American Civil War: War in the West, 1861-1863

Taking the Rivers

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Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant. Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration
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Situation in 1861

At the outset of the war, Union efforts in the West were hampered by a lack of unified command. The theater was divided into three separate departments: the Department of Kansas, under Maj. Gen. David Hunter, the Department of Missouri, under Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck, and the Department of the Ohio, under Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell.

Facing them was a single Confederate command headed by Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston. Stretching from the Cumberland Gap in the east to Arkansas in the west, Johnston was required to defend a broad front with inferior numbers and a chronic shortage of supplies.

Missouri & Kentucky

Initial movements in the West were centered on securing the border states of Missouri and Kentucky. Following a Union victory at Boonville in June 1861, Missouri was prevented from seceding. For much of the war, both Union, Confederate, and irregular forces would wrestle for control of the state. In Kentucky, the state government declared neutrality and threatened to oppose whichever side entered the state first. On September 3, Confederate Maj. Gen. Leonidas Polk crossed the border and occupied Columbus. This was countered on the 5th when Union troops under Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant took Paducah. In response to these actions, Kentucky elected to remain in the Union, though it did supply troops to both sides.

Forts Henry & Donelson

After months of minor actions, Halleck authorized Grant to move up the Tennessee River and Cumberland Rivers to attack Forts Henry and Donelson. Working in conjunction with gunboats under Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote, Grant began his advance on February 2, 1862. Realizing that Fort Henry was located on a flood plain and open to naval attack, the installation's commander, Brig.

Gen. Lloyd Tilghman, withdrew most of his garrison to Fort Donelson before Grant arrived on the 6th.

After occupying Fort Henry, Grant immediately moved against Fort Donelson eleven miles to the east. Situated on high, dry ground, Fort Donelson proved near invulnerable to naval bombardment. After direct assaults failed, Grant invested the fort. On the 15th, Confederate forces under Brig. Gen. John B. Floyd attempted a breakout but were contained before creating an opening. With no options left, Brig. Gen. Simon B. Buckner asked Grant for surrender terms. Grant's response was simply, "No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted," which earned him the nickname "Unconditional Surrender" Grant. With the fall of Fort Donelson, over 12,000 Confederates were captured, nearly a third of Johnston's forces. As a result, he was forced to order the abandonment of Nashville, as well as a retreat from Columbus, KY.

Battle of Shiloh

Newly promoted to major general, Grant moved south along the Tennessee River to Pittsburg Landing near Shiloh Church. Upon arriving, Halleck, who had recently been given complete command of the western theater, ordered Grant to pause and wait for a second Union army under Maj.

Gen. Don Carlos Buell to join him. Meanwhile, Johnston and his newly appointed second-in-command, Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, were concentrating their forces around Corinth, MS, with the goal of striking at Grant before he was reinforced.

Moving north in early April, the two Confederate generals launched a surprise dawn attack on Grant's camps on the 6th. Striking hard, Johnston's men were able to drive back the Union troops. As Grant's men retreated, two divisions under Brig. Gens. Benjamin M. Prentiss's and W.H.L. Wallace doggedly defended an area known as the "Hornet's Nest" for close to seven hours. As the Confederate attacks focused on this area, it gave Grant time to reorganize his lines. With nightfall, the Confederates paused to regroup and deal with the loss of Johnston who had been mortally wounded in the afternoon.

During the night Grant's army was bolstered by the arrival of Buell's Army of the Ohio. Now possessing 45,000 men, Grant decided to counterattack in the morning. At dawn, Beauregard, who had been planning on finishing off Grant that day, was surprised to see the Union troops moving forward. After heavy fighting, they recaptured their original camps and forced Beauregard's army to retreat back towards Corinth. The Battle of Shiloh was the bloodiest encounter to date with the Union suffering 13,047 casualties and the Confederates 10,699. It proved a harbinger of the bloodshed that would occur later in the in war.

Island Number 10

While Grant was fighting at Shiloh, Union troops under Maj. Gen. John Pope, with the assistance of Foote's gunboats, were assaulting Island Number 10. Located at the Kentucky bend in the Mississippi River, the Confederates had constructed numerous batteries to impede the Union advance down the river. After naval bombardment and having their escape route severed by Pope's men, the garrison surrendered on April 8. The capture of Island Number 10 led to the fall of Memphis two months later.

