Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Review - "The River Batteries at Fort Donelson: Construction, Armament and Battles, 1861-1862" by Cathey & Robnett

[The River Batteries at Fort Donelson: Construction, Armament and Battles, 1861-1862 by M. Todd Cathey & Ricky W. Robnett (McFarland, 2021). Softcover, maps, photos, illustrations, tables, appendix section, endnotes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:vii,116/186. ISBN:978-1-4766-8590-8. $39.95]

The joint Union army-navy operation up the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers that captured two key forts (Henry and Donelson) in February 1862 and opened up vast areas of the Confederate heartland to occupation has been thoroughly addressed through a trio of major modern works from historians B.F. Cooling, Kendall Gott, and Timothy Smith*.  As is the case with any large topic, however, there is always room for augmentation, and Todd Cathey and Ricky Robnett's The River Batteries at Fort Donelson: Construction, Armament and Battles, 1861-1862 is a notable book-length expansion upon an important military facet of the campaign.

Cathey and Robnett's study documents in detailed fashion the site selection, earthwork design, construction, armament, and manning of the Fort Donelson river batteries, which ultimately consisted of a Lower Battery (9 guns) and Upper Battery (3 guns) along with a vacant alternate position located between the two. Confederate civilian and military authorities immediately recognized the necessity of fortifying the banks of both the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, but, as the authors show, disagreements regarding proper location, the lack of theater-level resource allocation and priority, and the incompetent manner in which the Confederate high command addressed the situation all resulted in Fort Henry being built below flood grade and easily captured while the Fort Donelson batteries, even after months of available preparation time, were barely finished before the arrival of Union land and naval forces.

Department commander Albert Sidney Johnston, his attentions firmly focused on forward positions in Kentucky, failed to assign a competent general of high rank to shepherd along the twin river fortifications, and the authors credit a number of competent and energetic junior-ranking military engineers and volunteer company officers (biographical treatments of whom can be found in an expansive appendix at the rear of the book) for getting the river batteries combat ready despite derelict leadership from above. With both officers and men new to heavy artillery service, the three company detachments assigned to the batteries (from Co. A 30th Tennessee, Co. A 50th Tennessee, and the Maury Light Artillery) nevertheless succeeded against all expectations in repulsing USN Flag Officer Andrew Foote's ironclad squadron, which was fresh off a rousing triumph at Fort Henry.

All of the recon and probing actions that preceded Foote's major assault and the main event itself (the February 14, 1862 attack) are meticulously recounted. Unlike other authors, Cathey and Robnett do not directly criticize Foote's tactical decision to advance his fleet to point blank range, which subjected the otherwise well-protected ironclads to plunging fire that was devastatingly effective even from the obsolete 32-lb cannon that comprised most of the river battery armament. Nor do they speculate (as others have) about what might have been the result of the engagement if Foote had instead leveraged his range advantage by pounding the batteries from afar. The Confederates had only two guns that could match the combined range and hitting power of the enemy's bow guns, and the defenders appropriately worried that a prolonged long-distance engagement would expose the fort's two best guns to smothering counterbattery fire. Those worries were not fully put to the test, however, as the battle was fought mostly within the effective range of the 32-lbers. The defenders ended up suffering extremely low casualties considering the hurricane of fire that enveloped their positions, reporting that the closer Foote's ironclads approached the more their shells harmlessly passed over the Confederate works (the not unexpected result of short-range fire directed at a low-profile target atop an elevated position).

The authors point out the notable irony of the battle. Confederate army defenders at Fort Donelson presumed themselves able to handle Grant's small army, but it was feared that the river batteries would be unable to cope with Union ironclads and their firepower. What actually happened was the direct opposite of those expectations, with the raw river batteries scoring a stunning victory while the badly led fort defenders maneuvered themselves into wholesale surrender.

As indicated in the book, the Confederates could draw some positives out of the overall disastrous outcome of the battle. Beyond the disproportionate casualties and heavy damage inflicted upon Foote's ironclads, the invincible aura of the river ironclads was punctured by the victory within the larger defeat at Fort Donelson. Additionally, the fight at the river batteries fully exposed the vulnerabilities of the city-class ironclads for the first time, though both sides benefited from that knowledge.

The entire text is noteworthy for being firmly grounded in primary sources, and the impressive narrative effectively incorporates firsthand accounts throughout. Additionally, the writing is supported by numerous maps, modern and contemporary photographs, historical sketches, and data tables. The lengthy appendix section includes the extensive biographical register mentioned earlier, casualty lists, and a compiled ordnance table of useful reference value.

As a work that both amplifies and significantly enhances the information contained in existing book-length histories of the twin rivers campaign, The River Batteries at Fort Donelson is a highly recommended companion volume. The heavy artillery-phile segment of the Civil War reading audience should also strongly consider adding this fine book to their collections.

* - For a broad appreciation of the entire campaign, read Cooling's Forts Henry and Donelson: The Key to the Confederate Heartland (1988), Gott's Where the South Lost the War: An Analysis of the Fort Henry-Fort Donelson Campaign, February 1862 (2003), and Smith's Grant Invades Tennessee: The 1862 Battles for Forts Henry and Donelson (2016), the last being the most recent and most impressive of the three major studies.

1 comment:

  1. The authors did a good job. I have been in touch with them because of crossover work they did that includes a few things I had not seen (and visa versa) regarding my own Union and Confederate strategic command study I am finishing. Unlike so many authors today, Rick and Todd truly understand the value of digging deeply into primary sources.

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