The Island #10 Campaign
March 2 - April 8, 1862
Note: This article was written by a fine historian that went by the handle "LB" in the civil War chat room.
CONFEDERATE DEFENSE OF THE UPPER MISSISSIPPI VALLEY
In preparation of the defense of the Mississippi River, Confederate General Gideon Pillow, commanding the newly formed Army of Liberation, arrived in the small hamlet of New Madrid, Missouri in late July of 1861. The region was to be the first line of the Confederate defense of the Mississippi River Valley and the base for future expeditions up the river, both by land and water.
The site was chosen for several reasons. New Madrid was the terminus of the main river road leading to St. Louis, 175 miles distant. The town itself was located at the top of the second of two horseshoe bends of the river, sweeping arcs which appeared on the map like the letter "S" laid on its side. Up river from New Madrid lay Island Number 10, situated in the middle of the river, which could be easily fortified to block Federal passage. Engineers proclaimed the Island as being without equal for the defense of the River. However, Pillow, a political General from Tennessee, had different aspirations. His first object was an invasion of St. Louis, which became bogged down when he attempted to join up with General William J. Hardee. The construction of fortifications was ignored and his grand army sat idle.
The following month Kentucky became the new object of the Confederate commander's attention, and Pillow reported to Gen. Leonidas Polk, now in Memphis, that the strategic value of the great bend was "vastly overrated." Polk, a West Point graduate who had spent most of the past twenty years in the ministry depended on Pillow's knowledge of the lay of the land. The two agreed that the high bluffs at Columbus, Kentucky were superior for defense, and the army moved into Kentucky. The move created a political backlash, as Kentucky had proclaimed its neutrality to both sides.
Pillow's move left what little works that were begun in New Madrid unfinished, leaving the completion of them to Brig. General M. Jeff Thompson and his contingent of the Missouri State Guard. The works at Island No. 10 were completely abandoned. However, after Polk moved his headquarters up to Columbus he directed that the works at New Madrid and the Island be completed, recognizing the importance of maintaining a fall back position from the Kentucky Fortress. Col. Edward Gantt, commanding two Arkansas Infantry regiments was assigned to New Madrid to complete an earthwork fort and Capt. A. B. Gray of the Topographical Engineers was assigned the task of completing a series of land batteries at Number 10 with local slave labor. Throughout the winter months Gray worked tirelessly on the Island No. 10 defenses. Three main batteries were constructed on the head end of the Island and work begun on five more positions on the Tennessee shore, together with a redoubt behind the land batteries.
After the fall of Forts Henry and Donelson on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers the first line of Confederate defense of the Mississippi Valley was breached and Columbus was now vulnerable to an overland attack from the East. General Polk quickly moved his headquarters to Humboldt, Tennessee and ordered a division from Columbus to New Madrid and Island No. 10. Brig. General John P. McCown, a Tennessee West Point graduate and former Captain in the U.S. regulars, was placed in command. He was an unknown for the most part, and described as "dilapidated;" but he was experienced in the artillery, which the defenses at the Island required.
CONFEDERATES FORTIFY ISLAND NO. 10
McCown's army arrived at New Madrid and the Island in hurried confusion in late February of 1862, but in the days that followed the men managed to mount about 50 heavy guns (32 pounders and larger) in the Island No. 10 area. Another 12 heavy guns were placed in New Madrid, creating a formidable defensive line. Gantt's New Madrid garrison was beefed up by the addition of three Tennessee Infantry regiments and two artillery companies. Brig. Gen. Alexander P. "Old Straight" Stewart was placed in command at New Madrid, and he immediately ordered the construction of a second fort to be placed at the mouth of St. John Bayou, on the eastern edge of town. The new fort was constructed from sacks of shelled corn covered with dirt and was christened "Fort Bankhead." Brig. General L.M. "Marsh" Walker, another Tennessee West Pointer was given command of the new work, and Gantt, an Arkansas politician, was left in charge of Fort Thompson.
The earthen works on the Island proper, together with the five shore batteries on the Tennessee side of the river were reinforced with eight infantry regiments, several cavalry squadrons and a full regiment of heavy artillerists. Brig. Gen. James Trudeau, a member of a prominent Louisiana family who had attended military school in Switzerland commanded the batteries, while McCown retained personal command of the field troops. The arrival of the troops, cannon, ammunition and supplies from Columbus was a logistical nightmare, and confusion was the order of the day. Added to McCown's task of fortifying the area under such conditions was the news that the Missouri Confederate Legislature was to meet in New Madrid on March 3, and he was expected to protect its deliberations from disruption.
