Tuesday, February 18, 2014
Tennessee River part 3
The first shot of the Battle of the Tennessee River fell on Confederate lines at midnight, July 3, 1914. It was followed by hundreds of thousands of round over the following three days. Pershing wanted one million rounds brought down along the seventy mile wide front, but fell short by several hundred thousand. So many rounds fell on the line that towns such as Polk and Obion were wiped clean off the map. Literally not a single building was left standing in either town. The casualties would have been horrendous had the towns along the front not been evacuated early in the war.
Over all, problems caused by Confederate civilians trapped behind Union lines were minimal. In Troy and Martin, where the 61st Ohio and 73rd Nebraska massed respectively, the civilian population did little more than glare at any soldier in blue. Paris, Tennessee, the staging area for the 14th Infantry offered passive resistance to occupying forces, proving more of a headache to Lieutenant General Newton Baker than anything else. In Ridgely, a small port on the Mississippi, the 21st Cavalry had some active aid from locals. The free Blacks living in the town’s colored neighborhood were employed by Arnold as laborers.
For three days, artillery pieces ranging from 75mm to the eight guns of river monitors to a single sixteen inch railroad gun hauled across the border on the only remaining railroad. The railroad gun sat north of Paris and focused on destroying known Confederate fortification behind their trenches near Mansfield. The fortress covered the northern most of six railroad lines crossing the state east-to-west. More than two hundred of the massive rounds fell on and around the fortifications, destroying anything they touched. Unfortunately, most of the shells missed their mark and succeeded in tilling large tracks of farmland and woods.
For three days, Confederate defenders sat tight in their trenches and prayed the six months of work spent while the front remained static would hold. For the most part, the bunkers survived the bombardment with a destruction rate of only seven percent. Most of the destroyed were a result of a large shell landing directly on top of the structure. When the shells ceased falling at 0730 on July 6, Confederate officers suspected a trick. It would not be the first time Union artillery let up long enough for Confederate soldiers to leave their bunkers before resuming fire.
On the other hand, the silence might mean Yankee soldiers were about to go over the top. At 0800, the 14th and 21st Divisions spearheaded the advance across Mesopotamia. The 21st Cavalry encountered the least amount of resistance, advancing along the Mississippi. The objective of the 21st was the town of Dyersburg. The town sat at the junction of two east-west railroad lines and was to be held to prevent any Confederate counterattacks from striking Pershing’s main force’s flank.
Pershing knew Arnold believed strongly that Memphis should be the goal and thought more than once that Arnold would disobey orders. Officers of the Arnold family were known to disobey orders when strategic necessity demanded it. When Benedict Arnold disobeyed orders at Saratoga the result was him leading the Continental Army to victory at Saratoga though it ultimately cost him his life. Pershing knew Arnold for years and knew Samuel Arnold had no such wish for a glorious death. However, the prospect of Arnold pushing further south than his mandate required was always at the back of Pershing’s mind.
The 21st suffered the lightest casualties of the first day of battle, with five thousand wounded or killed. Baker and the 14th faced twice as many casualties in their drive from Paris towards Mansfield. Like with mass bombardment for the past year on two continents, the opposing force suffered only lightly. Before the first Union soldiers were halfway across no-man’s land, Confederate machine guns opened up, pinning survivors in a mine field. Before lunch, Pershing was forced to call upon regiments of the 73rd to reinforce Baker.
Despite the extra assistance, a number of soldiers spent a sleepless night in no-man’s land. From 2100 to 0630 the following morning, guns around Paris began shelling Confederate lines. Instead of a half-hour wait, Union soldiers were ordered to advance as soon as the shelling ceased. Fewer soldiers than expected scrambled across no-man’s land and dropped into Confederate trenches. An untold number of rounds fired from Paris were short, and fell upon trapped soldiers of the 14th.
