Chapter 16


Late November and December of 1861 I spent in Richmond, conferring with President Davis, his military aide, General Lee, and other members of the military including General Joseph Johnston and General PGT Beauregard. The Secretary of War was almost never present, an absence that held true throughout the War and through the terms of five different men.

Despite the successes of the year - and they were many - the mood of these gatherings was somber. The Confederacy had successfully fielded an army and made a start on a navy, and had won key victories in Virginia and Kentucky. On the other hand, Federal siege cannon and mortars were pounding Louisville day and night, with much of the town laid in ruins as a result. Cavalry of both sides raided through Kentucky, forcing us to keep garrisons along the Great Southern's Louisville and Nashville route. Our casualties had been heavy, and - ominously - given the South's relatively small white population, there was not much prospect of expanding our armies without stripping the workmen from the railroads and factories. The entry of Britain and France into the War on our side, heralded as a certainty by the fire-eaters before the War, had not materialized. The 'Trent' incident had given new hope on this front, but I felt - and President Davis agreed - that the North would make any compromise, suffer any humiliation, to avoid offering Great Britain a pretext for War. Missouri had been lost almost completely, and Arkansas remained firmly in the Union camp.

On the domestic political front, the President was receiving promises of support from Congress and the various governors, but in fact there was much graft and inefficiency, not from any want of attention from the President, but rather from the selfish, grasping men who held those other offices. In particular, the states of North Carolina and Georgia, safely insulated from any federal assault, were remiss and recalcitrant in contributing to the common defense.

Most discouraging from my view was the utterly unsound state of Confederate finances. With the blockade more or less functional there was no prospect of tariff or excise taxes, the usual source of governmental revenue. Cotton shipments were almost non-existant. There was no stock of specie, neither gold nor silver, nor a functioning mint. The planters would not agree to a tax on property or slaves, so there was no alternative but to print bills backed by no real security and allow prices to inflate as they might. In short, Confederate and state monies were worth nothing unless people pretended to value them, and any serious military setback might literally bankrupt the government. Needless to say, my railroad was hauling troops and supplies, and producing those arms and supplies, and being paid in promissory notes, and in this worthless paper.

With the glorious luster of Manassas still clinging to them, Generals PGT Beauregard and Joseph Johnston proposed a bold stroke to end the War; they would make a decisive northward march of their combined armies up the Shenandoah valley, through western Maryland and possibly into Pennsylvania. The object was to cut and hold the railroad line of the Baltimore and Ohio, the best communication from the eastern seaboard to the Ohio River valley. Of the people present, I remember that General Lee was very reserved in his comments and did not seem to favor the plan and the President favored offensive action but had no idea where to raise the troop strength the Generals said would be necessary. My opinion was decidedly negative, and was not well received. I explained that a railroad such as the B & O had the organization and rolling stock to move tens of thousands of men in a few short weeks, and to supply them in their necessities almost without limit. Lacking such a supply line and dependent on what wagons could carry over rough roads, the Confederate force might be outflanked and overwhelmed.

Joseph Johnston was the one who remarked that such a trick could be made to work two ways, and could be turned to our advantage against an invading Union army. But General Beauregard had the inspiration that was to determine Confederate strategy for the remainder of the War. "It is as though the several states were features of a single large battlefield. Yes, that is it exactly! It is all one battlefield!" None of us divined his intent, but he was encouraged to share his thinking. Being mindful of the political necessities, he chose as his example an incident with which President Davis was intimately familiar, the Battle of Buena Vista from the Mexican-American War. "Do you remember, sir, how we would use infantry to fix the Mexican forces in place and rapidly maneuver upon their flanks with your own mounted rifles, or with the flying artillery? As necessary, troops could be rapidly switched from one side of the battlefield to the other. If rail transportation can be effected as rapidly and in such capacity as Mister Haines has said - and I have no reason to doubt his good word! - then we must view the entirety of the Confederate states as one battlefield, and establish a force of maneuver that may be deployed at need at any point upon that battlefield!"

This conception took us all aback, and yet upon further examination appeared to hold great promise. We lacked the sheer number of troops required to hold our vast territory with much strength in any one place, but might achieve great effect by amassing a reserve force to be committed to battle at a decisive point. General Lee raised the objection that we might expect to be assaulted on several fronts at one time, and General Beauregard responded that it was sound strategy to concentrate forces on one enemy assault at a time, defeating them each in turn. If we were threatened in several places simultaneously, in Virginia and in Kentucky, for example, this reserve would be committed in one place to smash an invader and then rapidly railed across country to the next crisis. President Davis observed that it would be hard upon the country for our armies to withdraw before enemy forces, but allowed that this would render the enemy more vulnerable to a counter-stroke, which would quite restore the morale of our citizens.

