Battle of Fort Donelson

The Battle of Fort Donelson (February 11-16, 1862) was one of the Union’s first major victories in the American Civil War (1861-65). A week after capturing Fort Henry on the Tennessee River, Union Brigadier General Ulysses Grant began his assault on Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River, a key gateway to the Confederacy. On February 16, after Confederate forces under Brigadier General John Floyd failed to break through Grant’s lines, the Confederates relinquished the fort, meeting Grant’s terms of “unconditional and immediate surrender.” Grant’s victory ensured that Kentucky would remain in the Union and helped open up Tennessee to future Union advances.

Battle of Fort Donelson: February 1862

After the fall of Confederate-held Fort Henry on the Tennessee River to the Union on February 6, 1862 (largely thanks to Union gunboats), thousands of rebel troops were sent to reinforce the larger Fort Donelson, which was located 10 miles away on the Cumberland River—another key gateway to the Confederacy. On February 13, one of Ulysses S. Grant’s (1822-85) officers, Brigadier General John McClernand (1812-1900), initiated the Battle of Fort Donelson when he tried unsuccessfully to capture a rebel battery along the fort’s outer works.

Over the next three days, Grant tightened the noose around Fort Donelson by moving a flotilla up the Cumberland River to shell the fort from the east. On February 15, the Confederates tried to break out of the Yankee perimeter. An attack on the Union right flank and center sent the Yankees back in retreat, but then Confederate General Gideon Pillow (1806-78) made a fatal miscalculation. Rather than retreating from the fort and escaping to safety, he opted to pull his men back into their entrenchments. In response, Grant launched a fierce counterattack and regained much of the ground that had been ceded. The Confederates were surrounded, with their backs to the Cumberland River. Only several thousand troops managed to escape before Fort Donelson was surrendered on February 16.

How Many People Died At Fort Donelson?

Of the approximately 16,000 Confederates who had engaged in battle, more than 12,000 were captured or missing, while approximately 1,400 others were wounded or killed. Of the estimated 24,500 Union troops who fought at Fort Donelson, total casualties were around 2,700.

“Unconditional Surrender” Grant

When the rebels asked for terms of surrender, Grant replied that no terms “except unconditional and immediate surrender” would be acceptable. This earned him the nickname “Unconditional Surrender.” President Abraham Lincoln (1809-65) promoted Grant to major general after the battle.

Why Is The Battle of Fort Donelson Significant?

The Battle of Fort Donelson was the first major Union victory in the Civil War and a major victory for Ulysses S. Grant. The losses of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson were disasters for the Confederates. Kentucky was lost and Tennessee lay wide open to the Yankees. The Cumberland River and Tennessee River became integral parts of Union supply lines. Nashville would fall to Union troops within a matter of days.

Where Is Fort Donelson?

Fort Donelson National Battlefield is now part of the National Park Service. The entrance to the park is in Dover, Tennessee, though parts of the battlefield extend to Kentucky.

The Battle of Fort Donelson

The Battle of Fort Donelson was an early battle in the American Civil War (1861-1865). Grant's operations against Fort Donelson lasted from February 11 to February 16, 1862. Pushing south into Tennessee with assistance from Flag Officer Andrew Foote's gunboats, Union troops under Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant captured Fort Henry on February 6, 1862.

This success opened the Tennessee River to Union shipping. Before moving upstream, Grant began shifting his command east to take Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River. The capture of the fort would be a key victory for the Union and would clear the way to Nashville. The day after the loss of Fort Henry, the Confederate commander in the West (General Albert Sidney Johnston) called a council of war to determine their next step.

Strung out along a wide front in Kentucky and Tennessee, Johnston was confronted by Grant's 25,000 men at Fort Henry and Major General Don Carlos Buell's 45,000-man army at Louisville, KY. Realizing that his position in Kentucky was compromised, he began withdrawing to positions south of the Cumberland River. After discussions with General P.G.T. Beauregard, he reluctantly agreed that Fort Donelson should be reinforced and dispatched 12,000 men to the garrison. At the fort, the command was held by Brigadier General John B. Floyd. Formerly the U.S. Secretary of War, Floyd was wanted in the North for graft.

A signal rocket set off by Confederate pickets streaked skyward in the damp early morning of February 4, 1862. The Rebels had spotted Federal troops beginning to disembark from transport steamers on the east bank of the rain-swollen Tennessee River at Itra Landing near the Kentucky-Tennessee border. The Federals, who belonged to Brig. Gen. John McClernand’s division of Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s District of Cairo Army, had come to capture the Confederate Fort Henry, which lay eight miles away.

Grant, who had arrived on one of the last steamers, wanted his men landed closer to the key Rebel fort, past Panther Creek 21/2 miles north of Fort Henry. The problem with landing south of Panther Creek was that his transports and men might be in range of the Confederate guns. To determine the accuracy and range of the Rebel guns, Grant boarded the ironclad Essex, one of the gunboats escorting the transport fleet, and ordered Captain William Porter to take the vessel upriver toward Fort Henry and draw enemy fire.

As the Essex steamed past Panther Creek, Rebel guns opened up from the fort. The shots fell short of the gunboat. Grant was confident that he could land his troops south of the creek. Then a shell whistled as it arced over the gunboat and exploded on the bank, splintering some trees. A second shell barely missed Grant and Porter as it crashed into the stern deck, through the captain’s cabin, and out of the other side of the gunboat.

A shaken Grant changed his mind about landing his troops south of the creek. When Grant returned to Itra Landing he ordered McClernand and his men to climb back aboard the steamers and move to Bailey’s Ford, which was three miles from the fort but still on the north side of Panther Creek. When the troops disembarked, the steamers puffed black smoke from their stacks as they headed 65 miles downriver to Paducah, Kentucky, to collect the rest of the troops. The investment of one of two key Rebel forts that helped defend the Confederate heartland was about to begin.

In September 1861, Confederate President Jefferson Davis ordered General Albert Sidney Johnston to take command of Confederate Department No. 2, the western theater of operations in the Confederacy. Of particular importance to the South in this theater was Tennessee with its mineral wealth, food supplies, and its water and railroad links to other parts of the Confederacy.

Tennessee Governor Isham Harris previously had sent engineers to select sites on the vital Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers where fortifications could be built. If the Confederacy failed to guard the vulnerable waterways, then Union gunboats could sail upstream on the Tennessee River to northern Alabama or up the Cumberland River to Nashville. The engineers chose the village of Dover, situated on the west side of the Cumberland River atop 100-foot bluffs, as a suitable site for what would become Fort Donelson.

On the Tennessee River, the engineers found no good areas within the State of Tennessee in which to construct a fort. Governor Harris eventually chose a site on the east bank of a bend in the river 12 miles west of the one chosen on the Cumberland. The fort at that location would be called Fort Henry.

The site chosen for Fort Henry, located a few miles north of Kirkman’s Landing, was low lying, marshy, and dominated by bluffs across the Tennessee River, although it did offer a clear view of the river for a few miles. Moreover, the site was often flooded by the Tennessee River. Because of the drawbacks associated with the site, Confederate leaders also decided to fortify high ground on the opposite side of the Tennessee River from Fort Henry. They named this third site Fort Heiman.

