Island: Struggle for the Mississippi Valley

Island: Struggle for the Mississippi Valley

by Lynn N. Bock, Larry J. Daniel


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By February 1862 Confederate forces in Kentucky and Tennessee were falling back in disorder. Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River fell to combined land and naval forces under Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant and Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote. These losses necessitated the abandonment of the Rebel stronghold of Columbus, Kentucky. The entire upper Mississippi Valley lay open to Federal invasion. Toward that end, a new Union army under Major General John Pope began organizing at Commerce, Missouri.

Confederate Major General John P. McCown was sent to plug the breach by fortifying Island No. 10, a one-mile-long island positioned in a bend in the Mississippi River that straddled the boundaries of Tennessee, Missouri, and Kentucky. Pope's army had to be held in check long enough for the main Confederate force, under generals Albert Sidney Johnston and P. G. T. Beauregard, to concentrate and launch a counterattack against Grant's advancing army.

The ensuing campaign at Island No. 10 created the first extensive siege of the Civil War. The ultimate capture of the garrison resulted in a new army command for Pope in Virginia. As for the Confederates, the campaign pointed to a faulty western strategy. Simply to concede the rivers and their adjoining cities to the Federal navy was politically unacceptable. Garrison after garrison was captured, however, in the attempt to defend the rivers to the last extremity. Between February 1862 and July 1863 the Confederates lost 64,400 troops, some nine divisions, in defending the rivers. This strategy was a significant contributing factor for Confederate defeat in the West.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817308162
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 04/28/1996
Edition description: 1
Pages: 216
Sales rank: 805,828
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Larry J. Daniel is an independent scholar living in Murray, Kentucky, and author of Cannoneers in Gray published by The University of Alabama Press in 1984. Lynn N. Bock is a lawyer in New Madrid, Missouri.

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Island No. 10

Struggle for the Mississippi Valley

By Larry J. Daniel, Lynn N. Bock

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 1996 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-0816-2


The Finest Strategic Position

IN 1861, THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER figured prominently in the national consciousness. In January, Mississippi Governor James Pettus placed a battery of artillery on the bluffs at Vicksburg to command the river. Fearful of the loss of free navigation, politicians and commercial interests throughout the Northwest made a loud outcry. Pettus backed down and the guns were withdrawn, but the struggle for control of the Mississippi had begun. The geographic feature that had unified the western United States would now be viewed in terms of military strategy. The well-publicized "Anaconda plan" of the Federals called for, among other things, the splitting of the newly formed Confederacy along the line of that artery. Confederate leadership in the West became obsessed with its defense, blinding their view to other approaches. In the first two years of the war in the West, it was the control of the rivers, not the railroads, that would prove the key to success.

News of the eight steamers moving up the Mississippi River traveled faster than the boats themselves. On board, Brigadier General Gideon Pillow looked over the flotilla of eight packets and proclaimed them a "beautiful sight" as they churned up the muddy water. The heavily laden boats carried a force of nearly six thousand Confederates that Pillow grandly styled his "Army of Liberation." When the steamers arrived at the hamlet of New Madrid, Missouri, on July 28, 1861, a crowd gathered along the river to cheer the troops as they cleared the gangplanks.

The dynamics behind this push north presented a curious combination of blind ambition, political clout, and perceived danger. The move was strongly influenced by Tennessee Governor Isham G. Harris, who was up for reelection that summer and hoping to fight Tennessee's battles in Missouri, and by Missouri Governor Claiborne Jackson, who had been forced into exile from Jefferson City. Eager to return, Jackson presented Confederate authorities with exaggerated intelligence that Sterling Price and Ben McCulloch were on the Missouri border with twenty-five thousand troops, while Brigadier General William J. Hardee had seven thousand troops in northwest Arkansas. Left without supervision for several weeks as the Confederate government was organizing, Pillow, a vain political general who was as ambitious as he was incompetent, beamed at the prospect of an offensive.