With the addition aid of the 103th Nevada Volunteer regiment, the 14th Infantry captured a two mile wide expanse of Confederate lines. Lt. General Robert Samson ordered elements of the 12th Arkansas and 28th Tennessee to fall back to secondary trenches, half a mile further south before the Union could overrun his forces. His forces reached the secondary line only minutes ahead of advancing Union soldiers.
Above the trenches, machine guns tore apart anything that moved. In the trenches, warfare grew truly nasty. Rifles were not the ideal weapon for the close quarters of the trenches. Soldiers of the 14th Infantry and 28th Tennessee fought with pistols, swords, knives and any blunt instrument that landed in their hands. One of the favorite weapons of both sides was the trench gun. It was little more than a standard pump-action shotgun with its barrel cut in half.
Grenades and firebombs took their toll as well. They proved a greater threat to defenders in fixed locations as attacking soldiers had an easier time evading the bombs. Even then, Union soldiers fell by the hundreds to grenades, often thrown by their comrades. One instance repeated a number of times throughout the war were when advancing soldiers were unaware that a position was already captured and threw grenades in at imagined enemies.
The secondary lines failed to halt the Union advance once the 14th, 73rd Nebraska and other elements picked up momentum. On July 8, after two days of grueling hand-to-hand combat, Baker broke through Confederate lines. The cost of the breach was more than fifteen thousand dead on both sides in two days of fighting. With the 14th depleted, Pershing moved the rest of the 73rd Nebraska in to exploit the opening.
Further west, the 61st Ohio faced similar resistance. There first assault against Confederate lines was repelled altogether, surviving soldiers returning to their trenches. Soldiers of the 8th Tennessee Cavalry (dismounted) rose out of their trenches and attempted to overtake the retreating 61st Ohio. By the time they reached Union lines, machine guns opened up on them, cutting down more than two thousand soldiers in a matter of minutes.
A similar number of Union soldiers fell when the 61st Ohio countered the Confederate counter-attack. Unlike the 8th Tennessee, the 61st Ohio managed to reach Confederate trenches and drop in on their enemy. Like further east, the fighting south of Troy was a bloody affair of up-close combat. Conditions were more medieval than modern, with a greater number died of stab wounds or trauma to the skull than from gunshot.
The 61st Ohio was not depleted in numbers sufficiently to prevent it from pushing forward. Between July 8 and July 13, the 8th Tennessee engaged the 61st Ohio in a fighting withdrawal. On July 10, the 61st Ohio flanked its opponent near the town Kenton, cutting off a southerly retreat and forcing the 8th Tennessee eastward towards McKenzie. The 61st Ohio attacked McKenzie from the west as the western most regiment of the 73rd Nebraska reached the town. The town fell to Union forces on July 13, after a day of heavy fighting.
On the following day, the bulk of Pershing offensive captured the town of Mansfield, cutting the first of Tennessee’s railroads. Unfortunately, because of the east-west nature of railroads in the State, Pershing was unable to fully utilized lines captured intact. Engineers and volunteer labor, largely in the form of Tennessean freedmen, worked around the clock to extend a north-south line towards the new front.
By July 15, Samson established a new line of defenses between Huntingdon in the west and Bain in the east. Confederate soldiers dug frantically in their new position. Despite their best effort, they failed to dig a proper trench by the time elements of the 14th, 73rd Nebraska and the Nevada volunteers. Of the available forces, Baker found the Nevada regiment the least reliable. The volunteers were brave enough, but unlike regular army or National Guard units, they often lacked the discipline of proper soldiers. He broke the regiment into platoons and companies and seeded them amongst profession soldiers and authorized militia units.
On July 19, the 61st Ohio, reinforced by Nevada volunteers, launched an assault on Huntingdon after a relatively short four hour bombardment. It was indeed short in terms of offensives in the Great War, but for the civilians still in Huntingdon it felt like an eternity. Those buildings that still stood before the bombardment began were toppled by the time the dust settled and twelve thousand Union soldiers swept into the town. By July 20, the 61st Ohio pushed elements of the 8th Tennessee east across the Big Sandy River.
