Fort Henry is the Key to the Strategic Situation:

The Line—Fort Columbus to Bowling Green


Brigadier-General Gideon Pillow to Alabama Committee November 20, 1861

Columbus, Kentucky (Pillow is commanding at Fort Columbus at this time because Polk had been injured. Polk sought to resign his commission at this time, but Davis talked him into remaining. Polk resumed command of the Fort on December 2.)

"I have to say that our position here is of great strength, and that we can hold it against greatly superior numbers of the enemy; but unless we are supported on the flank and rear by forces, the country south of us is open to an advancing column, and by cutting our railroad communication we would be isolated.

In regard to the question, Do I consider the Tennessee River safe, I answer unhesitatingly that I do not. The exigencies of the Confederate Government have induced it to take most of the troops raised in Tennessee and the Mississippi Valley to Virginia. She is not strong enough to sustain unaided the great conflict before us. Our sister States South must come to our support. The work at Fort Henry is as good as we could construct in the time allowed for it and the means at our hands. We will provide engineers and artillery if Alabama will provide the labor for construction and the troops to garrison the work, and make that river secure against the enemy, thus allowing her to hold the keys of the gate-way into her own territory." (edited for brevity)




Sidney Johnston's Department of the West


Sidney Johnston to Secretary of War Benjamin, November 27, 1861

Bowling Green


"I suppose that the enemy force intended for east Tennessee will now be combined with Buell's force at Louisville, making an aggregate strength of more than 50,000 men to be arrayed against my force here. If the forces of the enemy are maneuvered as I think they may be, I may be compelled to retire from this place to cover Nashville. It is understood that General Halleck, who will command at Columbus, and General Buell, who is in command on this line, will make a simultaneous attack. I doubt if Buell will make a serious attack on my position here."


Gideon Pillow (commanding at Columbus) to Johnston, November 28, 1861


"Every effort should be made to prepare a strong force to meet the enemy on my right and rear. No time should be lost."


Sidney Johnston to Secretary of War Benjamin, November 29, 1861

Bowling Green


"We are making every possible effort to meet the force which the enemy will soon array against us, both on this line and at Columbus. Had the exigency of my call for 50,000 men in September been better comprehended and responded to, our preparations for this great emergency would now be complete."


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."



The Troop Strength of Polk's Command



Number of Men in Polk's Department, November 1, 1861


At Columbus


1st Division 4,500

2nd Division 4,500

3rd Division 3,000

4th Division 4,200

Stewart's command 5,800

Total 17,500




Pillow's Command 12,400 (at Fort Columbus?)

Camp Beauregard 3,700

Union City 1,700

Fort Pillow 984

Memphis 2,300

Trenton 964

Fort Henry 804

Island No. 10 63

Total 22,400


Note: Johnston's only chance of filling the gap in troop strength is to concentrate Pillow's command with the troops at outposts and use it to operate against the enemy invading the territory between Fort Columbus and the Tennessee River, thereby protecting Fort Henry and the Memphis & Ohio Railroad crossing of the Tennessee River above Fort Henry. Why does he not order Polk to do this? Why does not Polk heed Johnston's suggestion?


The fort at Columbus needs a force to operate in the field, protecting its flank and rear


Chief Engineer Gilmer has about 4,000 men at Nashville.


Johnston's Headquarters, November 22, 1861

To Major-General Leonidas Polk


"Fort Columbus being completed, your force will now to be free to maneuver in reference to the movements of the enemy, and to act as a corps of observation to prevent the siege of the place, and should be so handled as to avoid being caught between the enemy and the river."


Polk to Secretary of War Benjamin, December 7, 1861


"The force of my command at this point should not be less than 50,000 men. It is the purpose of the enemy to crush the force concentrated in this department as it prevents his way down the Mississippi. I hope the Government will give us both troops and commanders to meet the emergency."


Note: According to the returns Polk has, under his command, about 40,000 men, 30,000 of which are "at the point" of Fort Columbus. Apparently, 10,000 of these, at a later time, are shifted to Johnston at Bowling Green and then sent by Johnston to Fort Donelson. Too Late.


Gideon Pillow to Johnston's Headquarters, December 11, 1861


"My opinion is that the enemy are preparing to move up the Tennessee River in force. I think they will simply make a demonstration against Fort Columbus to hold the force here. Will use their large water power to capture Fort Henry and pass up and take possession of Tennessee (railroad) bridge and separate your command and General Polk's, and will then advance down that railroad on Memphis." This happens two months later.