This was the situation as fifty-five-year-old Major General Leonidas Polk arrived in Memphis, Tennessee, on July 13, 1861. In his junior year at West Point, Polk had taken an interest in religion. Upon graduation, he resigned his commission and entered an Episcopal seminary. In 1838, at the age of thirty-two, and only eight years after his ordination, he was appointed missionary bishop of the Southwest. An Academy classmate of President Jefferson Davis, he was assigned command of the newly organized Department No. 2, which included the upper Mississippi Valley. He quickly fell in line with Pillow's invasion plan, one of the last times the two would agree on anything. On the evening of July 23, in front of the Gayoso House, Polk, Pillow, and Jackson all boasted of reclaiming Missouri to a cheering throng.

The plan was for Pillow's forces to link up with those of Price and McCulloch and advance on St. Louis. A main road, the old King's Highway or El Camino Real, led north out of New Madrid and connected with St. Louis 175 miles distant. Pillow, believing that the Federals had largely withdrawn to that city, desired to push ahead to Cape Girardeau, Missouri.

In advance of the move, Brigadier General Jeff Thompson led his command of Missouri state troops and irregulars, some fifteen hundred men, through the Mingo and Nigger Wool Swamps and encamped at Sikeston. The wiry Virginian had emigrated to Missouri after his application to West Point was rejected. At the beginning of the war he served as mayor of St. Joseph. He reveled in the excessive press coverage, both North and South, that his exploits received. His "swamp rats" thrashed about the bootheel of the state, raiding towns and intimidating those of a pro-Union persuasion. In Charleston, Missouri, he even robbed a bank. "Everyone gives me the credit of having 7,000 men, and I have frightened them to death," he boasted to Pillow. He eventually moved up to Commerce, Missouri, where he opened fire on Union steamboats with his artillery but retired when Pillow did not advance.

The entire expedition now stalled. Pillow's force was plagued with sickness and could muster only four thousand troops. He had only 203 wagons and required a minimum of 314 to advance. Polk also discovered that Price and McCulloch had only half as many men as represented by Jackson's inflated figures. Hardee counted twenty-three hundred poorly armed troops. Neither Hardee nor McCulloch, who had independent commands, could come to a consensus with Polk as to objectives. Realizing the futility of an offensive under the circumstances, Polk cancelled the operation.

Pillow, nursing an inflamed boil on his buttocks that further soured his disposition, grew nervous about his position at New Madrid. On August 15, three wooden Federal gunboats dropped down to the town, although no shots were fired and they quickly withdrew. "I have never been in favor of occupying this place [New Madrid] except as a base of operations for movement into the interior," Pillow argued. Polk, too, considered falling back to Fort Pillow and using Union City, Tennessee, as a base for his Missouri operations. The Bishop, however, became increasingly concerned about reports of a Federal buildup at Cairo, Illinois, and Cape Girardeau and about a fleet known to be under construction at St. Louis. He thus sent his topographical engineer, Asa Gray, to inspect the New Madrid tristate area to ascertain its feasibility for defense.

This decision represented a continuation of the strategy initiated earlier by Pillow and Harris. In the spring of 1861, construction began on a string of forts along the Mississippi at the third Chickasaw Bluff (Fort Pickering at Memphis), Point Jackson seven miles above Memphis (Fort Harris), the second Chickasaw Bluff (Fort Wright at Randolph), and the first Chickasaw Bluff (Fort Pillow), the last 115 miles below Island No. 10. Foolishly relying on Kentucky neutrality, Polk was convinced that the Federal offensive would not be made from the north, through Kentucky, but from the west, through Missouri. The Confederate line thus faced south-southeast from Island No. 10, rather than east to the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. By the end of the summer of 1861, Fort Pillow had emerged as the strongest point, but there was still no concentrated salient.

What Asa Gray found at Island No. 10 was arguably the strongest natural position on the Mississippi in the upper valley. The river at that point made a double bend and appeared on a map like an "S" on its face. The island, so named because it was the tenth island south of the Ohio River, was about one mile long and 450 yards wide. It sat ten feet above low water in nearly the middle of the channel and commanded the river in three directions. The river stretched about three-fourths of a mile on the east and a mile on the west. In past years the main channel had been the Tennessee chute, but in low water it now had snags. Of late the Missouri chute had proved navigable for the largest boats and was the passage of choice, although both channels remained passable in high water. Because of sandbars, the approach to the Missouri chute was not direct. James Price, the only resident of the island, cultivated some of it. He lived in a white cottage surrounded by several slave quarters located in the middle of the island. About 250 acres of corn and a large peach and apple orchard stretched from the island center west toward the bank.

