The Fall of Fort Donelson

Late on February 15, the Confederate commanders in Fort Donelson, Tennessee, had agreed to surrender their force to Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant’s surrounding Federal army. As the two ranking generals, Generals John B. Floyd and Gideon Pillow, escaped across the Cumberland River, Brigadier General Simon B. Buckner sent a message into the Federal lines under flag of truce around 3 a.m. on the 16th:

“Sir: 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 12 o’clock to-day.”

Simon B. Buckner | Image Credit:

Federal troops had been tipped off that something was happening because Confederate deserters were telling them that the Confederate pickets were falling back. Grant received Buckner’s message and shared it with Brigadier General Charles F. Smith, his ranking subordinate and a senior officer whom Grant admired. Smith read it and said, “No terms with traitors, by God!” Grant directed his men to prepare for an attack as he sent a messenger to Buckner with his reply:

“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.”

This response shocked Buckner, considering his relationship with Grant before the war; he had even loaned Grant money when he fell on hard times. Compared to the liberal terms that General P.G.T. Beauregard had offered to Major Robert Anderson at Fort Sumter, as well as the magnanimity Grant had shown the Confederate officers at Belmont last November, Buckner considered this insulting. But Federal reinforcements arriving from the Cumberland River had swelled Grant’s force to 27,000 men, nearly doubling Buckner’s. With no hope of breaking out of Fort Donelson, Buckner responded:

“Sir: The distribution of the forces under my command, incident to an unexpected change of commanders, and the overwhelming force under your command, compel me, notwithstanding the brilliant success of the Confederate arms yesterday, to accept the ungenerous and unchivalrous terms which you propose.”

Grant and Buckner met to discuss the surrender, where they soon rekindled their pre-war friendship. Grant ordered rations distributed to the Confederates and allowed their burial details to enter Federal lines to inter their dead comrades. After the terms were settled, Grant offered to repay Buckner’s old loan to him. Buckner politely declined.

Grant ordered that “the utmost vigilance should be observed to guard all points captured.” He also sent Federals under Brigadier General Lew Wallace back to Fort Henry to defend against any possible Confederate threat from the west. Grant then directed his remaining troops to occupy Fort Donelson. The troops ignored orders against looting and pillaging. A doctor on Grant’s staff asked about a surrender ceremony, but Grant replied, “The surrender is a fact. We have the fort, the men and the guns. Why should we go through with vain forms and mortify and injure the spirit of brave men who, after all, are our countrymen and brothers?”

Fort Donelson was a tremendous victory that included the largest capture in American history: 12 to 15,000 Confederate troops, 20,000 stands of arms, 48 cannon, 17 heavy guns, around 4,000 draft animals, and vast amounts of supplies and provisions. The Federals had sustained 2,691 casualties (507 killed, 1,976 wounded, and 208 missing) in the operations in and around Fort Donelson, while the Confederates lost an estimated 1,454 (327 killed and 1,127 wounded) in addition to the prisoners taken. Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest’s 700 Confederate cavalry were not part of the surrender; they had slipped through the Federal lines during the night and escaped by crossing an icy swamp too deep for infantry.

The dual victories at Forts Henry and Donelson permanently destroyed the Confederates’ defensive line across Kentucky by punching a hole between Confederate forces at Bowling Green and Columbus, and opening Tennessee for a Federal invasion. The wins also gave the Federals control of the important Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. The gunboat fleet soon continued up the Cumberland to Dover, where it destroyed the important Tennessee Iron Works before continuing on toward Clarksville.

General Albert Sidney Johnston, commanding the Confederate Western Theater, was shocked by the sudden loss of Fort Donelson. He had received word less than 24 hours earlier by General Floyd that the Confederates were holding strong, and therefore expected no such drastic turn of events. With Nashville and the Deep South now vulnerable to Federal invasion, Johnston withdrew the Army of Central Kentucky from Bowling Green to Murfreesboro. This meant that it was only a matter of time before the Confederates at Columbus would have to fall back as well. An editorial in The Telegraph of Washington, Arkansas, tried to explain the meaning of this defeat:

“We have despised the enemy and laughed at their threats, until, almost too late, we find ourselves in their power. We have allowed our chivalry to cool most wonderfully, while we have been pluming ourselves on being ‘the superior race,’ and when our wives or sisters did some noble, self-sacrificing act, wondering ‘if such a people could ever be conquered.’ The wonderment has been expressed again and again even ad nauseam, and now it is answered. They may be. Not by force of arms, but from decay of chivalry and innate love of ease.”

Confederate officials quickly began to look for someone to blame for the devastating loss. Some blamed Navy Secretary Stephen R. Mallory for failing to develop a naval squadron that could match the Federal gunboats. However, while Fort Henry had been won by the navy, Fort Donelson was won by Grant and his army. Grant’s victory, along with his unequivocal message, made him an instant hero throughout the northern states, as some newspapermen quipped that the “U.S.” in his name now stood for “Unconditional Surrender.” Grant issued orders to his army:

“The general commanding takes great pleasure in congratulating the troops of this command for the triumph over rebellion gained by their valor on the 13th, 14th and 15th instant.

“For four successive nights, without shelter, during the most inclement weather known in this latitude, they faced an enemy in large force in a position chosen by himself. Though strongly fortified by nature, all the safeguards suggested by science were added. Without a murmur this was borne, prepared at all times to receive an attack, and with continuous skirmishing by day, resulting ultimately in forcing the enemy to surrender without conditions.

“The victory achieved is not only great in breaking down rebellion, but has secured the greatest number of prisoners of war ever taken in one battle on this continent.

“Fort Donelson will hereafter be marked in capitals on the maps of our united country and the men who fought the battle will live in the memory of a grateful people.”

Mass celebrations swept the northern states when news first arrived on the 17th that Fort Donelson had fallen. Governor Richard Yates of Illinois left to visit state troops at Dover, and he telegraphed along the way, “People by thousands on the road and at the stations, with shoutings and with flags. Thank God that our Union is safe now and forever.” An editorial in the Chicago Tribune on the 18th noted that “Chicago reeled mad with joy by that time… It was well that we should rejoice. Such events happen but once in a lifetime, and we who passed through the scenes of yesterday lived a generation in a day.”

A Cincinnati correspondent reported, “Everybody was shaking hands with everybody else, and bewhiskered men embraced each other as if they were lovers… the misty atmosphere was rosy with the burning of Bengal lights and bonfires blazing at many crossings.” General-in-Chief George B. McClellan received the news at his Washington headquarters and set out to inform the War Department. When the news was read on the Senate floor, Vice President Hannibal Hamlin suspended the rule against applause because “The chair rules that the Senate is neither applauding nor cheering a senator.”

Washington officials planned to hold a grand celebration to commemorate the victories alongside George Washington’s Birthday. At St. Louis, the Union Merchants Exchange closed temporarily as speculators sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” and cheered Major General Henry W. Halleck, Grant’s superior, at his headquarters. Halleck appeared in a window and hollered, “I promised when I came here that with your aid I would drive the enemies of our flag from your state. This has been done, and they are virtually out of Kentucky and soon will be out of Tennessee.” Some pundits even began predicting that these victories would soon end the war.

President Abraham Lincoln quickly promoted Grant to major general of volunteers. In signing the commission, Lincoln explained that while he could not adequately judge the fighting ability of eastern men, the fighting spirit of Grant and other fellow Illinoisans proved that “if the Southerners think that man for man they are better than our… western men generally, they will discover themselves in a grievous mistake.”


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