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Book Review: Island No. 10: Struggle for the Mississippi Valley (Larry J. Daniel and Lynn N. Bock) : CWT

Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: August 12, 2001 
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Island No. 10: Struggle for the Mississippi Valley,by Larry J. Daniel and Lynn N. Bock (University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, 213 pages, $24.95).

Island No. 10: Struggle for the Mississippi Valley is the first book ever to be devoted entirely to the siege and capture of the Confederate stronghold of Island No. 10 on the Mississippi River in March and April 1862. It also is a book that should not exist. This has nothing to do with its quality–quite the contrary. It is because the book deals with an event that never should have occurred.

To understand why this is so, we need to know the basic facts about Union and Confederate strategy regarding the Mississippi. From the start of the war, the North sought to cut the Confederacy in two by gaining control of the river. Southern leaders, realizing and fearing the Northern strategy, endeavored to forestall it by establishing a chain of forts along the Mississippi starting at Columbus, Kentucky, and ending below New Orleans.

Unfortunately for the Confederacy, two fatal flaws existed in this defensive system. The first was that Yankee invaders could penetrate the Mississippi Valley by other rivers, notably the Tennessee and the Cumberland. The second was that no matter how formidable the Confederate forts were when faced with water-borne frontal attacks, all of them, or the places they defended, were vulnerable to land attacks from the rear.

These flaws became evident in February 1862 when Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant's army captured Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and then Fort Donelson on the Cumberland, causing the Confederates to retreat from southern Kentucky into northern Mississippi. In the process they abandoned their "Gibraltar of the West" at Columbus because it now could be invested on its landward side. Especially significant was what happened at Donelson. There, the fort's cannon repelled a naval assault but were useless against Grant's troops.

The next link in the Confederacy's Mississippi defense chain was Island No. 10. So named because it was the 10th island on the river below Cairo, Illinois, Island No. 10 was located on an S-shaped bend in the Mississippi and so situated that its powerful batteries could smash non-armored vessels trying to pass. Moreover, unlike Donelson and Columbus, it could be taken only by an extremely risky and costly amphibious assault, by an artillery bombardment that stood little chance of success against its strong fortifications, or by blocking its garrison's line of supply and retreat by seizing Tiptonville, Tennessee, directly to the south.

Brigadier General John Pope, who had been assigned the mission of capturing Island No. 10, chose the third alternative and, more important, implemented it successfully. On April 7 Pope's forces captured Tiptonville and on the next day the island's garrison, faced with eventual starvation, surrendered. The Federals did not suffer a single casualty, while the Confederate loss totaled about 4,500, nearly all of them prisoners, including 15 to 20 prostitutes who promptly transferred their services to the Union cause.

It was a glorious victory achieved by means that Grant would emulate a year later at Vicksburg, Mississippi. Yet it also was an unnecessary victory. The Confederate defeat at Shiloh on the same day Pope took Tiptonville made Island No. 10 untenable and would have obliged its defenders to evacuate it even had Pope done nothing. As it was, all they gained by their foredoomed attempt to hold Island No. 10 was something they could not have foreseen: Pope's riding that success into command of Union forces in northern Virginia, where his blunders contributed greatly to the most brilliant offensive campaign ever waged by the team of Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson.

To repeat, this is the first book about Island No. 10. Almost surely it will be the last one because it is definitive; it is thoroughly researched, well-written, sound in its analyses, and provides a new and valuable insight concerning an important but neglected aspect of the Civil War. As James M. McPherson, the noted Civil War author and scholar, states on the back cover, the book "will be useful to historians of the Civil War [and] Civil War buffs will want it for their libraries."

Albert Castel

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