Black Slave Owners
Read all the Civil War Sesquicentennial articles Comments and Questions to the Author

What Happened in February 1862 ©


The War in the West


The Illusion of the Confederates "Kentucky Line"

Albert Sidney Johnston, placed by President Davis second in rank among the Confederate generals, had been a friend of Davis since their school days at West Point. A handsome, vigorous-looking man and native Kentuckian, Johnston had not faired especially well in his career in the old army. He had spent most of his time, after graduation, at Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis. While stationed there he met and married Henrietta Preston. When Henrietta died after the birth of their second child, Johnston resigned from the Army and became, like Grant, a recluse on a farm for a time. He then appeared in Texas and joined the new Republic's army as a cavalryman. A short time later he was commissioned a colonel and placed in the office of Adjutant General which he held for a year until the Texas Government gave him field command of the army. But he held the command only a short time as he was severely wounded in a duel; returning to Kentucky, he rejoined the U.S. Army as a paymaster. In 1855, when Jefferson Davis became Secretary of War, he was given the colonelcy of the newly formed 2nd Cavalry Regiment, a position he held until he was given command of the Department of the West, with headquarters at San Francisco. In early April 1861, he resigned from the Army a second time and traveled overland, taking several months, to Richmond where he was appointed by Davis to command the Department of the West, a territory of over 225,000 square miles covering Tennessee, Missouri, Arkansas and Mississippi.


When Sidney Johnston arrived at Nashville Tennessee, in October 1861, he found that Tennessee Governor Isham Harris had established an army composed of 24 regiments totaling 27,000 men. Of these 6,000 were unarmed and thousands of others were carrying hunting rifles or shotguns. These forces were scattered across Kentucky, in a bowl-shaped line that extended from Columbus on the Mississippi, near the mouth of the Ohio, to Cumberland Gap in the Alleghenies. In addition, Johnson assumed general command over about 25,000 men who were operating in Missouri, under the immediate direction of Sterling Price, the militia general, and Ben McCulloch, the Texas Ranger.


The Kentucky line had been established by Johnston's predecessor, Leonidas Polk, a graduate of West Point and the Anglican bishop of Louisiana, when, in September 1861 as it was becoming plain that Kentucky would stick with the Union, Polk had entered Kentucky with a division led by Gideon Pillow and occupied Columbus. Shortly thereafter, as Union forces occupied Paducah and Smithland, at the mouths of the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, Simon Buckner, with 11,000 men, occupied Bowling Green. Before Polk made the Columbus movement, Governor Harris had caused two forts to be built on the two rivers, just inside the Tennessee line; now engineers were sent to these forts—Henry and Donelson— to design their defenses against attacks both from land and water.


The Situation When Johnston Arrived In Tennessee

Click to enlarge Map


Between September 1861 and February 1862, the record makes clear Johnston's fundamental challenge was to organize an army, with sufficient numbers and equipment, to hold the Kentucky line. But the logistical and political problems he faced—time proved—were insurmountable.


A major problem for Johnston was the independence exhibited by Leonidas Polk which foreclosed cooperation, much less submission to Johnston's directives. Polk's rise to military status was caused by the self-interest of Louisiana to have navigation of the Mississippi blocked as far north as possible. Forts and batteries had been built on the banks of the Mississippi at several places between Memphis and Columbus, which were sufficient to prevent river traffic, but, from Louisiana's point of view, Columbus was the ideal location to establish the first blockage of the river's navigation. Once Polk had occupied the place, built a massive fort on the river bluff, and outfitted it with heavy artillery, he lost all interest in taking responsibility for the space between the Mississippi and the Tennessee River. Johnston struggled to gain command over Polk in the months leading up to February 1862 but his effort failed completely. Here is the record of Polk's attitude toward executing Johnston's directions during these months.


Polk's Fortifications at Columbus


Mississippi River Bluff, East Bank


Johnston to Polk, December 19, 1861


"I hope you can make your right secure from the enterprises of the enemy. Should the enemy attempt the reduction of Fort Henry or in carrying on operations in your front, enforce upon him the necessity of employing a large force in observation to mask or cover his operations against you. He will probably attempt to throw a force between Columbus and your reinforcements and supplies; to effect this it will be necessary for him to use the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers for transportation of subsistence and other supplies, at least as far as Eggner's Ferry, should they adopt the former route below Fort Henry, and thence by the road to Paris. This movement they would probably covered by a demonstration toward Columbus.


Fort Columbus, now being completed, cannot, I think, be taken by assault; and supplied with provisions and other stores for six months, would probably, if enveloped and thrown upon its own resources, hold out some time.


Now, if this be true, your army outside is left free to maneuver in reference to the movements of the enemy, and ought to be so handled as to prevent, by its successive movements, the introduction of the enemy's force into the country in such manner as to deprive you of support and supplies. Should the enemy deem it important to reduce Fort Columbus before advancing (against your line of communication) you would have it in your power to go to its relief. Should they, however, decide to march into Tennessee (toward Fort Henry) you will have it in your power to offer them battle on a field of your own choice or impede and harass them as they advance."


Johnston Needed Polk To Maneuver His Force Against Union Invasion


Polk's Response To Johnston's Concept of His Role in Defending the Kentucky Line


Polk to Johnston, January 17, 1862

"Grant is concentrating a force at Milburn, and my scouts say it is 15,000 strong. My effective force is a fraction less. His plan, from information received, is to make a demonstration, to draw out my command, and then come down the Mississippi with gunboats and shell the fort, and then make an assault with 30,000.


In view of the fort being the key to the whole Mississippi, my first duty is to make everything bend to the purpose of holding the fort. This will require me to take no risk which may involve its loss.


To venture out of the fort, would in my judgment be to take that risk. In view then of the smallness of my force, I see nothing left to me but to await the enemy's coming."


That Sidney Johnston understood perfectly well that the enemy meant to break the Kentucky line by capturing Fort Henry, and then, after breaking the railroad communication between Bowling Green and Columbus, to invest Fort Donelson is made plain by the following telegrams.


Johnston to War Department, January 22, 1862


"Movements on my left, threatening Fort Henry, have the objective of capturing Nashville. I have detached 8,000 men to make Clarksville secure and drive the enemy back.  The road through Bowling Green is indispensable to the enemy as they must have river or railroad means of transportation to invade with a large force.


A reserve at Nashville is needed for me to maintain my position. The country must be aroused to make the greatest effort. Our people do not comprehend the magnitude of the danger that threatens."


That Polk, too, was well aware of the imminent danger of the Kentucky Line being broken is evident from his communications with Johnston and Richmond at this time.


Polk to Johnston, January 24, 1862


"I have ordered Crain's field battery and an Arkansas regiment from Memphis to Tennessee River Bridge; also two regiments from other places.


We need an additional 40,000 men and the sooner we get this force and get it into position the better."


Polk to Benjamin, January 28, 1862


"We must have more force to enable us to hold our line."


Unable to motivate Polk to play an active role in the field with his corps of 20,000 men garrisoning Fort Columbus, Johnston's only remaining means of holding Fort Henry and his communications with Polk against the enemy's anticipated advance, was to shift at least 15,000 troops from his garrison at Bowling Green to the fort. But, by February 1, this was practically impossible, because Union general Don Carlos Buell was now at the Barren River in front of Bowling Green with 50,000 men, and his movements were telegraphing his intent to turn Johnston's right flank by way of Franklin and Gallatin, getting between Johnston and his base of operations at Nashville.


At this moment of crisis the Confederate Government was helpless to provide the men Johnston plainly required, if the Kentucky Line was to be held against the enemy's offensive that was about to come against Fort Henry.


Confederate Secretary of War Judah Benjamin to Kentucky Governor Johnson

February 3, 1862 (Johnson is shadow governor to Governor Magoffin)


"I call upon you for 40,000 men, or fifty-eight regiments and, when formed, these regiments will be mustered into the Confederate service and will report, as fast as mustered, to General Johnston. It is hoped these troops will be ready for the field as promptly as possible. They will be joined by large reinforcements from your sister States." It was a pipe dream if the Confederate Government seriously expected these troops to materialize in time to save the Kentucky Line.


All the Confederate Government could spare from the East at this time were four Virginia regiments, under the command of ex-U.S. Secretary of War John Floyd. Floyd reached Bowling Green on February 2, and, by February 6, Johnston had his force placed at Clarksville, a village near the Cumberland River at a point half-way between Bowling Green and Nashville. Earlier, Johnston had moved Buckner's division of Kentuckians to Clarksville. This left Johnston about 17,000 men to defend the line of the Barren River at Bowling Green against Buell's 50,000 men.


What Johnston did not do at this time, was to order either  all or part of Polk's corps, or any of the troops he had available in his department, to occupy and defend Fort Henry and the fledging fortification that sat opposite on the west bank of the Tennessee. The forces under Buckner and Floyd, perhaps reinforced with Gideon Pillow's command (Basically at this time Bushrod Johnson's division), might have been ordered to march to Fort Henry as early as January 28, when it was clear to Johnston that the enemy meant to move immediately on Henry.