Samson made the best of the Big Sandy, using it as a new front line. It was a pale version of the Mississippi or Tennessee, the later he realized his division was slowly being pushed back towards, but it might slow the Union advance long enough to allow machine gun fire to take its toll. Samson proved half-right. It did slow the advance, which caused a number of casualties, but not enough to stop Pershing’s momentum.
In Milan, Sylvester realized that part of the Army of Tennessee faced the real threat of being pinned against the Tennessee River. An attempt on July 18, to flank the Union advance was foiled by the 21st Cavalry, which struck the 31st Mississippi as it moved northeast from Dyersburg. As of July 19, Sylvester was still unaware of the Union’s primary objective. With a commander as competent as renown as Samuel Arnold along the Mississippi, Sylvester suspected that Memphis might be the ultimate goal. Why else would the Union launch an offensive between the Mississippi and Tennessee? The 31st Mississippi was ordered to retreat south of Dyersburg to hastily prepared fortifications and trenches on the southern bank of the northern fork of the Forked Deer River.
Arnold considered pursuing the 31st Mississippi after his victory near Dyersburg, but after his light losses, less than a thousand dead, he decided not to press his luck. Instead, he stuck with his orders and held Dyersburg. His invasion of the Deep South would have to wait. The Forked Deer River was about as much of an obstacle to advancing soldiers as the Big Sandy. To officers who attended Fort Arnold on the Hudson, these Tennessee rivers were nothing more than glorified creeks.
Sylvester’s handling of the offensive brought doubt into the minds of the Confederate General Staff as to his fitness to command. He nearly lost an entire division when he tried to use it to flank one Union advance without checking the other. With the possibility of losing three divisions to Pershing real, his decisions over the next week would decide his future. When Bain fell on July 22, he decided Samson’s position was untenable and ordered the 8th Tennessee, 12th Arkansas and 28th Tennessee to retreat east across the Tennessee River.
He decided a retreat to the south was too risky as they possibility of the 61st Ohio swinging south and trapping Samson was more imminent than any imagined attack on Memphis. By July 30, the last Confederate soldier crossed the Tennessee River. On August 1, the 14th entered the town of Camden unopposed, and there the Union advance began to run out of steam. Baker took the lull in combat to reinforce his division, as well as the Guard divisions and volunteer units. Between August 1 and August 6, artillery regiments set up positions all along the west bank of the Tennessee.
Back in Milan, Sylvester assembled his generals to plan the defense of the Dyersburg-Milan-Camden front and relocating his command south to Jackson. Samson, who saw the brunt of the fighting closer than any of the other generals assembled, argued with Sylvester over his plan to pull Samson’s forces south. With so many Yankee guns massed around Camden, Samson was convinced that the Union’s plan all along was to cross the Tennessee River and that Dyersburg was part distraction and part securing their flank.
Samson’s plan involved fortifying the east bank of the Tennessee and prepare for the Union crossing. He lobbied for more artillery to be transferred to a front between Waverly and Buffalo, and to be in place to shell the crossing. Sylvester conceded that many of Samson’s arguments were valid. If the Yankees managed a crossing, they could split the State in half and possibly flank Nashville.
Sylvester was forced to split his artillery, transferring several artillery regiments east of the river while holding the rest along the new front line between the two major rivers. He telegraphed Richmond, requesting reinforcements for his new front line, as well as any assistance the Confederate Navy could provide in defending the Tennessee River. With a largely defensive strategy in place across the Confederate States, Sylvester was forced to adopt a wait-and-see attitude, moving remaining reserves to wherever Pershing strikes. One of the first rules of war taught in the Virginia Military Institute was that it was never to cede the initiative to the enemy. As of August 1, 1914, the initiative sat firmly in Pershing’s court.