General Lee was skeptical and preferred the troops detailed instead to specific armies. General Johnston was intrigued, Beauregard ebullient and President Davis stonily undecided. Some days later we were again summoned to resume the question and were informed that Albert Sidney Johnston, commander of all Confederate forces west of the Appalachians, had given the proposal his enthusiastic endorsement. This decided the issue for President Davis, who had great regard for his commander in the west.

With this decided, we began to assemble the forces and the rolling stock to ensure the operations could be carried out. Unfortunately for us, the Union did not await our preparations.

Our strategic conception, so carefully wrought in the Christmas season, lay apparently in ruins by mid-February. This was due to a breathtaking oversight on the part of the Confederate commander in the West, and to the initiative and daring of a young Federal officer.

The border of the Western theater was defined by the rivers, the Ohio separating western Virginia and Kentucky from Unionist Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. To cross the Ohio was no small undertaking, as the Federal armies had found the previous year, especially in the face of the fortifications at Columbus, Paducah and Louisville. There was one weakness in this river line, a place where the Cumberland River, to the east, and the Tennessee River, on the west, flowed side-by-side for many miles out of the heartland of Tennessee and Kentucky and joined the mighty Ohio. The mouths of the two rivers were, as I say, only a few miles apart, but as it was felt the terrain was not suitable, these openings were left unfortified and strong works were to be constructed inland.

For some reason, no defenses were erected along these rivers in Kentucky at all! In fact, little had been accomplished by way of defending these rivers at any point, a fact both inexplicable and inexcusable in that these broad, easily navigable waters reached deep into Kentucky in one direction and across Kentucky, across the width of Tennessee and on to northern Alabama and Chattanooga in the other. What could have been a stout earthwork on the Tennessee River was instead a half-flooded hog-wallow named Fort Henry, while the higher and drier Fort Donelson on the Cumberland possessed only five large cannon. These forts had little to recommend them except their location near a rail-line that ran west across Tennessee and terminated in Memphis. Control of the railroad gave General Albert Sidney Johnston the flexibility to shuttle his troops anywhere from Louiville, Kentucky to Memphis, Tennessee. If the railroad were broken, and control of these waterways seized by the enemy, the result would be a catastrophe for the South and a war-winning advantage for the Union, as most of the river boats for the country were owned and operated by Union men.

In February of 1862, this calamity came to pass. Sailing swiftly up the Ohio River from Cairo, Illinois, General Ulysses S Grant seized the little town of Smithland and plunged headlong up the Tennessee River. His armor-plated gunboats drove the defenders out of Fort Henry, then reversed course and doubled back up the Cumberland. This combined army-navy operation swept the forts, pocketed an army of twenty thousand irreplaceable Confederate troops at Fort Donelson, and smashed a hole in the Confederate defensive lines. General Johnston considered abandoning Kentucky and western Tennessee as far as Nashville, a staggering loss the Confederacy could scarcely have sustained. Had General Buell led his Union army across the Ohio at Cincinnatti, or co-ordinated with General Grant in any effective way, our position in the West would have become untenable.



Instead, we were forced upon what General Lee had dismissively called, 'the railroad strategy'. Troops were gathered from every garrison in the West; New Orleans and Mobile were stripped and even Savannah and Charleston left bereft of men. The army in the Shenandoah Valley was called upon, as was its commander, PGT Beauregard. Never before or after did I see Beauregard perform so magnificently as in the planning, movement and concentration of an entire army from these scattered detachments. Nominally under the command of General AS Johnston, it was in fact Beauregard who planned the operation, organized the encampments and laid out the movement to battle. Fort Donelson surrendered on February 16th; on April 6th, Confederate troops smashed into the Federal encampment at Shiloh Church, a little way inland from Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River. It was a complete vindication of the railroad strategy, and of Beauregard, and if I do say so myself a triumph of transportation and organization. Almost no-one on either side believed it could be done!

Of that terrible battle I have little to say; I had supervised much of the railroad operations that led up to it, but I was sixty miles behind the battlefield on that day. I can tell you it is true the battle was so fierce the sound of guns could be heard even from my railroad cars in Corinth. The battle was, in the words of President Davis, 'a mournful victory'. More men fell dead and wounded in two days than in all the years of the American Revolution, the War of 1812 and the Mexican War - combined! - a total of 25,000 victims on both sides. The roll of dead and wounded officers alone near filled a page in the Richmond newspaper, and first among them was Albert Sidney Johnston. Beauregard fought until his army could fight no more, stopped the Federal counter-attack on the second day and watched - exhausted - as the enemy slipped across the river on the second night, abandoning the battlefield to the Confederacy. Lacking a naval force, or even transports, and possessing no railroad line running north along the Tennessee River, Beauregard was compelled to let them go. We were later to find that General Halleck, in command of Union forces in the West, had ordered Grant to retire, and Grant - with much protest - had reluctantly obeyed.

