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Chapter 16:


After receiving, at Corinth, the despatches announcing the fall of Fort Donelson, with the capture of most of its garrison, General Beauregard telegraphed General Johnston to know whether he had issued any direct orders for the troops in General Polk's district. The following answer, forwarded to Columbus, in anticipation of General Beauregard's arrival there, was received by him on the 17th, at Jackson. It is given in full:

Nashville, February 16th, 1862.
To General Beauregard:
Your despatch of 16th received. You must do as your judgment dictates. No orders for your troops have issued from here. Colonel Chalmers is a brigadier-general.

W. W. Mackall, A. A. Genl.

Two days afterwards General Johnston himself forwarded this additional telegram: [233]

You must now act as seems best to you. The separation of our armies is for the present complete.

The day before receiving this last despatch, General Beauregard's Adjutant, Colonel Jordan, who, after his visit to the War Department at Richmond, had gone directly to Columbus, rejoined him at Jackson, Tennessee. His report concerning General Polk's district was decidedly unfavorable, and confirmed General Beauregard's apprehensions as to the incomplete state of its defences. He emphasized the too great development of the lines, and their defective location, characterizing the place as a certain ‘dead fall’ to its garrison, if attacked. He also reported the troops to be imperfectly organized, and declared his inability to procure a clear statement of the forces and resources present, for want of proper returns.

General Beauregard, who was still too unwell to assume immediate command, called General Polk at once to Jackson, and also his own Chief-Engineer, Captain D. B. Harris, who had preceded him to Columbus. They came on the 19th, and Captain Harris's detailed information as to the position, its works, and the surrounding locality, confirmed Colonel Jordan's report of its alarming weakness. Upon this definite statement of the character and condition of the place, General Beauregard considered that immediate preparations should be made for its evacuation, so as to secure its supplies, armament, and garrison, which included nearly all the forces under General Polk. It was to be apprehended that General Grant, by marching westward from Fort Henry to Union City or Clinton—some sixty or seventy miles—after forming a junction with part of the forces under General Pope, which might have landed in Kentucky, above the fort, could complete its investment within a few days; while batteries placed below it, on both sides of the river, would cut off communication or retreat by water, unless prevented by our gunboat fleet. Batteries, enfilading its parapets, which were without traverses, would dismount its guns, while mortar batteries would fire its wooden store-houses and destroy its supplies, compelling its surrender in a very few days.

Apart from the river batteries, which were strongly constructed [234] and powerfully armed, the defensive works, besides being badly planned and unfinished, were much too extensive, requiring a garrison of about thirteen thousand men, to resist a combined land and naval attack, while the forces of General Polk, in his whole district, numbered less than fifteen thousand of all arms, badly equipped for the field, commanded by officers who were brave and zealous, but without military training or experience. Moreover, his troops were not regularly formed into brigades and divisions, and his cavalry was not yet fully organized into regiments. The capture of Fort Columbus and its garrison would have opened to the Federals the whole Mississippi Valley to New Orleans, as between those two points there was not another organized body of troops capable of offering any resistance to the united forces of Generals Grant and Pope. Fort Pillow, about fifty miles above Memphis, was not then in as good condition as Fort Columbus; its defences being still incomplete. It was not yet armed, and required a garrison of about ten thousand men, while, at that time, it only had one regiment to defend it. At the Madrid Bend defences only one or two heavy batteries had been commenced, on Island No.10, armed with a few guns of small calibre; and at New Madrid only some light field-works had been constructed.

General Polk had unbounded confidence in the strength of Columbus, which he termed the ‘Gibraltar of the West.’ With his characteristic gallantry he declared himself capable of holding it against any force, as long as his supplies should last; and these, he alleged, could hold out six months. But his statements, in answer to minute inquiries as to its condition and surroundings, corroborated none the less what had been previously reported by Colonel Jordan and Captain Harris; and upon General Beauregard exposing to him the saliency of the fort and the various features of its weakness, he concurred in the opinion that it could not long withstand a determined attack.

