Fort Donelson: Attacks on Land and Water

By the morning of February 13, Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant’s Federal troops had been positioned in a semicircle around Fort Donelson’s outer defenses, from the west to the south. The division of Brigadier General Charles F. Smith held the left, or western, part of the line, while Brigadier general John A. McClernand’s division held the right, or southern, part. North of the fort remained open, and the Cumberland River flowed to the fort’s east.

General Albert Sidney Johnston, commanding Confederate Department Number 2 (i.e., the Western Theater), ordered Brigadier General John B. Floyd to hurry his remaining brigade from Bowling Green, Kentucky, to Fort Donelson. Floyd arrived at dawn on the 13th and became the ranking officer over Brigadier Generals Gideon Pillow and Simon B. Buckner already there. The addition of Floyd’s brigade brought the total number of Confederate defenders to 15,000, or a force about equivalent to Grant’s. Floyd telegraphed Johnston, “Our field defenses are good. I think we can sustain ourselves against the land forces.”

Grant was anxious to attack, but the gunboat fleet had not yet arrived in support. Only the U.S.S. Carondelet under Captain Henry Walke was there. Grant told Walke that if could begin firing on Fort Donelson, “we will be ready to take advantage of every diversion in our favor.” The Carondelet advanced at 9 a.m. and ultimately fired 139 rounds into the fort. Floyd reported, “After two hours’ cannonade the enemy hauled off their gunboats; will commence probably again.” When the gunboat attack resumed, Floyd sent a panicked message: “The fort cannot hold out twenty minutes.”

Despite Grant’s order not to provoke a general engagement until the remaining gunboats arrived, both Generals Smith and McClernand sent troops forward. Smith’s men assailed Buckner’s forces on the Confederate right but fell back after a sharp fight. McClernand sent three regiments against a battery in the Confederate center, but they were repelled with heavy losses.

These clashes indicated that the Confederates intended to hold firm, despite Floyd’s worry that they might collapse. Buckner reported that “the fire of the enemy’s artillery and riflemen was incessant throughout the day; but was responded to by a well-directed fire from the intrenchments, which inflicted upon the assailant a considerable loss, and almost silenced his fire late in the afternoon.”

Grant downplayed the setbacks in a message to his superior, Major General Henry W. Halleck. Referring to them as “skirmishing all day,” Grant reported, “I feel every confidence of success, and the best feeling prevails among the men.”

Rain began falling that afternoon, and the fighting died down by nightfall. Around that time, northern winds brought in a cold front that turned the rain to ice and dropped temperatures to 10 degrees. The Federals had no tents for shelter, and Confederate sharpshooters prevented them from building fires. Men who had discarded their blankets and heavy coats on the balmy march from Fort Henry now struggled to survive in the bitter cold.

Both sides exchanged artillery fire intermittently through the night as Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote arrived with five more gunboats from his Federal squadron: the ironclads U.S.S. St. Louis, Louisville, and Pittsburgh; and the timber-clads U.S.S. Tyler and Conestoga. Foote also brought army reinforcements that took up positions on the open (northern) end of Grant’s semicircle around Fort Donelson.

From his St. Louis headquarters, Halleck again requested help from Brigadier General Don Carlos Buell, commanding the Department of the Ohio east of Fort Donelson. Halleck urged Buell to feint against Bowling Green to prevent Confederates at Columbus, Kentucky, from moving to reinforce the fort. Once again, Buell demurred, further demonstrating the two commanders’ inability to coordinate their efforts.

Early on the 14th, Grant rode out to observe the Federal reinforcements debarking from the river transports. He also met with Foote to discuss launching a gunboat attack on the fort. Foote initially resisted because Donelson, situated atop a high bluff, would be much harder to bombard than Fort Henry. But Grant convinced him to try.

Foote finally arranged his gunboats into battle order around 3 p.m. The front line (west to east) consisted of the Louisville, Foote’s flagship St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Carondelet. Foote intended to repeat the tactics that had won Fort Henry by placing the more formidable ironclads in front and keeping the wooden vessels in back.

Federal gunboat attack of Feb 14 | Image Credit: Wikipedia

Confederate artillerists atop the commanding 150-foot-high bluff watched the vessels advance to within 1,000 yards and then opened fire. The flotilla managed to get within 400 yards of the fort, but being at such a close distance caused Federal gunners to overshoot their targets. Meanwhile, the Confederates poured a devastating fire almost directly down upon the boat decks and pilothouses. A private in the 49th Tennessee watched the battle and wrote:

“The gunboats with full Determination to take our Battrey by Storme… pressed up the river stidley firing on us. The Bum shells were bursting in the air threatening sudden death and distrucktion. Stil tha came on… within Three Hundred yards of the Batterrys and tha turned loosed their guns with grap shot to run our gunners away from thear Guns but tha finding our men to hard and brave for them, tha concluded to givit up and tha turned down the River while the Iron and Wood was flying from them upin the air tha sneaked down behind the bend badely tore to peasis.”

One Confederate shot that hit the St. Louis killed the pilot, wounded Foote, destroyed the ship’s steering mechanism, and sent her drifting downriver. Another shot destroyed the Pittsburgh’s tiller ropes, putting her out of action. The Louisville sustained so much damage that she also drifted out of the fight. Floyd telegraphed Johnston, “The fort holds out. Three gunboats have retired. Only one firing now.” That one, the Carondelet, finally withdrew under heavy fire, also badly damaged. The timber-clads could not get within range of the well-placed Confederate guns atop the bluff.

Foote finally ordered a general withdrawal and then relinquished command due to his injuries. The St. Louis and Louisville were put out of action indefinitely, and each of the three ironclads had taken at least 40 hits. The Federals lost 11 men killed and 43 wounded; the Confederates lost nobody. Grant reported to Halleck: “Our troops now invest the works at Fort Donelson. The enemy have been driven into their works at every point. A heavy abatis all around prevents carrying the works by storm at present. I feel every confidence of success and the best feeling prevails among the men.”

Grant also wrote to Brigadier General George W. Cullum, Halleck’s chief of staff who was supervising the transfer of troops and supplies from Cairo, Illinois, to Grant’s army: “Appearances indicate now that we will have a protracted siege here…” Grant asked for more ammunition and added, “The ground is very broken… the fallen timber extending far out from the breastworks, I fear the result of an attempt to carry the place by storm with raw troops. I feel great confidence, however, of ultimately reducing the place.” But Grant privately confided to his wife that this “bids fair to be a long job.”

Floyd held a council of war with his division and brigade commanders that night. The Confederates had been successful thus far, but the Federals now had 25,000 men surrounding Fort Donelson from the north, west, and south. Moreover, Federal gunboats still commanded the river to the east, making the arrival of Confederate reinforcements and supplies nearly impossible.

Acknowledging that the Federals would ultimately overpower them, the commanders agreed to abandon the fort. They planned to try breaking through the Federal line on the right, or southern, flank, which would open the road to sanctuary at Nashville. Some, like Buckner, went along with the breakout plan but doubted its chances for success.

Ice storms and brutal winds continued that night, partially masking Pillow’s Confederates as they shifted southward. They would advance at 5 a.m. and attempt to break through while Buckner held the Federals north of the fort. Buckner’s force would then become the rear guard and follow Pillow south. The commanders did not have a unified plan of action in case their breakout actually succeeded.


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