Question of the Week: 2/4-2/10/19

The capture of Forts Henry and Donelson by a combined Union army and naval force in February 1862 opened a military path in the western theater and scored a morale victory for the north.

In your opinion, what would have happened if these forts had not been captured in February 1862? Would it have significantly shaped another campaign or had a far-reaching effect on morale?

7 Responses to Question of the Week: 2/4-2/10/19

  1. Delay counted for everything with the Confederacy. Given enough time, foreign recognition might have been secured. A delay of only a few weeks might have allowed completion of Rebel ironclads Eastport, Mississippi, Louisiana (or permitted significant recruiting of troops.) The most likely method of achieving delay at Fort Henry: the contact mine (called “torpedo.”) If one or two of Flag-Officer Foote’s gunboats had contacted functioning torpedoes during approach to Fort Henry in February 1862, the Federal campaign could have experienced significant delay… long enough to be of great assistance to the South in completion of gunboats, or resurgence of recruits to the ranks of the “obviously superior force.” And production of more torpedoes…

    1. The arrival of Nathan Bedford Forrest would have made a difference. Upon charging his way through federal lines, Forrest said something like “I didn’t come here to surrender” and left, charging through federal lines.

      1. Funny you mention Nathan Bedford Forrest… because he and his men operated between Forts Henry and Donelson (after Tilghman surrendered Fort Henry.) Unfortunately, General Gideon Pillow tasked Forrest with “Observe the enemy, but do not bring on a general engagement.” There was a minor skirmish with Major Mudd’s 2nd Illinois Cavalry on 12 FEB; otherwise, Forrest watched Grant’s force advance east and encircle Fort Donelson… and the opportunity to bring on the fight for Fort Donelson further to the west (potentially more favorable to the Rebels, with ability to fall back towards the fort) was allowed to lapse.

  2. I think they would have been neutralized fairly soon afterwards. Period. They had to go. As is said, “You have to crawl before you can walk”. Those two forts were as logical of targets to open up options for the Union as were any others, certainly in the West. They were the gateway to invading Tennessee. As relentless as Grant was, failure would no doubt have motivated him even more to take them down. Now, given things like water conditions on the rivers they were navigating, might a delay have lowered the waters and impeded the gunships and transports? if memory serves, Ft. Henry was flooded to some degree when the water as high. It also was meant to stop river traffic, not to prevent direct infantry assaults. So of the Confederates could have held out for some time (measured in months), who knows? Bit all that said, I just don’t see Grant letting them get away from him. Not for long anyways…

  3. Even if they held out, the Mississippi River efforts and the overland advances from Bowling Green and Somerset would have flanked the forts. They would likely have fallen (or been evacuated, like Columbus actually was) in the summer. Essentially, their fall in February sped up the war by at least 4-6 months.

  4. Please add an “edit” function to this. I hate it when I read what I have posted and see misspelled words.

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