Operations by the Army of the Mississippi

This entry is part 7 of 10 in the series The Western Theater Part Two

Operations by the

Army of the Mississippi

Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, the Union commander of the Department of the Missouri, created the Army of the Mississippi and placed Brig. Gen. John Pope in command. Pope was a Kentucky native who had graduated from West Point in 1842. He had served in the Mexican War and in a variety of posts after the War.

General John PopePope had been appointed brigadier general of volunteers in June of 1861 and sent to Illinois to recruit troops. He held several positions in Missouri under both Halleck and his predecessor, Maj. Gen. John C. Fremont. Pope had a knack of publicizing his achievements, however minor they may have been.

Pope came to the attention of Halleck, who placed him in command of the Army of the Mississippi (and the District of the Mississippi, Department of the Missouri) on February 23, 1862. He was given 25,000 men, divided into five divisions, and was ordered to clear the Mississippi River of Confederates to the south of Columbus, Kentucky.

After Grant’s successful operations against Forts Henry and Donelson, the Confederates withdrew their strong forces from their Mississippi River-fortress at Columbus, Kentucky. General P.G.T. Beauregard concentrated these troops at Island No. 10, about 60 miles  to the south.

Pope began his operations by marching overland through Missouri. His forces occupied the river town of Point Pleasant, Missouri, south of New Madrid. Point Pleasant was directly west of Island No. 10. The Union army them marched north to New Madrid and positioned their siege guns on the river town on March 3, 1862.

After an unsuccessful attempt to break the siege, Confederate Brig. Gen. John P. McCown withdrew his troops south to Island No. 10 on March 13th, leaving the greater portion of his equipment and supplies to the Union besiegers. This included his heavy artillery.

On the 14th, Pope’s forces entered the abandoned New Madrid fortifications. Two days later, the Union Navy gunboats Island No. 10and mortar rafts came down to attack Island No. 10 from the river.

Island No. 10 was a glorified sandbar in the Mississippi. It was about one mile long, 450 yards wide and 10 feet above the low water mark. The island is on the New Madrid Bend. The only approach to the island on dry land was on a levee from Tiptonville, Tennessee to the south. Otherwise, the area is surrounded by marshes, lakes, swamps and streams. On the Missouri side, the river bank was about 30 feet above the low water mater, not high enough for the advantage of plunging fire.

The Confederates had realized the importance of control of the Mississippi River early in the war. They had sent Captain Asa B. Gray to the area in August 1861. Gray began to position batteries on the river to command the bend. The area commander, Maj. Gen. Leonidas Polk, gave these operations a low priority. He was more interested in creating a massive fortification up river at Columbus, Kentucky.

After the fall of Forts Henry and Donelson and the subsequent withdrawal from Columbus, the area assumed a greater importance in the Confederate’s defensive plans. McCown was able to transform the defensive positions into a formidable  obstacle for any enemy fleet trying to pass.

By the middle of March, five batteries containing 24 guns had been built on the shore above the island; 19 guns were in five batteries on the island itself; and the floating battery CSS New Orleans, with nine guns, was moored at the west end of the island.In addition, two forts had been set up at New Madrid: Fort Thompson to the west, with 14 guns, and Fort Bankhead with 7 guns to the east, where St. John’s Bayou met the Mississippi.

Bombardment and capture of Island No. 10The Confederate Navy, under the command of Flag Officer George N. Hollins, had 6 gunboats on the river between Fort Pillow and Island No. 10. These were all unarmored warships. An attempt to bring the armored ram CSS Manassas upriver from New Orleans was unsuccessful when she ran aground in the shallow water and was damaged.

The Union naval forces were under the command of Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote included armored and unarmored warships plus 14 mortar barges. They arrived in the area on March 14th.

Meanwhile, Pope had sent one of his divisions under the command of Colonel Joseph B. Plummer to occupy Point Pleasant. Once the Union siege guns were positioned on March 12th, the river was closed to unarmored enemy vessels.

After the withdrawal from New Madrid, McCown was promoted to major general and replaced by Brig. Gen. William W. Mackall.

The two Union commanders were at odds over the conduct of the siege. Pope wanted the navy to rush the Confederate positions while Foote was concerned that this would cause unnecessary damage to his gunboats. For the first two weeks of the siege, Foote’s ships kept up a steady bombardment of the Confederate defensive positions, mostly at long range from the mortars.

The mortar bombardment caused very little damage so a change in tactics was needed. Since Foote would not allow hisUSS Carondelet ships to be run past the forts, someone on Pope’s staff suggested that a canal might be cut to bypass the batteries. This part of the operation took two weeks and was to prove to be the undoing of the Confederate defense of Island No. 10.

Although the canal wasn’t deep enough for use by the gunboats, it allowed Pope to move his troops into position by transports. However, Pope insisted that he needed support from the gunboats. Eventually, the USS Carondelet and the USS Pittsburgh passed the Confederate batteries to support Pope’s assault.

On April 7, Pope was able to cross the river without any interference from the Confederate Navy. The Union gunboats destroyed the Confederate batteries at Watson’s Landing, Pope’s intended pointy of attack. The Union troops landed without opposition.

Mackall, realizing that his position was untenable, decided to withdraw south to Tiptonville, Tennessee. However, Pope’s spies detected this movement and the Union army reached Tiptonville before the Confederates, cutting off their escape route. Mackall was forced to surrender. While tis was happening, the demoralized garrison of Island No. 10 surrendered to Foote’s naval forces.

There was some dispute over the number of Confederates that were captured. Several hundred were believed to have escaped through the marshes but the vast majority surrendered. Pope claimed that 273 officers and 6,750 men surrendered. Incomplete Confederate records indicate that about 5,350 men were present. Historians belive that the number captured was less than 4,500.

From the fall of New Madrid to the surrender at Tiptonville, the Union army and navy had lost only 7 men killed from all causes, 4 missing, and 14 wounded. During the entire campaign, losses in the Army of the Mississippi were reported as 8 killed, 21 wounded, and 3 missing. Confederate losses in killed and wounded were not reported, but seem to have been similarly low.

These operations along the Mississippi River very little attention, particularly in light of the bloody battle at Shiloh which took place at the same time. However, the cooperative operations at Fort Henry, Fort Donelson and Island No. 10 ushered in a new tactic in naval warfare.

The use of steamships diminished the importance of fixed fortifications as the war went on. Admiral David Farragut was to demonstrate the new tactics at New Orleans, Port Hudson, Mobile Bay and Vicksburg.