On September 4,1862, the situation in Tennessee changed when Brig. Gen. Gideon Pillow, act- ing on orders from Maj. Gen. Leonidas Polk, invaded Kentucky and seized Columbus, a key town on the Mississippi River. The move broke Kentucky’s neutrality, and it no longer served as a buffer for Confederate forces in Tennessee. The Federals quickly responded two days later when Grant occupied Paducah, taking control of the confluence of the Tennessee and Ohio Rivers. Grant also sent troops to take Smithland at the mouth of the Cumberland River.

Johnston, who arrived in Nashville on September 14 to assume his new command, reinforced Columbus, intending to make it the “Gibraltar of the West” and use it to block enemy movement on the Mississippi. He ordered Brig. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner to occupy Bowling Green, Kentucky, while another smaller force was sent to hold the Cumberland Gap located in the moun- tains near the borders of Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee. With a 450-mile line to defend, John- ston believed he had covered all likely routes of Federal attacks. But Johnston desperately needed more troops.

Forts Henry and Donelson were another matter as they were far from complete due in part to a shortage of manpower. The Confederates realized it was imperative to complete the forts when a Federal gunboat steamed within view of Fort Henry on October 12. Johnston put Brig. Gen. Lloyd Tilghman in charge of the forts with orders to complete them as quickly as possible.

Tilghman was shocked when he saw the site selected for Fort Henry. “The history of military engineering records no parallel to this case,” he said. “Powerful steps must be taken to strengthen not only the two forts in the way of work, but the armament must be increased materially in num- ber or pieces of artillery as well as in weight of metal,” he informed Polk on December 2.

Tilghman began to receive reinforcements as more artillery and troops arrived along with 500 slaves. By the end of January 1862, Johnston had received additional reinforcements that raised the total number of troops in Kentucky and Tennessee to 45,000 men.

Meanwhile, Federal General-in-Chief George McClellan ordered Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck, commander of the Department of the Missouri, to make a demonstration toward Murray in western Kentucky. Halleck passed the orders on to his subordinate Grant, commander of the District of Cairo, who advanced on January 15. Grant’s District of Cairo Army comprised three divisions under Brig. Gens. John A. McClernand, Charles Smith, and Lew Wallace. Grant ordered McClernand and Smith to advance south. As they did so, they were to block Rebel troops at Columbus, Kentucky, from shifting east to support Union forces in eastern Kentucky.

Grant and McClernand’s wet and muddy troops returned to Cairo on January 20. Smith, meanwhile, boarded the gunboat Lexington and steamed up the Tennessee to within a couple of miles of Fort Henry to get a look at the Confederate works. After firing a few shells at the fort and receiving none in return, Smith had seen enough and returned downriver. Upon returning to Paducah, Smith did not waste any time in sending a message Grant, his former West Point student and superior officer. He told Grant that he believed only two ironclad gunboats would be required to reduce Fort Henry. Grant agreed. On January 23, Grant visited Halleck at St. Louis to urge a move up the Tennessee River to take Fort Henry. Halleck dismissed the whole plan as preposterous.

Grant returned to Cairo crestfallen, but the plan of capturing Fort Henry was far from over. On January 28, Grant sent a telegraph to Halleck stating that if permitted he could take and hold Fort Henry. Flag Officer Andrew Hull Foote, who had arrived at the end of August 1861 to take command of the growing brown- water navy, was in agreement with Grant and sent a similar message to Halleck. The next day Grant sent another message. If something was not done soon the Rebel defenses “on both the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers will be materially strengthened,” wrote Grant.

Fort Henry, a five-sided earthen fort on a bend in the Tennessee River, is shown in a period sketch by Henri Lovie. The Tennessee River was in flood at the time of battle, and parts of the low-lying site were awash with two feet of water.

Halleck actually was thinking along the same lines, but he was not keen on having Grant suggest it to him. Others such as Charles Whittlesey, chief engineer of the Department of Ohio, had earlier suggested an advance up the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers. Halleck received an incentive to take action when U.S. President Abraham Lincoln on January 27 issued General War Order No. 1 that “the 22 day of February, 1862, be the day for a general movement of the land and naval forces of the United States against the insurgent forces.”

On January 29, Halleck received a telegraph from McClellan informing him that General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard was ordered west from Virginia with 15 regiments to support Johnston. While it was true that Beauregard was headed to help Johnston, he had no reinforcements with him. The rumor motivated Halleck to order Grant to capture and hold Fort Henry the following day.

It was the news Grant had been waiting for, and he hurried to get his men moving before Halleck changed his mind. As the roads were too muddy to march over, Grant’s 17,000 troops would be divided into two divisions and moved by steamboat. Supporting the transports would be gunboats both ironclad and timberclads. Timberclads were wooden side-wheel steamers converted into gunboats by arming them and strengthening them with five inches of oak siding.

On February 2, McClernand’s division departed Cairo headed for Paducah to join Smith’s division. As not all of Grant’s army could fit on the steamers, most of Smith’s division was forced to wait at Paducah while McClernand’s men steamed up the rain-swollen Tennessee River to Fort Henry, reaching it at 4:30 AM on February 4.

With the decision made as to where to land his army, Grant headed upriver with the returning steamers to oversee the movement of Smith’s division. Two of the timberclads searched for tor- pedoes the Confederates had placed out in the channel but had come loose due to the fast-rising waters of the Tennessee. McClernand’s division, meanwhile, moved inland and began setting up camp around 3 PM. Elements of Smith’s division began arriving in the late afternoon with the rest coming throughout the rainy night and the next day.

While the Federals were coming ashore, a Confederate dispatch rider from the works at Fort Henry rode east to Fort Donelson to warn Tilghman. The dispatch rider reached Donelson around 4 PM and informed the Confederate commander of the Federals’ presence. Tilghman, who had heard the Confederate artillery engage the Essex, rode back to Fort Henry with an escort from the 9th Tennessee Cavalry.

By 11:30 PM Tilghman was back at Fort Henry. To face the Federals, Tilghman had 2,600 poorly armed men. The fort was a five-sided earthwork. Beyond its ramparts were outer entrenchments designed to repulse a land attack. Tilghman had 17 guns, consisting of eight 32-pounders, two 42-pounders, five 18-pounders, one 6-inch rifled gun, and a 128-pounder Columbiad rifled gun.

Tilghman quickly ordered two regiments on the west side of the Tennessee holding the unfinished Fort Heiman to abandon it and cross over to Fort Henry. A couple of companies of Alabama cavalry and a Kentucky spy company were left on the west side of the river to harass the Yankees. In addition to the nearby Federal army, Tilghman also was faced with flooding. The river had begun to rise, and water was flowing into Fort Henry. By the morning of February 5, there were two feet of cold water inside the fort.

Among the many generals who played important roles in the Tennessee campaign were (left to right) Union Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote, Brig. Gen. Lloyd Tilghman, Confederate Brig. Gen. Gideon J. Pillow, and Union Brig. Gen. Charles F. Smith.

While Smith’s troops continued to arrive on February 5, Foote’s gunboats traded a few shells with the Confederate gunners to little effect. That evening Grant laid out his plans for the next day. The attack was to begin at 11 AM. McClernand’s division was to move east of Fort Henry to take up a blocking position on the route between the Rebel works and Fort Donelson. When Grant gave the order, they were to storm Fort Henry. Two of Smith’s brigades, which had landed on the west side of the river, were to capture Fort Heiman and place guns on it. Then, the bulk of the infantry was to cross the river by steamer and join in the attack on the fort. Smith’s third brigade was to remain on the east side of the Tennessee and help McClernand if needed. The gunboats, meanwhile, were to steam upriver and attack the fort.

