American Civil War: Battle of Island Number Ten

Union fleet at Island Number 10
Battle of Island Number 10. US Naval History and Heritage Command

Battle of Island Number 10 - Conflict & Dates:

The Battle of Island Number 10 was fought February 28 to April 8, 1862, during the American Civil War (1861-1865).

Armies & Commanders

Union

Confederates

  • Brigadier General John P. McCown
  • Brigadier General William Mackall
  • approx. 7,000 men

Battle of Island Number 10 - Background:

With the beginning of the Civil War, Confederate forces began making efforts to fortify key points along the Mississippi River to prevent Union attacks south. One area that received attention was the New Madrid Bend (near New Madrid, MO) which featured two 180-degree turns in the river. Located at the base of the first turn when steaming south, Island Number Ten dominated the river and any vessels attempting to pass would fall under its guns for protracted period. Work commenced on fortifications on the island and adjacent land in August 1861 under the direction of Captain Asa Gray. The first to be completed was Battery No. 1 on the Tennessee shoreline. Also known as the Redan Battery, it had a clear field of fire upstream but its position on low ground made it subject to frequent flooding.

Work at Island Number Ten slowed in the fall of 1861 as resources and focus shifted north to the fortifications under construction at Columbus, KY.

In early 1862, Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant captured Forts Henry and Donelson on the nearby Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers. As Union troops pressed towards Nashville, the Confederate forces at Columbus came under threat of being isolated. To prevent their loss, General P.G.T. Beauregard ordered them to withdraw south to Island Number Ten.

Arriving in late February, these forces began work to strengthen the area's defenses under the guidance of Brigadier General John P. McCown.

Battle of Island Number Ten - Building the Defenses:

Seeking to better secure the area, McCown commenced work on fortifications from the northern approaches to the first bend, past the island and New Madrid, and down to Point Pleasant, MO. Within a matter of weeks, McCown's men built five batteries on the Tennessee shore as well as five additional batteries on the island itself. Mounting a combined 43 guns, these positions were further supported by the 9-gun floating battery New Orleans which occupied a position at the western end of the island. At New Madrid, Fort Thompson (14 guns) rose west of the town while Fort Bankhead (7 guns) was built to the east overlooking the mouth of a nearby bayou. Aiding in the Confederate defense were six gunboats overseen by Flag Officer George N. Hollins (Map).

Battle of Island Number Ten - Pope Approaches:

As McCown's men worked to improve the defenses at the bends, Brigadier General John Pope moved to assemble his Army of the Mississippi at Commerce, MO. Directed to strike at Island Number Ten by Major General Henry W. Halleck, he moved out in late February and arrived near New Madrid on March 3.

Lacking the heavy guns to assault the Confederate forts, Pope instead directed Colonel Joseph P. Plummer to occupy Point Pleasant to the south. Though forced to endure shelling from Hollins' gunboats, Union troops secured and held the town. On March 12, heavy artillery arrived in Pope's camp. Emplacing guns at Point Pleasant, Union forces drove off the Confederate vessels and closed the river to enemy traffic. The following day, Pope began shelling the Confederate positions around New Madrid. Not believing that the town could be held, McCown abandoned it on the night of March 13-14. While some troops moved south to Fort Pillow, the majority joined the defenders on Island Number Ten.

Battle of Island Number Ten - The Siege Begins:

Despite this failure, McCown received a promotion to major general and departed.

Command at Island Number Ten then passed to Brigadier General William W. Mackall. Though Pope had taken New Madrid with ease, the island presented a more difficult challenge. The Confederate batteries on the Tennessee shore were flanked by impassable swamps to the east while the only land approach to the island was along a single road which ran south to Tiptonville, TN. The town itself was sited on a narrow spit of land between the river and Reelfoot Lake. To support operations against Island Number Ten, Pope received Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote's Western Gunboat Flotilla as well as a number of mortar rafts. This force arrived above the New Madrid Bend on March 15.

Unable to directly assault Island Number Ten, Pope and Foote debated how to reduce its defenses. While Pope desired Foote to run his gunboats past the batteries to cover a landing downstream, Foote had concerns about losing some of his vessels and preferred to commence a bombardment with his mortars. Deferring to Foote, Pope agreed to a bombardment and for the next two weeks the island came under a steady rain of mortar shells. As this action ensued, Union forces cut a shallow canal across the neck of the first bend which allowed transport and supply vessels to reach New Madrid while avoiding the Confederate batteries. With the bombardment proving ineffective, Pope again began to agitate for running some of the gunboats past Island Number Ten. While an initial council of war on March 20 saw Foote's captains refuse this approach, a second nine days later resulted in Commander Henry Walke of USS Carondelet (14 guns) agreeing to attempt a passage.

Battle of Island Number Ten - The Tide Turns:

While Walke waited for a night with good conditions, Union troops led by Colonel George W. Roberts raided Battery No. 1 on the evening of April 1 and spiked its guns. The following night, the Foote's flotilla focused its attention on New Orleans and succeeded in cutting the floating battery's mooring lines leading it to drift away downstream. On April 4, conditions proved correct and Carondelet began creeping past Island Number Ten with a coal barge lashed to its side for added protection. Pushing downstream, the Union ironclad was discovered but successfully ran through the Confederate batteries. Two nights later USS Pittsburg (14) made the voyage and joined Carondelet. With the two ironclads to protect his transports, Pope began plotting a landing on the east bank of the river.

On April 7, Carondelet and Pittsburg eliminated the Confederate batteries at Watson's Landing clearing the way for Pope's army to cross. As Union troops commenced landing, Mackall assessed his situation. Unable to see a way to hold Island Number Ten, he directed his troops to begin moving towards Tiptonville but left a small force on the island. Alerted to this, Pope raced to cut off the Confederate's sole line of retreat. Slowed by fire from the Union gunboats, Mackall's men failed to reach Tiptonville before the enemy. Trapped by Pope's superior force, he had no choice but to surrender his command on April 8. Pressing forward, Foote received the surrender of those still on Island Number Ten.

Battle of Island Number Ten - Aftermath:

In the fighting for Island Number Ten, Pope and Foote lost 23 killed, 50 wounded, and 5 missing while Confederate losses numbered around 30 killed and wounded as well as approximately 4,500 captured. The loss of Island Number Ten cleared the Mississippi River to further Union advances and later in the month Flag Officer David G. Farragut opened its southern terminus by capturing New Orleans. Though a key victory, the fighting for Island Number Ten was generally overlooked by the general public as the Battle of Shiloh was fought April 6-7.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Battle of Island Number Ten." ThoughtCo, Apr. 6, 2016, thoughtco.com/battle-of-island-number-ten-2360275. Hickman, Kennedy. (2016, April 6). American Civil War: Battle of Island Number Ten. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/battle-of-island-number-ten-2360275 Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Battle of Island Number Ten." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/battle-of-island-number-ten-2360275 (accessed January 23, 2018).