Fall of New Orleans

To the south, the US Navy was beginning operations against the Confederacy's largest seaport, New Orleans. Commanded by Flag Officer David G. Farragut, ships of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron attacked and ran past Forts Jackson and St. Philip south of the city on April 24. They anchored off the city the following day and accepted its surrender. On May 1, Union troops under Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler entered the city and established a military government. With Union forces occupying both Memphis and New Orleans, the control of the Mississippi River was nearly complete.

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Invasion of Kentucky & the Battle of Perryville

On June 23, 1862, Gen. Braxton Bragg relieved Beauregard for health reasons. After leaving a small force to oppose Grant near Corinth, he shifted his army east to Chattanooga with the goal of invading Kentucky in conjunction with a force under Maj. Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith. Marching from Knoxville, Smith occupied Lexington, KY on August 30.

To counter the Confederate move, Buell was sent north to protect Louisville and Cincinnati. Arriving in Louisville in late September, Buell was reinforced, but was slow to move against Bragg and Smith.

After almost losing his command due to his hesitancy, Buell moved back south towards Bragg and Smith. On October 8, his army encountered Bragg near the town of Perryville. Beginning as a skirmish over a water source, a full-scale battle soon erupted. Fighting through the day, the Confederates won a tactical victory. That night, after realizing he was badly outnumbered, Bragg ordered a retreat to Harrodsburg where Smith was waiting to join him. Bragg assessed the situation, and with no additional support coming, opted to fall back to Murfreesboro, TN. Buell, despite his superiority, failed to pursue and returned to Nashville. For this lack of initiative he was replaced by Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans on October 24.

Battle of Stones River

Following a period of re-supply and reorganization at Nashville, Rosecrans moved quickly after Bragg. Marching southeast towards Murfreesboro with 43,000 men, Rosecrans arrived near the town on December 29. Though the armies deployed on the 30th, the fighting did not begin until Bragg launched a major attack on the Union right early on the 31st.

Led by divisions under Maj. Gens. Patrick Cleburne and John McCown, the Confederates drove the Union troops back, with only a strong defensive stand by Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan's division preventing a rout. Behind the strong leadership of Rosecrans, the Union troops regrouped and formed a defensive perimeter centered on the Nashville Turnpike. Continued attacks through the afternoon were beaten off with heavy casualties.

That night, after a council of war, Rosecrans decided to continue the battle. Before sunrise, he shifted some troops across the adjacent Tennessee River to occupy the heights north of town. On January 2, Bragg renewed his attacks, but with little success. The following day, Rosecrans received reinforcements and supplies. Believing his adversary was only going to grow stronger, Bragg began a retreat south towards Tullahoma, TN the next night. The Battle of Stones River cost Rosecrans over 13,000 casualties, while Bragg suffered over 10,000.

First Attempts on Vicksburg

As fighting was taking place in Kentucky and Tennessee, Grant began to move against the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg, MS. One of the last major obstacles to the Union conquest of the Mississippi, Vicksburg was located on high bluffs at a sharp turn in the river.

Given free rein by Halleck, Grant designed a two-prong attack, with Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman advancing down the river with 32,000 men, while he advanced south along Mississippi Central Railroad with 40,000 men. These movements were to be supported by an advance north from New Orleans by Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks.

Establishing a supply base at Holly Springs, MS, Grant pressed south to Oxford, hoping to engage Confederate forces under Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn near Grenada. In December 1862, Van Dorn, badly outnumbered, launched a large cavalry raid around Grant's army and destroyed the supply base at Holly Springs, halting the Union advance. Sherman's situation was no better. Moving down the river with relative ease, he arrived just north of Vicksburg on Christmas Eve. After moving up the Yazoo River, he disembarked his troops and began moving through the swamps and bayous toward the town.

Encountering a strong line of Confederate earthworks at Chickasaw Bayou on the 29th, he ordered his men to attack. While the assault had some initial success, it was repulsed with heavy casualties following a Confederate counterattack. Lacking support from Grant, Sherman opted to withdrawal.

As Sherman moved back up the Mississippi, he was met by a force led by Maj. Gen. John A. McClernand. A political appointee, McClernand had been given permission by Lincoln to raise a corps in southern Illinois for the purpose of taking Vicksburg. Technically superior in rank, he added Sherman's force to his own. A glory seeker, McClernand opted to move up the Arkansas River to attack Fort Hindman near the town of Arkansas Post. Working with gunboats let by Flag Officer David D. Porter, McClernand successfully captured the fort on January 11, 1863. Upon hearing of McClernand's actions, Grant was furious and shifted his forces to the river so that he could command the entire army in person. Through the winter, Grant explored various options for bypassing Vicksburg using the bayous in the area as well as building canals across the neck of land opposite the town.

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