With no reinforcements coming and the Federal army expanding, Tilghman realized he could not hold Fort Henry. After a meeting with his subordinates, he decided the garrison would abandon the fort and join the troops at Fort Donelson. To buy precious time for the retreating troops, a detachment of gunners from Company B, 1st Tennessee Artillery was to fight a delaying action for one hour.

At 10 AM on February 6, the Confederate garrison retreated from Fort Henry to Fort Donelson. Tilghman accompanied his men for part of the way. He then swung his horse around and returned to join Captain Jesse Taylor, who commanded the artillery at Fort Henry. The Confed- erate forces braced for the Federal naval attack.

While Grant’s progress was slowed by muddy roads, swollen creeks, and thick woods, the gunboats commenced the attack alone. Closing to within 1,700 yards of Fort Henry, Foote’s ironclad flagship, Cincinnati, fired the signal shot around 12:30 PM for the rest of the ironclads to begin firing. Upon hearing this signal, the gun crews aboard the Essex, Carondelet, and Cincinnati began shelling the target. Essex Second Mate James Laning recalled Foote telling the crew the previous day, “Every charge you fire from one of those guns cost the government approximately eight dollars. If your shots fall short you encourage the enemy. If they reach home you demoralize him, and get the worth of your money.” When the first three shots from the Cincinnati fell short, Laning said, “There was $24 worth ammunition expended.”

The Confederates soon returned fire. Taylor instructed his gun crews to pick a specific target and keep hammering it. The ironclads continued to fire as they closed to within 600 yards of the Rebel works. The more vulnerable timberclads, such as the Lexington, Conestoga, and Tyler, kept their distance, lobbing shells into the fort. Rebel gunners scored multiple hits on several ves- sels. The Essex was hit 14 times. One shell ripped into her middle boiler producing a blast that resulted in a “chasm for the escape of scalding steam and water,” wrote Laning. Thirty-two Union sailors aboard the Essex were killed or injured, including Porter. The Essex dropped out of the fight and drifted downstream where another vessel towed her to safety.

Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote’s gunboats engaged the Confederate batteries at Fort Henry. Foote had ironclad and timberclad vessels, the latter of which were wooden side-wheel steamers armed with cannons and strengthened with five inches of oak siding.

The Confederate gunners on shore were suffering casualties as well. With only four guns still firing, the water inside the fort continuing to rise, and the Federal gunboats within 200 yards, Tilghman decided it was time to surrender. He had bought time for the troops from his garrison to escape. At 1:50 PM, he ordered his men to hoist a flag of truce above the parapet. Dense smoke hid the white flag from the Federal gunboats. The fort continued to receive naval fire, so Tilghman ordered the Confederate colors lowered from the main flagstaff. The Union gunboats had won the battle and captured the fort.

The Federals captured 38 men and two guns before darkness made further pursuit impossible. Afterward, Grant sent off a message to Halleck informing him of the gunboat victory. He advised Halleck that he expected to capture and destroy Fort Donelson on February 8 after which he would return to Fort Henry.

The addition of the Confederate troops who escaped from Fort Henry raised the number of defenders at Fort Donelson to 6,000. Heiman was in temporary command of Fort Donelson. The fort and surrounding earthworks covered 15 acres. The Confederates immediately began improving the defenses of the half-built fort. Over the following five days, they felled trees to improve fields of fire, constructed abatis, and excavated entrenchments and rifle pits. They managed to complete crescent-shaped outer works that covered the fort and the town of Dover to the south. The unfinished north section of the fort was protected not only by a swamp, but also by a flooded creek.

Colonel Johnston arrived from Nashville to replace Heiman as the commander of Fort Donelson on February 7. Senior Confederate commanders—Johnston, Beauregard, and Maj. Gen. William Hardee—met in Bowling Green, Kentucky, to discuss the loss of Fort Henry and the anticipated followup attack by the Federals on Fort Donelson. Despite Beauregard’s suggestion that they concentrate all their troops at Fort Donelson to fight a decisive battle with Grant, Johnston decided that the Confederates would temporarily withdraw from Kentucky and form a new defensive line south of the Cumberland River.

Johnston’s plan required the evacuation of Bowling Green and Columbus. Fort Donelson also would have to be evacuated. For the time being, though, Johnston would reinforce it to delay the Yankees so that Confederate troops retreating from Bowling Green could reach Nashville. At that time, Johnston hoped that the large force at Fort Donelson could slip out and rejoin the army. Despite the importance Fort Donelson was to play in Johnston’s plan, he did not visit the fort. Instead, he oversaw the withdrawal from Bowling Green while Beauregard headed to Columbus to oversee the evac- uation there. The defense of Fort Donelson fell to Brig. Gen. Simon Buckner, Brig. Gen. Gideon Pillow, and Brig. Gen. John Floyd. Floyd was the senior general and therefore the overall commander. He commanded not only the forces at Fort Donelson, but also those posted nearby on the Cumberland River.

Floyd, a Virginian, had served as Secretary of War under President James Buchanan. He had tendered his resignation because he disapproved of Buchanan’s decision to allow Major Robert Anderson to continue to occupy Fort Sumer. He had held the cabinet post amid rumors of wrongdoings that resulted in congressional investigations. He had vacillated over where the Southern states should secede from the Union. Initially, he adamantly opposed secession, and then he just as adamantly supported it. This was also the way he ruled troops in the field. He was irresolute most of the time, to the great detriment of the men he led in battle.

Pillow, a Tennessean and veteran of the Mexican War, was the sort who looked out for his own interests at the expense of everyone else. He was vain, quarrelsome, and an ineffective commander. Pillow arrived at Fort Donelson with reinforcements and took command on February 9.

Kentuckian Buckner was the most able of the three commanders. He hailed from Hart County in central Kentucky. He did not own slaves and he did not support secession but nevertheless decided to fight for the South. As a dashing young officer, he had served with distinction in the Mexican War. He showed his mettle at Churubusco, where he was breveted first lieutenant, and at Molino del Ray, where he was breveted captain, and at Chapultepec and the Belen Gate.

After the war, he served a stint as assistant instructor of infantry tactics at West Point. As more troops and supplies arrived, work accelerated on the fort’s outer defenses. Artillerymen drilled on the fort’s dozen guns in the two water batteries that were well positioned to cover the river approach to the fort. The disparate cavalry companies at the fort were consolidated under Lt. Col. Nathan Bedford Forrest, who arrived with his 3rd Tennessee Cavalry on February 11. The competent Forrest established routine cavalry patrols in the direction of Fort Henry.

Floyd and Buckner did not like the idea of having their troops besieged in Fort Donelson. Instead, they wanted to leave a small force at Donelson and march the bulk of their forces against Grant’s supply line. Pillow did not like their plan. He did not believe it adhered to Johnston’s orders. Pillow therefore refused to release Buckner’s division stationed at Fort Donelson. Leaving Buckner, who had arrived on February 11, temporarily in charge of the fort, Pillow visited Floyd at Clarksville on the morning of February 12 to explain his view. By that time, it did not matter because Grant’s forces had arrived outside Fort Donelson. Rain, sleet, and muddy roads had kept Grant from marching for six days after the capture of Fort Henry. While some of Foote’s gunboats returned to Cairo for repair, the timberclads under Lieutenant Ledyard Phelps set off on a raid that took them 150 miles up the Tennessee River to Florence, Alabama.

