Wednesday, February 12, 2014
Tennessee River part 1
For the first time in days, Private Wesley Hankinson listened to a world of silence. The silence was not complete for he could hear the engines of hundreds of boats and barges and splashing of thousands of soldiers crossing the Tennessee River. For the past three days, the United States Army opened up on the east bank of the Tennessee with the largest artillery barrage in history. Rumor had it that more than a million shells were flung at Confederate positions on the opposite side of the river.
There was hope in the replacements that such an awesome display of firepower would have killed the Confederates for a depth of ten miles. The veterans knew better. Hankinson spent the month of July fighting along with other soldiers of the US First Army through the Tennessee countryside. He understood little of the overall objective of the battle, save that the brass hoped to break the State of Tennessee. Hankinson did not know much about breaking the state, but he could testify to the line of broken soldiers behind him.
On the first day of the battle, July 6, his platoon was reduced by half. July 7 saw it halved again, until all that remained combat ready was a squadron worth of soldiers. On July 6, before he went over the top, his Lieutenant assured him the three days of bombardment would break the enemy positions. In truth, it did not even destroy the barbed wire obstacle and his first commanding officer lay dead, entangled in one of those obstacles.
His new officer, a recent Fort Arnold graduate that replaced a sergeant who served as a competent acting platoon commander, made the same promises. Replacement privates took him at his word. Hankinson knew better, as did Sergeant Vincent Corelli. Both veterans would live to see another sunrise. Their lieutenant would not be so lucky. Before Hankinson crossed the river, Confederate positions opened up on the defenseless soldiers.
Machine gun fire cut down entire lines of advancing soldiers, many never setting foot on dry land again. So many were killed in the crossing that the Tennessee River went from a dirty hue to blood red. Hankinson sought cover on his barge and prayed that none of the bullets flying had his name upon it. As it would turn out, Confederate gunners were not his only problem. American artillery opened up on the Confederates waiting on the eastern bank, with many of their rounds falling short and landing in boats full of their own soldiers.
The chaos that was the Battle of the Tennessee River had its genesis fifty years before the Great War. During the War Between the States, Union forces initially made progress through Tennessee and the state appeared to be on the verge of being brought back into the Union when the great disaster east of the Appalachians drew foreigners into what should have been an American affair. The United Kingdom recognized and supported he Confederate struggle while France offered to mediate peace between the two parties.
The advances in Tennessee were not in vain, for the sacrifices of tens of thousands of Union soldiers ensured that Kentucky would remain within the Union. Strategic planners in the US Army after the war believed a Confederate Kentucky would have extended the war by a year and perhaps ended it in a stalemate. The Confederate States fought hard in the peace conference to take Kentucky, and more importantly the Ohio River boundary. A compromise was reached where any Kentuckians who wished to leave Kentucky would be free to do so. Virtually all of the large land, and slave owning Kentuckians departed for the Confederacy. Their vacancies were quickly filled by settlers from Northern cities and Europe, creating a staunchly pro-Union population.
With Kentucky in the Union, the United States would always have a dagger aimed at the heart of the Confederacy. In the east, the CSA had the Potomac River. In the west, they had wide open desert. In the middle they had a wide open and heavily populated border. With the Tennessee River running north through Kentucky and into the Ohio, any planters wishing to ship to New Orleans had to pass through American customs. The difficult access prompted an expansion in railroad throughout Tennessee, which not only allowed goods to reach Confederate ports without travelling through the United States, but also allowed the Confederate Army to ship large numbers of soldiers where and when they were needed.
Between 1880 and 1900, the Confederate States constructed more than a hundred fortresses along the border and manned them with more than a hundred thousand soldiers. The militarization of the Kentucky-Tennessee border was a two-way street. In Kentucky, the United States Army matched the Confederates fort-for-fort and expanded Fort Knox and Fort Boone, the former home to three cavalry divisions, including the 21st Cavalry. The heavy build up on both side of the border guaranteed Tennessee would see some of the bloodiest fighting in the Great War.
The Battle of the Tennessee River would see the participation of no less than one hundred officers of the rank of brigadier general or higher. Many of these personalities clashed during the battle and in planning the battle. The fight was not always North vs. South, but often squabbles broke out between division and regiment commanders. The two men placed in charge of North and South fought as much with their own subordinates as they did with their opposite numbers.
In command of the United States First Army was one of the more experienced American commanders, General John Pershing. Pershing was born in 1860 in Missouri. As a child living in a Border State he was introduced to realities of war at a young age. Though the war never struck Missouri beyond the ranging of cavalry raids, a number of volunteers returned home from the war, defeated and maimed. One of the crippled was an uncle. Without an arm he could no longer make a living and eventually drank himself to death.
He graduated from high school in 1878 and applied for admission into the military academy at Fort Arnold in 1880. In the two years between, Pershing spent his time as a teacher, educating rural Missourians, including a number of black refugees from Arkansas and Tennessee. He graduated Fort Arnold in 1884, in time to see combat out west in the Third Anglo-American war. He fought in a number of skirmishes against the British in Minnesota and Lakota while serving in the 6th Cavalry Regiment.
Following the end of the war in 1885, Captain Pershing was assigned as a White officer in the 10th Cavalry Regiment, popularly known as the Buffalo Soldiers. The largely Black regiment was assigned the less flattering positions during the closing years of the Indian Wars. His success in commanding in the 10th, as well as his praising of the Black soldiers earned him the nickname of ‘Black Jack’ Pershing. What his detractors called him was far less flattering.
In 1897, then Lieutenant Colonel Pershing transferred to Fort Arnold as an instructor. In 1904, he was promoted and assigned as a staff officer to the 21st Cavalry in Kentucky. In 1908, he obtained the rank of Brigadier General and by 1912; he ranked high in the General Staff of the US First Army. It was not until early 1914, and six months of fighting was he elevated to overall command of the First Army and the Tennessee Front.
His opposite number lacked the years of experience but not the education. James E. Sylvester III was born to a plantation owning family in northern Georgia in 1865, during the height of the War Between the States. In 1883, family connections earned him an appointment to the Virginia Military Academy. Upon graduation in 1887, he was assigned to the Army of the Pacific and fought in the wars against the Apache. His experience in warfare before the Great War never extended beyond platoon or company level tactics against guerrilla fighters.
His appointment to the General Staff of the Army of Tennessee was largely a political appointment, a favor owed by one of the Confederacy’s political families to his own. Sylvester had political ambitions since his youth, and if one path to office was certain in the Confederate States it was one that led through military command. By the start of the war, all but one of the Confederate Presidents and more than half of its Senators served in the armed forces. Ultimately his ambition would never be fulfilled for he and the Confederacy eventually ran out of time.