Fort Henry—not Fort Donelson as the historians tend to say—was the key to the security of the Kentucky Line. The fort covered the railroad bridge over the Tennessee River which provided the only means of rapid communication between the two flanks of the line. Its capture opened the Tennessee River up to its headwaters and provided a base of operations for the enemy to move overland against Fort Donelson, the capture of which would force Johnston to abandon Bowling Green and probably Nashville. Not only would the Kentucky Line be lost, with the fall of Fort Henry, but eventually Nashville would be lost, too, and the enemy's next move would obviously be to penetrate deep into Tennessee.


Yet, despite knowing all this, Sidney Johnston left Fort Henry to defend itself with about 3,000 men, 300 of which were artillerymen who would operate the fort's heavy guns against the Union flotilla of ironclad gunboats that was certain to appear. The only rational explanation for Johnston not ordering Fort Henry to be substantially reinforced, in late January 1861, must be that he had decided, well before the fort came under attack, to abandon the Kentucky Line and fall back into Tennessee.


Johnston's Problem: He's damned if he does and damned if he doesn't.

Click to enlarge map


The practical basis for this huge decision lies in the idea that, with no help to be expected from Polk, Johnston could not detach the necessary amount of troops—say at a minimum 15,000—from his force defending Bowling Green, because Buell could then quickly overrun the Bowling Green defenses, forcing Johnston to retreat rapidly on Nashville and beyond.


 Johnston may reasonably have thought, under the objective circumstances of the case confronting him, that if he sent half of his force (15,000-17,000) at Bowling Green to Fort Henry, in time for the force to reach there before the enemy appeared with their infantry and gunboats, he would be leaving his remaining force (17,000 to 20,000) exposed to Buell's force (50,000) for too long, increasing the real danger that his retreat might get cut off from Nashville. In the calculus of the risks, therefore, the prudent thing for Johnston to have done is post, as he initially did, the commands of Floyd, Buckner, and Pillow at Clarksville, where the railroad from Memphis crosses the Cumberland River, as a blocking force against the enemy's advance from the direction of Fort Donelson; thereby protecting the right flank of his line of retreat to Nashville while he warded off Buell's turning movement with his left flank. Yet, once Fort Henry fell to the enemy, and while he was arranging his retreat from Bowling Green in the face of Buell's forcing a crossing of the Barren River, Johnston did detach 15,000 men to defend Fort Donelson.


The only military justification for doing this, is that Johnston needed more time to effectuate his withdrawal from Bowling Green to Nashville, a withdrawal, including tons of material, subsistence supplies, and many guns, that had to use the railroad linking the two places. Politics, it seems, though unspoken, may have played a role in this, too.


Decatur, Alabama, March 18, 1862

Mr. President: When about to assume the command of this department, the Government charged me with the duty of deciding whether to occupy Bowling Green. In consequence of Kentucky abandoning its neutrality, allowing the enemy to form encampments menacing Tennessee, the occupation of Bowling Green became necessary as an act of self-defense.


Believing it to be of the greatest importance to protract the campaign, as the dearth of cotton might bring strength from abroad, and to gain time to strengthen myself by new troops from Tennessee and other States, I magnified my forces to the enemy.


I determined to fight for Nashville at Donelson, and gave the best part of my army to do it, retaining only fourteen thousand men to cover my front, and giving sixteen thousand to defend Donelson. I reached Nashville with about 10,000 men. Had I wholly uncovered my front to defend Donelson, Buell would have known it, and marched directly to Nashville.


The evacuation of Bowling Green was imperatively necessary, and was ordered before, and executed while the battle was being fought at Donelson. My column was thrown over the Cumberland River during the day and night of February 15.


Nashville was incapable of defense, from its position, and from the forces advancing from Bowling Green and up the Cumberland. The people were terrified, and some of the troops were disheartened. The discouragement was spreading, and I ordered the command to Murfreesboro, where I am managing to collect an army to offer battle. (Edited for brevity)

          Your Friend, A.S. Johnston


President Davis replied:


March 28, 1862

Richmond, VA


My Dear General: My confidence in you has never wavered. You have done wonderfully well, and now I breathe easier in the assurance that you will be able to make a junction of your two armies. If you can meet the division of the enemy moving from the Tennessee before it can make a junction with that advancing from Nashville, the future will be brighter. If this cannot be done, our only hope is that the people will rally en masse with their private arms, and thus enable you to oppose the vast army which will threaten the destruction of our country.

          May God bless you, is the sincere prayer of your friend,

          Jefferson Davis


Civil War writers and historians, as they tend to do generally, use pejoratives when characterizing the mental performance of many of the Civil War generals, Sidney Johnston included. The British Army theorist, F.C. Fuller, for example, wrote this about Johnson:


"What Johnson's plan was is difficult to fathom. Though he was a soldier with a high reputation the fall of Fort Donelson upset his balance. The fall of the fort was so unexpected that it completely bewildered him. Imagining that the gunboats made it impossible for him to hold the fort he was paralyzed. He did not have the training to see things in correct tactical perspective. He was a brave but stupid soldier. He aimed at holding Donelson with half-measures. He should have gone himself to the fort with half his force, leaving the other half close behind guarding his rear from an advance by Buell while he tried to wipe Grant out."


Setting the pejoratives aside, and viewing the situation with cold reason, it seems obvious now that Johnston was well aware that Donelson could not be held and that the only mistake he made was to allow Gideon Pillow to talk him into defending the place, with 15,000 of his men.


 At the time he allowed this to happen, he had with him Pierre Beauregard, who had just arrived from Virginia. Beauregard was the logical general to take command of the defense of the fort; however, it appears that Beauregard was sick at this time and may not have been capable of performing in the field. On the other hand, Beauregard may have used his illness as an excuse to avoid the assignment, which he must have recognized as a losing proposition. Instead of going to Donelson, Beauregard left Bowling Green ahead of Johnston and went via the railroad to Paris, Tennessee, apparently to continue on to Columbus and take command of the fort from Polk. But Beauregard stopped at Nashville, Tennessee and awaited the outcome of the defense of Donelson and what the outcome of Johnston's move at Nashville might be. On the 16th Beauregard was at Corinth.


Nashville, February 14, 1862

Col. R.A. Pryor, Richmond, VA

Dear Colonel: I regret much that you did not come on from Lynchburg. I desired you to see for yourself and others the exact condition of things here in justice to my own self, for I am taking the helm when the ship is already in the breakers and with but few sailors to man it. How it is to be extricated from its present perilous condition no one can say.


We must defeat the enemy somewhere to give confidence to our friends. We must give up some minor points and concentrate our forces to save the most important ones, or we will lose them all in succession.


General Johnston is doing his best, but what can he do against such tremendous odds? Come what may, however, we must present a bold front and stout hearts to the invaders of our country.

G.T. Beauregard





Grant Breaks the Kentucky Line


Brigadier-General U.S. Grant had been the most active of all the Union generals in the weeks leading up to Sidney's Johnston's retreat from Bowling Green.  In early January, under orders from Halleck to make a demonstration, he had send one of his division commanders, McClernand, to Milburn, Kentucky to threaten Polk's force at Columbus, while his other division commander, C.F. Smith, moved a regiment by steamer up the Tennessee River toward Fort Henry. Smith was accompanied by the iron-clad gunboat, Conestoga, which proceeded within sight of the fort, throwing at it a few shells. Upon the Conestoga's return, and aware that Polk had not come out of his fort to meet McClernand, Grant wired Halleck—"With permission I will take Fort Henry."


For some time before Grant's message was received, Henry Halleck had been well aware that the center of the Kentucky Line was the obvious point to attack Johnston's presence in Kentucky. As early as November 1861, Carlos Buell had written McClellan and Halleck about the strategic importance of Fort Henry, urging that it be attacked as he moved his force from Louisville toward Bowling Green. McClellan, intent, like Lincoln, on inducing Buell to move his force toward Knoxville instead, had let the suggestion go by without action. At the same time, during this period, everyone, Johnston included, knew that the operation could not be launched until the iron-clad gunboats Eads was building at St. Louis were finished and delivered to Flag-Officer Foote. Also, for Halleck, there was the problem of finding the necessary infantry force to effectuate the attack. He had about 30,000 men in Missouri confronting about 25,000 rebels, under the command of Sterling Price and Ben Culloch, and thought Grant's 15,000 at Cairo and Paducah to be too weak to operate against the fort alone. Still, it is clear from the record that, as the gunboats came into service and the rebels in Missoui became less of an active threat, Halleck had his eye fixed on Fort Henry.


Headquarters Department of Missouri

Saint Louis, January 20, 1862


Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan

General: A feasible plan is to move up the Cumberland and Tennessee, making Nashville the first objective point. This would turn Columbus and force the abandonment of Bowling Green. Columbus cannot be taken without an immense siege train and a terrible loss of life. But it can be turned, paralyzed and forced to surrender. This line of the Cumberland and Tennessee is the great central line of the Western theater of war. But the plan should not be attempted without a large force, not less than 60,000 effective men.


