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Thursday, January 15, 2015

Battle of Fort Fisher

Fort Fisher
After many Union expeditions against the south, there was only one major port still in Confederate hands – Wilmington, North Carolina. In December, 1864 the Federals set out to close it, but first they had to capture Fort Fisher. A Union squadron under Rear Admiral David Porter was sent, along with an army under Benjamin Butler. The navy bombarded the fort on December 23, but it did little damage. Fort Fisher was built out of dirt, which absorbed the shock of the balls much better than masonry forts like Fort Sumter. Two days later Butler's army landed and began preparing to assault, but the entire expedition was called off when news arrived that a division of Confederate reinforcements was coming, and Butler called off the expedition, in direct disobedience to orders.

Butler
Grant and Lincoln were upset by Butler's failure. Butler was a Democrat politician. Since Lincoln had just won reelection to the presidency he no longer needed the worry about the repercussions of punishing Butler. Therefore Butler was removed from command. 9,000 Federal troops were sent back to Fort Fisher, this time under the command of Major General Alfred Terry, who had experience in this type of warfare from the siege of Charleston. By this time the garrison of Fort Fisher was 1,900 strong. The 6,400 man strong division under Robert Hoke was stationed just north of the fort. These were all under the command of Major General W. H. C. Whiting. On January 13 the Federal infantry landed between Fort Fisher and Hoke's forces, which did not attempt to stop the landing.

Porter on one of his ships
On January 15, 150 years ago today, the attack on the fort began. Terry and David Porter had developed a plan with good coordination between army and navy. The fight began with Porter's ships bombarding the Confederate works. They successfully silenced most of the Confederate guns. The a force of 2,000 sailors and marines landed it assault the fort's seaward face, while Terry's infantry attack and the land side. The assault of the navy troops was a failure. The plans for the marines to lay down a covering fire were not executed, and all of the Federals tried charging toward the fort's Northeast Bastion. From there the Confederate drove them back with heavy casualties.

Navy sailors attacking the fort
This attack did draw the defender's attention away from the landward side. At 2:00 pm the Union division under Adelbert Ames charged forward. An advance part used axes to cut through the obstacles around the fort, while the rest of the troops followed close behind. Although many soldiers fell, shot by snipers on the wall, the Federals pushed forward and gained the interior of the fort. The fight, however, was still not over. Confederates still continued to resist, and the remaining guns on the seaward side were turned on the wall which had fell into Yankee hands. Whiting himself gathered some Confederate defenders and personally led a counterattack. It was driven back, and Whiting himself badly wounded. He would later die after the battle.

Federals attacking Fort Fisher
The Federal assailants continued to push forward, driving back Confederate resistance. They were ably supported by Porter's ships, which continued to lob shells int o the fort. However, after hours of fighting, they still had not secured the fort. Both sides were behind defensive positions and the fighting raged on after sunset. Colonel William Lamb, the Confederate who was directly responsible for the fort's defenses, gathered what survivors he could to try to make a united counterattack, but he himself fell wounded. During the battle, Whiting had been send messages to department commander Braxton Bragg begging for more troops. Bragg did not believe the fort was in serious trouble, and instead sent Alfred Colquitt to relieve Whiting.


Soon after Colquitt landed at the fort, the situation began to deteriorate rapidly. The Federlas were determined to win the fort that night, and the Federals sent a flanking party outside the wall to strike the last pocket of Confederate resistance. This pressure was too much to bear. Colquitt and his staff realized what was happening, and hurried to escape in their rowboats. The rebels in the last traverse raised a white flag to announce the fort's surrender. At 10:00 pm the fort was officially turned over to the Federals.

A cannon in Fort Fisher, whose mussel was shot away during the battle
This fort was one of the most fiercely contested during the entire Civil War. The casualties were high, but the number was increased even further when the fort's magazine exploded the next day, killing and injuring 200 Federal soldiers and Confederate prisoners sleeping on its roof. The losses from this battle were 1,341 Federals and 583 Confederate killed and wounded, with the rest of the garrison falling prisoner. With Fort Fisher in Union hands, Wilmington fell a month later. All of the major sea ports were now Federal hands.

