Wednesday, February 19, 2014
Tennesee River part fin
With the crossing of the Tennessee River planned for August 9, Pershing spent August 7 and 8 bombarding Confederate positions across the river. Again he wanted a far longer bombardment but a month of hard fighting greater reduced his stockpile of munitions. The battle became the greatest consumer of American munitions in July 1914, and spent shells and bullets faster than factories could produce them. Pershing attempted to divert rounds from other fronts. His attempts were thwarted by the War Department, which would not ‘rob Peter to pay Paul’.
Pershing brought forward two more divisions of the First Army to Camden; the 9th Infantry and 55th Iowa Guard. The 9th spent much of July in reserve, recuperating losses sustained on the front for the previous three months. The 55th Iowa was recently called up to service. It was the rookie division, with half of its soldiers untested in combat. The rest were survivors of the 37th Iowa, a National Guard Division torn to pieces on the York Peninsula. Its members had mixed reactions from shifting from Canadian winters to Southern summers.
At dawn on August 9, five divisions went over the top and across the river. The crossing of the Tennessee proved far more hazardous than a regular dash through no-man’s land. Samson took the lull in activity from August 1 and August 6 to move artillery pieces into place and fortify them against anticipated bombardment. Civilians in the region were also evacuated, including the entire population of Stuart. Stuart sat on the banks of the Tennessee directly between Camden and the Waverly-Buffalo line. The town was virtually wiped off the map and provided excellent cover for Union soldiers coming ashore.
The prospect of platoons crowding on barges and battalions funneling on to pontoon bridges brought great anxiety to the soldiers. In no-man’s land, there was at least a chance to find cover. On a barge there was none. Should a shell come down on the barge it could wipe out an entire platoon, which happened on a number of occasions on August 9. The pontoon bridges were favorite targets of surviving Confederate machine gun nests, which homed in and fired on a steady stream of advancing soldiers.
Artillery units did their best to sever all of the bridges, work that took a mere five minutes. At 0813, Confederate artillery let up, bringing a much needed reprieve to advancing Union soldiers. The reason of the pause was twofold; 1) Samson wished to conserve his ammunition and 2) The CSS Memphis made its appearance at the crossing. The Confederate river monitor was a near copy of its Union counterpart. Two twin turrets of eight inch guns fired for great effect into masses of Union barges.
Pershing expected the Confederate Navy to play its part and fought with the US Navy Department for a fleet of monitors. Instead, he was sent the USS Decatur and USS Evansville. The two Union monitors spent the morning firing on Confederate fortifications and artillery nests. Both ships turned their turrets on the Memphis once sighted. At 0820, the two Union ships began firing upon the Memphis. At a range of two miles, many of the rounds did indeed hit, unfortunately not at what gunners where aiming.
A number of Union barges fell victim to short rounds, blown apart by their navy. The Navy cursed the soldiers for being in their way as they tried to navigate through the swarm of barges at speeds topping one knot. The Memphis took advantage of the large, slow targets, turning its attention away from soft targets to those two that were genuine threats. At 0823, shells from the Memphis blew open the forward turret of Decatur, knocking the ship out of the fight. Decatur’s captain ordered the ship to turn hard astern, his goal to beach on the west bank of the river before sinking.
The duel between the Evansville and Memphis caught the headlines in newspapers across the country, crowding out articles speaking of thousands of Union casualties crossing the Tennessee. The duel was a short affair, for once free of the Union barges, Evansville was free to maneuver. The duel ended by 0830, with the Memphis sunk and Evansville too heavily damaged to aid in the crossing. Unlike the Decatur, which could still bring one turret into play, Evansville suffered damage to both of its turrets. As soon as the Memphis rolled over, Confederate guns opened up on Evansville, damaging the ship further. At 0833, one Confederate round breached the damaged turret and aft magazine, sending the Union monitor to join its Confederate victim.
The battle was half-over for soldiers once they reached dry ground, where they could again spread out and seek shelter. By sunset, most of the 9th and 14th managed to cross and gain a toe hold on the east bank and fought through the night to keep their holdings. It took until August 12, before the entire force stood on the east bank. Samson sent out company-sized raids against the assembling Union lines with the expressed goal of keeping them disorganized. The nightly raids kept Union soldiers awake and daily artillery bombardment denying them afternoon naps.
By August 15, the seventy thousand Union soldiers trapped on a five mile deep and ten mile long front suffered greatly from fatigue. A push on August 16 met with more casualties than gains and a push the following day failed as miserably. Pershing needed to gain ground, otherwise he would be forced to ferry his men back across the river, with likely the same casualty rates as crossing it cost.
August 21, saw five days of fighting come to an unsatisfactory conclusion when the surviving sixty-five thousand soldiers of the Union crossing slammed into a prepared trench network between the towns of Waverly and Buffalo. The first line of trenches they captured through sheer willpower. Two attempts to breach the second line of trenches failed, costing the lives of three thousand Union and two thousand Confederate soldiers. On August 22, Pershing called a halt to the advance.
The supply situation remained critical as Confederate guns took every opportunity to fire upon the pontoon bridges. A number of trucks carrying ammunition exploded after encountering a Confederate three inch shell, taking a second of the bridge with them. After each explosion, engineers raced to replace the destroyed section of bridge, reopening supply lines as quickly as humanly possible. Despite their efforts, supplies ran dry. On the morning of August 22, supplies were critical for the 61st Ohio. In some cases, companies were down to their last clip of ammunition and out of grenades.
In the month of August, the United States Army advanced no further than ten to twelve miles east of the Tennessee River at the cost of nearly thirty thousand casualties, a third of them fatal. The media and members of Congress began to clamor for Pershing’s replacement, ignoring the advance he gained in the month of July. Similar calls for replacement rang through the Confederate States, with the governor of Tennessee complaining loudest of Sylvester’s ‘indecision’.
