Defense of Fort Bankhead

    After the fall of Forts Henry and Donnellson the position at Columbus, Kentucky appeared to be very difficult to defend. On February 20, 1862 the order was given to abandon the area. General Polk would withdraw to Jackson, Tennessee with most of the infantry and cavalry but the bulk of artillery would be sent to Island No. 10. Bankhead's Battery was ordered to prepare to move by river to New Madrid with the 2nd. Brigade commanded by Col. Travis of the 5th. Tenn. General Polk's order no. 19 signed on Sept. 7, 1861 had created this brigade which was made up of the 4th. and 5th. Tenn. and the 12th. Louisiana regiments.

   Island No. 10 was the key defensive position on the Mississippi River in the New Madrid area. It commanded an unobstructed view up river from a point just south of the Tennessee state line. This part of the river was known as the Seven Mile Reach. Island No. 10 was located in the first curve of an inverted S. New Madrid was located to the north of Island No. 10 on the north shore of the second curve. To the west of town Fort Thompson had been built with two regiments of Arkansas troops and a battery of guns. The New Madrid position was the western flank of the Island No. 10 defenses.

    General J.P. McCown was in command of the Island No. 10 defenses. He ordered the Second Brigade to New Madrid. Bankhead's Battery and the 5th. Tenn. arrived on February 27 and were ordered to the north and east of town near the mouth of the St. John's Bayou to construct a defensive position. The men set about digging an earthen breastwork soon to become known as Fort Bankhead. The fort consisted of a long parapet ditch in an irregular line. In front of the fort was a short area of abates of brush and felled trees. The works were about 300 - 400 yards long extending from the river to the north side of town. A series of trenches connected Fort Bankhead to Fort Thompson which was a four sided fortification. Fort Bankhead was a fort in name only. It was poorly fortified. Two additional regiments from Fort Pillow soon arrived to fill out this garrison. They were the 40th. Tenn. and a strangely name regiment the 1st. Alabama, Tennessee, and Mississippi Regiment. About 3000 troops held this position of which 132 men were from Bankhead's Battery.

    The artillerymen came with complete baggage. They set up camp near their guns. Tents were set up and the men put to work building defenses. Wooden platforms were constructed for the guns. In addition to the six guns of the battery four 32 pounders were also manned. There was some concern about a protracted engagement because Bankhead's Battery was stretched to man 10 guns and their were no relay's of men to serve the pieces. The men were not informed about strategy and even the Confederate commanders were uncertain if offensive or defensive operations were being planned. There would be no more reinforcements and the forces present were too weak to go on the offensive. This became clear when Federal forces began to arrive.

    Federal forces had been moving since the order was given on February 18. Brigadier General John Pope with about 18,000 men began arriving in the area on March 2. A reconnaissance force appeared at the outskirts of the town on Sunday March 2. Captain Bankhead was ordered to move his battery to a position near the sawmill while Col. Walker's 40th. Tenn. was ordered to attack. A few rounds were fired by Bankhead's Battery and the enemy retired. The troops then retired to their positions in Fort Bankhead. This was the only offensive action taken. On March 4 the Federals returned with artillery and infantry and an artillery duel commenced for some time. Bankhead's Battery with the help of six Confederate gunboats forced the enemy to withdraw. The engagement appears to be a Federal test of the Confederate defenses as no assault was planed. On March 6 General Pope captured Point Pleasant south of New Madrid and began to engage the Confederate gunboats. A renewed attack was made on Fort Bankhead on March 7. This has been described in the official records as a "strong advance" but it was repulsed by Bankhead's Battery and the gunboat Pontchartrain. The Federals brought more guns to Pt. Pleasant on March 8 and 9 and skirmished with Fort Bankhead on March 10. On March 13 Fort Bankhead was again attacked while heavy Federal guns were brought up to fire upon Fort Thompson. During this engagement the Confederate transports came under fire and the navy was losing its ability to stay in the area of New Madrid.

    It was decided to evacuate New Madrid during the night of March 13. General McCown gave the order for which he will be criticized by Confederate authorities. His position was untenable. Pope was getting closer and closer to Fort Thompson and the Confederate gunboats (none were armored) were under fire. Federal infantry had been masses for an attack but thanks to Confederate artillery this force had been dispersed. Very little damage had been done but the next day did not look good as no reinforcements were available. Gen. L.M. Walker was placed in charge of evacuating Fort Bankhead. The steamer DeSoto was ordered to take Bankhead's Battery with the help of the gunboat Ohio Belle. Another gunboat, the Winchester, was also ordered to help but did not obey the order and left the area. Guns and equipment were to be loaded first and tents last so as to deceive the enemy. It became apparent that there would not be enough room for all the equipment so the caissons and some limbers with their contents were thrown into the river and the heavy guns were spiked and some of their carriages damaged. A heavy rainstorm began about 11pm. at which time the tents were struck and carried on board wet.

   Bankhead's Battery arrived at Fort Pillow the next day. General McCrown, in his after action report, commended Captain Bankhead. Bankhead was called "a reliable man and a well-instructed soldier." McCown had even considered sending him to Island No. 10 where good artillerymen were needed but that was not possible now. As the artillery commander of the upper works at New Madrid and the fine work done by his men it is very commendable that the position was called Fort Bankhead.

"Last Updated 7/14/2014"

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