The War Department having, on the 19th, telegraphed its assent to the evacuation of Columbus, General Beauregard directed General Polk to prepare for it without delay. The safe removal of the supplies and armament was likely to be a difficult operation, should the Federal land and naval forces be handled with judgment and resolution. Careful and minute instructions were accordingly given to General Polk by General Beauregard. All reserve supplies and materials were to be sent to Grenada and Columbus, by [235] railroad, including those at Trenton and Jackson, Tennessee; the remaining supplies, to Union City, Humboldt, the positions at Madrid Bend, New Madrid, and Memphis. The heaviest guns that could be spared were to be taken to Island No.10, to the batteries at the Bend, on the left bank, and to New Madrid, with some of lighter calibre, for the land defences of the latter place. The other guns were to be placed as far as possible in condition for ready removal, part of them for transfer to the works at Madrid Bend, and the remainder to Fort Pillow. The dismantling of the fort and embarkation of material and supplies, by boat and railroad, were to be conducted with secrecy, and, as far as practicable, by night; and as it was necessary to hold Columbus until the works at Island No.10 and in the Bend should be ready to defend the river, General Polk was to maintain a vigilant watch and repel vigorously all attempts at reconnoissance, by land or by water.

A few days later, he was instructed to open a road across the difficult country opposite Island No.10, and to establish a telegraph line between the Island and Humboldt, or Union City, via Obionville, as a line of communication. The cavalry, at Paris, was to watch and report the passage of any gunboats or transports up the Tennessee River, from the direction of Fort Henry, extending its pickets as near as possible to Mayfield, which was then occupied by Federal cavalry, keeping the latter always in sight, and, if compelled to retire, to burn the bridges and thus hinder reconnoissances.

In view of the great importance of New Madrid, General Polk was further instructed to send as strong a garrison thither as he could, including most of the troops at Fort Pillow, if necessary. He was also to aid in hastening the immediate completion and arming of the batteries there and of those at the head of Island No.10 and at the Bend, which were intended for temporary occupation, while Fort Pillow was being strongly fortified and completed for permanent maintenance. The gorges of the works at New Madrid were to be palisaded merely, so that our gunboats might fire into them from the river if taken by the enemy. The defences, consisting of strong profiles, were composed of three works, two on the river and one a little in advance of the others, and were calculated for about five hundred men each. The cremaillere lines, ordered on the right and rear of Island No.10, were [236] to be provided with small redans for a few siege guns, and the navigation of Black Lagoon obstructed, so as to prevent the enemy's barges from getting into Reelfoot Lake, the shores of which, between the two cremaillere lines, were to be well guarded, and, if necessary, properly defended. The island opposite Tiptonville was to be examined, to determine whether or not it could be advantageously fortified.

General McCown, of General Polk's forces, was selected to command those river defences, and General Trudeau,1 of Louisiana, to take charge of the heavy batteries at Island No.10 and in the Bend. Both of these officers were to report to General Beauregard at Jackson, for special instructions. The troops at Columbus, apart from those to be sent to protect the construction of and occupy the river defences at New Madrid, Island No.10, and the Bend, were to be withdrawn to Union City and Humboldt, for the protection of the right flank and rear of those important defences, against any movement from the Tennessee River, the cavalry to be thrown out well in advance.

It was understood, from General Polk, that the earth-works at Island No.10 and the Bend were already prepared for a sufficient number of heavy guns to make an effective defence, and that a large force of negro laborers was there with the necessary tools; which, however, proved to be an error. General Beauregard gave specific instructions to Captain Harris (the only engineer who had accompanied him from Virginia, and whose great ability was not then matured by sufficient experience) as to the planning, layingout, and construction of these batteries, including the details of their parapets, embrasures, traverses, and magazines; after the completion of this duty he repaired to Fort Pillow, to reduce that work and adapt it to a garrison of about three thousand men. The work, at that point, had been planned upon so extensive a scale as to require a garrison of nearly ten thousand men.

