American History / Blog / Kentucky / Natural History

Three Rivers in the Civil War




Why is it called “Civil?” It was anything but. Still isn’t. And to me, no buts when it comes to the carnage. Lives torn away from homes and families. Then bodies. And, in Kentucky, armies lined up along three rivers. The Cumberland, Green, and Tennessee Rivers.

When Confederate General Albert Sydney Johnston took command of the South’s Western Department in 1861, Kentucky’s stated neutrality had already been breached. Both sides claimed support in that Commonwealth, though it never did secede from the Union. But the southern part of Kentucky seemed to favor the South, and so the southern armies took up station there.

It all started with Confederate General Leonidas Polk. He decided to strike the first blow by invading Western Kentucky. He took up a high position on the cliffs of Columbus, overlooking the Mississippi and the small flatland community of Belmont on the other side. He stationed Rebel troops over there and ran a chain⎯yes, an iron link chain⎯across the Mississippi River to block any northern navy seeking to invade the South by that route. Then he positioned 143 cannons on the high cliffs.

Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? Well, I don’t know about the chain business. But those huge, high guns at Columbus could pour lead like molten molasses from those heights. Remember that. It should have been a lesson learned. One that might have helped the South, just to the south, just six months later.

Regardless, it worked here. For Belmont, the flat little community across the river, caught the attention of Union General Ulysses S. Grant, then based in Cairo, Illinois. He attacked Belmont and suffered one of his few military losses there. He was driven off by

the big guns on the high opposite cliff. One, “Lady Polk,” was rifled and fired 128-pound shells!

So Grant retreated and, instead, fortified Paducah, across the Ohio River in Kentucky. Near the mouths of two of the rivers featured in this essay, rivers that now border what we call the “Land Between the Lakes.”

Landscapes lift and limit the lives that live on its surfaces. Niches described and studied by biologists. But in war, it is the wider draw of a landscape’s welcome that will describe avenues of attack or demarc lines of defense. Both were in play in 1862, in the critical beginning of our “Civil” War.

Confederate General Johnston set out a defense anchored, at its western end, by General Polk’s chain across the Mississippi River. To the east, he sent a Confederate army commanded by General Felix Zollicoffer into the headwaters of the Cumberland River at Cumberland Gap. Eastern and Western approaches sealed, Johnston needed now to block the center of Kentucky. This he did by drawing a line south along the upper reaches of the Cumberland River, jumping to the headwaters of the Green River and patrolling the westward extent of that river from his headquarters just south, at Bowling Green. The Louisville and Nashville Railroad crossed the Green River near there, the only railroad penetrating into the south through Kentucky.

Pretty nifty. And Johnston was an experienced officer. Maybe the South’s best. But it turns out that he would not fight in Kentucky. Landscapes were his problem.

The Tennessee and the Cumberland Rivers ran right up from the South to empty in the Ohio River at Paducah. They punctured Johnston’s defensive line two times! And Paducah was now in possession of General U. S. Grant, with Union Commodore Andrew H.Foote commanding a gunboat flotilla at the mouths of both rivers. Sail up those two rivers and Grant could penetrate into the heart of the South.

So with General Polk’s big guns on the Mississippi and Johnston’s army along the mainland, the Confederacy set about building forts on those two river arteries running out of its heart.

On the Cumberland River, on high bluffs just inside Tennessee, it built Fort Donelson. Big, long-range guns and lots of troops. Formidable. Protected the river from attack downstream, with the same river upstream to serve as an interior line of communication, bringing supplies and reinforcements from Nashville.

That fort would be vulnerable, however, from an attack at its back. From troops landed below it on the Tennessee River. So the Confederacy built a second fort there. Fort Henry. But it was built down low at the water’s edge.

Bad idea. Grant saw it and knew it as such. He would send in Foote’s flotilla to take it, which Foote promptly did. Fort Donelson was now in a vice. Foote’s gunboats blasting its riverine bastions from the front and Grant’s troops attacking its perimeter from the back.

It was a fierce battle for a while, and then a humiliating defeat and surrender for the South. Union gunboats sailed on toward Nashville, which General Johnston, withdrawing from Kentucky, then abandoned. Grant then steamed down the Tennessee River into history, where he met and ultimately defeated Johnston’s troops at the bloody Battle of Pittsburg Landing. You know it as Shiloh. The beginning of the end of the war, so many think. But it didn’t have to be so.

Confederate Colonel Adolphus Heiman had recognized the vulnerability of Fort Henry lying on the floodplain along the rising waters of the Tennessee River. And he saw

high bluffs opposite the low-lying fort on the southern bank of the river. So up he went, to begin the construction of Fort Heiman, with cannon to bombard any Union gunboats attacking Fort Henry, and troops behind earthworks to defend the cannon.

Too late, too rugged, not enough men, and not enough time. With the river rising, Foote’s gunboats attacked Fort Henry. Without the guns in place at Fort Heiman, the troops were recalled to the defense of Fort Henry. They were not enough. Foote was able to force the surrender of Fort Henry even before Grant’s troops got there, marching overland.

The fate of Fort Donelson was sealed, and the heart of the south cut open. From then on, it was a two-front war that the south couldn’t win. And all because of those two rivers that became roads.

Terrain tells the tale. Sets the toll.

And on these two rivers, the toll would be high. The price of passage would be taken in lives.



About Author

Ronald R. Van Stockum, Jr. is a lawyer, teacher, biologist, writer, guitarist, and recently an actor living on his family's old farm in Shelbyville, Kentucky. He has a Bachelor of Science in Biology from Santa Clara University, and a Masters and PhD. in Biology from the University of Louisville. He also has his Juris Doctorate in Law from the University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law. He practices law from offices in Shelbyville, Kentucky concentrating his legal practice in environmental law. His biologic research is in historical phytogeography. Dr. Van Stockum, Jr. has published numerous books, articles, and short stories in the areas of law, science, and creative writing. most of his 24 titles are available on this site and Amazon with many on Kindle and Audible!

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