The force at Cairo and Paducah is now about 15,000. Seven regiments have just been ordered there from Missouri. By the middle or last of February I hope to send about 15,000 more. If 30,000 or 40,000 can be added there will be sufficient force to form the column proposed.

          H.W. Halleck, Major-General


The day after this letter of Halleck's was sent, Grant arrived at St. Louis to meet with Halleck. Grant's purpose in coming, was plainly to convince Halleck that the force of 15,000 he had at hand was enough, in cooperation with Foote's gunboats, to capture Fort Henry. As Grant tells it, Halleck spurned him; abruptly cutting him off as he launched into his sales pitch and dismissing him. Grant returned to Cairo, miffed and unhappy; but immediately upon reaching there, he and Foote bombarded Halleck with telegrams.


Cairo, January 28, 1862

Maj.Gen. Henry W. Halleck

Commanding General Grant and myself are of opinion that Fort Henry, on the Tennessee River, can be carried with four iron-clad gunboats and troops to permanently occupy. Have we your authority to move?

          A.H. Foote, Flag-Officer


Cairo, January 29, 1862

Maj. Gen. Halleck

In view of the large force now concentrating in this district, I respectfully suggest the propriety of subduing Fort Henry. From Fort Henry it will be easy to operate either on the Cumberland, only 12 miles distant, or on Memphis and Columbus. The advantage of this move is as obvious to you as to me; therefore further statements are unnecessary.

          U.S. Grant, Brigadier-General


The next day, Halleck responded: "Make your preparations to take and hold Fort Henry."


The Approaches to Fort Henry


On February 2, 1862, Grant loaded about 7,500 men into steam boats at Cairo and sent them forward with McClernand in command. Grant followed and connected with McClernand at a landing on the Tennessee River about nine miles below the fort. With McClernand were seven gunboats. Grant sent the steamers back down the Tennessee to pick up the troops of Smith's division waiting for transport at Paducah.


Fort Henry, in high water as was the situation when Foote's gunboats arrived in front of it, was surrounded by water. It was a strong earthwork, covering ten acres, with five bastions six feet high, in-between were embrasures knitted together with sandbags. It had seventeen guns mounted on platforms, twelve of which were placed to bear on the river. There were 3,000 men garrisoning the fort. These men might have been able to hold Grant's infantry long enough for reinforcements from Johnston to arrive, but Foote's gunboats quickly silenced the guns of the fort, causing the fort's commander, Colonel Tlighman, to send his infantry to Donelson before Grant's infantry could slog through the marshlands and reach the front of the fort.


Union Gunboats on the Tennessee River


Foote brought his gunboats—Cincinnati, Carondelet, St. Louis and Essex within six hundred yards and opened with forty guns on Tilghman who fought back with six guns; four of these soon were dismounted from their platforms by Foote's guns, leaving Tilghman to continue the exchange with two guns. After two hours of this, with his infantry gone now to Donelson, Tilghman surrendered Fort Henry to Foote.


Had the Confederates been able to find the manpower Fort Henry could have been successfully defended. First, laborers were necessary to build the earthwork on the west bank of the river opposite the fort. Situated on a commanding hill, heavy artillery fired from this place could easily have shattered the strength of Foote's flotilla before he could have suppressed the Confederate artillery fire. But, neither Tennessee nor her sister States—Alabama and Louisiana—could find slaveholders willing to loan their laborers to Johnston for this endeavor. Furthermore, as has already been made plain, the Confederacy was unable to produce soldiers in sufficient numbers to provide Fort Henry with a garrison capable of resisting Grant's force. Even if it could have produced the men, it did not have the rifles to arm them. Here, at the very beginning of serious warfare, it had to be painfully obvious to everyone—the generals and the politicians on both sides, if not the people—that the Confederacy was extremely weak in all that mattered in war, compared to the abundance of everything that its adversary plainly enjoyed. The whole thing came down to the fact that the Confederates needed forty thousand men armed and in uniform, if they were to have any reasonable chance of holding the Kentucky Line, and forty thousand men they did not have.


Grant Moves on Fort Donelson

Click to enlarge map


When Fort Henry surrendered, on February 6th, Grant sent Foote's gunboats back to Paducah, along with a steamer carrying five reinforcing regiments, with orders to come up the Cumberland River to Fort Donelson while he marched his force of 12,000 men (Lew Wallace's brigade was left at Fort Henry) twelve miles across the peninsula between the two rivers to Donelson. On the same day, Johnston ordered Bushrod Johnson's division, then at Clarksville, to move to Donelson Gideon Pillow followed with some more troops and took command from Johnson. Meanwhile, Foote, at Paducah, met transports carrying about 10,000 men, some of whom came from Buell's force, and moved with them up the Cumberland.


Unlike Fort Henry, Fort Donelson was situated on a high bluff overlooking a great bend in the river. Two strong batteries of heavy artillery were sunk in the northern face of the river bluff, about fifty feet above the water line. The lower battery consisted of nine 32-pounder guns and one ten inch columbiad. In the upper battery were two 32-pounder carronades and one 32-pounder columbiad. The columbiads were rifled and discharged a shell capable of penetrating the armor of the Union gunboats. The fort itself crowned the ridge above and was surrounded by a continuous line of rifle pits that ran in a half circle between two deep streams; the rifle pits were protected by logs along the front and felled trees covering the open ground beyond.


Grant moved slowly from Fort Henry, taking eight days to appear in force in front of Fort Donelson. During this period the weather was balmy and the Union men, in the march, left their overcoats and blankets by the roadside. Confederate infantry poured into the fort during this time, bringing with them, Simon Buckner, Gideon Pillow, and John Floyd.


The Confederate Generals


On February 9, as he began to withdraw from Bowling Green, Sidney Johnson appears to have ordered Gideon Pillow to take Simon Buckner's division, then at Clarksville, to Fort Donelson. At the same time he gave command of the fort to John Floyd, who had recently arrived from Virginia with a brigade. In his message to Floyd, Johnston wrote, "I cannot give you specific instructions and place under your command the entire force."



The New York Times


Ex-Secretary of War in Buchanan's Administration, John Floyd had been indicted by a grand jury sitting in the District of Columbia, for malfeasance in office, and was a wanted man. He was also not a man with any experience at soldiering. Whether or not these facts caused him to shy from the idea of mounting a defense at Fort Donelson, on February 11th, as Grant was moving through the woods from Fort Henry, Floyd sent a message to Gideon Pillow, who by then had arrived at Fort Henry and assumed command, to withdraw from the fort. On February 12, Pillow reacted to this, by returning to Clarksville and confronting Floyd. He argued, apparently with some vehemence, that the fort could and should be defended, and he fired off a telegram to Johnston telling him that he was prepared to defend the fort with the men at hand. Johnston supported Pillow, ordering Floyd to go personally to the fort.



Gideon Pillow in his Prime

This is one Arrogant Tennessean

What motivated Pillow to take this position seems to be the fact that he was a Tennessee Brahmin, with a high opinion of himself. He had been raised in the plantation society of Columbus, Tennessee, the center of the State's antebellum society, and by 1860 was a wealthy man, owning much land and many slaves.


When the war with Mexico broke out, in 1846, President James Polk, who had been at one time Pillow's law partner, gained Pillow a commission as a brigadier general and he commanded a division in Scott's army, and, then, as it neared Mexico City he handled Scott's left wing. Pillow, haughty and full of himself, was extremely unpopular with his fellow officers, because he was used by Polk as a tool to embarrass Scott, whom Polk rightly saw as a political rival. In his report of the battle of Contreras, Pillow had presented himself as having been in practical command of the army, claiming that he gave the orders that led to the capitulation of Mexico City. The bad feelings this caused between Pillow and Scott led to Scott tendering his resignation.


When the Civil War broke out, Pillow became Tennessee's militia general and was instrumental in organizing what became the core of the Army of Tennessee. But, once Jefferson Davis's government came into being, Davis's replaced him with Leonidas Polk. Making Polk a major-general, Davis gave Pillow the lesser rank of brigadier-general. This rankled Pillow and he railed about the injustice through the remainder of his career. It was Pillow who made the movement that resulted in the seizure of Columbus and initiated Kentucky's formal abandonment of its policy of neutrality. In December 1861, at Columbus, Pillow had crossed the Mississippi in an effort to prevent Union troops from moving south to reinforce troops fighting Sterling Price, but was met by a superior force, under Grant's command, that had come down the river in transports and landed on the west bank. Polk was forced to send across reinforcements which drove Grant's force back to their boats, with Grant being the last to reboard, his horse sliding down the embankment on his hind end, and clamoring aboard over gang planking. Grant gives us his view of Pillow: "I had known Pillow in Mexico and judged that with any force, no matter how small, I could march up to within gunshot of any entrenchments he was given to hold; and I knew Floyd, no soldier, would yield to Pillow's pretensions."