Grant had 15,000 men in three divisions. He sent McClernand’s division on the road to Fort Donelson on February 11 the rest of the troops set out the next morning. The weather was improving to the delight of the soldiers. The Federals marched without tents and baggage, which made it easier to enjoy the sunny winter day. “We took nothing with us but our blankets and haversacks, three days rations of crackers and boiled pork our muskets and cartridge boxes with forty rounds of cartridges,” wrote Sergeant F.F. Kiner of the 14th Iowa of Smith’s division. Many of the men tossed their overcoats to the side to lighten their load. They would soon regret doing so.

Scattered shots rang out that morning as Forrest’s troopers engaged elements of McClernand’s division. The Rebels soon fell back to the protection of the earthworks. Grant deployed McClernand’s division on the right and Smith’s division on the left.

Grant captured two forts in a two-week period in a combined land and naval campaign that established him as one of the Union’s most promising generals. The surrender of 15,000 Confederates at Fort Donelson deprived the South of troops that were badly needed to defend the sprawling Western Theater.

The gunboat Carondelet arrived and let her presence be known by firing on the fort. Based on information from captured Confederate pickets, Grant slightly overestimated the number of Confederates at Fort Donelson. He believed there were as many as 20,000 men defending the outer- works and the fort.

The temperature plummeted that night and both sides endured sleet. On the morning of February 13, McClernand ordered his troops to extend their line toward the Cumberland River. Meanwhile, Smith’s troops reconnoitered the Confederate right. Both division commanders were under orders not to bring on a general engagement because Grant was waiting for reinforcements to arrive. He sent word to General Wallace, whose division had been left behind at Fort Henry, to come at once with his men.

Both Floyd and Pillow returned to Fort Donelson with additional troops. Troops continued to arrive throughout the day, bringing the total to 17,000 men. Pillow took command of the left wing opposite McClernand, and Buckner took charge of the right wing opposite Smith.

To create a diversion for McClernand and Smith, the Carondelet began firing on the Confederate water batteries. The Confederate gunners returned fire with their two long-range guns. During the artillery duel, a 128-pound shell from a Rebel Columbiad hit the Carondelet, wounding six sailors. Having suffered damage to its engine, the Carondelet withdrew downriver. After transferring its wounded to the steamer Alps, the gunboat returned to action.

While the batteries and the gunboat traded fire, Smith ordered Colonel John Cook’s brigade, which was composed of Illinoisans and Indianans, and Colonel Jacob Lauman’s brigade, made up of Iowans and Indianans, to advance against Buckner’s two brigades, which were mostly composed of Kentuckians and Tennesseans. The Federals encountered thick abatis that slowed their advance. When Confederate artillery began shelling the Federals entangled in the obstructions, they pulled back.

McClernand’s men were under heavy fire from a battery positioned in a salient near the center of the enemy lines. McClernand ordered his guns to silence it. Then, at 1 PM, he ordered two regiments from Colonel William Morrison’s brigade and a regiment from Colonel W.H.L Wallace’s brigade to storm the Rebel battery known as Redan No. 2. The Confederates repulsed the attack. The heavy artillery fire ignited fires in the forest, endangering Union soldiers too badly wounded to escape. In an act of mercy, Rebels went into the woods to rescue some of these men from the horrible fate that awaited them.

Snow fell throughout the night of February 13-14, increasing the suffering of the men on the front lines. Foote arrived at 12 AM with three ironclads, two timberclads, and steamers bearing more Federal reinforcements. Grant hoped that he could compel the Rebels at Fort Donelson to surrender by employing heavy naval bombardment as he had at Fort Henry.

Early on the morning of February 14, Floyd met his generals at Dover to discuss the situation. They agreed to evacuate Fort Donelson. The plan called for Pillow to attack the Federal right, which would open a retreat route to Nashville, while Buckner’s troops served as the rear guard. As it turned out, there would be no breakout. Pillow’s men, who did not get into position until 1 PM, had hardly started out before Pillow called off the attack. He did so on the grounds that it was too late in the day. The Confederates resolved to try to break out the following morning.

Meanwhile, more Federal troops arrived. General Wallace’s command arrived at 12 PM. Grant ordered him to deploy his troops between the divisions of Smith and McClernand. McClernand was still unable to stretch his line all the way to the Cumberland River even when Colonel John McArthur’s brigade from Smith’s division reinforced him.

At 3 PM Foote ordered his ironclads to shell Fort Donelson. In response, the Carondelet, Pittsburgh, Louisville, and Foote’s flagship St. Louis moved into position. The timberclads Tyler and Conestoga followed to furnish additional firepower.

As the ironclads steamed around a bend in the river, a Confederate 10-inch Columbiad opened up. When the gunboats got to within a mile of the batteries they returned fire. Foote’s gunboats closed to within 400 yards of the batteries, taking a pounding from the Confederate guns. The Louisville was heavily damaged and drifted downstream. The St. Louis was struck 59 times a shot through the pilothouse injured Foote. The Confederates hit the Carondelet 54 times. Both the Carondelet and Pittsburgh took on water. A cheer erupted from the Confederate soldiers as the Federal gunboats withdrew.

Despite their victory over the gunboats, Floyd, Pillow, and Buckner met again to discuss breaking out of Fort Donelson the next morning. The plan they agreed on was basically the same as that of the night before. Pillow would attack McClernand’s division, pushing it to the west to open up an avenue of escape via Wynn’s Ferry and Forge Roads, which were the principal routes Nashville. With a regiment from the garrison left to face Smith, Buckner would move to the center and strike McClernand’s troops in the flank and rear. Buckner’s troops would then fight a rearguard action until the bulk of the Confederate forces had escaped. The retreating Confederates would then make their way to Nashville.

After enduring another bone-chilling night on February 14-15, the Confederates shifted their troops shortly after dawn. Pillow and Johnson attacked the Federal right flank with 14 regiments. The troops on the Federal right braced for the Confederate attack. “We formed the line of battle expecting only a slight skir- mish, but when we came to the brow of the hill we saw our mistake for we could see them com- ing in columns of regiments and the firing was terrific,” wrote Lieutenant W.D. Harland of the 18th Illinois of Colonel Richard Oglesby’s brigade. The combatants fought furiously in the snow-covered woods, ravines, and roadways. After some hard fighting, the Confederates suc- cessfully pushed the Federals to their left.

Buckner’s troops joined the battle at 7 AM, striking Colonel Wallace’s brigade in the center of McClernand’s line near Wynn’s Ferry Road. However, the Federals repulsed the attack.

McClernand was in desperate need of help and sent a staff officer to Grant’s headquarters located in a farm house in Smith’s sector. He did not find the commanding general at that location because Grant had gone to confer with the wounded Foote on his flagship. McClernand also sent a request to General Wallace for assistance. Wallace was reluctant to send help because he had been ordered to hold his posi- tion and not to do anything to bring on an engagement. Wallace therefore sent an officer to get clarification from headquarters. Grant, of course, was not there, but one of his aides, Captain William Hillyer, went to find the commander. Although he had not received orders to do so, Wallace nevertheless sent Colonel Charles Cruft’s brigade to the aid of McClernand’s hard-pressed right.

