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Capture of Fort Donnelson

The Illustrated London News, vol. 40, no. 1135, p. 263-264.

March 15,1862


The pressure of the immense force organised by the Federal Government of America begins at length to tell upon the Southern Confederacy. Several minor successes in the south-west have culminated in the capture of Fort Donnelson, with nearly its whole garrison, armament, ammunition, and stores. General Floyd, it is true, with 5000 men, escaped during the night preceding the surrender, otherwise the victory was complete. The Confederates have abandoned the important strategical position which they held at Bowling Green. Nashville, the seat of the Southern Government, appeared by the last advices received before writing the remarks which follow to be in imminent danger. Possibly, news of its having fallen into the possession of the Northern troops may reach this country before the issue of the present Number of our Journal, and, whenever it does, the relation of the Border States to the great struggle between the North and the South will have been virtually determined. Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri will have been recovered for the Union. The army which has so long covered Manassas Gap will be exposed to be taken in the rear, and must retire.General M'Clellan will be able to clear Virginia, and Secession will be shut up in the Gulf States, the Slave States proper, to fight for endurable terms of submission, or to hold out to the last for independence.

From the day when the boom of the first cannon fired in this war swept over the surface of the Charleston waters, the part to be taken in it by the four great Border States was looked for by both parties with intense anxiety. In each of them the interests and opinions of the population were known to be divided between North and South; and probably each, could it have resisted external influence, would have preferred to occupy a neutral position, and, by interposing between the extreme parties on both sides, to have ultimately effected a reconciliation. Secessionists, however, at the outbreak of the civil war, held in their hands in all the States the machinery of government, both legislative and executive, and, by a prompt, energetic, and lawless use of the means at their command, succeeded in tearing them away from the Union, and placing much of their real and more of their apparent strength at the disposal of President Davis. The moral effect of this successful stratagem, especially upon the people and armies of the South, has, no doubt, been prodigious. But it was far easier to suppress for a period all show of sentiment in favour of the Union than to annihilate it. It has already asserted its right to be heard. In various places it has snatched up the weapons readiest to its hand, and done battle, in a sort of guerrilla fashion, with the usurpation, that would have crushed it out of existence. Assuming that General Halleck will complete the work he has so successfully commenced, he will liberate from the forced pressure put upon it by the Secessionists the whole amount of loyal sentiment diffused through the Border States, and, from being held in abeyance, it will become dominant. To all present intents and purposes the triumph of his arms will immediately restore Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri to the Union, and will thereby render Virginia untenable much longer by the Confederates.

The Southern army, which occupies so strong a position at Manassas, and which has hitherto kept General M'Clellan and the army of the Potomac at bay, can be safe where it is only so long as it has free communication with the country behind it. A command of the railroads which traverse that vast area, and by which its supplies and reinforcements have hitherto been forwarded, is absolutely essential to it. The importance,

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therefore, of holding the several centres where these railroads converge on their way to the north-east was seen at an early period of the struggle, and wherever they have been menaced they have been guarded by strong bodies of Confederate troops. It is this circumstance which invests the capture of Fort Donnelson with so much interest. It constituted a base for that division of the Southern army the main business of which was to keep open the communications which connected the army in Virginia with every part of the seceded States. But, should the expedition which has recently seized Edenton, Elizabeth city, and Hertford gain possession of the line between Charleston and Savannah, and General Halleck, as seems most probable, obtain command over the junctions at Bowling Green and Nashville, President Davis or General Beauregard, or whoever presides over the military force in Virginia, will probably find it necessary, unless he would run the risk of being starved out or hemmed in, to beat a retreat from Manassas, and leave the Northern Generals, including M'Clellan, to close round the Gulf States, and stamp out, meanwhile, the embers of civil war in the great Border States. Should they effect thus much -before the close of the spring season, they will have done all that can be reasonably expected of them, and the question at -issue between the two parties will be immensely narrowed.

Such a consummation will put the North into a fair position to consider whether an indefinite prolongation of the contest, with a view to subjugate the Slave States, will be worth the immense suffering and expense which, in the event of their refusing to give up their independence, the attempt to force it from them will inevitably entail. The recovery of the Border States will enable the Government at Washington to put an end to the war on terms at once honourable and advantageous—terms, moreover, which would relieve it from the responsibility of dealing with the difficult question of slavery. But we fear that this termination of the struggle is not to be hoped for, at least for the present. Possibly, too, it is only our ignorance of the real temper of the South which permits us to wish for it. It may turn out, after all, that Secession has been mainly the work of ambitious and disappointed politicians, whose objects, in the hour of misfortune, the majority of the population, even in the Slave States, will decline to further to the ruin of all their material interests and prospects. At any rate, whether the Confederacy shall once more be merged in the Union, or shall succeed in establishing an independent Republic, one thing seems tolerably clear, and in this we rejoice, that the roots of the slave system will have been cut up for ever.

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