By the end of the Confederate defense of Donelson, Pillow had become humble; writing to the Secretary of War, trying to reestablish himself in military command, he said: "My whole fortune, large as it was, has been swept away by the enemy. In evacuating my portion of Tennessee the enemy took away my negro property also. The policy of my own Government induced it to burn all my cotton. In this way, I am reduced to poverty, with a large and dependent family of grown-up and unmarried daughters on my hands. In addition to these sources of embarrassment my taxes for the present year were assessed on my whole estate, and amount to some $5,000. This sum I have no means of paying, and my lands will be sacrificed to pay this sum." One can almost feel sorry for the man; but then not.


According to Pillow, early on February 13th, McClernand's division that had drawn into line on the south side of Fort Donelson, mounted several attacks in an effort to capture a battery of artillery but the artillery blasts drove the attacks back. By this time, the flotilla of gunboats, under Foote's command, had gathered in the waters below the fort and behind them transports were docking at a landing, about four miles farther below, and thousands of troops, perhaps as many as 10,000 to 12,000, were disembarking. Grant's plan at this time was to invest the fort and starve the rebels out.


On the morning of February 14th, Pillow and Floyd held a conference and decided to attack Grant's force in their front before his reinforcements could come up. The attack was to be made against McClernand's divisions on the south, by moving the entire force of defenders against him, with the objective of opening the river road for the march of the troops out of the place. But the attack order was countermanded by Floyd, when Foote's gunboats appeared and began shelling the fort and water batteries.


Foote's Gunboats Fail In Their Endeavor


At 3:00 p.m., the Louisville on the right, the St. Louis in the center, and the Pittsburg and Carondelet on the left, opened fire at a range of five hundred yards. Steaming closer, the gunboats were repeatedly struck with plunging fire from the fort's heavy guns: shells and shot slamming down on the decks, splintering the pilot houses and carrying away flying pieces of chimneys, wheels, tiller ropes, rudders, crippling the St. Louis and Louisville in short order, leaving them drifting helplessly in circles downstream. In the mayhem, Flag-Officer Foote was injured and returned to the lower landing. The Carondelet, maneuvering to cover the Louisville, burst into flames from impacting rounds and fell out of action, with her crew rushing about in a furious effort to suppress the fires that burst out below deck. The rebel gunners, in the water batteries, firing for almost two hours, were covered with dirt and grime from the heaps of earth thrown up by the implosion of the Union shells burrowing into their earthworks. The drifting gunboats struck each other, tearing their iron casements and splintering timbers, cracking them and caving in the hulls. The rebels' big ten inch columbiad and their 32-pounder rifled gun stove the timbers in as if they were egg shells. And they broke off the engagement and steamed sullenly away.


The New York Times


By the morning of February 15, Grant had ordered his troops to entrench their position, intending to bring up tents for the men or build huts under the cover of the hills, his idea being to lay siege to the fort, not charge it out. In furtherance of this idea, and with no idea that there would be an infantry attack unless he brought it on, he rode north to the boat landing to meet with Flag-Officer Foote. No sooner was he gone and gray light filling the overcast sky—a storm had swept in during the night covering the ground with snow and ice—than the Confederates, in mass, slammed into the front of McClernand's division and part of Wallace's that had come up from Henry and was holding Grant's center.


The fight raged for three hours, the rebels taking Grant's army totally by surprise, forcing McClernand and Wallace back from the Wynn's Ferry road and making them retreat a mile to take cover behind a range of wind-swept hills. As Wallace put it after the war, "The woods rang with a monstrous sound as if a million men were beating empty barrels with hammers. Batteries came into action on both sides, the flare of the rifle volleys and battery fire tinting the drifting clouds of smoke, the trees, the ground, everything a lurid red. Slowly the rebel pressure caused the Union brigades to give way, like the planks of a wooden dam collapsing under the force of a river; each regiment giving way like links breaking and snapping in a chain." By 11:00 a.m., the river road was now in rebel hands and the way open for them to try, with the aid of steamers from Nashville, to get away. But, then, Grant appeared and ordered C.F. Smith, holding the Union left, to attack the rebel right.


Grant, Amazed, Looks Upon The Result of the Rebel Attack

Under Grant's original orders when he had left the scene, the entire army, Smith's division included, was to stand on the defensive and "do nothing that would bring on an engagement." Smith, conforming to this order, did nothing when the Union right was assailed. Apparently, he did not realize that, to marshall the force necessary to overpower the enemy right, Pillow and Floyd had ordered Buckner to leave his trenches covering the right flank of the rebel front and concentrate his divisions with Bushrod Johnson's, the two divisions throwing their weight in sequential order against McClernand and Wallace. Now, receiving Grant's order to attack, Smith rushed his men forward and were just getting into Buckner's empty trenches, when Buckner's men came rushing back from the center and fought hand to hand for their possession.


Smith's Counterattack at Donelson


From an objective military point of view, one can understand Grant's thinking no attack would occur in his absence from the front though, as at Shiloh, he was clearly cavalier about the concept of defenses.


 What point would there be to it? Even in the rosiest foresight of their minds, Pillow and Floyd could not possibly have thought there was any chance the attack might result in even the semblance of a victory. Assuming the shock and awe of the attack caused the relatively inexperienced Union troops to run helter skelter away from Fort Donelson, back down the road pell mell and fly across the peninsula to Fort Henry. Once there, they would be safe within the curtain of protection the fire of the Union gunboats could lay down around the fort, and, from the safety of the fort, they could simply wait upon Grant to arrive with the reinforcements that were landing on the Cumberland and block the rebel pursuit from getting back to Donelson. Even merely moving the Union front, as the attack did, a mile westward, opening the road south to Nashville, gave the rebel garrison no real chance to get away; for, as happened, by stripping their defenses on their right to give weight to their left, they would have to break off the attack and get those forces back before the Union generals woke up to their absence and threw every fresh man into the breach. The idea of making the attack seems clearly to have been Pillow's idea and it was his force of personality that pushed it. A proud and vain Tennessean, prone to chase publicity in efforts to magnify his glory, Pillow, it's hard for a reasonable person not to see, wanted to be remembered as the man who ordered battle rather than the man who ordered the fort's surrender.




This must have been in Pillow's mind from the start. Simon Buckner, the junior general officer in the group, tells us that, "on February 11th, Floyd had decided to concentrate his division and my own at Cumberland City, with a view of operating on the railroad. Thus maintaining his communications with Nashville by way of Charlotte (and protecting Johnston's line of march from Bowling Green)." In furtherance of this decision, Floyd sent Buckner to Fort Donelson "with orders to direct Pillow (who was there with Bushrod Johnson's division) to send the troops back to Cumberland City." Pillow declined to execute this order, Buckner says. Instead, as we have seen, Pillow left Donelson by steamboat the morning of the 12th (as Grant's forces are beginning to appear) and went to Clarksville where he convinced Floyd, with Johnston's acquiescence, to reinforce the fort with his division and Buckner's.


Now that he had orchestrated a battle, sending a "victory" message to Johnston, Pillow was satisfied he could defend his reputation and wanted to get out of the place as fast as possible, leaving Buckner to be responsible for surrendering it to Grant. Buckner tells us, in his late report, that he "regarded the position of the army as desperate, another battle hopeless given the condition of the troops and Grant's reinforcements. A council was held between these generals the night of the 15th where, in addition to surrender, break out was discussed. But breakout was as impossible on the 15th as it was as soon as Pillow and Buckner arrived on the 13th. There were not enough steam boats available and not enough landing facilities available that would allow for rapid departure of 17,000 men, with eight batteries of artillery. The alternative was to march by column southward toward Charlotte on the river road, but Grant would be in hot pursuit and it is extremely doubtful the rebel column could have separated itself from Grant's pursuit. Sidney Johnston clearly had not thought the problem of retreat through when he allowed Pillow to talk him into defending Donelson with 17,000 men. This error in judgment would cost the Confederacy dearly at Shiloh.


In the event, before dawn on the 16th, Floyd had slipped his four Virginia regiments aboard the only available steamboat and escaped the scene, and the humiliation of returning to Washington in a cage. "I will never surrender" Pillow rode a horse across the Cumberland, in the wake of Bedford Forrest's cavalry, and made it to Nashville. Buckner had to read Grant's "unconditional surrender" retort to his polite request for a meeting, and found himself in a cell in Cairo where he remained until paroled several months later. In one fell swoop, because of lack of men and arms, the Confederacy lost its tenuous grip of all of Kentucky, most of Tennessee, and a hundred miles of the Mississippi.


Buckner's Acceptance of Grant's Surrender Terms




The War in the East


Burnside Establishes a Union Beachhead on the North Carolina Coast


Click to enlarge Map


 Again, the fledging Confederacy's lack of men and arms results in more loss of territory. Using Hampton Roads as his base of operations, Burnside assembled 15,000 men there, placed them on board a fleet of steamers and, under the protection of ten Union gunboats, brought them without serious incidence inside Pamlico Sound. His force entered the sound on February 4th, just as Grant was closing in on Fort Henry. Bringing his transports to a landing in the waist of Roanoke Island, he disembarked them and moved upon the small rebel force of several regiments, under ex-Virginia Governor Henry Wise.