The grave defect in these river defences, at Columbus and Fort Pillow, was in their extended lines, requiring a whole army to hold them, leaving no forces for operations in the field. This was one of the great mistakes in engineering on both sides during the war. A garrison of from three to five thousand men, in properly constructed forts, with an ample supply of ammunition and provisions, [237] would have been sufficient for the defence of our principal rivers until reinforcements, in an emergency, could have been sent to their relief.

From Memphis, on the 18th, Governor Harris, of Tennessee, telegraphed General Beauregard to know his plans, saying that he had made similar inquiries of the President and Generals Johnston and Pillow, so as to enable him to rally at once all possible forces in Tennessee, and issue orders to them accordingly. He was requested to meet General Beauregard, with General Polk, at Jackson, on the 19th. His reply was that he had ordered out every man in the State who could be armed, but that he himself was compelled to go to Nashville. General Beauregard, thereupon, repeated his request, through General Polk, urging the advantage of the governor's visiting Jackson, where he arrived, accordingly, on the 20th. It was agreed between them that the State troops called out in west Tennessee should be directed to Jackson and Corinth, from which latter place General Ruggles's brigade was liable to be called, at any moment, to support General Polk, at or about Columbus. General Ruggles's brigade had been first ordered from New Orleans, by the Secretary of War, on February 8th, to report to General Beauregard at Columbus; but his communication of that date to General Johnston, having been referred to the former, and the evacuation of Columbus being then contemplated, General Beauregard, who had not yet directly assumed command, requested General Johnston, in accordance with his letter of the 12th, to order that brigade to Corinth; the immediate object being to protect that point and be within supporting distance of General Polk.

Meanwhile, General Johnston, followed by Buell's forces, had resolved to abandon Nashville. He began his retreat towards Stevenson, along the line of the Nashville and Chattanooga railroad, as in that event previously determined upon, and fully set forth in the memorandum of his plan of campaign, given in the preceding chapter, at page 220.

The following is General Johnston's letter to the War Department, in explanation of his future operations:

Headquarters Western Department, Nashville, February 18th, 1862.
Sir,—In conformity with the intention announced to the department, the corps under the command of Major-General Hardee completed the evacuation [238] of Bowling Green on the 14th instant, and the rear guard passed the Cumberland at this point yesterday morning in good order.

I have ordered the army to encamp to-night midway between this place and Murfreesboroa. My purpose is, to place the force in such a position that the enemy cannot concentrate his superior strength against the command, and to enable me to assemble as rapidly as possible such other troops in addition as it may be in my power to collect. The complete command which their gunboats and transports give them upon the Tennessee and Cumberland, renders it necessary for me to retire my line between the rivers. I entertain the hope that this disposition will enable me to hold the enemy in check; and, when my forces are sufficiently increased, to drive him back . . .

* * * * * * *

The military situation was now of a desperate character. While General Johnston's crippled army was retreating towards northeast Alabama and Georgia before Buell's overwhelming forces, the Federal army, under General Grant, with or without the cooperation of Pope's command, might move from Fort Henry, upon the rear of Columbus, or execute a still more dreaded movement by ascending the Tennessee River to Hamburg or Eastport, seizing the Memphis and Charleston Railroad, thus definitively separating Generals Johnston and Polk, turning completely west Kentucky and west Tennessee to Memphis, and compelling the fall of the latter city, Fort Pillow, New Madrid, Island No.10, and Columbus. The capture of General Polk's forces would thus be insured, and the entire Mississippi Valley would be thrown open as far as New Orleans.

