Tag Archives: Fort Donelson

From Aden Cavins, 59th Indiana Volunteers

Letter from Captain Aden Cavins, Company E, 59th Indiana Volunteer Infantry, to his wife.

Steamer Nebraska

Tennessee River

April 21, 1862

Indiana State Flag | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

I wrote you yesterday while landed at Fort Massac below Paducah (Kentucky). We are now steaming up the river rapidly. At daylight this morning we passed Fort Henry, which you will remember is twelve miles from Fort Donaldson. We will arrive at Pittsburg Landing about ten o’clock tonight and will not embark until morning. The Tennessee river is a beautiful stream, but there is not much improvement on its banks. The country is partly low, and part beautiful, rolling hills. The whole country is suggestive of poetry and fiction.

I had nothing to write you but not being otherwise engaged I write because it is pleasant to do so to you and because it will also afford you pleasure. You must not be so uneasy about me, for it would be a bloody fight indeed for one-tenth of my men to be killed and one-fifth wounded, so that though none are safe in battle, yet the chances are more in favor than against one. You will find consolation in the reflection that none die before their time comes and that there is a Providence that shapes and controls the destiny of the living and the dead.

When in company with some persons of education, you have heard us speak of the Differentials, or vanishing quantities employed in the higher mathematics. These are quantities infinitely small, but still are quantities. Human life seems to me when compared to the infinite future much like one of these Differentials. It is small, very small. It is a short dream filled up with episodes of light and shade, happiness and sadness.

You remember the beautiful tradition of some of the old Jewish Rabbis. It was that little angels were born every morning of the beautiful streams that go running over the flowers of Paradise, their life was sweet music for one day, then they died and subsided in the waters among the flowers that gave them birth. Forgetfulness soon came over their sweet roseate and musical life, and they are remembered no more forever. Such is that part of our existence called human life. We are born, live but a day, are placed in the temple of “silence and reconciliation” where lie buried the strife and fierce contentions of life. Soon the veil of oblivion is spread over all and there remains no heart beat to commemorate the departed.

I seldom indulge in fancies but merely have deviated from my usual habit on account of the poverty of news, and only do it in this case in view of the freedom I claim in writing to you in any way that judgment or humor may dictate. You are aware that at times a storm of fancies sweep across my mind. I have suppressed them through life, but they will loom up occasionally through the matter-of-fact surface that I have cultivated.

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The Fall of Nashville

February 24, 1862 – Federal forces invaded Tennessee and seized the first Confederate state capital of the war.

The Federal capture of Fort Donelson opened an invasion route into Tennessee, making Nashville the next logical target. However, two Federal military departments operated in the area, and each seemed reluctant to cooperate with the other.

Gen Don Carlos Buell | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Gen Don Carlos Buell | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Brigadier General Don Carlos Buell, commanding the Department of the Ohio, had jurisdiction over eastern Tennessee. Buell had vacillated when asked to support Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant’s attack on Fort Donelson, but now that the path to Nashville was opened, Buell hurried to advance on the Tennessee capital.

Major General Henry W. Halleck, commanding the Department of Missouri from St. Louis, had control over western Tennessee. Halleck argued that if Buell moved toward Nashville, the Confederates could reverse their withdrawal by coming up the Cumberland River, defeating Grant at Fort Donelson, and isolating Buell deep in hostile territory.

Halleck, who had complained about the lack of coordination between the departments, had another idea in mind in a message to General-in-Chief George B. McClellan: “Make Buell, Grant, and (John) Pope (in Missouri) major-generals of volunteers, and give me command in the West. I ask this in return for Forts Henry and Donelson.” McClellan took no action at this time.

For the Confederates, the Fort Donelson defeat compelled General Albert Sidney Johnston, commanding the Western Theater, to pull his Army of Central Kentucky out of Bowling Green, Kentucky, and move it southward into Tennessee. Johnston wrote to Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin:

“I have ordered the army to encamp to-night midway between Nashville and Murfreesboro. My purpose is to place the force in such a position that the enemy can not concentrate his superior strength against the command, and to enable me to assemble as rapidly as possible such other troops in addition as it may be in my power to collect… I entertain hope that this disposition will enable me to hold the enemy for the present in check, and, when my forces are sufficiently increased, to drive him back.”

Johnston, who once held a defensive line across Kentucky from the Alleghenies to the Mississippi River, now had a fragile line of Confederates concentrated mostly at Cumberland Gap in the east, Murfreesboro-Nashville in the center, and Columbus, Kentucky, in the west.

Nathan Bedford Forrest | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Nathan Bedford Forrest | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Meanwhile, news of Buell’s impending advance spread panic throughout Nashville, as residents tried seizing the goods in the Public Square warehouse earmarked for the Confederate government. Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest, whose cavalry troopers had escaped Fort Donelson and were now stationed in Nashville, tried restoring order by appealing to the people’s patriotism. When that failed, his men rode through the mobs and cleared the streets with their sabers.