THE SIEGE OF NEW MADRID, MISSOURI
MARCH 2-13, 1862
Meanwhile, the Union forces in Missouri, previously occupied in the North-central and western parts of the state chasing Gen. Sterling Price, were now under the command of Major General Henry "Old Brains" Halleck. Halleck, known for his bug-eye stare and stern disposition, put together a plan for collapsing the Confederate western flank, which included the Mississippi River defenses at Island No. 10 and New Madrid. Halleck ordered Brig. Gen. John Pope, who was well connected with Lincoln Republicans, to move on the Confederate forces at New Madrid and keep the secession legislature from meeting. Pope had been promised a "suitable command," and the combination of Missouri political impact together with a well-known military object suited the ambitious Pope. Gen. Pope arrived at Commerce, Missouri on February 25, 1862 with an escort of 140 men, and by the first of March Gen. Halleck had assembled an army of 12,000 for him to complete the assignment. By March 2nd his advance pickets arrived at New Madrid and the following day the remainder of the Army of the Mississippi arrived on the edge of town, having marched the 50 miles of Missouri springtime mud in three days.
Upon his arrival Pope discovered that five Confederate gunboats under the command of Commodore George N. Hollins had further reinforced New Madrid. The river, typical of springtime stages was nearly out of its banks, allowing the heavy guns on board the boats to sweep the countryside for several thousand yards ahead of Pope's army. Additionally, his intelligence on the size of the New Madrid garrison was sketchy at best, so a general assault was not ordered. Never the less, the Missouri legislature fled south under the guard of M. Jeff Thompson, who commented that he was not about to be trapped in a fort.
On the 4th and 6th of March Pope ordered a reconnaissance in force on the Rebel positions near town, and pushed the pickets in, but still had very little idea of the size of the garrison. Finally on the 7th a general demonstration against the Confederate works was ordered. General David S. Stanley's Division (really a Brigade) was ordered to move on Fort Thompson while Col. W. H. Worthington's Brigade (two regiments) was to move on Fort Bankhead and occupy the trenches. John M. Palmer's First Brigade was to support Worthington. The Confederate's discovered the feint and the gunboats opened up on Worthington's men. Now, caught in crossfire between the Confederate gunboats and heavy guns in the forts, the force of approximately 7000 withdrew from the town without engaging the enemy. Pope, his Division commanders agreeing, concluded that an all out frontal assault would be suicide and decided to put the garrison to siege. He then telegraphed Halleck for siege guns and kept his command well distanced from the Confederates to await the big guns arrival.
Pope continued with other strategies too. On March 6th Brig. Gen. J.B Plummer 's Division was ordered five miles down river to Point Pleasant, Missouri. Plummer's mission was to set up batteries on the river in order to cut off Confederate supply boats from New Madrid and No. 10. Plummer's men dug in along the riverbank; although the Rebel gunboats attempted to dislodge the Federals with their wooden fleet of gunboats, they failed. Plummer's men riddled the boats with small arms fire and scored several direct hits from their field pieces. The Confederate fleet proved it had little offensive value.
The Yankee siege guns, three 24-pounders and one 8 inch Howitzer, arrived on March 12 and were planted in front of Fort Thompson that night. On the morning of the 13th the Federals began returning the Rebel artillery fire in earnest. A daylong artillery battle ensued, and although not terribly bloody, there were total losses on both sides in excess of 100 killed and wounded. The Yanks showed themselves to be good marksmen, dismounting two heavy guns in Fort Thompson and scoring several direct hits on the gunboats. The defenders, not to be outdone, placed an 8-inch ball directly into the muzzle of one of the 24 pounders. Pope ordered an infantry assault on Fort Bankhead by Palmer's Division, however the Confederates discovered the plan and trained the big guns on the hapless Federals. Palmer, an Illinois politician, approached the fort to within about of a mile, and then refused to order the assault. Pope acquiesced to Palmer's decision.
That evening Generals Stewart, McCown and Commodore Hollins met aboard the Confederate Flagship McRae and concluded that the situation at New Madrid was hopeless. Within hours of the meeting, under the cover of a terrific spring thunderstorm, the Confederate forces evacuated New Madrid and crossed over to the opposite bank of the River. The evacuation was botched from the beginning, there were too few transports, the big guns were left unspiked, the caissons and limbers from the field pieces had to be thrown overboard from the transports, pickets were left in the trenches, and bodies left unburied. Overall it had the appearance of a route rather than an evacuation.
