The Western Theater 1861-62: What could have been done better?

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#1
It seems that, of all the Confederates failures and missed opportunities in the Western theater, few entailed so many disasters in rapid succession as those of late 1861 and early 1862 - the invasion of Kentucky, the defeat at Mill Springs and subsequent evacuation of Kentucky, the loss of Forts Henry and Donelson, the fall of Nashville, the defeat at Shiloh, and the loss of Corinth. The question on my mind is: could anything have been done better? I've made a list of possible opportunities, and thought they might generate some discussion. Which scenario do you think works best, or is there another I missed entirely?

1) Better locations for Forts Henry and Donelson: While this scenario does not alter Kentucky's neutrality, I still wonder if better locations could have been found to build these crucial forts.

2) No invasion of Kentucky: Polk and Pillow's impetuous move into Kentucky was undoubtedly one of the war's great blunders. It ruined any hope of Southern sentiment winning out in Kentucky, and extended the alteady massive line the Confederates had to defend. Had Polk waited, Frémont would have sent Grant to Paducah only a few days later, probably causing Unionists in the state to be so cowed as to allow Polk and his rebels to be invited in. Kentucky's men and resources, along with her geographical postion, would have been invaluable to the Confederacy.

3) Finishing the Nashville ironclads earlier: This scenario is probably more potent when combined with #4a/b, but could still be useful at Fort Donelson. Foote may not have been able to advance with such confidence up the Cumberland had he met real oppostion, and two ironclad gunboats would surely have provided that.

4a) Properly reinforcing Donelson: While many condemn Sidney Johnston for the failures of December to May, I hold the one truly great mistake undeniably his own was his indecision regarding Donelson. He should either have gone there personally with his forces to make his stand there, or evacuated to defend Nashville later. What he went with was the worst of both worlds. Had he gone with the former, it seems Grant is forced into a siege, which is probably worse for Johnston than him.
4b) Evacuating Donelson, defending Nashville: Here, Johnston evacuates the fort, and decides to defend Nashville, probably digging in at the bend in the Cumberland below Dover, with his right flank on the river. How this battle would go, I'm not sure.

5) Davis sending Bragg early: In his diary, Josiah Gorgas sharply criticised Davis for not dispatching Bragg and his Gulf troops earlier to Johnston. The presence of 10,000 more troops at Donelson could change Grant's plans significantly.

6) Victory at Shiloh: According to some, Beauregard's plan was over-ambitious, while Johnston's was more feasible. While the green troops will still present an issue, a victory on the level of Second Manassas could easily set the Confederates on the path to more successes.

7) "Lee of the West" Johnston survives Shiloh: this only counts as "better" if you believe Johnston had the potential to become a better commander. You have those who hold he was a hopeless incompetent, and those who suggest he had the makings of a "Lee of the West", hence my specifying "which Johnston" survives the battle. While it seems there was little that could have done more effectively at Corinth, Johnston could have decided to take his army into Kentucky as Bragg did, or follow Hood's path into Tennessee to Nashville.
 

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#4
The other big blow for the south in the west was the loss of New Orleans. Which was not only substantial itself but allowed pressure on the rebels along the river from the south as well as the north. Was there anything substantial that could have prevented that?

I suspect the entry into Kentucky was probably the most important given the latter's attempt at neutrality. Although this of course depends on how much support there was in the state for such a policy and hence how much anger would have been directed at the union rather than the south if the latter had waited for the former to breach that neutrality.

Given the continued relative stalemate in the east, albeit that it absorbed an increasing proportion of the south's resources I believe, it seems that militarily and geographically the south lost the war most clearly in the west and hence probably their best chance of forcing peace from a war weary union?
 

archieclement

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#5
Actually have a strategy or focus...…. Little effort is put in KY, no effort in MO, yet they pick island no 10 to put irreplaceable heavy guns flanked by two shores they have little ability to hold, only supplied by one road......then to top it off only commit about 5000 troops to defend it.......Everything seemed to be done at the local level with little direction from above
 
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#6
1) Better locations for Forts Henry and Donelson: While this scenario does not alter Kentucky's neutrality, I still wonder if better locations could have been found to build these crucial forts.
The best locations were in Kentucky and the Confederates couldn't build there. In Tennessee, Fort Henry was poorly situated due to flooding but Fort Donelson was a strong fortification. If Henry could have been moved slightly to dry land, I think they were in the best location in Tennessee for mutual support because after that the rivers diverged too far. They just needed better commanders and naval support.

