Early 1862 Military Moves in The West: Part 1
After the Union’s disastrous defeat at Bull Run, Virginia in July 1861, Lincoln appointed an Ohio militia leader, General George McClellan to reorganize the Union’s shattered army. Thereafter, McClellan seemed loath to take direction from his superiors. Writing to his wife, he described Lincoln as a baboon. He related to her “… the Prsdt is an idiot, the old General (Scott) in his dotage – they cannot or will not see the true state of affairs.”
That opinion prompted McClellan to ignore Lincoln’s repeated suggestions and even Lincoln’s pleas for the general to do something with the Union’s new Army of the Potomac.
The situation in the West wasn’t much better. When Lincoln urged General Halleck, commander of the Western Department headquartered in St. Lewis, to begin military operations, he was told that orders from Gen. McClellan were needed; more excuses for delay.
For the Confederate States of America to win its independence, it was essential that they maintain control of the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Toward that end, forts were established on tributary rivers like, the Tennessee and Cumberland on the Upper Mississippi and at New Orleans and Vicksburg on the Lower Mississippi. To wrest control of the Mississippi from the Confederate government, the Union had to capture such strong points.
Ulysses s. Grant, was a political appointee of the Illinois governor. Grant commanded state militia stationed in Cairo, Illinois on the Upper Mississippi. In January 1862, he suggested to his military superior, General Halleck, that he be allowed to attack Fort Henry guarding the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson, ten miles overland, guarding the Cumberland River. Halleck refused to approve Grant’s proposal. It wasn’t that Halleck did not feel the project had merit. Rather, he just did not want to approve any venture under Grant’s command.
Halleck did not like Grant. His animosity went back to their military service in California. There, Halleck knew Grant as a man who could not hold his liquor; a man who was forced to resign his army commission or face a court martial for being intoxicated on duty.
But, the Grant of 1861, was a much different man. He was now a sober man and a determined one, too.Without orders, he sent some of his men east to occupy the undefended town of Paducah, which town commanded a key position on the Ohio River. He also enlisted the support of naval Captain Foote for a joint naval/army operation against forts Henry and Donelson. He and Foote proposed the joint attack to Halleck again on January 28, 1862.
Halleck knew the strategic importance of the two forts. And, Grant and Foot’s proposal came at a time when Lincoln was putting pressure on Halleck to begin some sort of offensive operation in the West early in February. So, this time, Halleck approved the joint proposal to attack the two river forts.
The approval came precisely at the same time that the new specially designed military river craft were delivered to Halleck’s command. In January 1862, Foot took delivery of seven City Class ironclads. Designed by Sam Pook to manage the river shallows, they were built by James Eads. He employed thousands of men in round the clock work at several sites. These boats were heavily armored and well-armed. Awarded a contract in the summer of 1861, he promised delivery by year’s end; and he delivered.
The Confederate government never had anything on the western waters to match them.