There was no army to oppose such a movement, and there were no fortified positions on the Mississippi River, to check the Federal gunboats and transports in carrying the supplies of the invading forces, should the line of railroads be rendered unavailable. The panic, followed by despondency, which had seized the people after the successive disasters of the campaign, left little hope of raising an army; and the situation was such that, even with the utmost enthusiasm to aid such an undertaking, there was no expectation of its achievement in time to meet the emergency, unless favored by our adversary's failure to embrace the opportunity offered. General Johnston had informed General Beauregard, at Bowling Green, that he had exhausted all means of procuring more armed troops from the Confederate and State governments, [239] and his official correspondence shows that he had done his utmost in that respect. General Beauregard resolved, nevertheless, to invoke at once every possible resource, and, if he saw any expectation of raising an army, to use every effort to that end, while continuing to give general direction to affairs until his physical condition should permit him to assume the cares of formal command. His physicians had assured him that they could keep the illness from which he was suffering under control, and the forlorn condition of the entire West, mingled now with fears for his own home, determined him to make the effort, however doubtful the result might be.

The only forces he could dispose of were some fourteen thousand five hundred men, under General Polk, holding the Mississippi River defences, imperfectly organized and, as yet, poorly equipped for the field; about two thousand, under General Chalmers, at Iuka and its vicinity; and three thousand, under General Ruggles, at Corinth. But the energetic efforts of Governor Harris now gave him the hope of soon being able to increase his strength. Instead, therefore, of operating, with his movable forces, on the defensive line laid down by General Johnston, as shown by the memorandum of the 7th, that is, from Columbus via Jackson to Grand Junction, fifty miles west of Corinth, with Memphis or Grenada, and Jackson, Mississippi, as ultimate points of retreat, General Beauregard determined to take up a new defensive lineconfronting the enemy from that part of the Tennessee Rivera line extending from the river defences at Island No.10 to Corinth, via Union City, Humboldt, and Jackson; throwing his forces across the Louisville and Memphis and Memphis and Charleston Railroads; thus covering Memphis and the important railroad centre of Corinth, with strong advanced forces at Iuka, and a small force at Tuscumbia, to protect his railroad communication with the East. With the Mobile and Ohio Railroad along his line, he would thus be enabled to concentrate quickly, either to oppose any advance of the enemy along the Louisville and Memphis Railroad, or, if ready and strong enough for such an operation, to attack him suddenly should he attempt or effect a landing at any point along the bend of the Tennessee River, between Coffee Landing and Eastport. General Beauregard decided on this new disposition of his forces, in the exercise of that full discretion given him by General Johnston's telegrams of February 16th and [240] 18th, the full texts of which have already been laid before the reader. An additional despatch of the 21st was, in substance, as follows:

As you have had time sufficiently to study the field, even should you be too unwell to assume command, I hope you will advise General Polk of your judgment as to the proper disposition of his army, in accordance with the views expressed in your memorandum, unless you have deemed it necessary to change them. I cannot issue any orders to him, for fear that mine might conflict with yours.

Here was an entirely different plan of operations, based upon entirely different views, which circumstances now brought forth, and to which no reference, however remote, had been or could have been made in the ‘memorandum’ of General Johnston's strategic movements, so often alluded to before.

In reflecting upon the situation, as shaped by our recent disasters, General Beauregard became convinced that our substantial success required the abandonment at once, on our part, of the passive-defensive through which, defeated at every successive point in the West, we had gradually been driven to our present state of distress; and it was his conviction that necessity now compelled us boldly to assume the offensive. To this end, and while reviewing thoroughly the sources from which additional troops might be levied or spared, he resolved to call upon the governors of Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, and Tennessee, for whatever number of men they could collect, if only for sixty or ninety days, with whatever arms they could procure, to enable him to make or meet the last encounter, which, he thought, would decide the fate of the Mississippi Valley. The following is the confidential circular he sent on that occasion. Its admirable conception and characteristic vigor will, no doubt, be appreciated by the reader:

Jackson, Tenn., February 21st, 1862.
To his Excellency Thos. O. Moore, Governor of Louisiana, etc.:
Dear Sir,—As you are aware, heavy disasters have recently befallen our arms on the Kentucky border. The Tennessee River is in possession of the enemy since the capture of Fort Henry. The evacuation of Bowling Green, and subsequent fall of Fort Donelson, with large loss of officers, men, arms, and munitions, have so weakened us on that line, that Nashville can only be held by superhuman energy, determination, and courage. At the same time, the direct communications of the forces at Columbus with those under General A. S. Johnston are broken, and the two armies effectually isolated from each [241] other. With the enemy in command of the Tennessee River, the position at Columbus is so endangered from a land approach from that river by a greatly superior force, that its fall must be regarded as certain, unless some extraordinary efforts are made to reinforce its present small army of occupation. I need not dwell upon the consequences of such a disaster. Suffice it to say, it would involve the immediate loss to the Confederate States of the Mississippi River and Valley.

