Wednesday, February 13, 2008

ON THIS DAY: Friday, Feb. 14, 1862

The gunboats’ retreat

Today is the navy’s day to show what it can do in reducing Fort Donelson. Fresh from his success in overwhelming Fort Henry in little more than an hour, Flag Officer Andrew Hull Foote has brought his little fleet of four ironclads and two timberclads chugging up the Cumberland River to pound the daylights out of the Confederate fort.

On the land side, meanwhile, the armies are relatively static. They are waiting for the outcome of the artillery duel.

Fort Donelson presents a very different problem than Fort Henry did. Well-situated on bluffs overlooking the river, the fort boasts two “water batteries”—that is, artillery that could be aimed at anything that moved on the Cumberland.

Things do not go well for Foote’s gunboats. While doing little damage to the Confederate batteries, all four Union ironclads are badly damaged by the pounding, plunging fire of the Confederates. The gunboat St. Louis alone takes 59 hits in a battle lasting only 90 minutes. Two of the Union gunboats drift helplessly away, their steering gear smashed. The two timberclads are far more vulnerable to damage, so they dare not take on the Confederate artillerists by themselves. More than 50 Union sailors are killed or injured. Even Flag Officer Foote is wounded by enemy fire. Beaten, the little squadron moves down the river and out of range.

The naval attack had failed. Now everything is up to Grant’s shivering soldiers, shivering in the snow and cold. The Confederates are just as cold and both sides are poorly supplied. Despite the thrashing of Foote’s gunboats, the Confederate generals doubt they can mount a protracted defense. They meet this evening and plan an attempted breakout in the morning.

IN OTHER NEWS: The last Confederates leave Bowling Green, Kentucky, without a fight, abandoning the important base to the Federals. As if to acknowledge that Ulysses S. Grant had moved into a new theater of operations, he was today named commander of the District of West Tennessee—which is where he was, anyway, thanks to his Fort Henry/Fort Donelson campaign. Replacing him as commander of the District of Cairo will be Henry W. Halleck’s friend, Brig. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. Halleck had promised the downhearted Sherman—currently organizing and training troops at Benton Barracks in St. Louis—that he “would not be forgotten,” and is good as his word.

IT’S COMING SOONER THAN YOU THINK: April 12, 2011—less than 3½ years from now!—will be the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the Civil War. In 1861, April 12 was the day Confederates opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.

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