Mississippi in order to take the southern fortifications from the rear. Despite Pope's insistence, however, Foote did nothing other than subject Island 10 to low-intensity bombardment for two weeks, with no more results than in his attack on March 17. Pope had to resort to an ingenious tactic to overcome: he employed his troops to clean up and expand Wilson bayou, a waterway leading directly to New Madrid bypassing the meander guarded by island number 10.

Begun on March 23, work on what was later pompously called the "Wilson Bayou Canal" was completed on April 2. Unfortunately, by this date the level of the Mississippi had started to drop, and the "canal" only allowed four transport ships to pass through New Madrid. The gunboats, whose draft was too great, remained stuck upstream. As soon as he realized this, and even before the canal was completed, Pope appealed to Halleck, and the latter ordered Foote to send at least one of his ships downstream to provide support to the army. Commander Henry Walke of theCarondelet volunteered on March 30 for this "suicide mission ».

Fall of island number 10

The ship was reinforced with everything that could be found for additional "armor": wood, chains and even… bales of straw. In preparation, a daring hand was launched against the southern battery most upstream. On the night of 1er on April 2, a detachment of 40 sailors attacked it by surprise and captured it. She nested the cannons before withdrawing. On April 3, the Northerner flotilla violently bombarded the enemy's floating battery and succeeded in destroying its moorings, causing it to drift away. After these two successes, theCarondelet Only had to wait until the next cloudy or moonless night, per Foote's orders. The opportunity finally presented itself on the evening of April 4, and the gunboat attempted to slip discreetly into the darkness. Despite the precautions taken, she was soon betrayed by the noise of her machines. The southern cannons were unleashed but theCarondelet went full steam ahead andmanages to pass, without having received a single projectile.

In the southern camp, the situation was starting to get tricky. The lack of clothing and food daily increased the number ofsick, reducing the resistance capacity of the garrison. McCown called for reinforcements, but Beauregard and Johnston, his superiors, were busy preparing for their offensive against Grant's army and had no force to send him. Abandoning Island 10 was also not an option as it would put Memphis within range of Pope's troops. Beauregard ultimately opted for a hybrid solution: he ordered McCown to fall back to a new defensive position north of Memphis, Fort Pillow, which was being completed. This movement was executed on March 31. McCown left behind 4,000 men under the command of William MacKall, a protégé of Beauregard. About 400 of these soldiers did not even have weapons.

On April 6, theCarondelet set out to silence the batteries which the Southerners had hastily installed to prevent the Federals from crossing the Mississippi. She succeeded without difficulty. In the evening, a new storm this time allowed thePittsburg to force the passage of island number 10 in turn. Thus strengthened, Pope had complete superiority over the Mississippi. On April 7, he madecross the river to the fullest of his strength, practically unopposed. Leaving only one regiment to guard Island 10, MacKall brought 2,500 men to meet him, but the Union's overwhelming numerical superiority made any attempt to counterattack suicidal. He quickly fell back to Tiptonville, but the northern gunboats and then an infantry brigade cut him off.

This maneuver left MacKall with only one escape route: Reelfoot Lake. Given the state of his army, the Southern general immediately realized the vanity of the enterprise, and surrendered before the dawn of April 8. On Island 10, the defenders attempted to block the course of the Mississippi by sinking any ships they had, but the Northerner flotilla prevented them. They too sought salvation across Reelfoot Lake, but only a minority of them did. Island number 10 also surrendered, very early in the morning. In all, the Northerners made almost4,000 prisoners. This victory, costing very little in human lives, left the Union in control of most of the middle course of the Mississippi.

