"Gather up the fragments; let nothing be lost, to show the coming ages what liberty cost"  




(Operations on the Cumberland River)
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The  Ships, Men
and Organization

Seth Ledyard Phelps

=Confederate Official Report =Union Official Report
=Image   =Letter   =Newspaper Account
=Definition or Further Info

[1861] [1862] [1863] [1864] [1865]

[Editor's Note: The Cumberland is one of the few American rivers that flows in a south-to-north direction. Thus many readers are confused by statements such as; "The expedition steamed upriver from Smithland, KY, to Nashville, TN."]

September 16, 1861
During what appears to have been the first Union exploration of Cumberland River, Lieutenant-Commander Seth Phelps in the CONESTOGA captured the Confederate steamers V. R. Stephenson and Gazelle in Kentucky.

October 14, 1861
CONESTOGA ascended the river some 60 miles before shoal water forced her to drop back down to Eddyville, KY, where she anchored for the night. The following morning, upon hearing that local Unionists had been driven from their homes, Lieutenant Phelps warned the townspeople of the consequences of further persecution of loyal citizens.

October 19, 1861
A rise in the river allowed Phelps in the CONESTOGA to reach a point approximately nine miles below the Tennessee line where he captured two flats loaded with flour which were suspected of being destined for the Confederate Army at Bowling Green.

October 20, 1861
On yet another patrol, Phelps in the CONESTOGA discovered that the Confederates were building a fort (Donelson) just across the Kentucky border in Tennessee near the town of Dover.

October 26, 1861
Union troops, accompanied by CONESTOGA, landed at Eddyville, KY, for an attack on Confederate forces at Saratoga.

October 30, 1861
In an effort to restrict Union gunboat operations, the Confederates sank several barges in the river below Fort Donelson.

November 18, 1861
CONESTOGA engaged and silenced a Confederate battery at Canton, KY.

January 21, 1862
Phelps advised Flag Officer Foote that the mortar scows, then under construction would be "the most destructive adversaries" in the pending attack on Fort Donelson.

After the fall of Fort Henry on the Tennessee River, General Albert Sydney Johnston, CSA, warned Confederate authorities that: "The capture of [Ft. Henry] by the enemy gives them the control of the Tennessee River, and their gunboats are now ascending the river to Florence . . . Should Fort Donelson be taken it will open the route to the enemy to Nashville . ." Forseeing that Fort Donelson and the Cumberland River would, indeed, fall into Union hands, General Johnston also wrote; "The slight resistance at Fort Henry indicates that the best open earthworks are not reliable to meet successfully a vigorous attack of ironclad gunboats." Johnston, therefore, ordered all Confederate troops to the south side of the Cumberland River lest they be cut off.

February 8, 1862
General Grant ordered CARONDELET, then guarding Fort Henry, to steam down the Tennessee and up the Cumberland River to support his attack against Fort Donelson.

February 12, 1862
CARONDELET arrived at Fort Donelson and, neither hearing nor seeing any evidence of General Grant's attack, fired one shot into the fort to let them know she had arrived. She then retired downstream to her anchorage.

Meanwhile, General Halleck, having heard of General Grant's plan to use only one gunboat, sent a wire to Flag Officer Foote ordering him to send two--three, if possible--additional gunboats to support the land attack and provide protection for the troop transports moving up the river. Foote, however, forced by the condition of his ships to delay responded; "I shall do all in my power to render the gunboats effective in the fight, although they are not properly manned . . . If we could wait ten days, and I had men, I would go with eight mortar boats and six armored boats . . ."

February 13, 1862
At General Grant's request, CARONDELET again attacked the fort
until a Confederate shot pierced her armor and bounced around inside her casemate causing minor damage but wounding ten of her crew.

February 14, 1862
Flag-Officer Foote arrived aboard ST LOUIS with the newly-commissioned LOUISVILLE and PITTSBURG. Accompanied by LEXINGTON and TYLER, the fleet approached the fort in the same formation used against Fort Henry
. However, Fort Donelson was a much more formidable obstacle. It was situated on a 100-foot bluff overlooking the river, armed with 65 heavy guns and protected by well-designed fortifications.