Amazingly, the Federals watched the Rebel transports all night long, but they could not determine if it was an evacuation or reinforcement. The following morning the Union troops were marched on to the field and Pope prepared for the assault that he had been avoiding. A flag of truce appeared in Fort Thompson from the Rebel pickets who had been left behind. Soon all of Gen. Pope's army learned that the Rebels had made their escape. Cheers swelled in the ranks, and Pope quickly received his kudos from Halleck for the nearly bloodless capture of the garrison.
Pope's forces immediately went to work fortifying the position. The large guns left in the forts were placed back into service, and three new batteries were constructed on the Missouri side of the river; two between Point Pleasant and New Madrid, and another a few more miles south at Riddle's Point, opposite Tiptonville. The new batteries completely cut off the Island from supply by river, leaving the Confederates with one overland route from Tiptonville.
THE BATTLE FOR ISLAND NO. 10
On the same day that Pope discovered the evacuation of New Madrid Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote left Cairo, Illinois bound for Island No. 10. The impressive flotilla included seven ironclad gunboats, among them the massive Benton, and ten mortar rafts, each mounting one 13-inch seacoast mortar, 95 heavy guns in all. After a brief stop at Bird's Point, Missouri to pick up Colonel Napoleon Buford's Brigade of infantry to support the fleet, the flotilla arrived above the island in the early morning hours of March 15th. Foote immediately began a bombardment of the island and the surrounding batteries, a bombardment that lasted 22 days, but it had little effect.
Pope quickly began urging Foote to run his fleet past the batteries and join him at New Madrid, where they could cut off the Confederate force by hemming it in on the Tennessee Peninsula. Foote, overly cautious and suffering from a wound received at Fort Donelson, rejected Pope's plan, believing that it would certainly allow the destruction of the fleet. Instead he actively engaged the Confederates only once, leaving most of the bombardment to the mortar rafts.
The one engagement was a rather heated duel between three of the gunboats and the Redan Fort on the Tennessee shore. Foote ordered the Benton lashed between two of the ironclads, a precaution in case one of the boats became disabled so it would not float downstream into Confederate hands. The three ironclads attacked the Redan bows forward, the mortars and the rest of the fleet joining in as their guns would allow, distance being the determining factor. The Redan, commanded by Captain Edward W. Rucker, was armed with three 8-inch columbiads and three 32-pounders (smoothbore) and was partially flooded. The 32 pounders were not used during the three-hour fight, unable to reach out far enough, but the huge Lady Polk, Jr., a 128-pounder on the island did join in from three miles away along with a rifled 32 in another shore battery. The Benton took three direct hits and the ironclad St Louis was struck several times. The Redan took a tremendous pounding, but the cannoneers stuck with the guns throughout the engagement and eventually Foote retired. Trudeau was elated with his troops performance, and Rucker proclaimed a hero in the Memphis papers; good news from Tennessee was badly needed and repulsing the ironclads qualified.
The March 17th attack marked the end of Foote's offensive efforts with the gunboats, for the next few weeks most of the fleet sat idle, the Confederates called the fleet "humbug" and the Northern Press gang, which was in full force with the fleet, was not much kinder. Pope grew increasingly impatient, telegraphing Foote daily to make a move. Finally in desperation Pope ordered a canal cut across the Missouri peninsula. Col. J.W. Bissell and the Engineering Regiment of the West were put to work on March 23rd and finished the effort on April 2nd. "Canal" is somewhat of a misnomer, since the area was flooded. The major part of the work was cutting a path through the bayous, which Bissell's engineers accomplished by devising an ingenious method of cutting trees below the water line. By the time the canal was completed the river had dropped and only four small transports were able to get through to New Madrid, the ironclads draft being too great.
Soon after the arrival of the Federal Fleet General McCown began asking his commander, Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard for reinforcements. Beauregard declined; his attention was focused on the Tennessee River and a different object at Pittsburg Landing. Beauregard did suggest that General Earl Van Dorn could relieve the besieged garrison by attacking Pope from the rear. This was impossible since Van Dorn's troops were still reeling from their defeat at Pea Ridge. At this point the Creole General's plans for the river become a little schizophrenic. His overall strategy was to build smaller garrisons, and then relieve them when they came under attack. This option was not available at Island No. 10 because of the concentration taking place in Southwestern Tennessee.
