The Fort Donelson Campaign

February 7, 1862 – Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant began planning to follow the victory at Fort Henry by capturing a much stronger Confederate fort.

Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant | Image Credit:
Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant | Image Credit:

When Federal naval personnel took Fort Henry on the Tennessee River, a New York Tribune correspondent wrapped up his coverage and stopped at Grant’s headquarters to bid farewell before returning east. Grant said, “You had better wait a day or two… I am going over to capture Fort Donelson tomorrow.”

Grant, his staff, and a cavalry escort reconnoitered Fort Donelson on the 7th. The fort was 12 miles east of Henry on the Cumberland River, near the town of Dover and the Kentucky border. The Confederate garrison at Donelson was much larger than that at Henry, with about 15,000 troops and more heavy artillery. The fort was larger than Henry, with an outer defensive perimeter of 100 acres, and two lines of entrenchments. It was also positioned atop a bluff, where 13 guns commanded the naval approaches, and surrounded by hills, making land assaults difficult.

Brigadier General Bushrod R. Johnson arrived at Donelson and replaced Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman in command. Three days later, Brigadier General Gideon Pillow arrived from Clarksville to take over for Johnson. Pillow announced that he had faith in “the courage and fidelity of the brave officers and men under his command.” He urged them to “drive back the ruthless invaders from our soil and again raise the Confederate flag over Fort Henry… Our battle cry, ‘Liberty or death.’” Despite this rhetoric and Donelson’s strength, Grant, who had known Pillow before the war, did not expect him to put up much of a fight.

Grant may have been ready to advance on Fort Donelson, but Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote’s gunboat flotilla was not. Foote had sent his damaged vessels back to Cairo, Illinois, for quick repairs before they could return to action. The ground forces began moving out of Fort Henry on the 11th, the same day that Foote began his advance to the Cumberland. He notified Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles:

“I leave Cairo again to-night with the Louisville, Pittsburg, and St. Louis for the Cumberland River to cooperate with the army in the attack on Ft. Donelson… I shall do all in my power to render the gunboats effective in the fight, although they are not properly manned… If we could wait ten days, and I had men, I would go with eight mortar boats and six armored boats and conquer.”

Grant’s superior, Major General Henry W. Halleck, instructed Grant to fortify Fort Henry for occupation troops, especially on the land side. However, Grant received this dispatch, as well as many others, too late to stop him from moving against Fort Donelson. The communication gap between Halleck and Grant would play a significant role in future operations.

Meanwhile, Confederate Generals John B. Floyd and Simon B. Buckner at Clarksville began sending Confederates from that town to bolster the Fort Donelson defenses. However, Floyd and Buckner agreed to only send a minimum number of troops so they could focus their true strength at Cumberland City, 15 miles upriver from the fort. This would protect the line to Nashville and enable the Confederates to harass the Federal lines between Forts Henry and Donelson.

Buckner met with Pillow at Donelson to explain this strategy. However, Pillow refused to go along with it because it sounded too much like how Fort Henry was lost. Buckner later recounted that Pillow and Floyd believed that a Federal 12-mile march from Henry to Donelson was “impracticable.” While the Confederate generals debated, Grant’s troops were heading toward them.

Grant now had three divisions, one more than he had at Henry. His two divisions under Brigadier Generals Charles F. Smith and John A. McClernand, totaling about 15,000 men, moved out on the 11th. McClernand’s Federals marched along both the Telegraph and Ridge roads leading to Fort Donelson. Smith’s division moved along the Telegraph road. The third division, under Brigadier General Lew Wallace (future author of Ben-Hur), stayed behind to garrison Fort Henry.

By the night of February 12, Grant’s men had completed the “impracticable” march, no doubt aided by unusually warm weather. The Federals, stalled for several hours by Confederate cavalry under Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest, finally drove the troopers off and formed a semicircle among the hills around Fort Donelson and Dover. Grant established headquarters in the kitchen of a farmhouse and awaited gunboat support from the Cumberland.

Meanwhile, Pillow had left Donelson to discuss strategy with Floyd at Clarksville. Before he could get there, Pillow heard the sound of cannon at the fort and hurried back. The Federals’ arrival meant that Buckner’s plan to fortify Cumberland City would have to be abandoned in favor of making a stand at Donelson. This was just what Pillow had wanted in the first place. Pillow telegraphed both Floyd and General Albert Sidney Johnston, commanding the Western Theater:

“We shall have a battle in the morning, I think certainly, and an attack by gun-boats. The enemy are all around my position and within distance to close in with me in ten minutes’ march. One gun-boat came today and fired fifteen or twenty shells and retired. We gave no reply. I have sent up to Cumberland City for Baldwin’s two regiments. Feel sanguine of victory, though I am not fully ready. I have done all that it was possible to do, and think I will drive back the enemy.”


References (multiple dates); Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 280-81; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 125, 127; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 194-95; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 106-09; Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (New York: Da Capo Press, 1982 [original 1885, republication of 1952 edition]), p. 150-52, 166-67; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 167-70; Nevin, David, The Road to Shiloh: Early Battles in the West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 81; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 246

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