Recent advances in Europe offered Pershing a solution. The Germany Army fired a number of rounds into British lines containing tear gas. It was a non-lethal chemical weapon and allowed the Germans a minor advance along the Western Front when British soldiers panicked. Since it was non-lethal, it also proved easy to counter. Chemists in industrial heartland of the United States offered the War Department a weapon far more devastating than mere irritants.
By September 1, the Union’s position on the east bank proved far more tenable. The toe hold was no longer in danger of collapsing before Confederate counter-attacks. In addition to replacements for the maimed units, Pershing moved the 124th New Hampshire Guard across the river to bolster the line and prepare for a new push. The advance was delayed not by the movement of men or artillery, but by the deployment of a new weapon and the cooperation of the weather.
Instead of the shells he hoped for, Pershing receiving thousands of canisters of chlorine gas. He could not simply bombard the enemy. Instead, the First Army was forced to rely upon the wind carrying the gas across the no-man’s land. A favorable wind blew across the front in the early morning hours on September 3. The flow of greenish clouds across no-man’s land and the sudden choking death of hundreds of soldiers sparked panic in the Confederate trenches. The psychological impact of an unbeatable foe was far more damaging than the actual deaths.
An hour after the cloud rolled into the Confederate lines, Union soldiers climbed out of their trenches and charged. Upon entering contaminated Confederate trenches, several hundred Union soldiers succumbed to the gas attack. Early gas masks were very primitive by modern standards and the unknowns of large-scale chemical warfare would plague all sides in the war throughout 1914 and into 1915. What awaited the Union soldiers was chaos. Some Confederate soldiers fled the gas while others were quick to surrender. The soldiers of the Tennessee divisions stood their ground and fought before being forced to retreat in the face of a better organized foe.
What prevented Pershing from full exploiting the crumbling line east of the Tennessee was a continuing supply problem. Pushing the Confederates out of artillery range of the river allowed for more pontoon bridges to appear and railroad bridges to be rebuilt in late 1914, improvements that did little for Pershing on September 3. Against disorganized and trapped units, bayonets worked superbly. Against entrenched and determined foes, it worked not so well.
By September 5, he decided the forward elements of the First Army were sufficiently supplied and ordered a second gas attack take place. As with the first, the nature of the weapons remained dependent upon the weather, which proved to be the Confederate’s ally for the better part of a week. The time spent waiting for the right wind was no time wasted. Soldiers spent their time fortifying captured lines and extending the trenches, as well as addressing their own supply issues.
A short window of attack opened on September 14, when chlorine was released in the new no-man’s land. The windows proved too short for a shift in wind blew some of the poison gas back into Union lines. Much to Pershing’s growing frustration, panic in the ranks of the 124th N.H. proved almost as devastating as the panic occurring in the Confederate lines. With that division in disarray, Pershing gave the order for the rest of the divisions to advance. The Confederate lines were in disarray and again the 14th and 73rd Neb broke through their forward defenses. Again the First Army failed to bust through and charge towards Nashville.
Pershing’s frustration grew over the course of September. The longer the much needed breakthrough waited, the more time the Confederate Army could adapt to the poison gas attacks. A third attack occurred on October 9, and resulted in a minor breakthrough. The Confederate Army was forced from their trenches and driven back nearly fifteen miles. Since the First Army crossed the Tennessee, Samson prepared a series of defensive lines between the river and Nashville.
The Confederate Army of Tennessee manned trenches spanning from Dixon to Centerville. The First Army ran into a solid line of Confederate defenses, breaking their momentum for good. Machine gun and artillery fire pinned the forward most elements of the First Army, forcing them to dig in desperately. Within a week, the bulk of the First Army sat a few hundred meters west of the Confederates, packed in shallow trenches and vulnerable to mortar attacks. Their positions were tenuous, and had Sylvester sufficient forces in place for Samson to attack then the Confederate Army might have driven the Union back to the Tennessee River.
By October 20, both sides in Tennessee were exhausted from months of near constant fighting. Pershing wanted to launch one more push, but the weather refused to cooperate. Rain began to bombard both sides of the war, turning trenches to mud and rendering gas attacks useless. On October 21, he gave the order to Baker to make himself comfortable. The Battle of the Tennessee River wound down back to the sporadic artillery duels and trench raids that made up the fighting in the first half of 1914. Even the artillery duels were few and far between. In his attempt to flank Nashville, Pershing expended his stock and reserve of shells.
The Battle of the Tennessee River failed in its strategic goal. Nashville remained in Confederate hands until well into 1915. For a gain of thirty miles southward in the land between the rivers, Pershing spent nearly fifty thousand lives over four months. To defend that same area, Sylvester sacrificed forty thousand Confederate soldiers. With a soldier ration of nearly two-to-one, the United States won the numbers gain in mid-1914.
In the summer of 1915, Pershing and the First Army went on to capture Nashville but failed to break the state in 1915. By the end of the war, the First Army was poised to invade the Deep South. After the war, Pershing served as military governor in the Deep South during reconstruction. There was some talk in the 1930s for Pershing to run for office, but no political party wanted to place him on a national ticket. Before the Great War, he was known as Black Jack Pershing. After the Battle of the Tennessee River and its grueling body count, he was dubbed Black Death Pershing by the press.
James Sylvester III did not live to see the war or the consequences of his indecision in July 1914. He, along with several staff officers, were killed in Nashville during a Union air raid. Bombers of the Great War were not the most accurate of weapons and killed Sylvester only through dumb luck.