Fort Donelson: The Confederate Breakout

Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant, commanding the Federal army surrounding the Confederate garrison at Fort Donelson, Tennessee, received a message from Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote, commander of the naval flotilla that had been severely damaged in the aborted assault on the fort on February 14. Foote wrote that the wound he had sustained left him unable to command, and he asked Grant to come meet with him. Grant agreed.

Grant’s chief of staff, John A. Rawlins, instructed the three division commanders (Brigadier Generals Charles F. Smith, John A. McClernand, and Lew Wallace) “to do nothing to bring on an engagement until they received further orders, but to hold their positions.” Aboard Foote’s flagship, the naval commander told Grant that the gunboats would have to return to Mound City for repairs. The lack of naval support meant that Grant could not directly assault Fort Donelson and would instead have to place it under siege. However, the siege plans ended when the Confederates attacked on the morning of the 15th.

At 5 a.m., Brigadier General Gideon Pillow assembled his Confederates for their attempt to break through the southern (i.e., McClernand’s) sector of the Federal line around Fort Donelson and escape to Nashville. Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry troopers began the action by skirmishing with the Federal pickets in the northern sector to divert Federal attention from Pillow’s impending assault to the south. Pillow’s advance began in full force around 7 a.m., supported by Confederates under Brigadier General Simon B. Buckner. Fighting with McClernand’s Federals soon raged all around the Wynn’s Ferry road leading directly to Nashville.

After several hours of hard combat, the breakout appeared successful. McClernand had been pushed back nearly a mile, and the road to Nashville was open for the Confederates to take. Both Pillow and the overall commander, Brigadier General John B. Floyd, telegraphed General Albert Sidney Johnston, commanding the Confederate Western Theater, that they had won a great victory.

Grant heard the gunfire and hurried back from the river to prepare for a counterattack. He told his officers, “The position on the right (south) must be retaken. Some of our men are pretty badly demoralized, but the enemy must be more so, for he has attempted to force his way out, but has fallen back; 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.”

Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant | Image Credit:

Grant was correct–the enemy had indeed “fallen back” as the Confederate victory began turning sour. Buckner’s diversionary attack on the Federal left had been stopped cold, and the commanders had not decided on whether to immediately escape or fall back and regroup before taking the road to Nashville. Pillow chose the latter, ordering a withdrawal back to the trenches.

Buckner protested to Floyd, who had ordered Buckner’s men to hold the road so the rest of the army could escape. Floyd went to Pillow and demanded an explanation for the withdrawal. Pillow convinced him that the road would stay open long enough to reorganize. Floyd then changed his mind and sided with Pillow.

This dispute gave Grant time to direct Smith’s division to attack from the north. Grant told Smith, “All has failed on our right–you must take Fort Donelson.” Smith, Grant’s ranking and most experienced subordinate, led his men forward on horseback and yelled back at them, “Damn you, gentlemen, I see skulkers. I’ll have none here. Come on, you volunteers, come on. This is your chance. You volunteered to be killed for love of your country and now you can be. You are only damned volunteers. I am only a soldier and I don’t want to be killed, but you came to be killed and now you can be.”

Smith’s Federals quickly captured the fort’s outer ramparts. Meanwhile, Grant’s third division under Wallace shifted southward to help McClernand stem the Confederate advance. Grant then wrote to Foote:

“If all the gunboats that can will immediately make their appearance to the enemy it may secure us a victory. Otherwise all may be defeated. A terrible conflict ensued in my absence, which has demoralized a portion of my command, but I think the enemy is more so. If the gunboats do not show themselves it will reassure the enemy and still further demoralize our troops. I must order a charge to save appearances. I do not expect the gunboats to go into action, but to make an appearance and throw a few shells at long range.”

Foote complied, and the Federal gunboats renewed their bombardment until the Confederate escape route was blocked and the fort surrounded.

When the fighting ended for the day, both sides held roughly the same positions they did before the battle began, but they had suffered a combined 4,000 casualties (1,000 killed and 3,000 wounded). Mary Ann “Mother” Bickerdyke tended to the cold, wounded men left lying on the battlefield and gained fame for her role in caring for Federal troops.

That evening, the Confederate commanders held a council of war at the Dover Inn. Their troops had been in their trenches for several days, exposed not only to enemy fire but the brutal rain, sleet, wind, and cold. Floyd began discussing plans to take the road to Nashville the next morning, but those plans were dashed by reports that the Federals had regained all their lost ground.

Pillow and Buckner blamed each other for failing to capitalize on the initial Confederate success that morning. Colonel Forrest, who had two horses shot out from under him in the fighting, argued that a path to escape was still open on the extreme Federal right, along the Cumberland River. However, the army surgeon warned that a nighttime escape attempt could cause many deaths from exposure to the extreme cold.

Buckner urged surrender, saying, “It would be wrong to subject the army to a virtual massacre when no good would come from the sacrifice.” Pillow wanted to try another breakout, but Floyd and Buckner asserted that it could cost them three-fourths of their men, and they were not willing to sacrifice that many just to save the remaining fourth.

The three commanders finally agreed that surrender was the only option. However, the top commander, Floyd, did not want to surrender personally. He feared that Federal authorities might punish him for arms deals he had allegedly made with southern states when he was the U.S. secretary of war in late 1860.

Floyd asked Pillow, his second-in-command, if he would surrender the fort if Floyd passed command to him. Pillow declined; he had vowed never to surrender and insisted that breaking his pledge would demoralize the Confederacy. Buckner said that he would surrender if the command was passed to him, if only to avoid further bloodshed without hope of victory. Floyd and Pillow liked the idea, possibly because Buckner might get better terms from Grant since the men had been friends before the war.

Floyd asked, “General Buckner, if I place you in command, will you allow me to get out as much of my brigade as I can?” Buckner said, “I will, provided you do so before the enemy receives my proposition for capitulation.” In accordance with military protocol, Floyd motioned to Pillow and said, “I turn over my command, sir.” Pillow said, “I pass it.” Buckner said, “I assume it. Give me pen, ink and paper, and send for a bugler (to sound the parley).”

This deal was unacceptable to Forrest, who declared, “I did not come here for the purpose of surrendering my command.” Pillow advised him to “Cut your way out,” and Buckner authorized Forrest to attempt escape. Forrest returned to his troopers and said, “Boys, these people are talking about surrendering, and I am going out of this place before they do or bust hell wide open.” The 700 cavalry troopers took the route that Forrest had noted on the extreme right, along a narrow path through a freezing swamp and snowy woods to Nashville.

On the early morning of the 16th, Floyd and Pillow slipped out of Fort Donelson, rowing across the Cumberland River under cover of freezing darkness with about 2,500 of their men. Meanwhile, Grant prepared orders for a general assault on all sides of the fort.


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