Actions in Fall 1861 and Early 1862

Stunned by Union defeats at Wilson’s Creek and Lexington, Western Department commander Major General John C. Fremont realized that Major General Sterling Price’s Missouri State Guard would have to be neutralized before Federal forces could advance down the Mississippi. Fremont left St. Louis in late September 1861, but his large, slow-moving army allowed Price to leave Lexington and retreat to safety in southwest Missouri. As Fremont neared Springfield, he detached about 300 cavalryman under Major Charles Zagonyi to ride ahead of the main army and capture the city. On October 25, Zagonyi’s men attacked a Missouri State Guard camp on the western edge of Springfield. After a brief but intense fight, Zagonyi routed the 1,000-man State Guard force. Zagonyi quickly retreated from Springfield after the battle, but Fremont’s army arrived in town shortly after. In early November, however, Fremont was replaced by Major General David Hunter, who ordered the evacuation of Springfield. “Zagonyi’s Charge” or the “first battle of Springfield” was the only victory of Fremont’s 1861 campaign.

On the other side of the state, Brigadier General U.S. Grant loaded a force on transports at Cairo, Illinois on November 6, and accompanied by the gunboats Lexington and Tyler, moved to strike a Confederate camp at Belmont, Missouri. The next morning, Grant’s forces drove the Confederates from their encampment, but then a lull developed as the Union troops halted in the captured camp. A substantial number of Confederate reinforcements landed nearby, and that afternoon Grant ordered his men to return to their transports. On the way, the Confederates attacked the retreating column, but Grant and most of his army were able to return to their boats and escape. The battle was not a clear victory for either side. Both sides suffered approximately 600 casualties, but gained valuable combat experience. Grant performed well in this, his first major battle of the war.

Union forces enjoyed greater success on the opposite side of the Mississippi. From the earliest weeks of the war Union authorities made the opening of the Mississippi River a primary objective. To achieve this they eventually assembled a large fleet of river vessels, including everything from ironclads to wooden rams, from supply barges to mortar boats and hospital ships. It was often called the “Brown Water Navy.” Much of the construction, repair, and support for this fleet came from Missouri, and its activities impacted the entire Trans-Mississippi.

On August 7, 1861, the Army contracted with St. Louis engineer James B. Eads to build a fleet of armored vessels. The first ironclad in American history was launched on October 12, 1861. The Carondelet was the first of a series of paddlewheel war craft nicknamed “Pook Turtles” after their designer, Samuel Pook. Eads also undertook the conversion of existing boats into ironclads. As a result, the “Brown Water Navy” was able to support General U.S. Grant’s operations in Tennessee against Forts Henry and Fort Donelson in February 1862. The capture of these two forts, which guarded the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, threw Confederate plans for defending the Western Theater into disarray.

Following Grant’s success, the “Brown Water Navy” moved against Island No. 10, a position opposite New Madrid, Missouri, designed to protect Memphis, Tennessee, and points further south. It was a cautious campaign, marked by Army-Navy friction. The earlier operations against Fort Donelson had revealed that although potent offensive weapons, the armored “Pook Turtles” were not always invulnerable to the massive artillery mounted in Confederate shore batteries. The defenses at Island No. 10 were formidable, but on the night of April 4-5, 1862, the Carondelet snuck past them, providing cover for the Army to cross the river downstream and take the Confederate position from the rear.

The same week that Island No. 10 fell, an ocean-going fleet steamed up the Mississippi River from the Gulf of Mexico and captured New Orleans, the largest city in the Confederacy.

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