Sidney Johnston's Department Needs Laborers to Build Works and at least an Additional 25,000 Armed Men to Hold Fort Henry



Alabama Committee to Secretary of War Benjamin, November 22, 1861


"We went to Fort Columbus to inquire about the defenses of the Tennessee River and were told by Generals Pillow and Polk that they were unsafe, and the force on that flank of the army resting on that river insufficient; that there was danger of the enemy ascending the Tennessee River and burning the railroad bridge across it just about Fort Henry, and separating our army at Bowling Green from that at Columbus and of destroying the Mobile & Ohio and the Memphis & Charleston Railroads, for it is only 18 miles from the Big Bend of the Tennessee to their junction at Corinth.


We determined to make an effort to improve the works on that river, and send 5,000 volunteers, with their own guns, to garrison them. We shall proceed immediately to raise these volunteers. We propose to organize a company of old men, armed in each county in North Alabama, for forty days. Many of these old men will have their negro men laboring on the works, and their presence useful in furthering them. We shall need transportation for the men and laborers down the Tennessee River, some wagons and horses, some tools for rough work, provisions, medicines etc."


Albert Sidney Johnston to Mississippi Governor Pettus and Alabama Governor Moore November 21, 1861 (From Bowling Green)


"To oppose the formidable invasion about to be made by the enemy upon the northern line of Tennessee, with the design to penetrate the valley of the Mississippi, the Secretary of War has authorized me to call upon you for all the army men that can be raised in your state. I call upon you to assist me with every soldier of your militia into whose hands arms can be placed."


Sidney Johnston to Alabama Governor Moore, November 21, 1861

Bowling Green


"As fast as the military force of North Alabama can be organized, equipped, and mustered in they will be transported down the Tennessee River to Fort Henry. The slave laborers shall be sent forward with the troops in as large parties as can be provided for on their arrival at the works to be built."


Mississippi Governor Pettus to Sidney Johnston, December 2, 1861


"I am now sending forward every twelve-months troops that I can arm and calling for troops for less time with arms in their hands. I think I will be able to send you a considerable force."


Sidney Johnston to Benjamin, December 8, 1861

Bowling Green


"The enemy's advance in front is six miles north of Bacon Creek, near the Louisville Railroad; a large force at Nolin; and farther north, towards Louisville, they are massed in considerable force at different points convenient for concentrating them. I do not doubt that the Federal Government is augmenting their force in Kentucky in this direction to the extent of their ability. I believe their force on this line is about 65,000 now. Our returns at this place show a force of between 18,500 and 19,500 of which 5,000 are sick, and our effective force is under 13,000 men."


Mississippi Governor Pettus to Polk, December 11, 1861


"I have ordered 3,000 troops to Union City. They need tents and ammunition for shotguns and rifles."


Sidney Johnston to Secretary of War Benjamin, December 16, 1861


"Our force has been augmented today by the arrival of 2,000 sixty day men from Mississippi, making our force about 15,500 effective men.


The enemy have rebuilt Bacon Creek Bridge and their trains now come to Green River, where a large number of (white?) workmen are employed in rebuilding the railroad bridge. The enemy are in considerable force but show no inclination to cross the river yet.


Governor Harris was here yesterday and said there are now organized in the vicinity of Nashville about seven regiments ready to take the field, but some delay will occur in arming them, on account of the arms which have been collected in the country."


Note: Since Tennessee had no Federal arsenal to strip, the state collected private arms from its citizens and then had to fit them properly for use by soldiers in the field.


Mississippi Militia Commander to Polk's Headquarters, December 21, 1861


"Mississippi has already sent to the battlefield 25,000 of her brave sons, mostly armed and equipped herself. She was but a few days since promptly responding to a call of General Johnston upon her for an additional 2,000 twelve-month volunteers, to be armed by the Confederate Government. I have with me now at Union City three regiments, mostly armed with hunting rifles. I shall ask nothing of the Government except subsistence. The troops will be paid by the State of Mississippi."


Secretary of War Benjamin to Sidney Johnston, December 22, 1861


"I have not, unfortunately, another musket to send you. We have an immensely valuable cargo of arms and powder in Nassau, blockaded by a Yankee gunboat, that I am trying to get out, but in the interval we must put our trust in our just cause and such means as we have at hand."