On the way to Memphis

Immediately after the fall of Island Number 10, Foote received reinforcement from the armored gunboat USSCairo and embarked from April 12 the division of Schuyler Hamilton to go to lay siege in front ofFort Pillow. Nevertheless, these plans were quickly turned upside down by events. While Pope was crossing the Mississippi to capture Island 10, General Grant had delivered and won - at what a price! - the bloody battle of Shiloh. His army had suffered considerable losses. To carry out the operations he planned against Corinth, Halleck had to muster reinforcements from all over the place. On April 16, he ordered Pope to abandon operations against Fort Pillow, and to transfer his army to Pittsburg Landing. She would take part in it for the next month and a half at the siege of Corinth.

This strategic move left Commodore Foote's flotilla to face Fort Pillow alone. The latter would also receive reinforcements. If Commodore Hollins' wooden gunboats were too damaged to engage, and found themselves under repair in Yazoo City, Mississippi, they would be replaced by a squadron of a different kind. In the course of 1861, the Confederate Army had acquired 14 river vessels in New Orleans - usually powerful tugs - commanded and maneuvered by civilian crews. In the months that followed, they were converted intospur ships. Their prows were reinforced with thick oak beams and lined with railroad tracks. Their machines were also protected by two layers of wood between which bales of compressed cotton were piled - which earned these ships the nickname ""cottonclads ", The" cotton battleships ".

Map of western Tennessee, with the main localities concerned by the operations (author's notes on an original from the Perry-Castaneda map library at the University of Texas).

The conversion process was completed in March 1862. Initially, this "river defense fleet", according to its official Confederate designation, was to protect the course of the Mississippi against an attack from the sea, but the loss of New Madrid pushed the southern command.to divide it in twoto deal with the threat posed by the Foote flotilla. Eight of thecottonclads were entrusted to Captain James Montgomery, one of the mariners who had suggested their transformation, and sent north. At the beginning of May, they reached Fort Pillow. The Confederate naval force included CSS shipsGeneral Van Dorn, CSSGeneral Price, CSSGeneral Bragg, CSSGeneral Sumter, CSSGeneral Thompson, CSSColonel Lovell, CSSGeneral Beauregard and the flagship CSSLittle rebel.

On May 9, Commodore Foote was replaced by Commodore Charles Davis and recalled to Washington, where he was to assume higher office. The next morning at 6 a.m., the southern flotilla attacked in the meander ofPlum Point Bend, slightly upstream of Fort Pillow. The northerner force was completely caught off guard, with the boilers still off. TheCincinnati, which was the most advanced of the Federal gunboats, was rammed by theGeneral Bragg even before they can move. She managed to get going but didn't get very far, receiving another attack that immobilized her. TheGeneral Price Then hit her at her most vulnerable point, aft, crushing her rudder. TheGeneral Sumter, launched at full speed, gave him the final blow, and theCincinnati sank into the waters of the Mississippi. Meanwhile, theGeneral Van Dorn took on theMound City and ramming it violently, leaving a four foot breach in its hull that sent it to the bottom. Seeing that the rest of the Northern Fleet had regrouped to use their superior firepower to their advantage, Montgomery cautiously sounded retreat.

The loss of two armored gunboats was particularly humiliating for the North, although it was temporary: theCincinnati and theMound City were refloated a few weeks later and put back into service. The Northerner guns had landed several hits, but none of the Confederate spur ships suffered significant damage. The Southerners had only two dead and a few wounded, and they had won a significant victory after a fight that did not last more than half an hour. The Battle of Plum Point Bend gave the Confederatesexaggerated confidence in the military capabilities of their spur ships. In the aftermath of the engagement, Captain Montgomery did not hesitate to proclaim that the Northerners "born[would descend] no more before the Mississippi».

Naval battle and spectacle

This euphoria was to be short-lived. Three weeks after the Battle of Plum Point Bend, the evacuation of Corinth by General Beauregard's army put Memphis within range of a Union ground offensive and threatened to encircle Fort Pillow. The latter was evacuated on 1er June, andMemphis was abandoned in the process, while the federal flotilla set off south. The northern gunboats were reduced to five, but in the meantime they had received reinforcements. As soon as the Confederate spur ships were put into service, the War Department authorized a civil engineer, Charles Ellet, to transform nine river tugs into spur ships on the same model as the Southern boats, although a little more basic. - they were devoid of cannons. Appointed colonel in the Northerner army, Ellet joined Davis with his ships, many of which were commanded by members of his family.