2) No invasion of Kentucky: Polk and Pillow's impetuous move into Kentucky was undoubtedly one of the war's great blunders. It ruined any hope of Southern sentiment winning out in Kentucky, and extended the alteady massive line the Confederates had to defend. Had Polk waited, Frémont would have sent Grant to Paducah only a few days later, probably causing Unionists in the state to be so cowed as to allow Polk and his rebels to be invited in. Kentucky's men and resources, along with her geographical postion, would have been invaluable to the Confederacy.
I've always wondered whether Polk's invasion made much difference. Kentucky seemed to have stronger pro-Union sentiments and if Grant had invaded first, would there have been any substantial pro-Southern uprising? Plus the North had many more troops available in the region, so resistance would have been crushed pretty quickly.

Prior to Polk's invasion, Unionists carried nine of ten districts in elections for Congress in June 1861; legislative elections in August 1861 gave Unionists a majority of 76 to 24 in the Kentucky House and 27 to 11 in the Senate; in August 1861 Lincoln authorised the establishment of recruiting camps in Kentucky; and in August 1861 General William Nelson was arming East Tennessee loyalists from Kentucky. The state government did not protest. During the war, Kentucky furnished troops to North and South in a ratio of three to one.

3) Finishing the Nashville ironclads earlier: This scenario is probably more potent when combined with #4a/b, but could still be useful at Fort Donelson. Foote may not have been able to advance with such confidence up the Cumberland had he met real oppostion, and two ironclad gunboats would surely have provided that.
Agree, but the Confederacy had very limited resources and the western theatre was neglected by Richmond.

4a) Properly reinforcing Donelson: While many condemn Sidney Johnston for the failures of December to May, I hold the one truly great mistake undeniably his own was his indecision regarding Donelson. He should either have gone there personally with his forces to make his stand there, or evacuated to defend Nashville later. What he went with was the worst of both worlds. Had he gone with the former, it seems Grant is forced into a siege, which is probably worse for Johnston than him.
4b) Evacuating Donelson, defending Nashville: Here, Johnston evacuates the fort, and decides to defend Nashville, probably digging in at the bend in the Cumberland below Dover, with his right flank on the river. How this battle would go, I'm not sure.
With the benefit of hindsight it does seem appropriate that Johnston should have gone to Donelson to command the forces there, but as he said in a letter to Davis, he sent his best troops there, under the command of officers who were his most experienced and popular with the men and volunteers. Johnston had sent enough men to Fort Donelson to defeat Grant - the numbers of the Union forces and Confederate forces were roughly even at first, about 17,000 each. The Confederates should have struck Grant's forces while they were toiling on the muddy, narrow road between Henry and Donelson. This country was well suited for an ambush, because it was dotted with flooded creeks, ravines, and underbrush. Unfortunately Buckner was in command at this time because Pillow was away from the Fort trying to find Floyd. Buckner had no interest in starting a fight at Fort Donelson as he only wished to put his and Floyd's troops onto the first available steamboat and transfer them to Cumberland City. Thus Buckner allowed Grant to invest the Fort unmolested and any chance of a Confederate ambush evaporated. This crucial error belongs to Buckner alone, and he was supposedly the most proficient of the three generals in the area.

Of the 14,000 men left at Nashville with Johnston, 5,000 were medically unfit due to camp diseases. Buell had approximately 50,000 soldiers, so I think Johnston remained with the forces at Nashville because they were in the most peril. Plus if Johnston had gone to Donelson, Buell would have found out and advanced immediately. Remember what happened when the Union command discovered that Beauregard had been sent west - they assumed he had lots of reinforcements with him and it prompted their offensive on the Forts.

5) Davis sending Bragg early: In his diary, Josiah Gorgas sharply criticised Davis for not dispatching Bragg and his Gulf troops earlier to Johnston. The presence of 10,000 more troops at Donelson could change Grant's plans significantly.
Agree. Johnston urged Davis to concentrate Confederate troops and sacrifice less important coastal areas, but was denied and asked to defend a huge territory using a static cordon defensive system in which the individual armies could not support one another, and forbidden to give up an inch of territory.