Wild fighting turned the snow red and shrouded the battlefield in gun smoke as the Confederate attack continued throughout the morning. The troops of McArthur, Oglesby, and Cruft ran low on ammunition and took heavy casualties. Just as the Confederates had planned, they were being steadily pushed west. The Confederates launched a ferocious assault on Colonel Wallace’s brigade. They screamed the Rebel yell as they rushed at Wallace’s men. With no reinforcements coming, Wallace ordered his men to withdraw.

Hearing the roar of battle all morning, Gen- eral Wallace rode over to see for himself what was happening. Wallace met retreating Federals who shouted as they fell back that they needed cartridges. He soon came upon Colonel Wallace and asked how close the Confederates were. They were very close, the colonel said. General Wallace formed the remainder of his division to withstand the attack. For the next hour, his troops repulsed three Confederate assaults.

The Confederate advance was halted, but by early afternoon the Rebels had opened up their escape routes to Nashville. As Buckner’s men, carrying their knapsacks and rations, prepared to hold open the escape route, they were where shocked to see Pillow’s men heading back toward their lines. Pillow believed the plan was for the troops to fall back to their lines, get their gear, and prepare for the evacuation. Buckner protested that they must get out right away. Pillow instead ordered Buckner to fall back as well. When Floyd arrived on the scene, he initially agreed with Buckner but then changed his mind and agreed with Pillow. The Confederate troops turned and headed back to their lines. It would be a costly mistake.

By this time Grant was on the field. Hillyer had told him of the Rebel attack on his lines. Arriving at the place where General Wallace had made his stand he found Wallace and McClernand conversing. “Gentleman, the position on the right must be retaken,” Grant said when informed of the dire situation. The Union commander rode among the Federals and told them to refill their cartridge boxes and reform for battle. He meant to do everything possible to prevent the Rebels from escaping.

Grant believed that the Confederates must have weakened their right to make their all-out attack on the left. “The one who attacks first now will be victorious,” Grant told an aide, adding, “The enemy will have to be in a hurry to get ahead of me.” At 2 PM Grant ordered Smith to attack.

Lauman’s brigade of Smith’s division led the assault with Colonel John Cook’s brigade attacking on their right flank. “Come on you volunteers. Come on!” shouted Smith as he led the attack. “This is your chance. You volunteered to be killed and now you can be!” Pushing up a slope through brush and over logs, Smith’s men overran the 30th Tennessee, which was the lone regiment holding the line for Buckner, and captured their breastworks and rifle pits. Buckner’s returning men prevented Smith from pushing any farther. By 3 PM the Federals controlled the Tennesseans’ earthworks.

General Wallace also launched an assault. He recaptured ground lost to the Rebels in the morning. He was aided by troops from McClernand’s division who had regrouped and by nightfall had retaken much of the lost ground. In the day’s fighting the Confederates lost 2,000 killed and wounded while the Federals suffered 2,800 casualties. Grant’s losses were replaced that evening when more reinforcements arrived by steamer.

Buckner, Pillow, and Floyd met again in the early morning of February 16 in Dover to determine what to do next. Rebel scouts reported that they saw enemy campfires in previously held Confederate positions. The Confederate generals asked Forrest to send out scouts to see if the troops could escape. He returned with news that road near the river was open, but it was flooded for approximately 200 hundred yards in one place. He doubted if infantry could get through, but he was confident that cavalry could make it through the flooded section.

Union Brig. Gen. Charles F. Smith’s troops storm Fort Donelson, overrunning a battery and breaching part of the defenses on the Confederate right flank. Union morale ran high throughout the campaign.

Buckner did not want to risk the lives of his men by fording the frigid water. He doubted they could hold out the next day if the Federals were to attack. Believing they had bought enough time for Johnston to retreat to Nashville, the generals decided to surrender Fort Donelson however, Pillow and Floyd did not want to be captured. Former Secretary of War Floyd feared the U.S. government might try him for treason. For that reason, he turned over command of Fort Donelson to Pillow. The cowardly Pillow in turn passed command of the fort to Buckner.

Forrest also had no intentions of being captured. “I did not come here to surrender my command,” he said. Bucker agreed to allow Forrest to depart with his command as long as he left before surrender negotiations were underway.

Forrest led his 500 troopers away from the fort at 4 AM, taking some infantry with him. The infantry walked except over the flooded stretches where they rode double behind the troopers. They did not encounter any resistance on the route, and more infantry might have made it out if Buckner had not posted guards to prevent more men from leaving.

Floyd, with his four Virginia regiments and one Mississippi regiment, attempted to board two steamers that were bringing reinforcements. Word of approaching enemy gunboats caused Floyd to hurriedly depart with his Virginians on the boats, thus leaving the new arrivals and the Mississippians behind. As for Pillow, he escaped in a skiff and eventually made his way to Nashville.

A Confederate officer and a bugler took Buckner’s surrender note to the Federal lines. The two Confederates were escorted to Smith, who took them to see Grant. Grant read Buckner’s note in which he requested the appointment of commissioners for the purpose of agreeing upon terms of capitulation. Grant asked Smith what answer he should give. “No terms to the damned Rebels,” replied Smith. Grant heeded the advice. “No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted,” Grant informed Buckner.

With no option left, Buckner surrendered and 14,600 Confederate troops became prisoners of war. With the capture of Forts Henry and Donelson, and shortly afterward Nashville and Columbus, the Federals gained control of Kentucky as well much of middle Tennessee. “Unconditional Surrender” Grant, as the Northern press dubbed him, and Foote had give the Union their first major victories of the war.

Two Friends, a River Hotel, and the Legend of “Unconditional Surrender” Grant – The Battle of Fort Donelson

Nestled on a quiet stretch of the Cumberland River, in a small, quiet town just south of the Tennessee/Kentucky border sits an unassuming two-story building, with a long porch on the south side and a balcony overtop. While it may not look flashy or magnificent, it was here at the Dover Hotel that the Battle of Fort Donelson would end and the legend of Ulysses S. “Unconditional Surrender” Grant would begin. While small in scope when compared to Gettysburg or Shiloh, Fort Donelson was a significant battle that set the tone of the War in the Western Theater for the next two years. Today, Fort Donelson National Battlefield stands as not only an exquisite example of original Civil War earthworks, but also a tribute to those who struggled in an important and often overlooked event in the history of the United States.

Fort Donelson’s lower battery, overlooking the Cumberland River

Following the secession of Tennessee in June, 1861, the Confederacy recognized an urgent need for defenses protecting the three key western rivers the Mississippi, the Tennessee, and the Cumberland. The Mississippi defenses were initially installed at Belmont, MO and across the river in Columbia, KY (despite Kentucky’s declared neutrality and opposition to military installations withing its’ borders).

For the Tennessee and the Cumberland a lawyer-turned-brigadier general named Daniel S. Donelson was selected to find suitable locations for river forts. Two sites were selected on the Tennessee, across the river from each other and just south of the Kentucky state line: Fort Heiman (named for the engineer in charge of its construction) on the western shore and Fort Henry (named for Tennessee Senator Gustavus A. Henry) on the east. Unfortunately Donelson’s chosen location for Fort Henry was poor. The area was low and swampy, dominated by bluffs on the opposite side of the river where, if Fort Heiman should fall into enemy hands, the high ground would render Fort Henry worthless.

To guard the Cumberland Donelson chose a spot on the river’s west bank, twelve miles east of Fort Henry, just downstream of the small town of Dover, TN. The works constructed here would be named, appropriately enough, Fort Donelson, and would sport two heavy artillery batteries overlooking the Cumberland.