To the north of the island lay Madrid Bend, Kentucky, which was completely severed from the rest of the state. Immediately east of the island was the Tennessee shore, with a nearly impenetrable swamp and Reelfoot Lake, the latter having been formed nearly fifty years earlier by the New Madrid earthquakes. The lake was now forty miles long and in places eleven miles wide. A good road ran from the river, west of the lake, to Tiptonville, Tennessee, six miles distant. All supplies came to the town via steamboat. A road ran east from the town to Troy and Union City, with Barker's Ferry being used at Reelfoot Lake. The strength of the east bank proved to be its weakness. The same cypress-entangled waters that kept the Federals out also kept the Confederates in.

The western, or Missouri, shore was marshland cut by bayous and swamp lakes. New Madrid, settled in 1789, was at the apex of the second bend, eleven miles downriver, but north of the island. The town, not protected by swamps, served as the island's left flank and clearly represented the weak link in the defensive system. If it were captured and the river blocked, supplies could only trickle overland from Tiptonville across the neck of the peninsula to the island.

Gray reported that the island had "no superior, in my judgment, above Memphis." He envisioned three batteries — a bastion earthwork on the Tennessee shore, a redan three fourths of a mile from the bastion, and a redoubt on the island, capable of accommodating a thousand men. The furthermost redan would be constructed first with the guns mounted in barbette (peering over the wall). A light garrison, with a battery of horse artillery, would be stationed on the island to prevent a landing. The extended right flank would be protected by a cordon of stations from the river east to Union City, forty-five miles away. New Madrid, although vulnerable, could be quickly reinforced by steamboat. Colonel John McCown, one of Polk's brigade commanders, concurred with Gray's assessment, calling the island the "strongest position for the defense of the Mississippi Valley."

The conclusions of Gray and McCown, coupled with a false report that the Federals were about to descend the river and snatch the island, caused Polk to act quickly. Pillow divided his forces for the defense of New Madrid, Island No. 10, and Union City. The 4th Tennessee, Alexander P. Stewart's artillery battalion, and a company of sappers and miners went to the island. Battery No. 1 on the Tennessee shore, which would become known as the redan, was located after a rapid reconnaissance on August 15, the day after the enemy gunboats had passed down to New Madrid. By August 20, work had commenced on the Tennessee shore, although a shortage of tools hampered the project. With six guns mounted in the redan, Gray, with gross overconfidence, declared that "the enemy cannot now trouble us while erecting the larger works at Island No. 10."

Believing the project to be on course, Pillow arrived on August 28 and was stunned by what he found. In a letter to Polk, he vigorously opposed the redan's location, which had been constructed in an area subject to a three-foot overflow. Positioned so close to the river, the fort's west wall was already eroding. The ground around the redan was muddy bottomland in front of a growth of cottonwoods, and it appeared virtually uninhabitable for troops — "They will die like sheep of the rot," he exploded. At least two batteries would have to be constructed on the island — one at the head to control both channels and the other halfway down the island to cover the main (west) chute. An inspection of the entire vicinity convinced Pillow that "the value of the position [was] greatly overrated." He estimated that it would require five thousand troops to hold New Madrid, a like number on the Tennessee shore, and a thousand for the island, making the position "an expensive one." He continued to opt for the bluffs at Fort Pillow as the superior site.

Pillow's gloomy assessment of Island No. 10 was not surprising; he had felt uncomfortable about Madrid Bend from the outset. He may also have had a hidden agenda. Since May, the Tennessee general had been keeping an eye on Columbus, Kentucky, sixty miles upriver from New Madrid. Although his relationship with Polk was by now strained, with only slight urging he was able to convince the Bishop that the occupation of Columbus was a military necessity. Pillow now contended, contrary to his earlier statements, that the river forts in Tennessee could not withstand an attack. Polk believed that he had better move fast before Columbus was captured by the Federals. On September 4, 1861, without informing the War Department, Polk ordered Pillow's troops to violate Kentucky neutrality and occupy the town.