Wise attempted to defend the island with a line thrown up just north of Burnside's landing point, but it was quickly routed, Wise's son, Jennings, being killed in the short struggle.


Burnside then turned his forces on the coastal town of Elizabethtown and New Bern and quickly overran them. Within days of this happening, Lincoln had a phony government installed to speak for the people under Burnside's thumb, and the abolitionists from Boston rushed in school teachers to give classroom experience to the Negroes. The most horrible thing about human bondage as it was practiced in the South, was the fact that the slaveholders kept the Africans in ignorance; one wonders whether they even knew where exactly they were in the world.




The New York Times


Union Forces Occupying Port Royal Try to Push Inland


To prevent this, General Lee had been assigned to command the Department in early November 1861, and had been working diligently to accomplish his mission. Upon his arrival in the theater, the Union had already captured the South Carolina Sea Islands, Port Royal and Hilton Head. This gave it an excellent harbor, probably the best on the entire coast, which it could use to provision and refuel its Atlantic Blockading Fleet.


Lee established his headquarters at the point the railroad between Savannah and Charleston crosses the Coosawhatchie River. Using the railroad, he spent all his time moving back and forth between the two places, gathering where he could heavy guns and ammunition and getting them into place at the heads of the creeks and streams the Union gunboats were penetrating. These gunboats came within four miles of the river railroad crossing and could advance no further in the face of the rebel batteries.


The Union Navy Captures Hilton Head



General Lee's Defenses Last the War



To his wife, Mary, Lee expressed the situation from the point of view of intelligent military officers who understood the realities of war. The ordinary people had not yet woken up, it seems, to the fact that their politicians had taken them into a war of annihilation.


Savannah, February 8, 1862

To my dear wife:


I have been here ever since I left Coosawhatchie, endeavoring to push forward the work for the defense of the city, which has lagged terribly and which ought to have been finished. But it is difficult to arouse ourselves from ease and comfort to labor and self-denial. Guns are scarce, as well as ammunition and I shall have to break up batteries on the coast to provide, I fear, for this city. It is very hard to get anything done, and while all wish well and mean well, it is so difficult to get them to act energetically and promptly. The news from Kentucky and Tennessee is not favorable, but we must make up our minds to meet reverses and overcome them. The contest must be long and severe, and the whole country has to go through much suffering. It is necessary we should be humbled and taught to be less boastful, less selfish, and more devoted to right and justice to all the world.

          Always yours, R.E. Lee


Savannah, February 23, 1862

To my dear wife:


The news from Tennessee and North Carolina is not cheering and disasters seem to be thickening around us. It calls for renewed energies and redoubled strength on our part, and, I hope, we will produce it.


I fear our soldiers have not realized the necessity for the endurance and labor they are called upon to undergo, and that it is better to sacrifice themselves than our cause.


Here the enemy is progressing slowly. His gunboats are pushing up all the creeks and marshes of the Savannah. I am engaged in constructing a line of defense which, if time permits and guns can be obtained, I hope will keep them out. They can bring such overwhelming force in all their movements that it has the effect to demoralize our new troops.

          Your husband, R.E. Lee


McClellan Continues to Frustrate Lincoln


Abraham Lincoln had good reasons to be elated in the progress his government had made in the eleven months he had been in the President's office. The Navy, in cooperation with the Army, had taken huge chunks of territory from the control of the Confederacy, totaling hundreds of thousands of square miles, shrinking the Confederacy already to its heartland: Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas. The Army, supported by the Navy, could already move at will all along the perimeter of the Confederacy, chipping away at its few remaining coastal defenses, strangling the Confederacy's ability to import the war materials it needed to survive, and moving into position to capture Pensacola, Mobile, and New Orleans. Control of the Mississippi was on the verge of being extended to Memphis. Everywhere along the two thousand mile front of war, the Union clearly outmanned the rebels by two to one at every point of contact between the forces. The entire North had been mobilized successfully, and was churning out all the necessary products of war: food, clothing, leather goods, ammunition, artillery, wagons, rifles and money. And, with hardly a peep from the people, all dissent had been effectively crushed.


The New York Times


Lincoln was hardly satisfied. He wanted to dig into the Confederate heartland immediately and turn it as quickly as possible into a shambles and bring the war to an abrupt end. But, to do that, his soldiers had to march through Virginia, and the general assigned the responsibility of the task was not only sitting on his hands but also he wanted to go about it in a manner than made Lincoln extremely uneasy.


Setting aside the pejoratives that the historians and civil war writers heap on George McClellan, the little guy, though handicapped by his age and character, understood completely that the resistance the Confederacy would put up in Virginia made it extremely unlikely that the Confederate heartland would ever fall to Lincoln's sword through Virginia. Virginia, now, was plainly the gateway to the heartland—its rock and shield—and the rebels would defend it, by using every river, every stream, every woodland, hill, and ravine as a line of resistance; and the deeper the Union army might penetrate into Virginia's interior, they would be constantly impeding its forward movement by attacking the army's rear, and tearing up the railroads which would provide its only means of sustaining itself as it pressed forward. Then, at the very last, when finally the army hoved to in front of the Confederate Capitol at Richmond, if it ever did, a great siege would have to be laid, at least as costly and time-consuming as that which happened at Sebastopol during the Crimean War—the fortifications of which McClellan had himself seen when he toured Europe in 1856.


George McClellan, pouring over his maps, had easily recognized this reality early on,  and had come to the quite reasonable conclusion that, since in all events it would be necessary to lay siege to Richmond, why not initiate the siege as quickly as possible with the least amount of loss, in men and material? With the cooperation of the United States Navy, McClellan saw in his mind's eye how it could be done; and why should not he have the same success, he reasonably thought, supported by the Navy, as Grant, Burnside, and Hunter were having? Yet, Lincoln was continuing to insist that the Army of the East be moved overland, directly into the teeth of Virginia's natural defenses, to trudge and slog its way, mile by mile across rivers, through wilderness, under the constant bloody stabs of the enemy out of the dark.


To George McClellan's mind there could be only one reason for Lincoln's attitude in this: Lincoln, egged on by politics of party, wanted to physically destroy the South, destroy its infrastructure, its manufacturing base, its agriculture, its social structure; leave its people splintered, leaderless, and helplessly starving at the end, so that the Republican Party could maintain its iron grip on the patronage of the Federal Government for a generation at least. Here, the historians can legitimately argue that McClellan was in fact a tool of the Democrats, and the last thing the Democrats wanted to happen was to make the South suffer: the Democratic Party wanted to reconstitute the Union, certainly, but it wanted to accomplish the task with the least amount of destruction to the substance of the South as possible. For, after the war was over, all its hopes for regaining the majority in Congress and returning its presidential candidate to the Executive Office was dependant upon the goodwill of the Southern people—a goodwill that hardly could be expected if the people were made destitute by the war. Did this Democratic policy influence Little Mac to push his plan of operation down Lincoln's throat? Probably.


McClellan and Lincoln at Loggerheads



Executive Mansion,

Washington, February 3, 1862

Maj. Gen. McClellan

My Dear Sir: You and I have distinctly different plans for a movement of the Army of the Potomac. If you will give me satisfactory answers to the following questions, I shall gladly yield my plan to yours.


1. Does your plan take less time and money than mine?

2. How is victory more certain with yours?

3. Why is victory your way more valuable than my way?

4. In case of disaster isn't retreat more difficult your way?



McClellan responded to this, by directing a letter to the new Secretary of War, his erstwhile friend, Erwin M. Stanton. The substance of the letter probably was given in memorandum form directly to Lincoln.


Headquarters of the Army

Washington, February 3, 1862

Hon. E.M. Stanton, Secretary of War

Sir: In the earliest papers I submitted to the President, I asked for an effective and movable force far exceeding what I have in hand. I have not the force I asked for.


I confess I assumed that the Western army was organized and ready for action in fulfillment of my plan. I admit I have made a great mistake. My wish was to gain possession of the Tennessee & Virginia Railroad, then immediately attack Richmond, but the Western army did not cooperate in this.


I do not wish to waste life in useless battles. I prefer to strike at the heart. Two bases of operations present themselves for the advance of the Army of the Potomac. That of Washington or the lower Chesapeake Bay, which affords the shortest possible land route to Richmond, and strikes directly at the heart of the enemy's power in the east. Should we be beaten in battle, using this route, we have a perfectly secure retreat down the peninsula to Fort Monroe; with our flanks perfectly covered by the fleet.


After a successful battle, our position would be, Burnside forming on our left, our center connecting Burnside with Buell and Halleck; Buell by that time being at Raleigh and Lynchburg (wishful thinking here) and Halleck at Nashville and Memphis. Then we can advance into South Carolina and Georgia, pushing Buell toward Montgomery and throwing Halleck southward to meet Farragut at New Orleans. Such is the object I have in view.


This movement, if adopted, will not expose Washington to danger. The total force to be thrown on the new line would be from 110,000 to 140,000. It is my decided view that the second plan should be adopted.