6) Victory at Shiloh: According to some, Beauregard's plan was over-ambitious, while Johnston's was more feasible. While the green troops will still present an issue, a victory on the level of Second Manassas could easily set the Confederates on the path to more successes.
Agree, and defeat probably would have terminated Sherman and Grant's careers.

7) "Lee of the West" Johnston survives Shiloh: this only counts as "better" if you believe Johnston had the potential to become a better commander. You have those who hold he was a hopeless incompetent, and those who suggest he had the makings of a "Lee of the West", hence my specifying "which Johnston" survives the battle. While it seems there was little that could have done more effectively at Corinth, Johnston could have decided to take his army into Kentucky as Bragg did, or follow Hood's path into Tennessee to Nashville.
If you go by first battle, Johnston's task was extraordinarily more complex than either of Grant (Belmont) and Lee (Cheat Mountain), and he performed quite admirably. Grant and Lee learnt from their mistakes and I think Johnston would have also. I think he definitely would have developed into a fine commander.
 

Coonewah Creek

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#7
Bragg's Kentucky Campaign didn't necessarily have to be such a blunder IF someone had actually been in overall command in the Theater. It seems that Bragg only felt comfortable "suggesting" cooperation from Kirby Smith and Van Dorn. For instance Van Dorn could have decided to link his Army of West Tennessee up with Bragg on his thrust into Kentucky, but instead, deciding he had to do something to cooperate, he smashed his army to bits against the Corinth fortifications. Another case of having nobody in charge in the West except Jefferson Davis.
 

jackt62

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#8
Unfortunately for the Confederacy, in the early part of the war Jeff Davis advocated a "cordon" defense of the southland, which essentially entailed defending all its borders. Given the limited resources available to achieve this policy, it's no wonder that the critical Kentucky/Tennessee line was undermanned and quickly fell to the advancing Union forces. Undoubtedly, there were also tactical errors as noted in these posts (such as the flawed location of Fort Henry, and bungled command decisions at Donelson), that exacerbated the underlying problem. But the Confederacy's inability to agree on a reasonable war strategy that kept changing and was often in conflict with the offensive-defense advocated by Lee, was a prime reason that the south failed to hold the western theater.
 

JeffBrooks

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#9
Polk's invasion of Kentucky was foolish in itself, but if he was going to cross into Kentucky, it would have been much better for him to occupy both Columbus and Paducah, rather than just Columbus. Columbus as a fortress protected the upper Mississippi, while Paducah controlled access to both the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers and was only about fifty miles from Columbus. The Confederates were going to violate Kentucky's neutrality by taking Columbus, so they might as well have gone all in.
 

Ole Miss

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#11
Shiloh was a pivotal point in the short history of the Confederacy. Beauregard's plan was too ambitious and poorly designed with the Corps attacking in line formation. The resulting chaos of mixed units from various brigades, divisions and Corps prevented the effective use of the Confederate attack and blunted the strategy of driving the Federals from Pittsburg Landing.

Reasons for battles importance
1) Death of Albert Sidney Johnston
2) Grant's win kept him in the army whereas a loss might well have put him on the shelf (Sherman may have been shelved as well)
3) Lead to the fall of Corinth and the severing of the Memphis and Charleston Railroad, running east and west, and the Mobile and Ohio Railroad, running north and south, crossed in its downtown. Catastrophic loss of the only connection from Memphis to the East Coast
4) Opened the path to Northern Mississippi and the rich fertile Black Prairie along with the Pontotoc Ridge, which provided the Union troops with foodstuffs and forage for animals
5) Opened North Mississippi to Grant's advance upon Vicksburg and conquering of Mississippi

There are other reasons that for the importance of Shiloh and am sure many members will share them soon.
Regards
David
 
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#12
I've always wondered whether Polk's invasion made much difference. Kentucky seemed to have stronger pro-Union sentiments and if Grant had invaded first, would there have been any substantial pro-Southern uprising? Plus the North had many more troops available in the region, so resistance would have been crushed pretty quickly.