In view of the palpable situation, I am instructed to evacuate Columbus and take up less vulnerable positions on and in the vicinity of Island No.10, and at New Madrid. In the execution of this measure, however, much will depend on the energy with which our enemy may follow up his late successes, and whether he will give us time to withdraw and receive his onset elsewhere.

Coming to the command at such a crisis, I have been filled with profound anxiety and sense of the necessity for a prompt, resolute encounter with the exigency, in time to prevent an irrevocable defeat. Columbus is now occupied by but about twelve thousand men of all arms. At Island No.10 and New Madrid are some four thousand men, to which add Ruggles's brigade and one under General Chalmers at Iuka, say five thousand more; thus you will perceive I have a force at my disposition of but twenty-one thousand. If we remain supine and unaroused to the dangers accumulating day by day, awaiting the advance of the enemy, he will assemble such a force as to insure his success and a repetition of the late disasters, only with more desolating consequences.

Hence, I have thought I would submit, for the consideration of the governors of the Mississippi Valley States,2 a plan which I deem most practicable for the recovery of our losses and the defence of this river, and call upon them for the means of execution.

I propose that the governors of the States of Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama, and your Excellency, shall each furnish me with from five thousand to ten thousand men, armed and equipped, with the utmost possible celerity; for time is precious, and despatch essential to success. I shall call on General Van Dorn to unite his forces with mine, and, leaving a suitable garrison at Columbus, with troops to guard and hold my rear at Island No.10, I would then take the field with at least forty thousand men, march on Paducah, seize and close the mouths of the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers; aided by gun-boats, I would also successfully assail Cairo, and threaten, if not, indeed, take, St. Louis itself.

In this way, be assured, we may most certainly and speedily recover our losses and insure the defence of the Valley of the Mississippi, and every man [242] you may send me will really be placed in the best possible position for the defence of his own home and hearthstone.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

G. T. Beauregard, General C. S. A.

He also called upon General Bragg for what forces he could spare from Pensacola and Mobile, inviting him to come in person, if he could. A similar demand for troops he addressed to General Lovell, at New Orleans; and General Van Dorn was requested to join him at once, with ten thousand of his forces, from Arkansas, across the Mississippi. The following is the letter despatched to General Van Dorn. Its importance and historical value justify us in transcribing it here:

Jackson, Tenn., February 21st, 1862.
My dear General,—By the fall of the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, the forces under General Polk (now to be under me) are entirely cut off from those under General A. S. Johnston, and must henceforth depend upon themselves alone for the defence of the Mississippi River and contiguous States; the fall of Columbus, and of Island No.10, must necessarily be followed by the loss of the whole Mississippi Valley, to the mouth of the Mississippi River. The fate of Missouri necessarily depends on the successful defence of Columbus, and of Island No.10; hence, we must, if possible, combine our operations not only to defend those positions, but also to take the offensive, as soon as practicable, to recover some of our lost ground. I have just called on the governors of Tennessee, Louisiana, and Mississippi, for five thousand men from each State. I have fifteen thousand disposable for the field; if you could certainly join me, via New Madrid or Columbus, with ten thousand more, we could thus take the field with forty thousand men, take Cairo, Paducah, the mouth of the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, and, most probably, be able to take also St. Louis, by the river. What say you to this brilliant programme which I know is fully practicable, if we can get the forces? At all events, we must do something or die in the attempt, otherwise, all will be shortly lost.

