Despite being the shortest month of the year, February has an historical highlight list that rivals any other time of the year. It seems that this time of transition from mid-winter into the hopeful days that lead to spring signals to the fates that it is time to move and make something happen.
1 February – Texas became the seventh state to secede from the Union. Three days later in Washington, DC, was the Peace Convention, a last desperate attempt to save the Union. Delegates from 21 states attended—none from the other six that had seceded: South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana.
On the 9th, Jefferson Davis became the first president of the new Confederate States of America. He received word by telegram the next day at his home, Brierfield, in Mississippi. He was moderate in his views, and the states of the Deep South hoped this would lead to the secession of the Border States.
6 February – Flag Officer Andrew Foote approached Fort Henry on the Tennessee River with a constant cannonade from his four ironclads and seven wooden gunboats. Confederate General Lloyd Tilghman had sent the bulk of his force away to avoid capture. He remained with his artillerymen and put up a gallant defense before surrendering the fort. U.S. Grant’s infantry arrived as the fight drew to a close. The next target was 12 miles east on the Cumberland River, Fort Donelson.
General Simon Bolivar Buckner was in command at Fort Donelson when Union forces were moving by land in conjunction with a flotilla of gunboats to besiege the Confederate stronghold. They had known each other at West Point, classes of 1844 (Buckner) and 1843 (Grant), and remained friends after the war.
General Gideon Pillow was leading the Confederates who pushed Grant back to the river at Belmont, Missouri, the previous November. Here at Donelson, the Tennessean had his men hold off the approaching Union forces but did not take advantage of a break in their lines. He retired to the fort and was thrust to the fore when General John B. Floyd decided to make a hasty departure.
Floyd was the senior Confederate commander. As U.S. Secretary of State before secession, he had been under indictment in Washington for the questionable transfer of military stores to southern states before the hostilities broke out. He desperately wanted to avoid capture by the Federals for fear of charges for treason. Before this could happen, he loaded his two Virginia regiments and some artillery onto a steamboat and “skedaddled” upriver (to the east-southeast) to Nashville. He turned over command to Pillow who had once echoed Patrick Henry’s statement about a preference for death over loss of liberty. When the situation looked grim at Donelson, Pillow had a change of heart and sought “liberty” in a rowboat across the Cumberland river under cover of night. General Grant had a terse assessment of Pillow as an adversary: Pillow “was no soldier, and possibly, did not possess the elements of one.”
On February 13, the Union continued to position and surround the fort. Both division commanders ordered attacks against the Confederate works without success. This gave the Confederates precious time to reinforce the garrison, increasing the ranks to about 15,000 to 17,000. They now had a force nearly equal or slightly larger than the attackers. Grant sent word to Fort Henry, ordering W.H.L. Wallace to bring his brigade to Donelson. That night the wind shifted and the temperature began to drop. A heavy rain that soaked both armies, changed to sleet then freezing rain and finally a snowstorm that lasted all night. By morning, there were several inches of snow on the ground and the temperatures remained well below freezing.
There are reports that many of the Yankee soldiers who had marched in the balmy weather discarded their overcoats and blankets. They were unused to such mild days in February and enjoyed the false dose of spring that was concealing a wintry blast. They regretted their rash decision the following day when they were exposed to the snow and unprotected from the icy winds.
16 February – The U.S. Senate passed the Conscription Act to bolster the Union Army. Volunteerism had waned and setbacks on the battlefield coupled with desertion had depleted the ranks severely.
13 February – President Jefferson Davis suspends habeas corpus in the Confederate States for anyone arrested for spying, political dissent, associating with the enemy or enemy agents and desertion.
World War II
In Great Britain, political and labor leaders began work on a plan to mobilize women in the home front war effort. Employers and the unions were negotiating to assure equal pay for women who work in the munitions factories. The populace was beginning to accept the concept of women assuming men’s duties in many capacities.
22 February – In Tibet and throughout the monasteries and temples of the Buddhist world, a five-year old peasant boy was receiving bows of adulation. The high lamas chose the five-year old Lhamo Dhondop as the new Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists. A moment of peace in the war-torn world.
3 February – Prime Minister Eamon de Valera called for the recruitment of 250,000 more soldiers for the Republic of Ireland. The Republic had proclaimed neutrality in the war and there was fear of reprisals from Axis and Allied sides if they violated it. Later that year, Malcolm MacDonald who had been British Secretary of State for the Colonies met covertly with de Valera in a series of talks. MacDonald raised the possibility of a united Ireland in exchange for full support of the British war effort. There was such mutual distrust between the governments of Northern Ireland and the Republic, that de Valera rejected the proposal.
22 February – In a lightning attack at Kasserine Pass, Tunisia, German General Erwin Rommel dealt the Allies a severe blow. It was a decisive defeat for the Americans who were in a discordant command situation from the beginning. The American General Lloyd Fredenhall disliked working with the British commander, Lieutenant General Kenneth Anderson, and felt the French corps was of no use. The French refused to serve under British command, since the British had destroyed the French fleet at Oran, Algeria. This was to prevent its seizure and utilization by the Germans. The hapless Allies were ripe for a blitzkrieg attack by Rommel’s Stuka dive-bombers and tanks. Rommel sensed their confusion and achieved victory. When reinforcements arrived for the Allies on 25 February, they attacked Rommel’s positions, only to find that he had withdrawn. Lieutenant General George S. Patton, Jr. received his appointment to take command of the U.S. II Corps a week later.