Forrest’s troopers then seized the warehouse and held the residents off with a firehose. The men took weapons and ammunition, 600 boxes of military uniforms, 250,000 pounds of bacon, and hundreds of wagons filled with flour and other provisions. Forrest shipped ordnance being developed in the Nashville foundry to Atlanta and destroyed the Nashville works. In addition, employees of T.M. Brennan & Company, which had been converted from manufacturing steam engines and farm machines to artillery, escaped with a valuable machine used to make rifled cannon.

Buell’s Federals began advancing along the railroad from Bowling Green on the 22nd. Advance elements and Federal gunboats approached Nashville the next day, sparking hysteria. Massive traffic jams prevented much of the food in storage from being hauled off. Therefore, tons of stores, including 30,000 pounds of bacon and ham, were burned.

Many residents joined Forrest’s cavalry headed southeast to Murfreesboro, where Johnston reorganized his Army of Central Kentucky into three divisions. Major Generals William J. Hardee and George B. Crittenden each led a division, while Brigadier General Gideon Pillow, one of the Fort Donelson escapees, led the third. Brigadier General John C. Breckinridge’s command and the cavalry units of Forrest and Colonel John A. Wharton remained unattached.

Brig Gen William "Bull" Nelson | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Brig Gen William “Bull” Nelson | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Bands playing “Yankee Doodle” signaled the arrival of Buell’s lead division across the Cumberland River from Nashville on the 24th. The bridge had been destroyed, along with any boats the troops could have used to cross the river. Buell awaited transports as well as the rest of his 9,000 men to arrive at the riverbank. Meanwhile, a 7,000-man division led by Brigadier General William Nelson approached Nashville aboard river transports, protected by the gunboat U.S.S. Cairo.

The next morning, Buell observed Nelson’s Federals entering the deserted city from their transports. Nelson met with Buell across the Cumberland and left Colonel Jacob Ammen to receive the city’s surrender from the mayor. Nashville fell without resistance, becoming the first Confederate capital to fall in the war. Grant’s victory at Fort Donelson had enabled Buell to capture this important city.

Buell soon began ferrying his men across the Cumberland to reinforce Nelson in case Confederate troops tried taking the city back. The Federals quickly occupied the state capitol and various other public buildings, chopping down trees for firewood. They also forced city officials to swear allegiance to the Union. A defiant woman cheered for Jefferson Davis as Buell rode down High Street, prompting him to report, “The mass of people appear to look upon us as invaders.” Federals seized the woman’s home and used it as a hospital.

In losing Nashville, the Confederacy lost one of its finest bases of weapons manufacturing. Professed Unionists among the citizenry led the Federals to massive stockpiles of supplies and munitions that the Confederates had left behind. Many of these supplies were to be sent to Confederates in Virginia.

The loss of the important industrial center of Nashville devastated southern morale. It also isolated Confederates in western Kentucky and Tennessee, compelling them to eventually fall back southward. The city became a vital base of Federal operations for the rest of the war.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 12707; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 130, 132-34; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 113-15; Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (New York: Da Capo Press, 1982 [original 1885, republication of 1952 edition]), p. 166; Harrison, Lowell H., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 123; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 174-76; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 402; Nevin, David, The Road to Shiloh: Early Battles in the West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 98-99; Street, Jr., James, The Struggle for Tennessee: Tupelo to Stones River (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 68, 89

The Fall of Fort Donelson

February 16, 1862 – Federals scored their greatest victory of the war up to this time, generating a new northern military hero.

Late on the 15th, the Confederate commanders surrounded in Fort Donelson had agreed to surrender their force. As the two ranking generals, John B. Floyd and Gideon Pillow, escaped across the Cumberland River, Brigadier General Simon B. Buckner sent a message to the Federal commander, his old friend Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant:

“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.”

Federal General U.S. Grant | Image Credit: Wikispaces.org

Federal General U.S. Grant | Image Credit: Wikispaces.org

Grant shared Buckner’s message with Brigadier General Charles F. Smith, a division commander in Grant’s army and a senior officer whom Grant admired. Smith advised, “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, Buckner considered this insulting. But having no choice in the matter, he 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.

Toward the day’s end, Grant dispatched Brigadier General Lew Wallace’s division to return to Fort Henry and guard against any possible Confederate attack from Columbus, Kentucky. Grant then directed his remaining troops to occupy Fort Donelson. The troops ignored orders against looting and pillaging.

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.

With Nashville and the Deep South now vulnerable to Federal advances, General Albert Sidney Johnston, commanding the Confederate Western Theater, 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.

Confederate officials quickly began looking 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.”

Mass celebrations swept the northern states when news first arrived on the 17th that Fort Donelson had fallen. An editorial in the Chicago Tribune noted that the city “reeled mad with joy.” A Cincinnati correspondent reported, “Everybody was shaking hands with everybody else, and bewhiskered men embraced each other as if they were lovers.” Some pundits even began predicting that these victories would soon end the war.