Fort Donelson’s upper battery

In September, 1861 Lt. Joseph Dixon made a report to General Albert Sydney Johnston, commander of Confederate forces in the West, on the state of affairs at the three “sister forts”. His report found the construction at Fort Donelson was behind schedule, and the location for Fort Henry was incredibly poor. He also concluded that construction on both was too far along to start over elsewhere.

While the South was building defenses the North was making preparations of their own. The North recognized, just as the South did, that control of the rivers was the key to victory. To that end US Navy Commander John Rogers was sent from Washington DC to St. Louis to explore the possibility of conducting naval operations on the rivers. Rogers made a deal for three riverboats, the “Lexington”, “Conestoga”, and “Tyler”, and arranged to have them reinforced with heavy lumber only to be told that the Navy was unwilling to take command (or pay for the boats) and he should report to the War Department. The Army was only too happy to take his “timberclads” and, operating under Army authority, the Western Flotilla was born.

The Western Flotilla, or as it was more popularly known, the “Brown Water Navy”, would be bolstered further by a War Department contract won by businessman James B. Eads of St. Louis (for all my STL readers this is the fellow the Eads Bridge is named for). Eads would supply the Army with seven shallow-draft riverboats, all with heavy armor plating. Designed by Samuel Pook and built in shipyards at Carondelet, MO and Mound City, IL the seven city-class ironclads, or “Pook’s Turtles”, would be named for various cities significant to their creation: “Cairo”, “Carondelet”, “Cinncinnati”, “Louisville”, “Mound City”, “St. Louis”, and “Pittsburgh”.

USS Mound City, one of the original seven city-class ironclads

On August 31, 1861 newly promoted Flag Officer Andrew Hull Foote was tapped to command the Brown Water Navy.

Flag Officer Andrew Hull Foote, first commander of the “Brown Water Navy”

Ulysses S. Grant, meanwhile, was eager to begin operations. A West Point graduate and Mexican War veteran, Grant had been living the life of a quiet farmer the past five years. When war broke out Grant immediately sought a commission and by February, 1862 had worked his way up to Brigadier General. Save for a small skirmish at Belmont, MO in November, 1861 his troops had never seen combat, but with the gunboats at the ready and construction of the Confederate river defenses lagging Grant knew the time to strike was now. Sadly he had trouble convincing his commanding officer, General Henry Halleck in St. Louis, of this fact until February, 1862 when Grant finally received orders to take his troops and the gunboats and move against the forts.

Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant

At the time Forts Henry and Heiman had about 2,600 troops between them, outnumbered by the Union army 5-1, not counting the Federal gunboat crews. Originally Grant and Foote proposed to move together to capture Forts Heiman and Henry in a joint army-navy operation, but recent rains made the rivers much more easily traveled that the Tennessee terrain and the ground troops lagged behind fighting against swollen streams. On February 6 th , 1862 the Brown Water Navy engaged the guns of Fort Henry and, despite no support from ground troops, who were still slogging through the mud north of the Fort, would accept the surrender of the fort after about two hours. When the Union troops reached Fort Henry they found that the majority of men stationed there had managed to slip away to Fort Donelson before the fight commenced, leaving only 75 men behind to man the guns. Fort Heiman had been evacuated even earlier. (As an interesting aside, the location for Fort Henry was actually so poorly chosen that if Grant and Foote has just waiting a few days before attacked they probably wouldn’t have needed to bother. The heavy Tennessee rains that followed the battle would have submerged the Fort, rendering it useless.)

Wanting to keep the pressure on the Confederate troops Grant proposed to move on Fort Donelson immediately, telling Halleck he would take it on the 8 th . Had he been able to engage Fort Donelson on the 8 th Grant might have been correct, there being only about 7,000 troops in Fort Donelson at the time, but unfortunately for him the weather refused to cooperate. The recent rains would continue and, slogging through the mud, it would take Grant’s troops six days to cover the 12 miles between Fort Henry and Fort Donelson.

Fort Henry to Fort Donelson, February 1862. (Map drawn by Hal Jespersen, wikimedia user Hlj, CC-3.0, no changes made)

When Grant did arrive outside Fort Donelson on the 12 th he found that the garrison had been substantially reenforced with Confederate troops from nearby Clarksville and he was opposing a force of around 12,000, nearly equal to his own. Minor skirmishes and sniping between the lines took place on the 12 th , but the real fighting was yet to come.

Dawn broke on the 13 th with Grant maneuvering his men into position surrounding Fort Donelson as both sides continued to receive reinforcements. Only one city-class ship had arrived downstream so far, the “Carondelet”, and Grant planned to use it to create a diversion while two divisions under Generals C.F. Smith and John McClernand advanced, hoping to find weak points in the Confederate line of earthworks surrounding the Fort.

Original earthworks at Fort Donelson National Battlefield

The “Carondelet” traded artillery fire with the two river batteries of the fort briefly before the Confederates got the range of the ship and, from about a mile and a half away, sent a 128-lb shell fired from the big Columbiad gun into the ship’s engine room, causing the ironclad to fall back.

Fort Donelson’s lower battery looking down the Cumberland River, where it traded artillery fire with the USS Carondelet

While this was happening ground troops attempted to charge the Southerners’ line, only to be repulsed with heavy loss just shy of the Confederate rifle pits.

That night both sides continued to receive reinforcements. For the troops in grey, a brigade under General John Floyd was all that arrived, while the boys in blue brought up a brigade from Fort Henry under General Lew Wallace as well as three more ironclads, two timber-clads, and several transports bringing fresh regiments of ground troops.

Grant’s plan was to use the might of the Western Flotilla to level the river batteries and the fort at which time the ground troops would sweep in. The Confederates, now being commanded at Fort Donelson by Floyd (the garrison’s commander had changed 5 times in the last 6 days), had realized their position was untenable and would attempt to break out of the Union stranglehold by slipping around the Union right. McClernand’s troops had been extending out above the town to cut off any means of Confederate escape, but they were stretching thin and couldn’t reach all the way to the river.

The fighting on the 14 th would be dominated by the Brown Water Navy, as they attempted to reduce the water batteries. The battle on the water would ultimately belong to the Rebels though, as every gunboat the Union had would be repulsed with heavy damage. The troops on land were fairly quiet. Grant didn’t want to order a full-scale confrontation with only minimal support from the Flotilla and although Confederate troops would start to march out of Fort Donelson on the left they would inexplicably stop and countermarch right back in.

The 15 th would see the heaviest fighting of the battle. At dawn Confederate troops under General Gideon Pillow, determined to break through the Union lines on the left, attacked and began to quickly roll back the right flank of the Federal army, the division commanded by McClernand. Falling back, he sought the assistance of the division to his left, commanded by Wallace. After several hours of fighting the Rebels seemed on the verge of breaking out around the Union right. Confederate General Simon Bulivar Buckner’s division had prepared to act as rear guard to the escaping column, going so far as to bring their supplies and rations with them, but when they got to the front they found Pillow’s troops falling back, not stopping until they sat down in the same rifle pits they left when the attack began that morning.

Confederate General Simon Bolivar Buckner

It seems that Pillow was under the impression that the decision had not been fully made to evacuate the fort and when he attacked in the morning he went straight for the win. Unfortunately for him (and the rest of the Confederate troops) everyone else in the fort was operating under the assumption that they were leaving town. So in the afternoon, when Pillow ran low on ammunition and found himself being counter-attacked by Wallace, he decided to simply fall back rather than evacuate.