Finally Beauregard issued a circular outlining his new plan for defense of the river, which in essence a directive on the order of retreat. McCown moved six of his regiments, two artillery companies and most of his cavalry down from Madrid Bend to Fort Pillow, for transfer over to Beauregard's army. This left about 4000 men present for duty in the entire Madrid Bend area of operations, 400 of which were unarmed. On March 31st Beauregard, apparently believing that the position could still be held until it was relieved or at least successfully evacuated, replaced McCown with Maryland native Brig. Gen. William W. MacKall. MacKall was part of Beauregard's anti-Davis clique. A West Pointer and former Lt. Col. in the Regular Army, he had served as Assistant Adjutant General of the Department of the Pacific; hardly a candidate for sacrifice.
MacKall arrived at Madrid Bend and found his new command disheartened, poorly armed and the Confederate gunboats in the vicinity useless. Just before his arrival the Flotilla Brigade under Col. Napoleon Buford had surprised and routed Col. Ed Pickett's Confederate garrison at Union City, Tennessee and severed one important line of communication. To add to those woes, on April 1st a forty man squad from the flotilla stole down river in skiffs, surprised the sentries at the Redan and spiked the guns. Mackall's best ally was Foote's inaction, but Pope was pressing from every angle.
THE CARONDELET RUNS THE GAUNTLET
Finally, Halleck intervened and convinced Foote to ask for a volunteer to run the batteries. A meeting was held abroad the flagship of the ironclad captains, and Henry Walke of the Carondelet volunteered his city-class gunboat for the attempt.
Walke set to work preparing his craft for the run. All available chains and howzwers in the fleet were gathered up and used to beef up the armor. Although plunging fire was not a great concern because of the flat terrain, the hurricane deck was given an extra layer of timber. Cordwood was stacked around the boilers and a small barge was lashed to the side and loaded with hay to add further protection. The crew was armed with cutlasses, boarding pikes and axes and Walke was instructed to burn his ship rather than have it captured. The plan was for Walke to wait for a dark night and attempt to sneak past the batteries, so the steam pipes were rerouted to muffle the sound. The Carondelet weighed anchor as a thunderstorm approached on the night of April 4th, the moon well concealed. All went well until she approached the Confederate batteries when the flue caught fire and the Rebel sentries sounded the alarm. Walke shouted to his pilot, William Hoel, for "full speed." Hoel was an experienced pilot on this stretch of the river, and with the help of a boatswain's mate stationed on the forecastle, steered the craft past the Island. Despite heavy cannonading, the Confederate gunners were unable to train their guns on the ship, allowing it to pass by unharmed. Carondelet arrived at New Madrid the following morning before dawn, greeted by cheers from Pope's army.
Pope immediately put Walke to work dislodging the Confederate counter batteries opposite New Madrid and Point Pleasant to secure his armies crossing. The Carondelet made short work of it, demonstrating the superiority of the Federal gunboats against small land batteries. The morning of the 7th a second ironclad, the Pittsburg arrived in time to cover the armies crossing into Tennessee.
THE CAPTURE OF ISLAND NO. 10
At last the major part of Pope's army, which now numbered nearly 25,000 had arrived on the Tennessee shore. MacKall's force headed south for Tiptonville with Pope's pursuing army in his rear. A few brief rear guard actions were attempted, but the Rebel's would not stand their ground. Outnumbered and outgunned MacKall's force stopped on the western outskirts of Tiptonville the evening of the 7th. The trap was set. Colonel James D. Morgan's Brigade marched past Tiptonville on the river (east) side and occupied the South end of town and Col. Gilbert W. Cumming's Brigade moved in on MacKall from the North. MacKall had nowhere to go with Reelfoot Lake to his west. At 2 A.M. he sent word to the Federals of his surrender.
As for the island itself, early on the 7th word reached it's acting commander Captain Andrew Jackson, Jr., the former President's step-son, that Pope had crossed the river. The Confederates quickly set to work trying to plug the river by sinking eight steamers in the channel. By late afternoon many of the heavy artillery companies, together with some of the remaining infantry began crossing Reelfoot Lake by any means available. The island was formally surrendered to Foote at 3:45 A.M. on the morning of the 8th.
Pope reported to Halleck that he had captured 7,076 men, along with all arms and artillery. In reality it was closer to 4000. Contemporary Confederate writers during and after the war disputed Pope's figures, but most historians have accepted them at face value. The dispute is unfortunate, since the campaign was tactically brilliant, Pope's personality flaws aside. On the Confederate side some measure of success has to be considered too. After all, 4000 men kept the Army of the Mississippi at bay for 5 weeks at a time when numbers were critical in the west.
In the final analysis, it was the one-two punch of combined operations that made the Federal Mississippi River campaign so successful. The Confederates never were able to develop a counter strategy. When Island 10 fell the Mississippi River was open all the way to Vicksburg for all practical purposes
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