At 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 patriotic songs and cheered Major General Henry W. Halleck at his headquarters.

President 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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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 70-71; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (16 Feb 1862); Cochran, Michael T., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 694-95; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 272-73 | 280-81; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 129-30; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 7055; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 211-14, 315; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 111; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 417-18; Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (New York: Da Capo Press, 1982 [original 1885, republication of 1952 edition]), p. 158-59; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 106-07; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 171-72; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 735; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 401-02; Nevin, David, The Road to Shiloh: Early Battles in the West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 95-97; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 251; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 98, 267

Fort Donelson: The Confederate Breakout

February 15, 1862 – The Confederates tried breaking out of the Federal grip around Fort Donelson before deciding on whether to surrender.

Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant, commanding the Federal troops surrounding Fort Donelson, met with Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote, commanding the naval flotilla that had been severely damaged in the aborted attack on the fort the previous day. Foote, nursing his wound from that engagement, informed Grant that the gunboats would have to return to Mound City for repairs. This left Grant to place Fort Donelson under siege. However, the siege plans changed 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 part 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.

Kentucky militia commander Simon B. Buckner | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Kentucky militia commander Simon B. Buckner | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Pillow’s advance began in full force around 7 a.m., aided by Confederates under Brigadier General Simon B. Buckner. The Federals blocking them were commanded by Brigadier General John A. McClernand. Fighting 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, hearing the gunfire, 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.”

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.

Confederate General John B. Floyd | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Confederate General John B. Floyd | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

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 changed his mind and sided with Pillow.

This dispute gave Grant time to direct Brigadier General Charles F. Smith’s division to attack from the north. Grant told Smith, “All has failed on our right–you must take Fort Donelson.” Smith’s Federals quickly captured the fort’s outer ramparts. Meanwhile, Grant’s third division under Brigadier General Lew Wallace shifted southward to help McClernand stem the Confederate advance. The Federal gunboats renewed their bombardment as well until the 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 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, Floyd and Pillow had become generals mostly due to their political careers, and as such, neither wanted to surrender personally. In particular, Floyd feared that Federal authorities might punish him for arms deals he had allegedly made with southern states as 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. The men may have also thought that Buckner might get better terms from Grant, who was his friend 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 try escaping. Forrest took the route he had noted on the extreme right, leading his 700 cavalry troopers 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.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 70-71; Bearss, Edwin C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 585; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (15 Feb 1862); Cochran, Michael T., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 694-95; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 180-81; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 12624; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 272-73; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 128-29; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 207-11; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 110; Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (New York: Da Capo Press, 1982 [original 1885, republication of 1952 edition]), p. 155-57; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 171; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 400-01; Nevin, David, The Road to Shiloh: Early Battles in the West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 82, 93-94; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 250; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 96-97

Fort Donelson: Federal Attacks Fail

February 13, 1862 – Federal forces attacked Fort Donelson, but they found the defenses much stronger than those of Fort Henry.

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. North of the fort remained open, and the Cumberland River flowed to the fort’s east.

General Albert Sidney Johnston, commanding Confederate Department No. 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 about 15,000, or a size about equal to Grant’s. Floyd telegraphed Johnston: “Our field defenses are good. I think we can sustain ourselves against the land forces.”

At Grant’s request, the Federal gunboat U.S.S. Carondelet began firing on Fort Donelson to create a diversion from the impending land attack. The Carondelet 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 suddenly wired, “The fort cannot hold out twenty minutes.”

Despite Grant’s order not to provoke a general engagement until the remaining gunboats arrived, both his division commanders, Brigadier Generals Charles F. Smith and John A. McClernand, sent troops forward. Smith’s men assailed 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.

Federal attack on Fort Donelson | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Federal attack on Fort Donelson | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

These clashes indicated that the Confederates intended to hold firm, despite Floyd’s worry that they might collapse. 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.”

On the Confederate side, 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.”

Rain began falling that afternoon, and the fighting died down by nightfall. Around that time, northern winds blew 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. However, 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 back.

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 ironclad took at least 40 hits. The Federals lost 11 men killed and 43 wounded; the Confederates lost nobody.

With the loss of the two strongest gunboats in the fleet, Grant wrote to Halleck’s chief of staff at Cairo, Illinois: “Appearances indicate now that we will have a protracted siege here… fear the result of an attempt to carry the place by storm with raw troops. I feel great confidence… in 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 evening. 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 evening, partially masking Pillow’s Confederates as they shifted southward. They would advance at 5 a.m., with Pillow’s men attempting 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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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 70-71; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 12554-64; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 272-73, 280-81; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 127-28; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 194-95, 199-200, 204-06; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 109-10; Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (New York: Da Capo Press, 1982 [original 1885, republication of 1952 edition]), p. 153-55; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 170-71; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 399-400; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 77; Nevin, David, The Road to Shiloh: Early Battles in the West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 81-84; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 246-47

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: Wikimedia.org

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

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.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com (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