I know that the President, you and I, all agree in our wishes that the war be brought to a close, as promptly as the means in our possession will permit. Let us then look at the great result to be gained and disregard everything else. (Edited for brevity)

          Your obedient Servant, G.B. McClellan, maj-gen commanding


During the following two weeks, as Grant and Buell swept the Confederates from Tennessee, Burnside captured New Bern, and Hunter pressed Lee, the record suggests that Lincoln and McClellan engaged in a number of conversations about McClellan's plan. By the time Grant was gathering his forces in front of Donelson, Lincoln appears to have caved in and given McClellan his consent to go ahead; as advertisements in the newspapers appeared on February 14th, under the War Department's authority, seeking bids to supply the Government with transports of various descriptions. On February 27, Stanton replied to McClellan's letter, formally acknowledging that the movement to Richmond by water was decided upon. The material requirements for this included: 113 steamers, 188 schooners, 88 barges, 120,000 men, 14,000 animals, 1,200 wagons, 44 batteries, and 75 ambulances, besides pontoon bridges, telegraph materials, and tons of ammunition and subsistence supplies.


Then Mac got pompous as he was prone to do.


To the Army of the Potomac

Headquarters, Washington February 17, 1862


I announce to you glorious victories. The names of Mill Spring, Roanoke, Fort Henry and Fort Donelson will be the pride of all true Americans, and will cause the hearts of all loyal men to throb with joy. If I judge right by taking my feelings as yours the desire to eclipse these deeds is in your minds.  You wish to strike your blow, and show that the Army of the Potomac strikes hard and true.


I have long held you back my comrades, at first in order to cement you into an Army. I have restrained you for another reason also. I wished you to strike when the time arrived to give the death blow to this accursed rebellion. I am satisfied the time is now.


When I place you in front of the rebels remember that the great God of Battles ever favors a just cause. You have battles to win, fatigues to endure, suffering to encounter, but remember they will conduct you to a goal covered with glory and each of you will bear the proud honor of being one of the men who crushed the most wicked rebellion that ever threatened the institution of Government. (Edited for brevity)


And just as it seemed he was in control of things, that he had all the ribbons in his hands, everyone—Lincoln included—bending to his will, he stumbled and looked the fool.


To Mary Ellen McClellan

Sandy Hook near Harpers Ferry

Thursday 7:30 a.m. February 27, 1862


My Dear Mary: I crossed the river as soon as the pontoon bridge was finished and watched the troops pass. It was a magnificent spectacle, one of the grandest I ever saw. The enemy are not now in sight, but I have sent out cavalry patrols that may bring in intelligence of value. I hope to be able to occupy Charlestown today  It will then require but a short time to finish matters here.

          Your husband, George


To Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War

Sandy Hook near Harpers Ferry

Thursday, 3:30 p.m. February 27, 1862


The lift lock on the Shenandoah River Canal turns out to be too small to permit the canal boats to enter the river so that it is impossible to use them as piers to construct a permanent bridge as I intended. I shall be obliged to fall back upon the safe and slow plan of merely covering the reconstruction of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, instead of moving forward to occupy Charlestown, Martinsburg, and Winchester as planned. Since I am now unsure of my supplies, I cannot move forward but must first rebuild the Railroad Bridge.

          G.B. McClellan, maj gen;l


No doubt Abraham Lincoln took umbrage at the outcome and, with his mind reflecting on the successes of Grant, Buell, and Burnside he began to redesign the concept of chain of command. (Why McClellan was doing this at this time, in the first place, requires separate inquiry.)







The Senate


February 19, 1862


Mr. Trumbull of Illinois: "I move to take up the bill to confiscate the property and free the slaves of the rebels." The matter was postponed for debate to commence on another day.


The House of Representatives


February 24, 1862


Mr. Shellabarger of Ohio obtained the floor.

""Permit me to inquire whether in the war's prosecution Congress and the President are still under the guidance and the high sanction of the Constitution, and should select such means to suppress the rebellion as are in harmony with it; or whether the Government, in suppressing it, is absolved from the recognition of law.


Sir, this may seem a strange and useless inquiry—an abstraction—having no relevance to the business now before the Congress. I thought so, too, when this Congress convened. I thought then that all agreed that the Constitution presided over all the conduct of the Government. I thought that the effort required by the Government to put down the rebellion did not extend to plunging us into anarchy.


Sir, the sentiments uttered upon this floor, here in the House, and in the Senate, have rendered this inquiry one of a practical importance absolutely startling.


I maintain, sir, that it is not within the right, nor the necessities, of this Government to disregard the obligations of law in the prosecution of this war—neither in the selection of the means for the restoration of the Government nor in their application to any citizen.


The two distinct classes of powers which inhere in the every essence of every constitutional government are well enough stated by Mr. Adams when he says these are the peace power and the war power. `The peace power, Mr. Adams says, is limited by regulations and restricted by provisions prescribed within the Constitution itself. The war power is limited only by the laws and usages of nations.'


This leads me to ascertain what is the war power of this Government, and what is the relation of this power to the Constitution. To answer this question, we must determine what is the relation which the law of nations sustains to this Constitution. That the Constitution recognizes and incorporates the law of nations is plain from its terms. It gives the Congress "power to punish offenses against the law of nations." In addition, when the United States became free of Great Britain, it assumed the character of an independent nation and became subject to that system of rules which reason and, morality, and custom had established among civilized nations as the public law. Justice Story, in discussing the powers of the President in war, says: `He cannot lawfully transcend the rules of war as established among civilized nations. The modern usages of nations limit the discretion of the President, expressly or impliedly granted him by the Constitution.' As Mr. Adams said, the Government, the President, must carry on war according to the laws of war.


But, sir, do the rules of the international code apply to a civil war? That they do is as plain as that they apply to any war. Mr. Adams, in this regard, said, "a war against insurrection must be carried out according to the laws of war.'


Sir, the Constitution therefore brings to its defense in times of civil war, bringing into operation as part of its own powers, the laws of war. I should not have ventured to raise this discussion, except for the remarks I have heard uttered in this chamber that the rebellion has made the seceded states foreign states. What do the gentlemen means when they argue that this Government in suppressing this rebellion cannot bring into operation the laws of war without recognizing a status which places them `beyond the jurisdiction of the Union, to be held after subjugation as territories or military districts.'


Sir, those words of the Constitution—"The Union"—take into their high import, not the idea of unimpaired territorial dominion alone, but involve as well the indestructibility of the States themselves. Their perpetual life is guaranteed against invasion, secured in republican forms of government, in interchangeable rights of citizenship, in equal representation in Congress. Destroy one of these political entities, called States, and you destroy "The Union" itself.


That Union, which it required the will of this whole people to make, can only be dissolved by the will which created it. Sir, those whose fortunes are given to the rescue of their States from rebellion have concern to know whether, when the rebellion is crushed, the States will become "military districts or what else we may please.'


I understand the gentleman from Indiana [Mr. Voorhees] to say that the Government, in using its war power, cannot take a rebel's property away. Why sir, does not the gentleman know that democratic governments and military commanders have exercised the right to emancipate slaves by act of war? Sir, the gentleman is blind to the truth that when the public safety requires it this Government may consume the field, the house, the city, and the lives of the most loyal and valued citizen. Yet, if the gentleman merely means to say that the Government has the war power to confiscate a rebel's slaves to save itself, but has not the power to abolish slavery as an act of emancipation, I agree with him.


I think the bill regarding confiscation of rebel property is a legitimate exercise of the Constitutional power to "make rules concerning captures.' What I deny is the power of Congress to enact a permanent and municipal regulation forfeiting, confiscating, or emancipating property which is never "captured" in war, and that occurs without trial for treason.


Suppose the rebellion is at an end and that it did not become necessary to, nor did you, free all the slaves, and the slaves of deceased rebels are held by their heirs. Or suppose you did capture and free all the slaves in some State which, however, is now loyal and in the Union, but the people have, under their State constitutions, reintroduced slavery. Now, how are we to execute our statute in either of these cases? It will not do to say that you will continue or renew the war against slavery. Because there is now no rebellion, any more than you could have made a war for that purpose before there was any rebellion. The war for that end could not be continued as an enforcement of a municipal act of Congress, nor could you gain appeal from the courts for its enforcement, because it is impossible to hold that the mere fact that the act was passed in time of war enables it to impose forfeitures which are expressly prohibited to be enforced in time of peace. Such a result would be like passing a law during time of war, depriving the rebels of the writ of habeas corpus which operates forever even in time of peace.


The policy indicated by the bill is, in substance, that inaugurated at Port Royal and at other points where slaves have fallen into our hands; the exercise of a just and constitutional war power for the safety of the Republic. Make that uniform by law and then let it alone. Trust the retributions of war and the logic of battles for the rest. Sir, the results of this retribution and the logic of war are penciled in no ambiguous lights in these words printed in a recent issue of a leading southern journal:


"If the war should be long continued, the forcible and universal abolition of slavery will be inevitable. If it should speedily be brought to a close, gradual emancipation in state after state by the introduction of free labor with political rights will be the natural consequences of the rebellion. These are solemn truths which time will verify."