USS Mahopac

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Fall of Savannah

Ruins of Savannah
Upon the conclusion of his march to the sea, when he established contact with the Federal fleet, William Sherman immediately began a siege of Savannah, Georgia. The fleet brought supplies and the siege artillery necessary to capture the city. With his troops in place, he sent a message to the Confederate commander, William Hardee, on December 17th:
I have already received guns that can cast heavy and destructive shot as far as the heart of your city; also, I have for some days held and controlled every avenue by which the people and garrison of Savannah can be supplied, and I am therefore justified in demanding the surrender of the city of Savannah …. I am prepared to grant liberal terms to the inhabitants and garrison; but should I be forced to resort to assault, or the slower and surer process of starvation, I shall then feel justified in resorting to the harshest measures, and shall make little effort to restrain my army—burning to avenge the national wrong which they attach to Savannah and other large cities which have been so prominent in dragging our country into civil war.
Hardee
Hardee did not take Sherman's offer of terms. Instead he abandoned the city, using an improvised pontoon bridge to cross the Savannah River on December 20th. The next day the mayor surrendered the city to Sherman, who telegraphed the president, “I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the City of Savannah, with one hundred and fifty guns and plenty of ammunition, also about twenty-five thousand bales of cotton.” Sherman's gamble, of abandoning his supply lines and heading into Georgia while Hood invaded Tennessee, had paid off. Lincoln was thankful that he had found able generals who could fight and defeat the Confederate forces. He wrote to Sherman,
Many, many thanks for your Christmas gift – the capture of Savannah. When you were leaving Atlanta for the Atlantic coast, I was anxious, if not fearful; but feeling that you were the better judge, and remembering that 'nothing risked, nothing gained' I did not interfere. Now, the undertaking being a success, the honor is all yours; for I believe none of us went farther than to acquiesce. … But what next? I suppose it will be safer if I leave Gen. Grant and yourself to decide.

Sherman

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Siege of Nashville – Day 2

Federal entrenchments
On the morning of December 16th, 150 years ago today, the Federal troops outside Nashville prepared to attack John Bell Hood's new position. It was much shorter and stronger than the previous day's, and the flanks were secured to prevent a repetition of the previous day's disaster. However, they did have critical weaknesses. On Shy's Hill, some of the highest ground on the Confederate left, the entrenchments were on the actual crest of the hill rather than the military crest, a little lower. This meant that the attacking Federals would, for a time, be hidden from Confederate shot as they charged up the hill. Thomas's plan from the previous day remained unchanged – to feint on the right and then push hard on the rebel left.


Unlike the previous day, the diversionary attack did convince Hood to shift forces away from the truly threatened point. Four brigades attacked the right around 3 pm. Most were turned back by the heavy Confederate fire, but the 13th United States Colored Troops continued to pressed forward. They charged up to the Confederate parapets before being driven back, losing a flag and 40% of their strength in the process. Cheatham, commanding the corps on the Confederate left, had to stretch his line even thinner to protect the flank and rear from Union cavalry incursions.

McArthur
With this golden opportunity on the Confederate right, the Federals failed to move. John Schofield was ordered to make the attack with his corps, but he believed he was outnumbered and requested reinforcements. When these arrived, he still did nothing. With sunset not far distant, Brigadier General John McArthur decided to take matters into his own hands. He announced to his commanders that his division would attack in five minutes unless he received orders to the contrary. No orders arrived, and so his three brigades moved out toward the Confederate left on Shy's Hill. His attack was very successful. The misplacement of the entrenchments meant that the hill could be captured without much difficultly, and another brigade was so close on the heels of the Confederate skirmishers that they entered the rebel works with them. One Federal officers wrote:
It was more like a scene in a spectacular drama than a real incident in war. The hillside in front, still green, dotted with boys in blue swarming up the slope; the wavering flags; the smoke slowly rising through the leafless tree-tops and drifting across the valleys; the wonderful outburst of musketry; the ecstatic cheers; the multitude racing for life down in the valley below …. As soon as the other divisions farther to the left saw and heard the doings on their right, they did not wait for orders. Everywhere, by a common impulse, they charged the works in front, and carried them in a twinkling.

With the left crushed, much of Hood's army fell apart. Sam Watkins of the 1st Tennessee wrote:
Such a scene I never saw. The army was panic-stricken. The woods everywhere were full of running soldiers. Our officers were crying, 'Halt! Halt!' and trying to rally and re-form their broken ranks. The Federals would dash their cavalry in amongst us, and ever their cannon joined in the charge. … Wagon trains, cannon, artillery, cavalry, and infantry were all blended in inextricable confusion.
Through the night of December 16th the Confederates retreated, with part of Lee's corps still intact and serving as rearguard and repelling strikes by Union cavalry. Over the next few days the rebels pushed forward into Alabama. The Union infantry could make little pursuit due to a missing pontoon train, and two newly arrived divisions of Confederate cavalry under Nathan Bedford Forrest handled the attacks of the Federal troopers.

