Lately, I have been shifting my gaze east of the river and focusing on the war in the Western Theater. I’ve been exploring broad Union/Confederate strategies in the region, and I was struck by just how damaging one particular strategy proved to be for the Confederate cause.
15,000 at Henry and Donelson. Perhaps as many as 7,000 at Island No. 10. 5,000 at Arkansas Post. 31,000 in Vicksburg and another 6,000 from Port Hudson. In summation, roughly 64,000 Confederate soldiers were captured in river fortresses in the Western Theater. These soldiers were not killed or wounded on the battlefield but captured en masse, and while they may have endured perilous and miserable sieges, they failed to inflict anywhere near comparable casualties on Federal forces. While some of these men were paroled and exchanged, their exchange simply freed just as many Union soldiers. The Confederate strategy to invest large numbers of men in river fortresses to guard vital waterways proved to be a disastrous policy.
On the surface, it seemed logical to fortify rivers such as the Tennessee, Cumberland and of course the mighty Mississippi. Unlike the Eastern Theater where most rivers flowed from west to east (the James, Rapidan, Rappahannock, Potomac, etc.), the majority of the rivers in the Western Theater flowed from north to south, towards the Gulf. Thus, whereas rivers proved to be an indispensable defensive barrier for Confederates in the East, they were a glaring weakness in the West. These rivers were essentially aquatic highways headed straight into the heart of the Confederacy. The Mississippi River of course bisected the fledgling, would-be nation. The Tennessee cut through its namesake state and into northern Alabama. The Cumberland was a direct route to Nashville, one of the few vital industrial cities in the South. The rivers were sure to be used by the Federals as avenues of invasion, and the Confederates had a huge interest in preventing Union control of these waterways.
The answer was to build forts to protect these vital rivers. As esteemed historian Fletcher Pratt highlights, the chief architect of this strategy was President Jefferson Davis himself, who imagined powerful fortifications, aided with naval and mobile land elements, stolidly defending these waterways south. It is important to realize that the forts that fell in 1862-’63 to such disastrous consequences for the Rebels were in fact intended to be a secondary line of defense. In 1861, Davis and other Western commanders, especially Generals Albert Sidney Johnston and Leonidas Polk, were focused on the construction of a defensive line stretching from Missouri through Kentucky. Of course, Kentucky’s neutrality (soon to be violated by Polk) and the Confederate defeat at Mill Springs made this defensive line untenable, so it was the secondary line of works along the Mississippi, Tennessee and Cumberland that soon found themselves besieged.
Early Union successes against Forts Henry and Donelson and Island No. 10 (which opened up the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers and led to the fall of Memphis, respectively), should have warned the Confederacy that their river fortifications were far from impregnable, and indeed could prove to be veritable infantry traps. Yet the Confederacy continued to rely on such river fortresses to protect the Mississippi, and while Vicksburg and Port Hudson may have lasted longer and fared better than Forts Henry and Donelson, their fall came at an even higher, unbearable price.
Approximately 64,000 troops were captured in these river fortresses alone. One was to wonder what impact the 15,000 men from Henry and Donelson may have made at Shiloh? Or how the 31,000 prisoners from Vicksburg may have aided Joseph Johnston or Braxton Bragg or John Bell Hood? It seems clear that the loss of so many Confederate soldiers, a large number lost early in the contest, must have seriously crippled Confederate strategic options later on in the war. Were there better ways to utilize these 64,000 men in defense of the Southern waterways other than to huddle them up in river fortifications? What are your thoughts?
Zac Cowsert received his Bachelor of Arts Degree in History and Political Science from Centenary College of Louisiana, a small liberal-arts college in Shreveport. He is currently a graduate student at West Virginia University focusing in U.S. History and the American Civil War. His studies and research often explore the Trans-Mississippi Theater. ©
Further Reading and Sources:
Arkansas Post. The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture.
Fletcher Pratt. Civil War on Western Waters. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1956.
Steven E. Woodworth. Decision in the Heartland: The Civil War in the West. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011.