And this, sir, is sternly terribly just. To save the Republic let slavery perish. It has sown the wind; let it reap the whirlwind. It has taken the sword; let it perish by the sword.  I say, to save the Government, let slavery perish. But, then, sir, If I am expected to attain this end through treason against the Constitution, through broken oaths of loyalty to it, and through means which may wreck all constitutional government; and when in that wreck I may lose my own liberty as well as the slaves' whom I sought to free, I turn away from a policy that is stamped with a Punic faith and with the morality of a Borgia.


I hear from altars and journals, the ghastly taunt and sneer, the end sanctifies the means! Ah! Sir, this morality and these politics are not new. Sir, bad means never have good ends. Adopt a measure that changes the war to a revolution, makes all the south a territory, do this for the sake of an abstraction which, beyond your lines, is baseless as a vision, and then what will come? "


The Senate


February 24, 1862


Mr. Wilson of Massachusetts asked and obtained leave to introduce a bill to repeal certain laws which recognized slavery in the District of Columbia. After reading into the record the text of these laws, Mr. Wilson said, "Such, Mr. President, are the laws enacted by this Christian people, this republican Government. A sense of decency should prompt Congress to erase these laws and ordinances from the statutes of the Republic." The bill was referred to the Committee on the District of Columbia.


Mr. Trumbull: "I move to take up the bill to confiscate the property and free the slaves of rebels."


The Senate Chamber, Taking Up the Bill to Free the Rebels' Slaves, 1862


The motion was agreed to; and the bill was considered as in Committee of the Whole. It provides that all property of a rebel shall be forfeited and confiscated by the Government and that all slaves of rebels are, ipso facto, free forever. It is the duty of the President to get these freed slaves out of the United States, by transporting them in some tropical country.


Mr.McDougall of California: "I think there are some grave constitutional questions involved in this."


Mr. Trumbull: "Mr. President, as I was about to remark before being interrupted, the bill only operates upon the property of a rebel who is beyond the jurisdiction of the courts. Where the rebel can be reached by judicial process, the punishment for his crimes can be visited on him personally, and this bill does not interfere with his property at all. As our armies advance into the South, all the property belonging to these rebels, as fast as we get possession of it, will be appropriated to the use of the Government.


When an insurrection assumes such formidable proportions as the present case, the international law writers all agree that the rebels are entitled to be treated as belligerents or enemies. Whenever a rebellion becomes of suchMr Trumbull magnitude as to be entitled to be called a civil war, then the rights of the parties are to be governed by the ordinary rules of war between independent nations; but that does not prevent the Government, when the war is over, from trying rebels as traitors. Nobody expects to try for treason the three hundred thousand men now in arms against the Government.. But the ringleaders will be, I trust, and brought to trial they will be executed as traitors. These are our rights as against rebels.


One of the rights as against an enemy is the right of confiscation. We have the right to take the personas and the property of our enemy and destroy them both if necessary. I know that according to the modern usage of civilized nations that property has not generally been confiscated; but the right exists to confiscate the property and there has been no distinction made between kinds of property.


If Congress declares the property of a rebel forfeited, I want to know who is to controvert it? If it is contended that by international law, Congress has no right to confiscate the property of a rebel, I ask who is to interpret international law? There is no common tribunal to which all nations submit these questions. Each nation interprets it for itself. That is all it is.


If other nations cannot interfere, can our courts? Certainly not. The courts are bound by international law as the Government establishes it. They cannot overrule an act of Congress because, in their opinion, it does not harmonize with international law. They have no such power. It does not lie in the mouth of the courts to question the right of the Government to confiscate property. It is a question of policy.


We are now taxing the loyal men of this country to the farthest limit, and sacrificing thousands of valuable lives in support of this war. While all this is being done, can it be pretended that we cannot touch the negro of a man who is fighting against the Government? That seems to have been so far the course we have pursued. But when our armies advance, let us take the property of rebels and make it contribute to the expense of this wicked war.


The bill provides for the negroes to be sent away. There is a very great aversion in the West—I know it is so in my state—against having free negroes come among us. Our people want nothing to do with the negro. When we tell them that slavery has been the cause of this rebellion, they admit it; but they say: `What will you do with them; we do not want them set free to come in among us; we know it is wrong for the rebels to have the benefit of slaves, but what do you propose to do with them? This bill proposes to colonize them and settle them where they can have the privileges and rights of freemen.


Mr. Pomeroy of Kansas: "I object to the second clause; it specifies that the Government is to return fugitive slaves to loyal slaveholders."


Mr. Trumbull: "I don't think the language justifies that construction. It does not change existing law. No order shall be issued for the return of a fugitive slave until the slaveholder has proven his loyalty. That is the law as it stands under the Constitution."


Mr. Pomeroy: "I don't like the third clause either. We need here all the laborers we can get. The miserable prejudice that the Senator from Illinois talks about being in Illinois and Indiana—what we call the black law democracy—is unworthy of the Senate. It is unworthy of Christian men anywhere to talk about the laborer not being permitted to live in a country on account of his color."


Mr. Willey: "I should like to know as to where and how the President derives constitutional power to make provision for the transportation of emancipated negroes to foreign lands. Where is he to get the funds to do this?  Have you calculated the cost?"


Mr. Pomeroy: "We should amend the third clause to read the rebels will be taken away. There are only a few slaveholders and we can easily carry them away."


Mr. Willey of "Virginia:" "I propose to hang those engaged in this rebellion, and save the expense of transportation." [Laughter]


The Vice-President: "Order!"


Mr. Willey: "I want to know where the money is going to come from, to transport a million of emancipated negroes."


Mr. Trumbull: "I believe it will cost about $500 a head."


Mr. Willey: "I did not mean simply the cost of transportation. I adverted to the ignorance of the slave, to his want of habits of self-maintenance and self-subsistence, and that there would be a necessity to provide for him, to oversee him, to take care of him, and to direct him until he was educated."


Mr. Ten Eyck of New Jersey: "The Northern people of this Union have an undoubted settled aversion and opposition to the influx of large numbers of negroes among them. In fact, it will not be tolerated. I see that the Legislatures of several states now are about passing laws to prohibit the introduction or entry of free colored persons within their limits. In our desire to do a work of humanity in one second, we have no idea of doing a positive wrong and injury to the laboring classes of another section.


There is another consideration, too. It is this: we cannot close our eyes to the state of things which exist in the southern States, by setting at liberty all the slaves, and leaving them there in that locality to roam at large under the circumstances in which they will be placed in their ignorance, destitution, want of knowledge, and want of care and providence. What is to become of the loyal men with millions of freed slaves left to roam the country at large, to go and come when and where they will? It seems to me we may have ruin and destruction and even all the horrors visited in the West Indies."


Mr. Powell of Kentucky: "I regard this bill as unconstitutional."

Sumner of Massachusetts

Mr. Sumner of Massachusetts: "I agree with the Senator from Kansas, as to the bill in relation to the Fugitive Slave Law. I have never called it a law, or even an act. There is no fountain in the Constitution out of which that enormity can be derived. That is my idea. I am against anything that recognizes the existence of a thing that can have no legal existence."


Upon motion the Chair put the debate over.


 February 28, 1862


Order of Business:


Mr. Trumbull obtained the floor: "I took the floor in order to proceed with the bill to confiscate the rebels' property and free the slaves. I will say to the Senator from Wisconsin that this other question (expulsion of the Senator from Oregon for disloyal utterances) cannot be concluded with debate, and I want to know whether my important bill is to be crowded out of the way every day? I have made it a special order, and this Oregon case has crowded it out for two days already, and here it comes again on a resolution.


Mr. Fessenden of Maine: I move to postpone the special order with a view to take up the House bill for appropriations.


Mr. Wilson of Massachusetts:  "I have a resolution that I desire to submit, and also a bill I wish to introduce."


Mr. Trumbull: "I am sorry that these motions are made, I hope they will not be persisted in. I hope that the Senate will debate the bill which is the subject of special order and upon which a number of us have been struggling to get action for a month. It is a very important bill, and I trust that it will not be displaced by resolutions and other bills. If we are to pass any bill by which the property of men who have made war upon this Government is to be taken possession of, that it may be made to contribute towards paying the expenses of the war which they have inaugurated, it should be done speedily, for their property, by the knowing ones, is being spirited away and being conveyed beyond our reach.


Mr. Fessenden: "I will only say I have no desire to antagonize but the bill deals with appropriation of money that is already past due. I feel it is my duty to bring the bill before the Senate now.


The Vice-President: "On the motion of postponement the Senator from Illinois asks for the yeas and nays."


Mr. Sherman of Ohio: "I shall vote against the motion of the Senator of Maine."


The Secretary proceeded to call the roll. The result was announced—yeas 24, nays 20. So the motion passed, and the bill to confiscate rebel property was laid upon the table and Mr. Fessenden's appropriations bill taken up.


Mr. Wilson: "I ask the Senator from Maine to allow me to introduce a resolution."


Mr. Fessenden: "Certainly."