A gallant counter-attack by Union General C.F. Smith on the Federal left as well as action on the right by Wallace and McClernand allowed the Union Army to regain most of the ground it had lost during the day. Whether or not it was enough to seal off all Confederate escape routes is something that historians debate even today.

That night three of the four Confederate generals at Fort Donelson held a conference in Buckner’s headquarters, a long two-story building just east of the town of Dover called the Dover Hotel. It had been built from 1851-1853 and accommodated steamboat traffic until the Civil War broke out. It was here that the decision was made on the night of February 16 th , 1862 to surrender the Confederate troops and holdings at Fort Donelson, but the decision was not without detractors. Buckner felt that while escape might be possible the casualties incurred would be too high to make the risk worthwhile. General Floyd, former United States Secretary of War under James Buchanan who left office under suspicion of bond fraud and accusations of sending large stores of ammunition and supplies to the South prior to secession, agreed with Buckner that surrender was the best option but being unwilling to be captured decided to give up command and escape himself. Leaving with him was General Pillow, who opposed surrender but was also unwilling to be captured. That passed command of the Fort to Buckner who called for pen and paper. The remaining general, Bushrod Johnson, was not consulted on the decision and wouldn’t find out until the next day while making preparations for his men to evacuate.

The Dover Hotel, or “Surrender House”. During the battle it served as General Buckner’s headquarters, and it was here that he would meet with his old friend Ulysses S. Grant to discuss terms of the Fort’s surrender

Buckner’s note reached Grant across the lines early the next morning and asked for a temporary cessation of hostilities so that commissioners could be appointed to negotiate terms for the surrender. Buckner was probably expecting fairly generous terms, something akin to the surrender of Fort Sumter where the capitulating troops were allowed to march out a parole d’honneur, an informal agreement between gentlemen. At this point in the war such a thing was still possible. Official procedures for treatment of prisoners had not yet been established. What Buckner actually received as reply shocked him so much he had to reread it several times. Grant wrote “No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.” Buckner replied that he had no choice but to agree, although given his personal history with Grant probably felt a little let down.

Grant and Buckner had known each other for many years. Buckner had been a class behind Grant at West Point and the two had fought together in the Mexican War. In 1854 Grant was stationed in California, a world away from his wife Julia and young sons Frederick and Ulysses Jr. in St. Louis. It took a toll on Grant and he started to drink. In 1854, shortly after promotion to captain, Grant resigned (whether under pressure or not is unknown) and began the long journey home. His money ran out as he reached New York City and he was on the verge of being thrown out of his hotel while he waited for some to arrive from his family in Ohio. Luckily for Grant he ran into his old friend, Simon Buckner. Some stories would later say that Buckner fronted Grant the cash to pay his hotel bill, but Buckner himself denied this vehemently. What he did do was to vouch for Grant’s character with the hotel, saying he was certainly good for the money and would pay as soon as it arrived. It was a kindness Grant would attempt to repay at Fort Donelson.

Despite the terse tone of their correspondence Buckner and Grant actually greeted each other warmly. After working out how to handle the surrender (neither side of the war was prepared for such a large number of troops, around 13,000, to be surrendered it had never happened before!) Grant pulled Buckner aside and told his old friend his purse was at his disposal, should he need it. Buckner appreciated the gesture, but politely declined.

After the surrender, Grant was a household name. Once the contents of his letter to Buckner became public he became “Unconditional Surrender” Grant, a headline in every northern newspaper. Buckner would be sent to a prison camp in Boston where he would stay for five months before being exchanged and sent back south where he earned distinction at the Battle of Chickamauga. When the war ended he was commanding the Trans Mississippi Department, ultimately surrendering his army in New Orleans in June of 1865, two months after General Lee laid down arms at Appomattox. Thus, he was both the first and last Confederate general to surrender troops during the Civil War.

Buckner and Grant would meet again one final time in July of 1885. Grant, financially ruined and suffering from throat cancer, was staying in a cottage in Mt. McGregor, NY, racing with death to finish his memoirs that he might be able to leave something behind for his family to live off. Buckner, who following the war had held several positions both private and public, most notably Governor of Kentucky, came to visit his old ailing friend. By this time Grant was so weak he was confined to a wheelchair and in such pain he couldn’t speak, communicating only by writing on a small pad of paper. The two generals talked of old times, of West Point and Mexico. Before Buckner left Grant told him “I have witnessed since my sickness just what I have wished to see since the war: harmony and good feeling between the sections.”

Grant at Mt. McGregor working on his memoirs. This picture was taken June 27th, 1885, less than a month before he passed away.

Grant passed away on July 23, 1885, having finished his memoirs just five days earlier. His funeral was held in New York City on August 8. One of the pallbearers was Simon Bulivar Buckner.

As for the Dover Hotel, it has lead something of a charmed life. Following the Battle of Fort Donelson Union troops occupied the fort and town, but two attempts were made by Confederate troops to retake it, once in mid-1862 and a larger skirmish on February 3, 1863 known as the Battle of Dover. It was during this engagement that the town of Dover burned to the ground, with all but four buildings completely destroyed. Of the four that escaped the flames, one was the Dover Hotel.

After the war it would again function as a hotel for traffic off the river. Over the years it would be known by several names the Dover Hotel, the Commercial Hotel, and the Hobing Hotel. In 1925 the Hobing family closed the Hotel for good and the building was scheduled for demolition. Before the wrecking ball fell a group of citizens with a sense of the history the simple structure contained formed the Fort Donelson House Historical Association and purchased the property in 1928. It was operated as a private museum and later became part of the Fort Donelson National Battlefield. Today the “Surrender House”, as it’s known, is restored to its 1860’s appearance and functions as an educational center focusing on the events and influence of the Battle of Fort Donelson.

The restored interior of the Dover Hotel

Fort Donelson National Battlefield contains not only beautiful views of the Cumberland River from the upper and lower artillery batteries, but also miles of the original earthworks that made up the Fort. As for Fort Henry, it was reclaimed by the Tennessee River when the river was dammed to create Kentucky Lake. All that remains of the Fort today is a marker on the side of a nearby road.

All that remains of Fort Henry

Knight, James R. The Battle of Fort Donelson. Charleston: The History Press, 2011. Print.

Joiner, Gary D. Mr. Lincoln’s Brown Water Navy. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007. Print.

Flood, Charles Bracelen. Grant’s Final Victory. Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2011. Print.

Most images are mine. Others are from the Library of Congress Digital Collection and are in the public domain. Images in public domain used with licenses are cited as such.

Battle of Fort Donelson - HISTORY

Battle of Fort Donelson

Campaign: Federal Penetration up the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers (1862)

Principal Commanders: Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Flag-Officer A.H. Foote [US] Brig. Gen. John B. Floyd, Brig. Gen. Gideon Pillow, and Brig. Gen. Simon B. Buckner [CS]

Battle of Fort Donelson

Kurz and Allison (1887)

Forces Engaged: Army in the Field [US] Fort Donelson Garrison [CS]

Estimated Casualties: 17,398 total (US 2,331 CS 15,067)

Summary: After capturing Fort Henry on February 6, 1862, Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant advanced cross-country to invest Fort Donelson. On February 16, 1862, after the failure of their all-out attack aimed at breaking through Grant’s investment lines, the fort’s 12,000-man garrison surrendered unconditionally.