As the Union fleet advanced upriver, changing speed frequently to reduce the Confederate gunners' accuracy, fire from the enemy emplacements tore into them heavily. The executive officer of the ST LOUIS would later describe the atmosphere on the gun deck of an ironclad as "something appalling to weak nerves, and never before heard in battle. The working of the ponderous machinery, the explosions of guns and the concussion of heavy missiles against its armor made the huge ship tremble in every timber, and the bedlam of sounds was confusing and deafening." When they were approximately 400 yards from the fort, the lead boats, ST LOUIS and LOUISVILLE both suffered hits to their steering gear, causing them to drift downstream out of action. This allowed the Confederate gunners to concentrate their fire on CARONDELET and PITTSBURG. Two shots pierced PITTSBURG's hull below the armor and she began taking on water rapidly. As her commander attempted to turn her around, she collided with CARONDELET, damaging the latter's rudders and causing her to drift away helplessly. In going ahead to clear CARONDELET, PITTSBURG came within 350 yards of the Confederate guns who pounded her mercilessly. However, the ironclad gamely withstood the punishment long enough to rejoin her wounded consorts downstream.

February 15, 1862
Foote, himself wounded in the arm and ankle by heavy flying splinters, took his battered fleet back to Cairo leaving CARONDELET, the least damaged of them, at Fort Donelson to maintain control of the river.
      Foote, in a later letter to his wife, would attest to the beating the gunboats took stating; "...I tell you the last was a bad fight. I stood one side of a gun when five out of six were knocked down, and I only escaped serious wounds. I was touching the pilot with my clothes when he was killed..."

That same afternoon, the Confederates launched an all-out attack on Grant's right flank aimed at breaking through the investment lines and escaping. When the attack failed, the fort's 12,000-man garrison was trapped, with the exception of General Nathan B. Forrest's cavalry which managed to slip away undetected that night.

February 16, 1862
Recognizing their situation, the Confederate generals at Fort Donelson conceeded to General Grant's demand for their unconditional surrender. Although the Navy failed to inflict serious damage to the fort, Major General Wallace, USA, would report that they; "...distracted the enemy's attention, and I fully believe it was the gunboats...that operated to prevent a general movement of the rebels up the river or across it, the night before the surrender."

That afternoon, several of the gunboats steamed past the fort and destroyed the Tennessee Iron Works above Dover.

February 17, 1862
CARONDELET returned to Cairo with news of the surrender of Fort Donelson. Whereupon Foote sent CAIRO and eight mortar rafts upriver to Fort Donelson to prepare for an advance on Nashville, informing Washington "I leave immediately with a view of proceeding to Clarksville [TN]. . . The other boats are badly cut up and require extensive repairs."

February 18, 1862
Foote arrived at Fort Donelson in CONESTOGA to confer with General Grant.

February 19, 1862
Foote left the fort with CONESTOGA and CAIRO for a reconnaisance upriver. As they neared Clarksville, the two-vessel flotilla discovered that Fort Defiance had been abandoned by the Confederates who left a white flag flying over it.

The exaggerated reputation of the Union gunboats was evident in the message sent by Colonel W. H. Allen, CSA, at the approach of the Federal vessels, which read; "Gunboats are coming; they are just below point; can see steamer here. Will try and see how many troops they have before I leave; I will have to go in a hurry when I go."

Flag Officer Foote immediately notified Army headquarters; "The Cumberland is in a good stage of water and General Grant and I beleive we can take Nashville."

February 20, 1862
As Foote was completing preparations to attack Nashville, General A. S. Johnston, CSA, was busily evacuating that city. Having received information (which later proved false) that the Confederates were reinforcing Columbus, KY, in preparation for an attack against Paducah, KY, or Fort Henry, General Halleck sent instructions to General Grant ordering him not to allow any of the gunboats to move above Clarksville. General Halleck wished to have Foote's gunboats available to help repel the expected Confederate attack. At this point, a dissappointed Foote elected to return to Cairo and repair his battle-ravaged ironclads.

February 23, 1862
On a reconnaissance cruise to Eastport, MS, TYLER seized a Confederate cache of wheat and flour at Clifton, TN.

February 25, 1862
General Halleck, upon learning that the rumors of a Confederate attack in western Tennessee were false, gave orders for the occupation of Nashville. CAIRO escorted seven transports carrying troops under Brigadier General Wm. Nelson, USA, up the Ohio and Cumberland Rivers from Paducah, KY. Arriving concurrently with advance units under General Don Carlos Buell, the Union forces found that Nashville had recently been hurriedly deserted by the Confederates. In yet another display of southern "Gunboat Fever," a Nashville newspaper stated; "We had nothing to fear from a land attack, but the gunboats are the devil."