Sidney Johnston to Mississippi Governor Pettus, December 24, 1861

Bowling Green

"On assuming command of this department it was my chief object to collect a sufficient force to shield the valley of the Mississippi from the enemy. It was apprehended by me that the enemy would attempt to attack the South not only by boats and troops moving down the Mississippi river, but by columns marching inland, threatening Tennessee by endeavoring to burn the defenses at Columbus. I think Columbus is now secure.


The enemy will push towards Nashville the heavy masses of troops now assembled between Louisville and this place. The Length of the line of the Barren River, though strong, requires a large force to defend it. This place cannot be abandoned without exposing Tennessee and giving vastly the vantage ground to the enemy.


The Northern generals appreciate this, and by withdrawing their forces from Western Virginia and Eastern Kentucky they have managed to add them to the new levies from Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, and to concentrate a force in front of me estimated at 60,000 men. To maintain my position I have only about 17,000 men in this neighborhood. It is impossible for me to obtain additions to my strength from Columbus. Generals Polk and Pillow consider that it would imperil that point to diminish their force and open Tennessee to the enemy.


General Zollicoffer cannot join me, as he guards the Cumberland and prevents the invasion and possible revolt of East Tennessee.


Nothwithstanding all this, I will not relinquish my position without a battle. If troops are given to me, if the people can be made to feel how much suffering would be avoided by the presence now in my camp of 10,000, or 15,000 more brave men, so that I could attack the enemy, and not from a disparity of force be compelled to await it, it would give me the assurance of victory. I therefore ask that for the coming struggle every man be sent forward."


Governor Harris to Johnston, December 31, 1861


"Tennessee has now organized and in the field fifty-two regiments. The difficulty is not in obtaining men. The inadequate supply of arms has been and is the chief obstacle. It takes time to collect and repair the private arms of the country, and this is the only means I have of arming the force now called to the field."


Mississippi Governor Pettus to Johnston, January 31, 1862


"I have today issued my proclamation, calling for 10,000 volunteers to serve for a term of two years. Owing to the fact that the account between the State of Mississippi and the Confederate Government remains unadjusted, and that other resources have been exhausted, I am without the means of subsisting the troops who may respond to my call."



Polk's Troops at Columbus Have Not been Paid

and He Has No Money To Buy Supplies


Gideon Pillow to Johnston's Headquarters, November 22, 1861


"As yet we have not received one dollar of assistance towards supplying the wants of this army by the Confederate Government. We have borrowed from banks as long as we could. An army cannot be supplied without money. It will require $300,000 to relieve the staff of its present debts due all over the country and with the banks for borrowed money."


Polk to Benjamin, December 24, 1861


"It has been several months since a large portion of this army has received any pay, and a number of regiments have never received a dollar since entering the service. They are getting very sore under this state of affairs."


The Local Citizens Gouge the Army


Benjamin to Johnston, December 26, 1861


"In making provision for the subsistence of the Army in your department great difficulties exist, arising from the indisposition of many parties in the border States to receive the Treasury notes or bonds of the Government in payment of supplies. This is a war from national existence, and the Army must be fed, and it is impossible to pay for its food otherwise than in our national currency. Let the necessary supplies be impressed, if not otherwise obtainable."


Johnston to Benjamin, January 5, 1862


"If necessary let us convert our country into one vast camp of instruction for the field of every man able to bear arms, and fix our military establishment upon a permanent basis.


There has been among these people a great disinclination to take Confederate currency, and this may be the result of a hostile feeling toward the Confederacy, but this may simply be the usual distrust a rural people have for currency."


The Slave Laborers Needed To Build the Work at Fort Henry Never Materialize


Gideon Pillow to Captain Dixon, November 20, 1861


"You will proceed to Fort Henry and make a survey for an additional work. A large force of slaves, with troops to protect them, from Alabama, will report at Danville for this work, the construction of which you will supervise and push to completion as soon as possible."


Brigadier-General Tilghman to Sidney Johnston, November 29, 1861


"The absolute necessity of our occupying an eminence (Stewart's Hill) on the opposite side of the river from Fort Henry involves not only the erection of a small field work there, with several heavy guns, but also the occupation of an advanced point with a small force, aided by a field battery. I am informed that the State of Alabama will send a full regiment to this point, with 500 negroes, for building the work."


Chief Engineer Gilmer to Captain Dixon, December 4, 1861



"Your letter requesting tools is received. I will procure the picks, shovels, spades, axes, bars etc you need for the intrenchments, if it be possible to do so; also the wheelbarrows, and have them forwarded to you at Fort Henry."