Mr. Wilson: "Resolved, that the Secretary of the Treasury communicate to the Senate information in the Department's possession relating to the condition and wants of the people of color in the district of South Carolina held by the military forces of the Untied States."


The Vice-President: "The resolution is agreed to."


After discussion of further matters the Senate adjourned.


Senate Chamber 1962

(The Republicans are to the right, the Democrats to the left)

The Senate Chamber Today

Is It Always Better for the People that the Division be Tight?

A hard question


Cultivation of Cotton Lands


Feb 25, 1862

Mr. Wade:

"The Committee on Territories has prepared a bill for the cultivation of cotton lands and I believe it to be a great necessity that it be passed quickly. It is a bill that contemplates the occupation and cultivation of the cotton lands on the Sea Islands in South Carolina, and taking the superintendence of the negroes that are now there unemployed and starving. The entire white population has fled, leaving behind 25,000 negroes. The provisions of their masters have been almost entirely consumed by our troops and they are about to left entirely destitute. The bill creates a board of commissioners who will take charge of the land and negroes and pay them wages to work the land and in that way the negroes can sustain themselves."




Mr. Doolittle objected on the ground that the lands should be leased to a third party who would be responsible for the negroes.


Mr. Wade: "I do not suppose that the Government will make money at this. That is not the point. The white people have all gone off and left the black people behind. Now, it is perfectly clear that something ought to be done for these people. You may lease the land to some white person; but what will he do with these people? Will he furnish them with provisions? Will he take care of them? Or will he reduce them to a state worse than that from which they have escaped? I understand there are 25,000 of them, men, women, and children, entirely deprived by the act of our army of the means of subsistence with nobody to set them to work, or to furnish them with anything whatsoever."


Carolina African Slaves Adrift


Mr. Browing: "I am as anxious to get hold of the property of rebels and traitors as any one can be; but I am not so anxious as to induce me totally to disregard the rights of those who may be in their midst that are as loyal in their hearts today as you or I. If we pass this bill as written we are exposing every citizen of South Carolina to the will and caprice of every petty tyrant with epaulettes on his shoulders who may enter the territory for the purpose of designating the property to be seized."


Mr. Hale: "If this war is to be successfully prosecuted and this rebellion crushed without hurting anybody, I should be willing to agree to it as anyone, but I do not believe it can be done."


Consideration of the bill was put over.




What We Have Done to Ourselves


February 25, 1862





Washington's Farewell Address 1796

"The unity of government, which constitutes you one people, is also now dear to you. It is justly so; for it is the main pillar in the edifice of your independence . . of that very liberty which you so highly prize. But it is easy to foresee that much pains will be taken to weaken, in your minds, the conviction of this truth. With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles. But these considerations are greatly outweighed by those which apply more immediately to your interest.


The North, in an unrestrained intercourse with the South, protected by the equal laws of a common Government, finds, in the production of the latter, great additional resources of maritime and commercial enterprise, and precious materials of manufacturing industry. The South, in the same intercourse, benefiting by the same agency of the North, sees its agriculture grow, and its commerce expand.


While, then, every part of our country thus feels an immediate and particular interest in union, all the parts combined cannot fail to find, in the united mass of means and efforts, greater strength, greater resource, greater security from external danger; and what is of inestimable value, they must derive from union an exemption from wars between themselves. In this sense it is, that your union ought to be considered as a main prop of your liberty. (And unspoken here the main prop of human bondage in the South.)


The basis of our political system, is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of Government; but the constitution which at any time exists, till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all. (What is more explicit and authentic an act of the whole people than war?)


I have already suggested to you the danger of parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me warn you now against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally. The alternate domination of one faction over another is itself a frightful despotism. The spirit is inseparable from our nature, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, which, in different ages and countries, has perpetuated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. . . soon or later the chief of some prevailing faction turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation on the ruins of public liberty. (From one legitimate point of view, this describes Lincoln.)


In contemplating the causes which may disturb our union, it occurs, as a matter of serious concern, that any ground should have been furnished for characterizing parties by geographical discriminations; northern and southern. Whence designing men may endeavor to excite a belief that there is a real difference of local interests and views. They tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection. (This is as close to the dark issue of slavery as Washington gets.)


This Government, the offspring of our own choice, adopted upon full investigation and mature deliberation, completely free in its principles (not exactly accurate), in the distribution of its powers, uniting security with energy, and containing within itself a provision for its own amendment, has a just claim to your confidence and support. ("within itself a provision for its own amendment". . . Under that provision, a mere majority of the people cannot lawfully change the form of Government; but by resorting to the power of war it can.)"


The Police State is Upon Us


"While, then, every part of the country that feels an immediate and particular interest in union, all the parts combined cannot help but find, in the united mass of measured efforts, greater strength, greater resources, greater security from external danger; and what is of inestimable value, they must derive from union an exemption from war between themselves, which so frequently afflict countries not tied together by the same Government. Hence, likewise, they will avoid the necessity of those overgrown military establishments, which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty; in this sense it is, that your union ought to be considered as a main prop of your liberty, and that the love of the one ought to endear to you the preservation of the other." (Edited for brevity.)


Eisenhower's Farewell Address1961


"We annually spend on military security more than the total of net income of all United States corporations. Added to this, we have more than three million men and women engaged in the defense establishment. This immense military establishment is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of government. . . We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge [economic and political] machinery of defense with our liberties."




"We must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss of their political and spiritual heritage." (Edited for brevity.)



Miami Police Buy Drone


Where Americans' Tax Dollars Go

(Fiscal year 2009)


The F-35 Fighter Jet

(Trillions of Tax Dollars Being Spent)


The Super-Attack Carrier Model (20 are in service)

Trillions of Tax Dollars Being Spent


U.S. Army Soldier in the Field Today

(Billions of Tax Dollars Spent in Support)


Note: For the money spent, year by year, since 1960 (50 years), we have allowed our government to use its military-industrial machine to wage war in Cuba, Granada, Panama, Somalia, Lebanon, Lybia, Viet Nam, Kent State, Afghanistan, and twice in Iraq. An attack on the people of Iran is trending next. (Every puny whipster gets our sword!) What fool thinks the Government won't turn it in a heartbeat on us?


It already has Once



(December 15, 2011)

What a pathetic state of political affairs we as a people are in: with hardly a peep from any of us, we passively sit mute in front of our television sets watching sitcoms, while the Congress—according to polls only nine percent of us respect—votes, in the House, 283 to 136 to suspend the Writ of Habeas Corpus, giving the President authority to have the military seize United States citizens and hold them, without access to lawyers or courts, indefinitely. Specifically the House of Representatives has voted to allow the President to use the military to take "custody of a suspect (United States citizen or no) deemed (arbitrarily by the President) to be a member of al-Qaida or its affiliates and hold him indefinitely. House and Senate "negotiators" added language that says nothing in the bill "will affect existing criminal enforcement regardless of whether such person is in military custody," but the president can waive the provision if he wishes.

Do you hear the founders groaning in their graves? You don't care, you say, it will never be you, the President's minions will never come for your mother, or father, sister, brother, wife, or children; it will be some strange dark person no one should care about. In Lincoln's time the "detainees" became in less than four years ten thousand! Governors and legislators of States, newpaper reporters and editors, and politicians and plain disgruntled citizens voicing their negative opinions. That will not happen now, you are assured—trust "The President" they sweetly tell you (Democrat and Republican politicians alike) with that sly phony smile they have. I say, Trust no one for your liberty. Trust the Constitution. But you don't care.


Joe Ryan


Joseph H. Parks, General Leonidas Polk: The Fighting Bishop, Louisiana State University Press 1962

M.F. Force, From Fort Henry to Corinth, Charles Scribner's Sons 1885

Thomas L. Connelly, Army of the Heartland Louisiana State University Press 1967

Jack Hurst, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Alfred A. Knopf 1993

John K. Bettersworth, Confederate Mississippi, Porcupine Press 1943

Frank E. Vandiver, Ploughshares into Swords: Josiah Gorgas and Confederate Ordnance, University of Texas Press 1952

David D. Porter, Naval History of the Civil War, Sherman Publishing Co. 1886

Stephen W. Sears, The Civil War Papers of George M. McClellan, Ticknor & Fields 1989

Roy P. Basler, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol V, Rutgers University Press 1953

William P. Johnston, The Life of General Albert Sidney Johnston, State House Press 1997

Gary W. Gallagher, Lee The Soldier (essays), University of Nebraska Press 1996

J.F.C. Fuller, The Generalship of U.S. Grant, John Murray London 1929

U.S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, Charles Webster's Co. 1885

George B. McClellan, McClellan's Own Story, Charles Webster's Co. 1885



Read all the Civil War Sesquicentennial articles Comments and Questions to the Author

Joe Ryan

Joe Ryan Original Works

Joe Ryan Video Battlewalks


About the author:
Joe Ryan is a Los Angeles trial lawyer who has traveled the route of the Army of Northern Virginia, from Richmond to Gettysburg several times.

privacy policy