Yours truly and sincerely,

G. T. Beauregard, General C. S. A. Earl Van Dorn, Commanding, etc., Pocahontas, Arkansas.

P. S.—I expect also the co-operation of twelve gunboats from New Orleans. I will inform you of the governors' answers, as soon as received.

General Beauregard was of the opinion, and so expressed it, at the time, that the usefulness of Van Dorn's command would be greater east of the Mississippi than in the position it then occupied, and that New Orleans itself would be better defended by the concentration he was endeavoring to effect, than by any effort [243] made at its own gates, when all outside barriers should have been destroyed and swept away. He asked that all troops sent him should be provided, upon starting, with three days cooked rations, and forty rounds of ammunition per man. And in order to secure additional strength, and increase his chances of success, he also sent to General Johnston, then at Murfreesboroa, urging him to abandon his line of retreat, along the Stevenson and Chattanooga Railroad, which was taking him farther and farther away, and, unless the enemy should anticipate, or intercept him, to turn towards Decatur, from which quarter he would then be within easy distance to co-operate with or join him. Thus was he making all possible preparation, in case he should succeed in levying and assembling the troops he had called for, from so many different points.

On the 20th he sent despatches to each of the governors of the above-mentioned States, notifying them that special messengers would go to them, from him, on important public business. And the next morning (the 22d) the following members of his staff left his headquarters, at Jackson, Tennessee, upon their several missions: Lieutenant (afterwards General) S. W. Ferguson went to General Johnston and Governor Harris, at Murfreesboroa; Lieutenant A. R. Chisolm, to Governor Shorter, of Alabama, and Major-General Bragg, at Mobile; Dr. Samuel Choppin, to Governor Moore, of Louisiana, and Major-General Lovell, at New Orleans; Lieutenant A. N. T. Beauregard, to Governor Pettus, of Mississippi; and Major B. B. Waddell, who was well acquainted with the country in the Trans-Mississippi, was sent to General Van Dorn, the location of whose headquarters had not yet been ascertained.

General Beauregard also wrote to General Cooper, at Richmond, asking for any instructions the War Department might think proper to give him, with regard to this calling out of State troops, and as to the movement he had requested General Van Dorn to make out of the limits of his department, in order to join him in his contemplated operations. He represented that all operations in States bordering on the Mississippi River should be made subordinate to the secure possession of that river, which, if lost, would involve the complete isolation and destruction of any army west of it.

The War Department did not approve of this call on the governors of the States, for sixty or ninety days troops, objecting that [244] there was no law authorizing such a levy, and that it interfered with the War Department's own recruiting operations. General Beauregard answered that the call was to be made by each governor, in the name of his own State, and that after the expected battle, the troops thus levied might, on their return home, enlist under the general government. These reasons appear to have been satisfactory, as no further opposition was offered.

General Johnston, who was then at Murfreesboroa, reorganizing his troops, on his way towards Stevenson, acceded to General Beauregard's request, and, some days later, upon completing his reorganization, changed his line of march towards Decatur, via Shelbyville, Fayetteville, and Huntsville. General Bragg referred the question of compliance with General Beauregard's request to the War Department, which, as he informed General Beauregard, left it to his own discretion. He decided to go at once, and furnish about ten thousand men, including three regiments that he had already sent to Chattanooga, to reinforce General Johnston, and some other regiments on their way to that point, which he recalled. General Lovell also cheerfully responded—so did the four governors—promising to do their utmost in furtherance of the plan, and to rendezvous their troops as requested, with the rations, and forty rounds of ammunition called for. It was not until later, however, that any news could be had from General Van Dorn, he being then engaged in a movement which resulted in the battle of Elkhorn, with the Federals, under General Lyon.

1 At that time a Vol. A. D. C. to General Polk.

2 This confidential circular was sent by special messengers to the governors of Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana—the rendezvous of the troops furnished to be as follows: those from Tennessee, at Jackson, Tenn.; from Alabama, at Corinth; from Mississippi, at Grand Junction; from Louisiana, at Jackson, Tenn., if by railroad, and at Columbus, Ky., if by water.

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