Wednesday, February 19, 2014
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.
Tuesday, February 18, 2014
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.
Saturday, February 15, 2014
In the land between the Mississippi and Tennessee Rivers the First Army had four divisions in place; the 14th Infantry Division, 21st Cavalry Division (dismounted), 61st Ohio Guard and 73rd Nebraska Guard. The latter two divisions were those of militia, recently reorganized as the National Guard. Pershing’s First Army HQ sat miles behind the line on the Kentucky-Tennessee Border in a town called Fulton.
The paper strength of the seventy mile stretch of land between the rivers hovered around one hundred thousand in the four divisions as well as a number of artillery regiments covering the front. In reality, strength at the start of 1914 after six months of war peaked at 74% in the 21st Cavalry and stood as low as 66% for the Ohio Guard. At the cost of more than thirty thousand dead and sixty thousand wounded, the First Army managed to push twenty-four miles into Tennessee since the outbreak of hostilities.
The First Army’s total strength of five hundred thousand was spread across twenty divisions and fifteen regiments and covered the entire state. For his upcoming push, Pershing transferred the bulk of reserves, one hundred thousand soldiers, to staging areas between the rivers. When the spearhead of the offensive broke through Confederate line, reserves would be sent ahead to exploit the opening.
The Army of Tennessee’s total strength numbered at four hundred thousand men in twenty divisions, mostly of Tennessean origin. Covering the land between the rivers, Sylvester deployed the 31st Mississippi, 12th Arkansas and 8th Tennessee Cavalry with the 28th Tennessee kept as strategic reserve. In total, paper strength of eighty thousand entrenched soldiers countered Pershing’s one hundred thousand. In reality, the Confederate battle-ready numbers were lower than the Union counterparts, with the 8th Tennessee Cavalry having the highest at 61%.
Army of Tennessee’s headquarters sat closer to the front line in Nashville, which sat within range of the longest-range artillery pieces in the First Army. Sylvester situated the bulk of his forces around the State capital and had offensive plans of his own. To cover the land between the rivers, he placed Lieutenant General Robert Samson of the 12th Arkansas in command, headquartered in Milan, Tennessee.
Confederate planning in Tennessee revolved around keeping the United States out of Nashville. During the spring of 1914, several divisions were brought forward to the Nashville area in an anticipated counter-offensive, one that at the very least would push the Union out of firing range of Nashville and at the best back into Kentucky. The war in Tennessee was always a nightmare scenario in Richmond. Whereas Virginia had the Potomac River and the western States had wide stretches of land for maneuvering, Tennessee had little in the way of natural barriers.
Aside from the Cumberland River, only minor branches and tributaries flowed from east to west, and these would only provide a minor delay when they ran high. It was believed by the Confederate Army General Staff that the land between the Mississippi and the Tennessee would be the most vulnerable to attack. It was also believed that the two rivers would provide barriers to Union advances in the State. The Confederate Navy deployed a number of river monitors in defense of the region.
John Pershing’s plan for attack involved a massive push in the land between the rivers, what he called Mesopotamia in his dispatches and reports. Tennessee’s east-west defenses were formidable, but its north-south axis was not as well guarded. At the beginning of July 1914, the First Army, spearheaded by the 14th Infantry and 21st Cavalry would drive deep into Mesopotamia. It would be the opening act in Operation Babylon.
Pershing’s proposal was to drive south to a depth of at least fifty miles and swing eastward, crossing the Tennessee River with the objective of cutting Nashville off from the south. The ultimate goal of the operation was the capture of Nashville and the collapse of Confederate lines in the State by the end of 1914. It was hoped that when 1915 began, the United States Army would be poised to invade the Deep South.
Not all of his commanders believed it was a good plan. If it worked, then it would be brilliant, but the odds of success were low in the opinion of his generals. The most vocal opponent was the commander of the 21st Cavalry, Lieutenant General Samuel Arnold. Like Pershing he too graduated from Fort Arnold, a fort that was named for his family. Samuel Arnold was the descendant of American Revolution hero Benedict Arnold who fell in the Battle of Saratoga. The Arnold family served for generations in the United States Army and their opinions were always heard.
He, and a few other senior officers, believed the focus of Operation Babylon should be Memphis. With Memphis firmly in Union hands, the United States could drive hard into Mississippi towards New Orleans, and cut the Confederate States in two. Instead of crossing the Tennessee River, the river should be used to protect the First Army’s flank as it storms towards Memphis. Cutting the Confederacy in half would be the first step in divide-and-conquer.
His proposal did have merits; however Pershing countered that while the United States was at war with Britain and its dominion in the north, the First Army would not receive the reinforcements required to hold Memphis while defending the Tennessee River boundary. On the other hand, if Nashville was outflanked and Tennessee knocked out of the war, then cutting the CSA in half would be far easier. As Pershing was the commanding general and had the confidence of the President and General Staff in Philadelphia, he would decide the path that the First Army would take and that path led to Nashville.
Wednesday, February 12, 2014
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.