The move to Columbus proved to be a political disaster, although Polk downplayed the consequences. Nonetheless, an entire new front was now undeniably open. General Albert Sidney Johnston, who had superseded Polk in September 1861, and now commanded an expanded Department No. 2, moved most of his forces to southern Kentucky from Columbus (Polk's corps), east through Bowling Green (Hardee's corps), to Cumberland Gap (George Crittenden's command). Johnston, acting more like a corps commander, soon became hypnotized by Federal activity at Bowling Green, as Polk did at Columbus.

The move to Columbus proved not to be as strategically vital as Polk believed it would be. The single advantage was a range of high bluffs consisting of a limestone cliff about seventy-five feet high. It is true that the Federal ironclads were vulnerable to plunging fire, but one Confederate official questioned whether the bluffs posed an advantage. D. M. Frost noted that plunging fire presented the most difficult mode of gunnery for inexperienced cannoneers to master. He argued for placing some of the guns at the base of the bluff, to deliver horizonal fire. The fortifications were eventually tiered to produce high-, medium-, and water-level fire. Although the river defenses were never truly tested, the terrain at Vicksburg, a year and a half later, offered a similar scenario. In that instance, the plunging fire proved ineffective in preventing the gunboats from passing.

Preoccupied with Columbus, Polk neglected Island No. 10. By mid- September 1861, the 4th Tennessee had been reassigned, leaving only the sapper company. The redan, although complete, still had problems. Only four 32-pounders were mounted, two 24-pounder siege guns having been removed to Columbus. The 32s, mounted on iron naval carriages (sliding tracks) made in New Orleans, were positioned in embrasure (a window), which weakened the parapet. Gray recommended that they be placed on siege (wheeled) carriages and mounted in barbette. During high water the area around the redan flooded, but during ordinary stages the enemy could approach from the north via Hickman, Kentucky, or by an amphibious assault. Gray thus saw the need for a twelve-hundred-yard cremaillere line to be constructed from the redan to Black Bayou. There had never been more than eight blacks at work at a time, he complained, and these would soon have to be returned for the fall harvest. He required at least five hundred black workers for fifteen days. Gray had no boat to cross to the island. Two of his most valued assistants had been transferred, and a third lay sick with fever.

On October 16, Gray reported that the lines had been laid off for additional batteries along the Tennessee shore. Work had begun on the lower of these, which would eventually be designated No. 5. Some work had also been done on the cremaillere line, and abatis had been placed. A good deal of timber had been cleared from the island head and the Missouri shore. Only sixty black workers remained, and they had only twenty shovels. Gray was also putting the finishing touches on his map of the area. To complete the survey, however, he had to have the return of his little steamer, Gordon Grant, then at Fort Pillow. The steamboat at his disposal was too large and cost an exorbitant one hundred fifty dollars a day.

In late November the 11th Arkansas reported to Gray. These men, armed with old British rifles and squirrel guns, had previously gathered up their arms and sent them to New Orleans for reboring. The weapons were so poorly prepared, however, that most of them burst upon firing. Polk requested six hundred rifles for the 11th, but in the meantime the troops received shovels and assisted in constructing the batteries laid out by Gray. For a week the men encamped on the Tennessee shore. "The lake [Reelfoot] is not as deep as many think," observed Major James Poe. "There are old rotten stumps and a few dead trees. No cows get in it, however, for the bottom of it is soft mud. There are some places where the lake is blue water."


Excerpted from Island No. 10 by Larry J. Daniel, Lynn N. Bock. Copyright © 1996 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
1 The Finest Strategic Position,
2 Too Much Haste Will Ruin Everything,
3 Defense to the Last Extremity,
4 We Have Received Marching Orders,
5 I Consider New Madrid of Great Importance,
6 The Cowardly Rebels Run Away,
7 Why Can't Foote Move?,
8 We Think Foote and His Gunboats a Good Deal of Humbug,
9 Be of Good Cheer and Hold Out,
10 Someone Said Something about a Canal,
11 Success Hangs upon Your Decision,
12 The Only Point of Exit,
13 Island Number Ten Is Ours!,
Appendix 1: The Opposing Forces,
Appendix 2: Strength of Confederate Forces, Madrid Bend, April 1, 1862,
Appendix 3: Dispute over Prisoner Returns,

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