Chief Engineer Gilmer to Johnston, December 7, 1861


"I have to report that the agents of Governor Harris, sent to engage the services of negroes from their masters to work on the defenses of Nashville, have failed to procure a force of adequate strength, as the negroes of this city are hired out until the end of the year and not now under the control of their masters. It will be difficult at any price to hire white laborers."


Chief Engineer Gilmer to Tennessee Governor Harris, December 11, 1861


"The agents have failed to get more than a few negroes. I have prepared a circular which I submit for your endorsement, to be handed to the sheriffs and constables, with instructions to reach the citizens and urge the necessity of a prompt compliance with the call."


Building Gunboats


Johnston's HQ to Polk at Columbus, December 6, 1861


"General Johnston has provided the means for commencing the building of the gunboat on the Tennessee. As you have been authorized by the War Department to build this boat, he desires you will make requisition in time for the additional funds."


Chief Engineer Gilmer to Johnston's Headquarters, December 9, 1861


"On the question of constructing a gunboat for the defense of the Cumberland River. A common steamboat cannot be converted into an efficient gunboat. The boilers and machinery can be but partially protected from shot, and the large side-wheels, not at all. It is probable the hull of a well-built river boat can be made in a measure shot proof by covering her with bulwarks clad with thick iron. Railroad or other bars would have to be used for this purpose, as there is not plate iron in the whole Confederacy. Consequently, I am forced to the opinion that the best defense will be batteries ashore in combination with obstructions as may be devised in the channel under the guns of works."


Secretary of Navy Mallory to Polk, December 24, 1861


"The completion of the iron clad gunboats at Memphis is regarded as highly important to the defenses of the Mississippi. Had I not supposed that carpenters would be available to build them I would not have authorized their construction. May I ask that you furnish them? The men may be furloughed for this special work and the highest wages will be paid them."


Pillow Thinks of Taking the Offensive against Grant at Cairo


Pillow to Polk, December 2, 1861


"With Commodore Hollins' fleet of gunboats and our land forces acting together we can take Bird's Point and Fort Holt and capture or destroy the enemy's gunboats at Cairo. If we stand still and await the ample preparations the enemy is making and allow him to attack us with shells from 50 gun and mortar boats, and to throw around our position an army of 50,000, our position may become difficult to maintain. Our safety, therefore, depends upon our attacking him before he attacks us. Saint Louis papers inform us that four of his unarmed gunboats, 72 rifled cannon, and 3,000 loaded shells have arrived at Cairo."


Note: If Pillow's and Polk's combined forces are strong enough to operate against the enemy at Cairo, why are they not strong enough to operate against him when he attempts to turn their right flank by way of the Tennessee River? What "fleet of gunboats" is Pillow talking about?



Johnston, Threatened, Calls On Polk For Troops



Johnston to Polk, December 18, 1861


"Send to this place 5,000 of your best infantry."


Polk to Johnston, December 19, 1861


"I have barely 12,000 men at this post. I have been working day and night to enable me to hold this place against the force now concentrated at Cairo against me. I was on the eve of calling upon you to send me 3,000 men immediately to enable me to hold my position."


Query: What is going on here? According to Polk's return he has at least 17,500 men at Columbus, and probably more if we count Pillow's command. Pillow thinks there is enough men to take the offensive against Grant at this time. What is Polk's problem?


Johnston to Polk, December 19, 1861


"Your dispatch received. My order to you is revoked."


Johnston to Benjamin, December 20, 1861


"The enemy are crossing Green River at many points in overwhelming numbers. Their bridges are laid. I cannot meet them with more than 10,000 men between Green River and Nashville. Can Floyd (in Western Virginia) be sent here?


Benjamin to Johnston, December 20, 1861


"Floyd's command will reach you by Christmas, but there are only about 2,500 men in it (4 Virginia regiments). The Southern troops were sent to General Lee at Charleston, where the enemy are moving with heavy force."


Johnston to Governor Harris, December 20, 1861


"The enemy in overwhelming numbers are crossing Green River. Every exertion, Governor, to get your (unarmed) regiments into the field is now a necessity."


Johnston to Benjamin, December 21, 1861


"The movements of the enemy indicate the design to turn my right by the turnpike road from Glasgow, through Scottsville to Gallatin and Nashville. There are concentrating in great force at Munfordville on Green River, and at Columbia.


Breckinridge's Kentucky Brigade, of Buckner's division, stationed on the railroad toward Munfordville, at Oakland, and Dripping Springs, will march tomorrow to Skegg's Creek where the Glasgow road to Nashville crosses it.