USCT monument at the Nashville Cemetery. Source
In this battle the Federals lost around 387 killed, 2,562 wounded, and 112 missing. The Confederate casualties are harder to pin down, but they probably lost around 2,500 killed and wounded and more than 4,500 prisoners. This battle was the deathnell of Hood's Army of the Tennessee. They had entered Tennessee with 38,000 men. When they returned to the safety of Alabama they had about 15,000 men. Much of the blame for this debacle was due to John Bell Hood, who had wasted his army in bloody frontal attacks, and had continued to press on in the invasion against vastly superior Federal forces. He resigned his command in January, and the shattered remnants of his command were integrated into other forces.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Siege of Nashville – Day 1


After his bloody defeat at Franklin and the retreat of the Union, John Bell Hood continued to press forward into Tennessee. He arrived at Nashville on December 2nd. He had only 30,000 men to George Thomas's 55,000. Too weak to attempt an assault, Hood settled into four miles of defensive positions, hoping that Thomas would attack him. He detached several brigades and sent them on diversions to try to lure Thomas out of the city. But Thomas, the “Rock of Chickamauga,” was not fooled, and would not attack until he was ready. Although Sherman was content for the rebels to busy themselves in Tennessee while he marched through Georgia, this did not sit well with Lincoln. The president remarked, “This seems like the McClellan and Rosecrans strategy of do nothing and let the rebels raid the country.” Grant urged Thomas to attack, and was just about to remove him from command when he finally did.

Attack on the Confederate Redoubts
The attack began on December 15th. The Confederate forces were too weak to completely invest Nashville. Instead of anchoring their flanks on either side of the river, Hood had to leave his flanks relatively exposed. Thomas planned to make a diversion on the Confederate right while the rest of the army struck their left. Wilson's cavalry moved on the far end of the wheeling Union forces, driving away Confederate outposts and ending up nearly in their rear. Federal infantry began attacking the southern redoubts at 2:30 pm. Some of the rebels put up a good defense, but at the end of the day the Union troops held all five of the redoubts covering the Confederate flank. With his position compromised, Hood fell back about a mile to a new and stronger line, where the fighting would resume on the morrow.

Hood

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Battle of Fort McAllister

March to the Sea
As Sherman's army marched across Georgia, through November and December, destroying southern property along the way, they encountered only very feeble resistance. All the Confederate troops in arms were needed where they were stationed, and they could not be spared to resist this invasion. Several thousand Confederate cavalry under Joseph Wheeler did harass the Federal's march, but they could not hope to defeat the entire column. The Georgia militia tried to make a stand, but the small force, many of whom were young boys or old men, were easily defeated by Sherman's veterans.

The Union troops approached Savannah, their destination on December 10. A Union fleet under Admiral John Dahlgren floated just off the town with supplies for the army, but the town and its fortifications were still in Confederate hands. Sherman deployed his men to surrounded the town's works. He decided to attack Fort McAllister. He believed his infantry could capture it, and then they would have access to the Ogeechee River, which led to the sea.

Fort McAllister
On December 13, 150 years ago today, 4,000 Federals, William Hazen's division, which happened to be Sherman's old command, advanced toward the fort, held by only 230 Confederates. Sherman, who watched the attack, later wrote:
[W]e saw Hazen's troops come out of the dark fringe of woods that encompassed the fort, their lines dressed as on parade, with colors flying, and moving forward with a quick, steady pace. Fort McAllister was then all alive, its big guns belching forth dense clouds of smoke, which soon enveloped our assaulting lines. One color went down, but was up in a moment. On the lines advanced, faintly seen in the white, sulfurous smoke; there was a pace, a cessation of fire; the smoke cleared away, and the parapets were blue with our men.... Fort McAllister was taken....
The assault had taken only 15 minutes. The army met ships from the fleet, and the March to the Sea was officially over. Sherman's men turned without delay to their next task – the siege of Savannah.

Union troops in Fort McAllister

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Battle of Franklin


While Sherman's army was on its infamous march to the sea, the Confederate army under Hood which had been driven out of Atlanta was not idle. Hood led his men North, hoping to cut Sherman's supply line with the aid of Nathan Bedford Forrest's cavalry, forcing him to turn North to chase the Confederates. At first Sherman's movements were hampered by troops that he positioned to watch for Hood. But finally he decided to head off south, leaving the army of George Thomas to cope with Hood. Hood's hope was that by moving into Tennessee he would force Sherman to turn back from his march across Georgia to pursue him.


The Confederates marched quickly, trying to destroy separate Union corps before they could unite. On November 29th, Hood sent two corps to flank John Scofield's two infantry corps. The rebels were able to reach a position from which they had a great opportunity to strike the Yankees, but through mistakes of the Confederate command the attack was never made. That night Schofield moved 12 miles north to Franklin, Tennessee. The Confederates followed the next day, and found the Federals in an entrenched position. The aggressive John Bell Hood was determined to destroyed the Federals before they made it to the even stronger works of Nashville, so he ordered a frontal attack to be made that evening. Some of his generals expressed worry at the formidable works, but they were determined to capture them. As the famed Patrick Cleburne said, "[I]f we are to die, let us die like men."


