When the American Civil War erupted, Union General-in-Chief Winfield Scott proposed strangling the South into submission economically. Later known as the Anaconda Plan, Scott’s blueprint for victory recommended blockading or seizing control of the waterways that surrounded the Confederacy, including the navigable rivers in the American interior.
Grant Captures Fort Henry and Fort Donelson
On February 6, 1862, Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant made a major step toward implementing Scott’s plan by capturing Fort Henry, near the confluence of the Tennessee and the Ohio Rivers. Slightly over one week later, Grant also took possession of Fort Donelson, near where the Cumberland River joins the Ohio River. The fall of the two forts was a serious blow to the Confederacy. It forced General Albert Sidney Johnston, the commander of Rebel forces in the West, to contract the northern extent of his defenses on the Mississippi River from Columbus, Kentucky farther downriver to the area around New Madrid (pronounced MAD-rid), Missouri.
Flowing in a southerly direction near New Madrid, the Mississippi River bends clockwise (to the west) nearly 180 degrees, flowing almost directly north, before bending counter-clockwise (to the west) again nearly 180 degrees, before resuming its southerly flow. The resulting variation in direction creates a footprint in roughly the shape of the letter “N” along that section of the river. The town of New Madrid is located at the top of the second bend (the top of the left leg of the letter “N”). During the Civil War, a large sandbar known as Island No. 10 was situated at the bottom of the first bend (the bottom of the right leg of the letter “N”). The island derived its name from the fact that it was the tenth island in the Mississippi River south of the Ohio River.
Halleck Plans to Capture Confederate Batteries
As early as August 1861, Confederates began building artillery batteries on Island Number 10 and its adjacent shores. The fortifications created a bottleneck for shipping supplies on the river to Union forces as they moved south. As Johnston’s Rebel forces were falling back to Tennessee, Major General Henry Halleck was developing plans to capture New Madrid and neutralize the batteries at Island Number 10.
Under orders from Halleck, Brigadier General John Pope began marching his Army of the Mississippi (numbering approximately 23,000 soldiers) from Commerce, Missouri toward New Madrid on February 28, 1862. Having to traverse swampy terrain that heavy rains had saturated, Pope could not bring along his artillery.
Confederate Forces at New Madrid
The Confederate garrison at New Madrid comprised five infantry regiments numbering between 7,000 and 9,000 soldiers commanded by Brigadier General John P. McCown. Fort Thompson on the west side of town, Fort Bankhead on the east side of town, and six gunboats, commanded by Flag Officer George N. Hollins, on the river, protected McCown’s men.
Pope’s Siege of New Madrid
Following skirmishes near Sikeston, Missouri on March 1 and near New Madrid on March 2, Pope began a siege of the Rebel garrison at New Madrid on March 3. Still, without artillery, Pope sent an expedition twelve miles south to capture the river town of Point Pleasant on March 7, thus reducing the possibility of Rebel reinforcements or supplies being sent upriver.
McCown’s men held out for nine days, but on March 12, Pope’s heavy artillery arrived. The next day, the Yankees began shelling New Madrid and the two forts. Outnumbered and now outgunned, McCown ordered the evacuation of the Confederate works at New Madrid. On the night of March 13-14, he marched most of his troops southeast to join the defenders on Island No. 10.
Despite his failure to hold New Madrid, Confederate officials promoted McCown to major general after his departure, and they named Brigadier General William W. Mackall to command the Confederate troops at Island No. 10.
Union Bombardment of Island No. 10
After the fall of New Madrid, Halleck and Pope turned their attention to Island No. 10, which was still making the river impassable to Union traffic. For the next two weeks, Pope’s artillery and gunboats under the command of Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote, which were north of Island No. 10 bombarded the Rebel garrison to no avail.
Pope decided that he needed to get his army across the river to the Tennessee side, where the island was most vulnerable. To accomplish that, he needed to move transports from the North to his position at New Madrid. Moving the transports by water was not possible because it required passing by the Confederate batteries on and around Island No. 10. Instead, Pope had his troops dig a canal east from the vicinity of New Madrid to the Mississippi River above Island No. 10. Under the direction of Colonel Joshua W. Bissell, Pope’s soldiers labored day and night to excavate a canal fifty feet wide and twelve miles long in just nineteen days.
Union Gunboats Advance
As Pope’s soldiers neared the completion of the canal on April 4, 1862, Pope pressed Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote to run one or two of his ironclads downstream past Island No. 10 to protect his army as it crossed the river near Point Pleasant. Foote initially hesitated, believing it was not possible to get a ship past the Confederate batteries. Additional prodding from Halleck persuaded Foote to reconsider. During a meeting on March 29, Commander Henry Walke, captain of the USS Carondelet, convinced Foote that he could accomplish the feat.
On the night of April 4-5, Walke successfully navigated the Carondelet, manned by a volunteer crew, past the batteries on and around Island No. 10, taking only two hits. Two nights later, the ironclad Pittsburg followed suit. With two ironclads positioned downstream from the island, Pope was ready to act.
On April 7, 1862, the Carondelet and Pittsburg silenced the Rebel batteries on the Tennessee shore near Watson’s Landing, where Pope intended to cross the river. Facing the prospect of Pope’s army soon being in his rear, Mackall ordered his men to evacuate the island and to head south for Tiptonville, on the Tennessee side of the river. Before the Rebels completed their withdrawal, Foote’s main squadron moved downriver and took possession of the island. Meanwhile, learning of Mackall’s intentions, Pope reached Tiptonville first. With no available route for escape, Mackall surrendered his garrison to Pope at 2 a.m. on April 8.
The fall of Island No. 10 was a resounding Union triumph. Pope reported that he and Foote captured nearly 7,000 prisoners, 123 pieces of heavy artillery, and large stores of small arms, ammunition, and supplies. The prisoner number is questionable, however, since Confederate reports indicated that the entire garrison numbered fewer than 5,300 soldiers. Mackall listed his losses at 2,000 captured. Pope’s losses were fewer than fifty men. Strategically, the conquest moved the Union one step closer to placing a stranglehold on the Confederacy by seizing control of the Mississippi River down to Fort Pillow, approximately seventy miles north of Memphis.