Hardee will march tomorrow with one of his brigades to the Great Barren River Bridge, passing through Scottsville.


Hindman's brigade, of Hardee's division, will remain at Cave City, then all back through Rocky Hill.


This will give me a total force of 11,000 men. The garrison I shall leave here at Bowling Green is 4,000 men, composed of the Mississippi sixty day men and one of Hardee's brigades.


I think there will be a change in the weather. It is now cold and cloudy, and snow and rain we hope will soon make the country roads very difficult to travel over. A slight rise in the Barren River would make the line of the Barren of great strength. (Johnston's department is, for the moment, saved by the weather.).


Buell Inches Closer to Bowling Green


Polk to Johnston, December 24, 1861


"Do you still want support?"


Johnston to Polk, December 24, 1861


"Yes, Ten thousand or more, if possible, without delay of a day."


Polk to Johnston, December 24, 1861


"I will send you Bowen's command of infantry, about 5,000 strong. One half will go by wagons to Paris, the other half via Union City. I will replace his force at Feliciana by four regiments of sixty day men from Mississippi."


Johnston to Benjamin, December 24, 1861


"I have resolved to hold the Barren till the winter terminates the campaign. I request that the Government will aid me in my efforts to procure additional reinforcements."


Johnston to Governor Harris, December 25, 1861


"The disparity of my force is great, and exposes our cause to a hazard that it is most unwise to continue to incur. Ten of Fifteen thousand more men would make me feel assured of victory."



Johnston's Railroad Capacity


Railroad Superintendent to Johnston's Quartermaster, January 2, 1862


"We have in running order ten engines. We have in all, box cars, 120; flat cars, 55. This allows us to run one train daily from Memphis to Bowling Green, capable of moving ten car loads of corn etc; one freight train daily, each way between Bowling Green and Nashville, carrying thirteen cars each way; one freight train daily between Paris and Bowling Green with twelve cars; one passenger train each way on the main stem and Memphis Branch.


The present demand is, for the army alone, from Paris, 800,000 pounds; from Clarksville, a million pounds; from Nashville, 1.5 million pounds.


The entire road is crowded with business to an extent unprecedented in the history of any branch of it."


Polk's Situation at Columbus, January 1862


Polk to Johnston, January 12, 1862



"My own force at this place amounts to 12,000 men ready for duty. We require support. Enemy's flotilla, under command of Foote, is 38 mortar boats (pulled by tugs); 28 transports; 12 gunboats."


Colonel Heiman, commanding Fort Henry, to Polk, January 14, 1862


"A messenger reached here from Paducah with information that a division of 60,000, supported by eleven gunboats, will move up the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers."


Halleck has Grant Demonstrate to See if Polk Will Come Out


Polk to Benjamin, January 17, 1862


"The enemy has commenced moving on Columbus. I require strong reinforcements."


Note: This is Grant's force "demonstrating."


Tilghman, commanding at Fort Henry, to Polk, January 17, 1862


"We have four gunboats, one transport, just below us."


Note: This is Foote's force, scouting the strength of Fort Henry.


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."


Johnston to Benjamin, January 19, 1862


"Reports from Paris report a column of the enemy (6,000) eight miles from Murray, marching toward Fort Henry."


Johnston to War Department, January 22, 1862


"General Polk had ordered cavalry and two regiments of infantry towards the rear of the enemy. The badness of the roads on the route to Paris and the movement on his rear has made the enemy relinquish his march to the railroad at Paris, which he intended to cut before investing Fort Henry.


The roads can only be traveled over with great difficulty in most localities on account of the great quantity of rain which has fallen, but should the ground freeze, I will attack. . .


General Zollicoffer has been killed at Webb's Crossroads, on the road from his position to Columbia.


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.


To suppose that the enemy will suspend active operations on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers during the winter months is a delusion. All the resources of the Confederacy are now needed for the defense of Tennessee."


Polk to Johnston, January 24, 1862


"That the enemy intended to make a demonstration on Tennessee River is the only thing now plain. Grant, who commanded the column at Mayfield Creek, turned back, it is said, because he lacked reinforcement. General Smith moved from Paducah to Mayfield with 5,000 infantry, thence to Murray, where he turned part of his force toward the Tennessee. 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."


Source: The Official Record of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume VII, as edited for brevity.

What Happened in the Civil War January 1862

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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.