On the evening of November 30, Hood's 20,000 men charged across two miles of open ground against the prepared Federal works. They first smashed two advance Federal brigades, and in the center of the line around the Carter House, they broke through the main line. Federals quickly counterattacked, and after hours of hand to hand fighting contained the Confederate foothold, and finally regained their lines. The Confederate attack was eventually beaten back all along the line. This charge has been called by many the Pickett's Charge of the West, but in many ways it far exceeded it. The gallant Confederates at Franklin were attacking earthworks. They suffered 6,000 casualties, many more than Pickett, including Cleburne and eleven other generals. Although the Federal army retreated the next day, the Confederate Army of the Tennessee was crushed.


Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Sherman's March to the Sea

Sherman
The fall of Atlanta marked the end of William Tecumseh Sherman's Atlanta Campaign. He had achieved his objective of capturing one of the South's most important cities, which likely had a significant impact on Abraham Lincoln's reelection as president. The defeated Confederate army did not long sit idle. The aggressive John Bell Hood was soon pressing north into Tennessee. He hoped that by threatening Sherman's supply line, he would force the northern invaders to retreat. Sherman, however, decided to ignore him. George Thomas was commanding in Tennessee, and he left him to deal with Hood.

Instead Sherman would press further south. Sherman believed that war was a terrible thing for both sides. He thought it was his duty to do whatever it took to end it as quickly as possible. No matter the short term suffering it would cause the southerners, it would be justified if it would shorten the war. As he had written to the citizens of Atlanta back in September, “War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it....” His plan was to march from Georgia to the Atlantic Ocean, destroying crops, livestock, and any buildings that would be of use to the Confederacy, and more importantly, breaking the civilians' desire to continue fighting. “I can make the march,” Sherman telegraphed Grant, “and make Georgia howl.”

Union Station in Atlanta, destroyed by Federal troops
The Union army set off from Atlanta on November 15th. Behind them the city burned. It was a fit beginning to the campaign. Sherman's orders were that structures of military use to the Confederates, like the railroad, be destroyed. None the less, the soldiers lit far more than that, and around half the town burned down. As Sherman told one of his staff officers, “Can't save it. … Set as many guards as you please, [the men] will slip it and set fire.” Although his men were officially violating orders, Sherman did not punish the violators. Instead he praised them in his report, writing, “We quietly and deliberately destroyed Atlanta....” 

Union soldiers destroying the railroad in Atlanta
In Sherman's Special Field Orders No. 120, he gave strict rules for the conduct of his men on the march. They were to “forage liberally on the country,” but not to enter homes of civilians. Horses, cattle and other animals could be taken from the population. Buildings were only to be destroyed under orders from the corps commanders, and then only if guerillas operated in the area. The reality was somewhat different. With foraging parties ranging widely, it would have been difficult for the officers to keep the men in check even if they had desired. Sherman's goal for the march was to break the Georgians' will to fight, and if his men sometimes burnt the people's houses, that worked perfectly for his purposes. 

By the end of the march the Union army captured 5,000 horses, 4,000 mules and 13,000 cattle, and captured or destroyed 9.5 million pounds of corn and large amounts of other provisions. Sherman estimated that he had done $100 million worth of damage to the Confederate war effort, almost $1.5 billion in today's money. Also destroyed were the railroads, and many mills, houses and barns. Although there was widespread destruction of the civilian's property, it was not complete destruction. Many houses in the wake of his army did escape the torch. As the Yankees marched across Georgia, a crowd of hundreds of escaped slaves followed behind, seeing the Union army as leading them to freedom.


No Civil War era civilian would ever want an army to come through his property. Even when a well behaved army was marching through their home territory, they would often trample crops, burn the split-rail fences for warmth, and maybe butcher some chickens for dinner. Intentional destruction of civilian property was also not unheard of. Jubal Early's Confederate army burnt much of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania on July 30, 1864, when they did not pay the ransom he demanded. But what was different about Sherman was how intentional he was about the destruction. As he told Henry Halleck after the march:
We are not only fighting armies, but a hostile people, and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war, as well as their organized armies. I know that this recent movement of mine through Georgia has had a wonderful effect in this respect. Thousands who had been deceived by their lying papers into the belief that we were being whipped all the time, realized the truth, and have no appetite for a repetition of the same experience.
Sherman's goal was to make war on civilians, and bring the cost home to their doorsteps. In this he had some success. Many soldiers from Georgia worried about what would happen to their families while they were away, and doubtless the March to the Sea caused some increase in desertion rates from the southern armies. In this way Sherman's march set the stage for the total war of the 20th century. He was one of the American commanders during the war who most clearly recognized the importance of support from the home front for maintaining the war effort, and was willing to take whatever actions necessary to break that resolve.