The Battle of Fort Donelson

Sited on the banks of the Cumberland River and only a matter of miles from Fort Henry, Fort Donelson was slated for Union assault even before General Ulysses S. Grant’s taking of Fort Henry. The close proximity between the two forts ensured that the Confederates would not be taken by surprise when Grant went onto Fort Donelson, but both sides knew that the ceding of Donelson would be a swift second defeat in a matter of days and inspire the Union to make further advances into Tennessee and Kentucky.

On the Confederate side, General Albert Sidney Johnston conferred with his two generals, General William Hardee and General P.G.T. Beauregard, recently arrived from the Eastern Theater.[i] Beauregard, accustomed to the stronger Confederate presence in the Eastern Theater, was shocked at the dire situation in the Western Theater, as he had expected to see 70,000 Confederates prepared to make an advance on the Yankees but in fact found the Confederacy on the defensive.[ii] He proposed that Johnston concentrate his troops at Fort Donelson, defeat General Grant there, and then make an advance on Union General Don Carlos Buell in an effort to send him back across the Ohio River and maintain the western line of defense.[iii] Johnston disagreed with Beauregard, citing the long odds of the plan, and he convinced Beauregard of a different plan; one in which was sent by telegraph to Richmond and consisted of his army retreating behind the Cumberland River and relinquishing control of Kentucky.[iv] According to Johnston’s plan, the Confederates in Fort Donelson had the task of holding the fort as long as possible to permit their compatriots to flee to Nashville.[v]

Map of Fort Donelson.

Like Fort Henry, Fort Donelson stood at a bend in the river, but Donelson had the advantage of being situated on a hundred-foot bluff with batteries capable of raining fire upon those advancing on it.[vi] Confederate engineers, realizing that the fort could not withstand a sustained assault, had rifle pits dug around the fort which when combined with felled trees and their sharpened branches were sure to slow the Union advance.[vii] In all, the Confederates counted 17,500 guardians of the fort who had the benefit of artillery and cavalry.[viii]

Before the Union infantry advanced on the fortifications, Union gunboats steamed down the river and opened fire on the fort. The cavalry commander, Nathan Bedford Forrest, cried out to a staff member that was a former minister, “Parson, for God sake pray! Nothing but God Almighty can save that fort.”[ix] Confederate General John Floyd, who had the unpalatable task of defending Fort Donelson, wrote to General Johnston: “The fort cannot hold out twenty minutes.”[x] In fact, the Confederates would hold the fort a good bit longer than twenty minutes.

General Ulysses S. Grant Watching the Battle of Fort Donelson.

On the Union side, General Grant was not as sure of Fort Donelson’s weakness as Confederate General Floyd, as he said to a New York Tribune reporter when asked of the strength of the fort, “We have not been able to ascertain exactly, but I think we can take it.”[xi] Rather than make a hasty advance on the fort, he chose to build a force capable of taking the fort without question or doubt. For a man who was quiet in nature and simple in manners, he was preparing a massive assault with 10,000 more reinforcements and gunboats coming to him.[xii] On February 12, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, Grant and his men moved forward. The soldiers had the burden of carrying two days’ rations, forty rounds of ammunition, and their winter equipment but the aid of bantering back and forth about the reports of citizens already celebrating their victory at Fort Henry.[xiii] In total, Grant had 27,500 men at his disposal, and he arrived with 15,000 men in his marching column at the fort after noon and heard the distant shots of Confederate snipers, then shots from the river, indicating that the gunboats had arrived and were unloading on the Confederates.[xiv] General Floyd’s prediction of a twenty minute defense was disproven, and Confederate gunners witnessed that fact firsthand as they knocked out several Union gunboats to the cheers of their comrades. As the sun set that day, the guns quieted and snow began to fall.

The following morning, after a blanket of snow fell on the area, an ambitious Illinois lawyer who hoped to emerge from the war as a hero and pave a way to the White House, John McClernand, launched an attack on a Confederate battery to his front without effect.[xv] Grant, who heard the shots ring out from afar, would have been disappointed to know that the advance accomplished virtually nothing but “lengthen the casualty lists.”[xvi] The Confederates had outmaneuvered the Yankees: Brigadier General Gideon Pillow and Lieutenant General Simon Bolivar Buckner ordered an advance through the powdery snow with Forrest leading the rampaging cavalry into the Union formation that McClernand fruitlessly led.[xvii] McClernand’s men opened fire but fell back and opened the road from Fort Donelson to Nashville for the Confederates; the path for safe evacuation that they had been seeking.[xviii] With the day’s end came the realization that a thousand men had already died and three thousand more were wounded, some still lying in the cold.[xix]

Painting of the Battle of Fort Donelson.