Prior to Polk's invasion, Unionists carried nine of ten districts in elections for Congress in June 1861; legislative elections in August 1861 gave Unionists a majority of 76 to 24 in the Kentucky House and 27 to 11 in the Senate; in August 1861 Lincoln authorised the establishment of recruiting camps in Kentucky; and in August 1861 General William Nelson was arming East Tennessee loyalists from Kentucky. The state government did not protest. During the war, Kentucky furnished troops to North and South in a ratio of three to one.
I'd really recommend reading James W. Finck's book Divided Loyalties, which discusses the conflict between Secessionists and Unionists during Kentucky's period of neutrality. Finck debunks the myth of Kentucky being overwhelmingly pro-Union, emphasizing that most Kentuckians were what could best be described as conditional Unionists. Finck also mentions how pro-Southern voters stayed home in the elections for Congress and for the state legislature.
 

JeffBrooks

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#13
It seems to me that Johnston sent the wrong number of troops to reinforce Fort Donelson. He sent too few to save the position but more than he could afford to lose. Better to bring his whole force to confront Grant or not send any reinforcements at all.
 
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#14
It seems to me that Johnston sent the wrong number of troops to reinforce Fort Donelson. He sent too few to save the position but more than he could afford to lose. Better to bring his whole force to confront Grant or not send any reinforcements at all.
I think he sent the right number to defeat Grant. If Johnston had sent more men then Grant would have simply used his naval transports to withdraw (like he did at Belmont) and Buell would have walked into Nashville.
 
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#15
Bragg's Kentucky Campaign didn't necessarily have to be such a blunder IF someone had actually been in overall command in the Theater. It seems that Bragg only felt comfortable "suggesting" cooperation from Kirby Smith and Van Dorn. For instance Van Dorn could have decided to link his Army of West Tennessee up with Bragg on his thrust into Kentucky, but instead, deciding he had to do something to cooperate, he smashed his army to bits against the Corinth fortifications. Another case of having nobody in charge in the West except Jefferson Davis.
I'd probably have Johnston in overall command of the department, but mostly staying with the Army of the Mississippi, leaving Bragg in a role closer to that of a chief of staff (allowing Bragg to do what he did best). In late 1861, Johnston was able to make his small forces seem quite threatening, and it's possible he could do so again.
 

matthew mckeon

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#16
I have wondered about Confederate strategy in the western theater for years. It would take a much more intelligent man than me to figure out the best options.
 

Ole Miss

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#17
It seems to me that Johnston sent the wrong number of troops to reinforce Fort Donelson. He sent too few to save the position but more than he could afford to lose. Better to bring his whole force to confront Grant or not send any reinforcements at all.{Quote}

Johnston faced a situation very similar to the one Air Chief Marshall Hugh Dowding experienced in the summer of 1940 when Churchill kept ordering RAF fighter squadrons to France in a vain effort to prevent its fall. Jefferson Davis was concerned with Johnston’s retreat from Kentucky and Nashville’s fall. The South had too few troops to cover far too much territory, let alone the quality of their generals:
Here are a few of his gems:
John B Floyd
Gideon J Pillow
Leonidas Polk
P G T Beauregard

I realize Grant had his burdens as well with Halleck, McClernand and Buell but he had Sherman in his corner and Johnston did not.
Regards
David
 

DanSBHawk

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#18
Polk's invasion of Kentucky was foolish in itself, but if he was going to cross into Kentucky, it would have been much better for him to occupy both Columbus and Paducah, rather than just Columbus. Columbus as a fortress protected the upper Mississippi, while Paducah controlled access to both the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers and was only about fifty miles from Columbus. The Confederates were going to violate Kentucky's neutrality by taking Columbus, so they might as well have gone all in.
I think this is the key failure that set up all the future failures. Looking at a map and picturing Polk at Columbus and Johnston at Bowling Green, and then picturing Grant right between them on the rivers that would outflank both... this was a major CSA screw-up.
 
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#19
I think this is the key failure that set up all the future failures. Looking at a map and picturing Polk at Columbus and Johnston at Bowling Green, and then picturing Grant right between them on the rivers that would outflank both... this was a major CSA screw-up.
Shelby Foote may have put it best: the Cumberland and Tennessee were a double-barrelled shotgun pointed right at the heart of the Confederacy.
 

Carronade

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#20
Unfortunately for the Confederacy, in the early part of the war Jeff Davis advocated a "cordon" defense of the southland, which essentially entailed defending all its borders..
That was certainly a challenge, but what part of the Confederacy would you suggest they not defend? How would Davis explain to the governor or congressmen from some state(s) that, sorry, you're just outside the perimeter that we feel we can reasonably defend? Oh, and by the way, we still want you to contribute troops and treasure to the cause.
 



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