Thursday, January 19, 2017

Review of Smith - "GRANT INVADES TENNESSEE: The 1862 Battles for Forts Henry and Donelson"

[Grant Invades Tennessee: The 1862 Battles for Forts Henry and Donelson by Timothy B. Smith (University Press of Kansas, 2016). Cloth, 20 maps, photos, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:426/534. ISBN:978-0-7006-2313-6. $34.95]

In addition to numerous articles, pamphlets, and popular histories, two full-length scholarly studies of the 1862 Union land and naval campaign that captured Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River have been published. Western theater Civil War historian Timothy Smith admires both B.F. Cooling's classic Forts Henry and Donelson: The Key to the Confederate Heartland (1998) and Kendall Gott's more recent Where the South Lost the War: An Analysis of the Fort Henry-Fort Donelson Campaign, February 1862 (2003) but maintains that his new book Grant Invades Tennessee: The 1862 Battles for Forts Henry and Donelson addresses important military aspects of the campaign largely neglected by both earlier major works. Upon reading Smith's book, those familiar with the rest of the literature can readily recognize the validity of the author's claim. Whereas Cooling scrutinized the campaign through a broad range of military, societal, and economic contexts and Gott structured his own investigation around penetrating command and leadership appraisals, Smith's narrative achieves levels of microtactical detail accompanied by a superabundance of viewpoints written by the men in the ranks that are absent from all prior works.

Those topics comprising the backbone of traditional studies of the February 1862 twin rivers operation — to include the theater-wide preparations of both sides, leadership assessments, the Battle of Fort Henry, the Phelps naval raid up the Tennessee River, and the Battle of Fort Donelson — are meticulously recounted and intensely analyzed in Smith's book. The author's tactical-level coverage of the multi-day battle at Fort Donelson, especially the fighting on the 15th, is by leaps and bounds the finest available. Like Ed Bearss, Smith strikes one as equally comfortable with land and naval topics, making this particular combined operation an especially apt showcase for his skills as writer and historian. During his research, the author combed through an incredible number of document collections, and the fruits of these labors are readily apparent in the narrative. Seemingly every regimental action described in the book, small or large, benefits from useful information and/or emotional flavor provided by one or more eyewitness account.

One of the campaign's enduring mysteries is who was the first person to suggest the the twin rivers as the line of operations best suited to unhinge the Confederacy's western theater defenses in 1862. The issue remains open to debate, but, according to Smith, the earliest written documentation he was able to discover (dated November 20, 1861) is from Colonel Charles Whittlesey, an engineer who suggested the movement in a direct communication with Henry Halleck. Perhaps Lew Wallace's view that the germ of the idea came to several individuals independently is the most likely. Regardless, as department commander, the final decision would come from Halleck.

With Lincoln constantly pressuring Halleck to do something in his department (and, along the way, keep the Confederates from concentrating more troops against Buell's adjacent department), U.S. Grant was assigned the task of conducting a reconnaissance of the enemy river defenses, a task the aggressive general took to with relish. Perhaps too much relish. While the deep advance of his two heavy columns gained valuable intelligence, they also awakened the Confederates (and more important, Department No. 2 commander Albert Sidney Johnston) to the general inadequacy of their river batteries and forts. After Grant's reconnaissance ended, Confederate defensive efforts at the twin rivers were redoubled and reinforcements sent to their aid. The author asks important questions regarding whether the information gained sufficiently offset the tipping of the Union hand and the improved defenses Grant would later encounter. With the clear benefit of hindsight, Grant's victories at Henry and Donelson might have appeared inevitable, but there were key moments when things could have gone either way. If the Confederates had been allowed to continue their twin rivers slumber (rather than be alerted by the January reconnaissances) Smith suggests that the odds of Union success might have been even better. The idea has clear merit, but ultimately such speculation can never be put to the test.

One of the book's main goals was to bring Fort Henry out from behind Fort Donelson's considerable shadow. Smith believes the capture of Fort Henry, with its fall facilitating a Union dagger thrust all the way into the Deep South's vitals, the more consequential strategic achievement of the two. Unfairly dominated in the historiography by Donelson's much larger battle and impressive prisoner haul, the vast amount of enemy territory and communication links immediately made vulnerable to Union invasion by Henry's capture dwarfed that of Donelson [there's a great map in the book illustrating this idea], even after taking into account a potential haul from seizing the Cumberland fort that included irreplaceable industrial resources and the Tennessee capital of Nashville. With the much wider and deeper arc of the Tennessee River, the Fort Henry victory and the gunboat raid into northern Alabama that followed it severed Confederate east-west movement and communications in the Upper South. Similarly crucial communication centers located in the northern reaches of the Deep South (ex. Corinth) also came under immediate threat. That said, the author is quite careful not to promote the view that Donelson's stature needs to be lowered in order to raise that of Fort Henry. Of course, Smith recognizes that one of the two forts could not have been safely held without also occupying the other and readily concedes the great likelihood that many observers and historians implicitly include Henry when discussing the strategic importance of the Union victory at Fort Donelson. Even so, his book does demonstrate that temporarily isolating one event from the other can result in some interesting challenges to the traditional interpretation of the campaign.