Grant made his way by horseback to McClernand’s position to find a discouraged group of men stinging from defeat. The Confederate troops had stopped pursuing the Yankees, and rumors were abound that the rebels had three days worth of cooked rations causing some Union men to conclude that three days of hard fighting lay ahead of them.[xx] Grant had another interpretation: the Confederates were preparing for an escape from the fort, prompting him to say, “The one who attacks first now will be victorious, and the enemy will have to be in a hurry if he gets ahead of me.”[xxi] He immediately ordered the gunboats forward and the men to advance on the ridge, hoping to inspire their confidence and to break the Confederate line.[xxii] One of Grant’s brigadier generals, Lew Wallace, led his division shouting, “You have been wanting a fight; you have got it. Hell’s before you!”[xxiii] A fury of gunshots followed; a fury that was unsustainable for the Confederates to repel but provided ample time for evacuating.

Painting of the Battle of Fort Donelson.

Before the battle would reach a crescendo, the Confederates had already determined that surrender of the fort would be the result. Each Confederate general fled except for Buckner, including the cavalry commander Forrest, and Buckner composed a note to Grant:

“In consideration of all the circumstances governing the present situation of affairs at this station, I propose to the commanding officer of the Federal forces the appointment of commissioners to agree upon the terms of capitulation of the forces and fort under my command, and in that view suggest an armistice until twelve o’clock today.”[xxiv]

Grant received the message, “stroked his mustache while warming his boots and backside,” and wrote a note on a sheet of paper.[xxv] Meanwhile, Buckner informed his troops that surrender negotiations had begun, prompting other Confederate officers and soldiers to board steamboats and flee.[xxvi] Buckner, given the fact that he and Grant had attended West Point together, expected a measure of generosity in handling the Confederate surrender, but Grant’s reply did not meet Buckner’s expectation:

“Sir: Yours of this date proposing Armistice, and appointment of Commissioners, to settle terms of Capitulation is just received. No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works. I am Sir: very respectfully Your obt. sevt. U.S. Grant Brig. Gen.”[xxvii]

With other Confederate officers and soldiers already gone from the fort, Buckner had little choice but to accept the terms, if they could be called that, Grant offered him. He sent a message back to Grant, indicating his acceptance of the “ungenerous and unchivalrous terms” that Grant proposed.[xxviii] Grant made his way by horseback into the fort and joined Wallace’s “cornbread-and-coffee breakfast” with Buckner and other Confederates.[xxix] One northern correspondent observed that the Confederates from the northern part of the Confederacy were not particularly bothered by the defeat while those in the Gulf states were “sour, not inclined to talk.”[xxx] Some Confederate men casually talked with their Union counterparts as if the fighting never occurred, and other Confederates took advantage of the conciliatory atmosphere and peacefully walked away from the fort and likely back to their homes and out of the war altogether.[xxxi]

General Ulysses S. Grant.

Churches rang their bells throughout what remained of the Union, adding to the celebratory mood that also manifested itself in families embracing in the streets and concluding that the Confederacy was in its “death struggle.”[xxxii] As it was reported in the newspapers, “Unconditional Surrender” Grant was ready to continue attacking the Confederates and in a manner that had brought success to the Union cause. His eagerness to fight brought Lincoln to promote him to major general, making him only answerable to Henry Halleck in the Western Theater and continuing his elevation from a man of “dubious reputation” with a hardscrabble life to a hero of the nation.[xxxiii]

On the Confederate side, the defeats at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson casted a shroud of disgrace and shame that caused some to experience “nervous chills every day.”[xxxiv] Hope, although scarce in the wake of defeat, was not entirely absent: with the Confederacy’s commanders, like Forrest commanding his 700 troopers and possessing a “killer instinct toward Yankees,” there was a sense that the disasters at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson would not soon be repeated but instead reversed, placing the Union on the defensive.[xxxv]

[i] See Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, 192.

[ii] See id.

[iii] See id.

[iv] Id. at 193.

[v] See id.

[vi] See id. at 194.

[vii] Id.

[viii] Id. at 195.

[ix] Id.

[x] Id.

[xi] Id.

[xii] See id. at 196-97.

[xiii] See id. at 198.

[xiv] See id.

[xv] Id. at 199.

[xvi] Id.

[xvii] See id. at 206.

[xviii] See id. at 206-07.

[xix] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 401.

[xx] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. I, 208.

[xxi] Id.

[xxii] See id.

[xxiii] Id. at 209.

[xxiv] Id. at 211; see also James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 402.

[xxv] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. I, 211.

[xxvi] See id. at 212.

[xxvii] Id.

[xxviii] See id. at 213.

[xxix] See id.

[xxx] Id.

[xxxi] See id.

[xxxii] See id. at 214.

[xxxiii] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 402.

[xxxiv] Id. at 403.

[xxxv] See id.


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