As the eastern armies drilled and reorganized after Bull Run, attention shifted to the western theater. Here General Albert Sidney Johnston had an enormous stretch of the Confederacy to defend and nowhere near enough men and arms to do the job. The foremost of his many problems was the threatened Yankee seizure of the two great waterways, the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, that led straight through the center of his position.
It was in the west that the Northern industrial muscle first made itself felt. Shipyards produced, in short order, a fleet of powerful armored gunboats nicknamed (for their designer, Samuel H. Pook) “Pook’s Turtles.” On February 6, 1862 the Turtles won a startling victory. Accompanied by an army of 15,000 men under General Ulysses S. Grant, they steamed up the Tennessee to Fort Henry, near the Kentucky-Tennessee border. As Grant’s troops prepared for siege operations, Flag Officer Andrew Foote decided to make a feint at the fort with his gunboats. To his astonishment, his broadsides overwhelmed the lightly held fort and forced its surrender.
Grant then turned his army inland and marched the 12 miles to the Cumberland, where the Rebels had erected Fort Donelson to guard that river. Foote meanwhile went the long way around, steaming back down the Tennessee to the Ohio and then up the Cumberland to join Grant. Perhaps a bit overconfident after his easy Fort Henry victory, Foote led his flotilla—as pictured on the medal—against Fort Donelson on February 14. Donelson’s batteries were well sited to command the river, and the Rebel gunners rained a hail of shells on the four Turtles. One after another they were disabled—the St. Louis was hit no less than 59 times—and drifted helplessly out of the battle. Foote, who was wounded in the action, had to leave Fort Donelson to Grant and his soldiers.
The Confederates in the fort had few illusions about their ability to withstand a siege, and the day after repelling the gunboat attack, they staged a breakout attempt. They nearly succeeded, but their inept commanders, John B. Floyd and Gideon Pillow, inexplicably halted the assault—and decided to surrender. The two of them slipped away during the night, leaving a prewar friend of Grant’s, Simon Buckner, the unenviable task of raising the white flag. (Another escapee that night was Nathan Bedford Forrest, who led his troopers through an icy swamp to safety. Forrest would go on to become one of the South’s most feared cavalry leaders.) On February 16 Buckner asked his old friend for terms. Only unconditional surrender would be accepted, Grant replied bluntly, and so it was. Northern newspapers christened U.S. Grant “Unconditional Surrender.” Just nine days later the key manufacturing and transportation center of Nashville, Tennessee’s capital, fell to the Yankees without a fight, and suddenly the entire center of the Confederates’ western line was breached.