Grant himself initially favored attacking Donelson first, but Foote urged successfully that Henry be the initial target (and Halleck agreed with Foote, either because the department commander thought it the best/safest move or because the idea wasn't Grant's own preference). How much this meant that Fort Henry was the more vital strategic point in the minds of most of those involved is debatable. In furthering his persuasive discussion of the underappreciated importance of Fort Henry, Smith cites another fact that it was the capture of Henry (not Donelson) that immediately prompted the Confederate military to strip its coastal defenses, order troops north, and abandon long-held Kentucky strongpoints like Columbus and Bowling Green. The author is probably correct in his belief that most historians attribute that series of drastic Confederate reactions to news of Donelson's surrender.

As stated before, Smith's Fort Henry analysis in no way seeks to diminish the gravity and significance of the Union victory at Fort Donelson, and indeed the bulk of the book is devoted to the campaign's great battle. Smith's portrayal of Confederate high command confusion and incompetence at Fort Donelson is a familiar one, as is the book's sharply contrasting perception of Union battlefield leadership. Army commander U.S. Grant and division commanders C.F. Smith, Lew Wallace, and John McClernand all performed well. Modern opinion regarding the overall competence of McClernand remains divided, but the more common view today is that the Illinois political general was a solid battlefield commander undone by his own personal faults. Smith concurs with this opinion, crediting McClernand for quickly rallying his battered division on the Union right at Fort Donelson on February 15 and stubbornly holding the army's center on key ground astride the Wynn Ferry Road. Recent Wallace biographers, all of whom argue insistently (and mostly persuasively) for the adoption of a more positive assessment of the general's early war career in the western theater, will find favor with Smith's treatment of their man. The author praises Wallace's bold initiative on the 15th, when the Hoosier general correctly regarded Grant's purely defensive 'hold fast' orders as no longer valid given the circumstances and advanced his division to bolster McClernand's beleaguered defenders at the most critical moment of the Donelson battle. Together, the two men halted the Confederate offensive, but it would be Grant that would move everyone forward.

Smith awards Grant high marks for the exceptional personal leadership and operational skills he displayed throughout the campaign. The author praises Grant's uncommon boldness but at the same time gently chides the general for repeated demonstrations during 1861-62 of an almost blind overconfidence that could easily have led to disaster at places like Belmont, Donelson, and Shiloh. Grant critics often decry the general's strong penchant for displaying favoritism when dealing with subordinates. Smith recognizes this all too human flaw in Grant at Donelson on February 13, when the commander censured McClernand but not C.F. Smith for the same offense. While the author reserves his highest praise for Grant's guiding hand on the 15th, when the general took advantage of his subordinates's stabilization of army lines during his absence downriver and launched a general counteroffensive that recovered Union positions held at the beginning of the day and more, he doesn't overstate the scale of the accomplishment. When Grant ordered the coordinated attack that is widely regarded as the battle's turning point, the exhausted Confederates were already falling back to their own lines. Similarly, on the Union far left, C.F. Smith's narrow assault (often portrayed by others as a decisive event in inducing surrender) captured an important stretch of the enemy's outer line, but the action in and of itself did not render untenable further Confederate defense in that sector.

Smith's account of the Confederate assault on the 15th is exceptionally good. Perhaps the battle's most baffling unanswered question is why the Confederates fell back into their own lines instead of retreating through pathways opened by their successful morning attack. Citing later interviews with Confederate generals who were present at the council of war that discussed the battle plan, Smith surprisingly found that only one officer claimed that the stated intention of the attack was to open a retreat route for the army. The meeting was obviously not a model of command clarity, but if the vast majority of officers were telling the truth then that begs the question exactly what was the goal of the attack. This answer will likely forever escape us, but perhaps the most logical interpretation is that the Confederates expected to drive Grant's army from the field entirely and, when that failed, simply lacked a backup plan.

It is difficult to come up with sources of major complaint with the book. Some readers may object to Smith's eschewing broader context for a tighter focus on military events, but there seems little reason to repeat the kind of wider analysis already exhaustively present in Cooling's modern, multi-volume treatment of those themes and topics. The books twenty maps are more than adequate when it comes to sheer numbers and unit scale involved. What's lacking in all of them is a satisfyingly full rendering of the battlefield terrain. Key roads, trench lines, and bodies of water are represented, but readers gain little visual feel for the actual lay of the land in terms of the forests, fields, gullies, underbrush, and abatis obstructions that all had important affects on how the battle was fought.

Produced in reverse chronological order, Grant Invades Tennessee is a fitting capstone to Timothy Smith's western theater trilogy, which, in addition to this volume, contains equally fine treatments of Shiloh and the Corinth battles. All are excellent works in their own right, but together they provide the best and most expansive historical account available of the Union military's decisive shattering of the Confederacy's western shield in 1862, a comprehensive disaster from which the South never recovered.


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