February 26, 1862
A 13-man Confederate expedition was sent to Nashville with the objective of setting fire to the transport Minna Tonka, which was being used to ferry Union troops across the river, then cut her loose, allowing her to drift into the Union gunboats anchored below. The mission was abandoned when the southern raiders discovered that their intended target was moored with heavy chains and heavily guarded.
[Official Report]

March 25, 1862
CAIRO seized guns and materiel left at Fort Zollicoffer, six miles below Nashville, which the retreating Confederates had abandoned the previous month.

JUNE 1862
This month marked the beginning of a critical point in the war. The powerful concentration of Federal forces which had prevailed at Shiloh moved south and occupied Corinth, MS, which had been abandoned by the Confederates. The loss of Corinth also made the Confederate posts in western Tennessee untenable. Therefore, Forts Pillow and Randolph above Memphis were also abandoned. The Union forces at Corinth then split, with Grant pushing toward Vicksburg along a path roughly parallel to the Mississippi River while Buell's troops turned eastward in the general direction of Chattanooga. Meanwhile, on the Mississippi, the Western Flotilla was teaming up with Colonel Ellet's Ram Fleet to destroy the Confederate River Defense Fleet in a hard-fought engagement at Memphis, TN. Their victory gave the Union control of the river as far south as Vicksburg, MS.

To check the advance of these Union forces which were penetrating deep into the Confederate heartland defenders of the South struck back with guerrilla attacks, cavalry raids, and prolonged counter thrusts by whole armies. All these measures were designed to sever Northern lines of communication and supply. Union railroads, overland convoys of wagons, and supply ships quickly became favorite Confederate targets, and the importance of maintaining Union control of the rivers grew apace to assure Federal troops a steady flow of supplies and munitions. Responsibility for keeping the Ohio and its tributaries safe for waterborne Union logistics was now placed on the gunboats of the Western Flotilla.

August 20, 1862
Commodore Charles H. Davis — recognizing that ". . . the gunboat service of the upper rivers had suddenly acquired a new importance" — charged Fleet Captain Pennock with taking these small warships under his "special care" with Lt. LeRoy Fitch in immediate command.

September 1, 1862
Congress passed a law stating that "the spirit ration in the Navy of the United States shall forever cease."

February 3, 1863
ALFRED ROBB and SILVER LAKE joined several other Union gunboats in beating off a fierce attack by some 4,500 Confederate troops against the small Federal garrison in Fort Donelson.

April 2, 1863
ST. CLAIR was disabled during fighting at Woodbury, TN, but was rescued by the transport, Luminary.

December 3, 1864
Elements of Hood's left flank reached the Cumberland River and emplaced a battery at Bells Mills about 18 river miles below Nashville. To allieviate this threat, Commander Fitch sent CARONDELET and several gunboats downriver from Nashville. Under cover of darkness, the Union ships advanced to a point directly across the river from the Confederate emplacement at which the ironclad opened fire at point blank range and continued shelling until the enemy guns were silenced. When dawn came the Union attackers found the Confederate position abandoned.

December 6, 1864
While convoying several transports from Nashville to Clarksville, NEOSHO and CARONDELET discovered that the Confederate batteries at Bells Mills had been re-occupied. NEOSHO attacked the emplacement from a distance of 20 to 30 yards but her fire could not reach the Confederate guns on the high banks. After several hours NEOSHO retired but soon returned to attack from a point below the batteries while CARONDELET enfiladed the position from above. By nightfall, the southern batteries were only partially silenced. CARONDELET and NEOSHO who had taken over 100 hits without serious damage, returned to Nashville along with the other gunboats and transports.

December 7, 1864
Admiral S. P. Lee, who replaced Admiral Porter when the latter was detached to take command of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, attempted to bring CINCINNATI to Nashville to support Commander Fitch but was unable to pass the rapids above Clarksville.

December 15, 1864
Commander Fitch, with CARONDELET and NEOSHO, returned to Bells Mills and held the Confederate gunners' attention while a Union cavalry unit surprised and captured the southern batteries with very little resistance. The following day Hood's army was defeated at Nashville and began its retreat southward.

The defeat of General Hood's army would prove to be the last major action along the Cumberland River. The Union gunboats in this area would spend the remainder of the war transporting men and materiel for operations further south and occasionally returning fire of small Confederate units and scattered bands of guerillas.