Captain Montgomery was ordered to retreat to Vicksburg, Mississippi, but he did not have enough coal to do so. Rather than scuttling his fleet, he decided toface the enemy. On June 6, Davis' flotilla appeared in front of Memphis. Townspeople gathered in the hills above the Mississippi to witness the coming naval battle, as the two squadrons prepared for battle. Both were very poorly organized. The civilian commanders of the southern ships were unruly and unable to coordinate their actions. As for the northern spur ships, they formed a command distinct from the gunboats, and their respective leaders made no effort to act in concert. For these reasons, the ensuing engagement was particularly confused.

The Federal gunboats began by bombarding their opponent at long range,without much success. On his own initiative, Ellet moved his flagship the USSQueen of the west and ordered his other ships to follow him, but his instruction was not understood and only the USSMonarch accompanied him. Ellet rushed onColonel Lovell, one of the boilers of which broke down: with only one paddle wheel in motion, the southern ship involuntarily presented its side to theQueen of the west, who spurred him on so hard that he was momentarily trapped in the breach thus opened. This allowed theGeneral Sumter to ram him in turn, Ellet picking up a pistol bullet in the knee. TheMonarch then dealt a second blow to theColonel Lovell, sending it to the bottom.

Themeleesoon became general. TheGeneral Beauregard and theGeneral Price both rushed to theMonarch, but they got in the way and only managed to collide, the latter leaving his rudder in the bargain. TheQueen of the west Delivered the final blow to him, then boarding the badly damaged southern ship. The gunboats were now close enough to fire on goal. Taken to task by the cannons ofGeneral Beauregard, theBenton In return sent him a devastating salute that detonated his boiler, destroying the southern ship. Set on fire by northern shells, theGeneral Thompson was abandoned by his crew and exploded in turn. As toLittle rebel, severely challenged by theCarondelet, it was finished by a spur of theMonarch. Stranded so as not to sink, it will be abandoned and taken by the Federals.

This was the signal for the quarry. TheGeneral Bragg and theGeneral Sumter were also stranded so as not to be sunk, and saw themselves captured by the Northerners. Only theGeneral Van Dornmanaged to escape, taking refuge in the Yazoo River above Vicksburg. That same evening, the crews of the Federal flotilla took possession of Memphis. In just a few hours the Confederate river flotilla had been almost entirelywiped out, at the cost of insignificant losses for the Union: some damage to theQueen of the west and only one injured, Charles Ellet. The latter, however, was not going to recover: weakened, he contracted measles in the hospital and died on June 21.

Completing previous Northern successes, the victory at Memphis gave the Feds full control of the middle course of the Mississippi. Combined with the abandonment of Corinth, it also allowed them to occupy all of western Tennessee, adding to central Tennessee conquered after the fall of Fort Donelson. With the capture of New Orleans by Admiral Farragut on April 25, 1862, the Mississippi was almost entirely in Union hands. But the latter would soon find itself faced with a new obstacle in the course of the river, which it would take more than a year to take:Vicksburg. La campagne du Mississippi avait également permis à deux chefs, le commodore Foote et le général Pope, de gagner en prestige et d’être appelés à des commandements plus importants. Ces succès, toutefois, allaient être de courte durée. La carrière de Pope n’allait guère survivre à la cuisante défaite que lui infligèrent Lee et Jackson lors de la seconde bataille de Bull Run (29-30 août 1862). Quant à Foote, il allait mourir subitement le 26 juin 1863, à l’âge de 56 ans, alors qu’il prenait le commandement de l’escadre de blocus de l’Atlantique sud.


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