With a decisive if sanguinary result attained and the enemy gone from the field, Beauregard handed over command of the Army of Tennessee to General Braxton Bragg and set up a new headquarters in Atlanta. Some of the garrison troops were returned to the coastal cities; other units were brought in from Columbus, Kentucky and from training camps, so the order of battle for this new command was very mixed. Ably seconded by General Thomas Jackson, Beauregard began training this mobile reserve corps - the formal embodiment of his conception of the railroad strategy.

In the meantime, the Union was not idle, and Confederate forces were stretched to the limit and beyond. The Shenandoah Valley, northern Virginia, the James Peninsula, and the Atlantic coastline all shook to the sound of the guns. Critical areas, such as the Valley and Richmond itself, were held. Less critical areas in coastal North and South Carolina were swamped in a tide of Federal blue. Florida was invaded and occupied, though the small Union armies there were harried and harassed at every opportunity. Coastal Texas fell, and there was great anxiety for the cities of New Orleans and Mobile.

Despite my attempts to develop industry and commerce, the South entered upon this fight for its existence gravely outmatched in production of every necessity from salt to cannon. Some of this lack could be made up by desperate development of internal resources, some could be imported through the blockade, and some simply had to be done without. Swift, low, dark craft slipped in and out of Southern harbors carrying pressed bales of cotton and returning freighted in every manner of material and substance, and an increase in this traffic would materially benefit the South. The loss of this maritime commerce would bring immense suffering, material loss and perhaps the loss of the War itself.

Foremost among these blockade-running ports was New Orleans. In a year in which Richmond's population swelled to sixty thousand, New Orleans was home to four times that total. Greatest of the Southern cities in population, wealth and commerce, and possessed of more industry than any city outside Richmond, it was - due to the geography of the several mouths of the Mississippi River - also difficult to blockade. The capture of New Orleans, or the establishment of a strong Federal naval force in the river to seal the blockade, was of the utmost importance to the Union.

Defended by Forts Jackson and St Phillip, the city appeared impregnable. A number of river craft had been converted to makeshift gunboats or fitted as rams, and one tug (named Manassas) had even been armor-plated. Two vast armored ships were a-building, and their completion would give the city a fleet to match its imposing fortifications. The reality was somewhat less impressive: the forts and the city itself had been stripped and their men sent to Shiloh. The naval construction wallowed in a mire of mismanagement, graft and simple bad design. Workmen could scarcely be had at any price, funds to pay for warship construction were almost non-existent, armor was lacking, cannon nowhere to be found.

The Union army had departed the battlefield of Shiloh by the 8th of April; on the 16th the Federal fleet steamed up the Mississippi and opened mortar fire on the forts defending New Orleans. That same day, General Beauregard commanded General Bragg to entrain two brigades of Louisiana troops - some 5,000 men - for the defense of the city. At 2:00 AM of April 24th, Admiral Farragut ordered the fleet into motion. His objective was not to defeat the fortresses but rather to run past them, preventing their resupply and exposing the city to bombardment from his fleet's powerful guns. A small army of Federal troops was available, but could not proceed upriver until the forts were taken.

I cannot say that I had anything to do with the defense of New Orleans, save that I pushed the workers in my furnaces, foundries and rolling mills to their utmost effort. The ironclad Louisiana had her engines fitted while the mortar shells were still raining down, and the enormous Mississippi was readied for battle, though only half-plated in iron. Both suffered from deficiencies in their machinery, making it difficult for them to steam upriver against the current, but both possessed a powerful armament. Arms, armor and machinery were all largely provided by the Montgomery, Mobile and New Orleans shops; had these not been available, or had to be shipped from Richmond, the work could never have been pushed as far along as it was.

In the action that followed, the River Defense Fleet proved almost worthless; it was a militia, commanded by riverboat captains with no military training, and the makeshift gunboats and rams achieved little and were all destroyed. The ironclads fought magnificently, as did the other vessels captained by officers of the Confederate Navy, until they were sunk or burned. All were lost, but four of the big Federal sloops were also consumed in flames, along with two of their accompanying gunboats. Virtually alone on Hartford, Farragut pressed on upriver to New Orleans, there to be met with musket and artillery fire from troops who had just arrived at the train station. Seeing nothing could be gained with his slender remaining forces, Farragut withdrew past the battered forts and the great naval action was over.



The destruction of the Confederate squadron meant the Union could remain in the river, closing New Orleans as a port for the rest of the War. Forts Jackson and St Phillip were pounded into rubble, as were newer earthworks constructed upstream. Still, the Confederate ensign flew defiantly from the city hall and the metropolis remained firmly in Confederate hands, besieged but unbowed.







Chapter 17

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