Strategically, the Union was committed to the opening up of the Mississippi River, from Cairo, Illinois, to the Gulf of Mexico. This could not be achieved by naval forces alone, as troops had'to seize and hold the key points along the river, then use these sites to launch attacks which would drive the Confederate armies eastwards away from the Mississippi river, By gaining access to the tributaries of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, Union forces could strike deep into Confederate territory, and support armies operating in the heartland of the South. The Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers were vital arteries of war and commerce, and the side that controlled them could dominate Kentucky and much of Tennessee.
Following the fall of Fort Henry, which guarded the Tennessee River, Confederate General Johnston wrote that the loss of the fort gave the Union "control of ihe navigation on the Tennessee River, and their gunboats are now descending ... " He argued (hat the loss of Fort
Donelson would "open the route to the enemy to Nashville, giving them the means of breaking bridges and destroying the ferry boats on (he river as far as navigable." His prediction was correct, and after losing both forts, the Confederates were forced to withdraw to the south. The Confederates lacked (he gunboats which might have been able to contest control of the two rivers, and consequently, they were forced to pull back behind the two rivers, giving up Kentucky. Similarly, control of the Mississippi and its tributaries allowed Union generals to move troops deep into the Confederate heartland, and to supply these forces from the bustling industrial cities of the Midwest. Without gunboats, the Confederacy lay wide open to the enemy.
Both sides realized that, but the capture of Forts Henry and Donelson took the Confederates by surprise, before they were able to build up the flotillas they needed lo defend the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers. From that point, Union gunboats had two roles, a primarily offensive one, involving the defeat of enemy forces on the Mississippi River, and a secondary defensive one, defending the Tennessee and Cumberland, protecting supply lines, and denying access to the region to the enemy.
Offensive operations usually involved the river ironclads, supported first by the three timberclads, and later by the Ellet ram fleet. As numbers were augmented by tinclad gunboats and captured Confederate vessels, an increasing number of gunboats were allocated a defensive role. Confederate measures involved a limited use of gunboats after the fall of Memphis and, instead, they concentrated on holding key defensive positions on the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Clearly the principal river fortresses were Vicksburg and Port Hudson, but the Red River was also developed as a stronghold and, despite the abortive 1864 campaign, it remained in Confederate hands until the last days of the war.
Initially, both sides built wooden rams, but following the destruction of the Confederate fleets at Memphis and New Orleans, the Union changed their role. Initially, the rams were pure naval vessels designed to Fight enemy warships. After Memphis, they became vessels whose primary function was to patrol rivers, and to bombard enemy-held shorelines. The tinclads, which were converted into warships and entered service from 1862 on, were primarily designed for exactly this kind of role. They patrolled rivers, reaching anywhere their shallow drafts could take them. They guarded river crossings, scouted for signs of enemy raiders, escorted transport and supply vessels, carried dispatches, provided gunfire support to operations close to the shore, and bombarded enemy positions. They dragged rivers for torpedoes (as mines were then known), they cleared rivers of obstructions, and they provided a cordon of
Union river gunboats engaging shore targets on the western rivers. Attacks on enemy patrols, naval gunfire support, and the bombardment of shore positions were all regular tasks for the gunboat fleet.
protection for support vessels. In short they were the workhorses of the Western Theater, operating everywhere they were needed, and performing a range of duties. When Confederate guerrillas raided into Indiana and Illinois, gunboats led the pursuit, and helped to contain the raiders. Although larger, more impressive warships such as the ironclads or Confederate ocean raiders, gained the glory, these simple wooden gunboats helped win the war for the Union.
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