On April 24, 1862 Union Admiral David Farragut, an aggressive Virginian in command of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron, boldly ran his ships past the Confederate forts and batteries protecting the approaches to New Orleans at the mouth of the Mississippi River. With the main defenses of Forts Jackson and St. Philip bypassed, the undefended city fell to Farragut without a fight on the 29th. It was one of the Union’s most important victories in the “Anaconda Plan” to economically strangle the Confederacy into surrender and a big step in controlling the Mississippi River which would split the Confederacy in half.
On 12 April 1862, Union civilian scout James Andrews and 22 Ohio infantry volunteers hijacked a Confederate locomotive “The General” in Kennesaw, Georgia. The plan was to stop periodically and destroy track, cut telegraph wire, and burn bridges behind them in order to cut supply from Atlanta to the strategically important Confederate town of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Although Andrews cut telegraph wire preventing anyone ahead from knowing of the train, the former conductor of The General, William Fuller, pursued on a hand car with some rebel soldiers (Andrews’ top speed was only 15mph). Fuller eventually commandeered another train and pursued Andrews. Fuller dogged and unrelenting pursuit prevented the raiders from damaging the vital supply route in any meaningful way. Andrews at one point tried to set a car on fire while on a covered bridge to thwart pursuit, but Fuller pushed through before the bridge was too damaged.
The Chase lasted almost all the way to Chattanooga when The General ran out of coal and had to be abandoned. Andrews and the Union soldiers split up but were all eventually captured. They were tried as spies and found guilty of being unlawful combatants and sentenced to hang. Seven, including Andrews, were hung but the rest escaped, six were recaptured but because of the outcry were not hung and later exchanged. Abraham Lincoln’s Sec. of War, Edwin Stanton, awarded the first Medals of Honor to the soldiers who participated in The Chase, the very first being Pvt Jacob W. Parrot of the 33rd Ohio Infantry, due to his particularly brutal time as a prisoner.
On 9 March 1862, during the American Civil War, the first clash of ironclad warships took place. After the CSS Virginia, a Confederate ironclad built from the remains of the USS Merrimac, easily sunk two Union ships blockading Richmond, the USS Monitor, a Union ironclad with a rotating turret, sortied to protect a third: the USS Minnesota which had run aground fleeing the Virginia. The Monitor and Virginia fought inconclusively off Hampton Roads, VA, for about three hours before darkness halted the fight. Navies around the world, including the two largest: France and Great Britain, immediately halted all construction on wooden ships. The Age of Sail was over.
Intra-service squabbling between Union generals Don Carlos Buell and Henry Halleck had brought the Western Theater of the American Civil War to screeching halt after successfully securing most of Kentucky in late 1861. This was despite the many readily available invasion corridors into the South defended by the under-strength armies of Confederate General Albert Sydney Johnston who was given the unenviable task of securing a 300 mile front from the Cumberland Gap to the Mississippi River. President Lincoln, frustrated with the timidity of all his top commanders, issued an ultimatum in January 1862 that all Union armies must be on the move by Washington’s Birthday: 22 February.
At Paducah Kentucky, Commodore Andrew Foote and an unknown brigadier general, Ulysses S. Grant, seized upon Lincoln’s order, and convinced Halleck, their superior, that if he allowed them to attack it would fulfill the letter of Lincoln’s order, if not the spirit. Halleck, whom Lincoln once called a “damn fine clerk”, agreed. Not wasting time, the duo attacked on 3 February, three weeks earlier than Lincoln’s deadline.
Foote and Grant executed a joint Army/Navy plan to break into Tennessee by taking forts blocking access to the parallel Tennessee and Cumberland River valleys. From Paducah, Foote’s “iron and timber-clads” sailed down the river to bombard Fort Henry while Grant’s men marched. But the river was flooded, and Grant made slow progress in the boggy ground. Foote arrived on 6 February, well ahead of Grant. He was surprised to find Fort Henry poorly sited and nearly underwater; so much so that the Confederates were hastily attempting to build another fort, Fort Heiman, across the river on higher ground. Foote seized the moment, sailed his gunboats to within ¼ mile of Fort Henry, and pounded the Confederates point blank. They surrendered one hour later.
Grant arrived the next day and took advantage of the victory by moving on Ft Donelson, 12 miles away across the neck of land that separated the two rivers. On the 11th, he invested the fort. Foote attempted to do the same to Donelson as he had Henry and bombard the Confederates into surrender, but was fought off. Nonetheless, this small rebel victory couldn’t change the fact that Grant had them in a vise, and if they weren’t crushed, they’d surely starve.
After three days of fighting, the Confederate command began breaking down. The recently arrived cavalry commander, Lt Col Nathan Bedford Forrest, snuck out with his men on the night of the 15th. Along with Forrest, the top two overall fort commanders disappeared after abdicating their responsibilities to their third, Simon Bolivar Buckner, a friend of Grant’s from West Point. Buckner was convinced he could get good terms from Grant, a man he personally helped when Grant was deep into alcoholism and unemployment. He was mistaken.
On the 16th, after a failed breakout attempt by the rest of the cut off Confederates, Buckner asked for terms of surrender. Grant succinctly replied: “No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.” Buckner surrendered immediately.
Brigadier General U.S. “Unconditional Surrender” Grant gave America its first significant victory of the Civil War. Foote’s “Brown Water Navy” were masters of Tennessee’s waterways and even bombarded Confederate targets in Mississippi and Alabama. The large confederate base on the Mississippi at Columbus Ky was untenable and abandoned. Grant took Nashville a week later, the first rebel state capital to fall to Union armies during the war.