This was a major victory for Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and a catastrophe for the South. It ensured that Kentucky would stay in the Union and opened up Tennessee for a Northern advance along the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. Grant received a promotion to major general for his victory and attained stature in the Western Theater, earning the nom de guerre “Unconditional Surrender.” Fort Donelson was part of Gen. Winfield Scott's Anaconda Plan .

Fort Donelson Battlefield Map

Digitally Enhanced Battle of Fort Donelson Map

Background: On February 4-5, Grant landed his divisions in two different locations, one on the east bank of the Tennessee River to prevent the garrison at Fort Henry from escaping and the other to occupy the high ground on the Kentucky side to ensure the fall of both Forts Heiman and Henry. After Union Flag-Officer Foote's gunboats began bombarding the forts, Confederate Brig. Gen. Lloyd Tilghman recalled the troops building Fort Heiman to assist in the defense of Fort Henry . Tilghman soon realized that he could not hold Fort Henry . Thus, he ordered his barbette-mounted cannons to hold off the Union fleet while he sent most of his men to Fort Donelson , 11 miles away.

Recommended Reading : Where the South Lost the War: An Analysis of the Fort Henry-Fort Donelson Campaign, February 1862 (The American Civil War) (Hardcover). Description: This book presents one of the most detailed descriptions of the Fort Henry and Fort Donelson Campaign. The volume describes the preparation, logistics, and the execution of the campaign. The book details the futile (and brief) defense of the poorly designed Fort Henry . It demonstrates the willingness of General Ulysses Grant, unlike many of his general officer brethren in the Union Army at that time, to take immediate action against Fort Donelson . Continued below.

Fort Donelson

The Leaders

Fort Henry - Fort Donelson Map

(Click to Enlarge)

(Right) Civil War Map showing movement from the Battle of Fort Henry to the Battle of Fort Donelson.

In a joint army-navy operation a fleet of seven gunboats - four ironclads and three wooden ones -- under Union naval Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote steamed out of Cairo , Illinois , on February 2, leading the transports carrying Grant's force.

"No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted." Ulysses S. Grant, February 16, 1862

Fort Donelson History

(Click to Enlarge)

On February 4-5, 1862, Grant landed his divisions in two different locations, one on the east bank of the Tennessee River to prevent the garrison at Fort Henry from escaping or receiving reinforcements from Fort Donelson and the other to occupy the high ground on the Kentucky side to ensure the fall of both Forts Heiman and Henry. After gunboats under the command of Union naval Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote began bombarding the forts, Confederate Brig. Gen. Lloyd Tilghman, realizing that Fort Heiman could not be held, recalled the 1,100 troops building the fort to cross the river and assist the nearly 2,000 soldiers defending Fort Henry . The Confederates hoped that the muddy roads would make it impossible for the Union army to set up artillery on the partially completed Fort Heiman .

On February 6, Tilghman surrendered Fort Henry after 70 minutes of bombardment, because it was surrounded by rising water and could not be supported by infantry. Tilghman decided to withdraw all troops from Fort Henry to Fort Donelson (11 miles away) with the exception of one battery which he left behind to delay the Union assault and secure his retreat. After the capture of both Fort Henry and the uncompleted Fort Heiman , the latter was occupied by troops under Brig. Gen. Lew Wallace on February 6. Thus, the surrender of Forts Heiman and Henry enabled the Federals' wooden gunboats to ascend the Tennessee River south to Muscle Shoals, Alabama , and set the stage for Grant's successful assault against Fort Donelson 11 miles to the east on the Cumberland River .

The Approach and Engagement at Fort Donelson

Evening, Feb. 14

(Click to Enlarge)

(Right) Map of Union and Confederate Battlefield Positions on the evening of February 14, 1862.

The morning of February 14 dawned cold and quiet. Early in the afternoon a furious roar broke the stillness, and the earth began to shake. Andrew H. Foote's Union gunboat fleet, consisting of the ironclads St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Louisville and Corondolet, and the timberclads Conestoga and Tyler, had arrived from Fort Henry via the Tennessee and Ohio Rivers and were exchanging "iron valentines" with the eleven big guns in the Southern water batteries.

During this one and one-half hour duel the Confederates wounded Foote and inflicted such extensive damage upon the gunboats that they were forced to retreat. The hills and hollows echoed with cheers from the southern soldiers.

Confederate Breakout Attempt

(Click to Enlarge)

(Right) Map of Confederate breakout attempt, morning February 15, 1862.

The Confederate generals—John Floyd, Gideon Pillow, Simon Buckner and Bushrod Johnson—also rejoiced but sober reflection revealed another danger. Grant was receiving reinforcements daily and had extended his right flank almost to Lick Creek to complete the encirclement of the Southerners. If the Confederates did not move quickly, they would be starved into submission. Accordingly, they massed their troops against the Union right, hoping to clear a route to Nashville and safety. The battle on February 15 raged all morning, the Union Army grudgingly retreating step by step. Just as it seemed the way was clear, the Southern troops were ordered to return to their entrenchments—a result of confusion and indecision among the Confederate commanders. Grant immediately launched a vigorous counterattack, retaking most of the lost ground and gaining new positions as well. The way of escape was closed once more.

Floyd and Pillow turned over command of Fort Donelson to Buckner and slipped away to Nashville with about 2,000 men. Others followed cavalryman Col. Nathan Bedford Forrest across swollen Lick Creek. That morning, February 16, Buckner asked Grant for terms. Grant's answer was short and direct: "No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted." Buckner surrendered.

Fort Donelson Civil War Battlefield

Battle of Fort Donelson History Marker

Union counterattack Fort Donelson

Union and Confederate movements during Battle of Fort Donelson

(Right) Map of Union counterattack, afternoon February 15, 1862.

On the morning of February 16, Buckner sent a note to Grant requesting an armistice and terms of surrender. The note first reached General Charles F. Smith. Smith stated "I'll make no terms with Rebels with arms in their hands-my terms are unconditional and immediate surrender". When the note finally reached Grant Smith again told Grant "no terms to the Rebels". Buckner had expectations that Grant would offer generous terms because of their previous relationship. In 1854, Grant had lost a command in California allegedly because of a drinking problem, and U.S. Army officer Buckner had loaned him money to get home after his resignation.

But Grant showed he had no mercy toward men who had rebelled against the Union. His reply was one of the most famous quotes from the war, giving him his nom de guerre of "Unconditional Surrender": Sir: Yours of this date proposing Armistice, and appointment of Commissioners, to settle terms of Capitulation is just received. No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.
I propose to move immediately upon your works.
I am Sir: very respectfully
Your obt. sevt.
U.S. Grant
Brig. Gen.

River Battery at Fort Donelson

Lower River overlooking the Cumberland River

The Escape

(Click to Enlarge)

Soon after the surrender, civilians and relief agencies rushed to assist the Union Army. The U.S. Sanitary Commission was one of the first to provide food, medical supplies, and hospital ships to transport the wounded. Many civilians came in search of loved ones or to offer support. Although not officially recognized as nurses, women such as Mary Bickerdyke cared for and comforted sick and wounded soldiers.

Fort Donelson Attack

(Click to Enlarge)

After the fall of Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River on February 16, the two major water transportation routes in the Confederate west, bounded by the Appalachians on the east and the Mississippi River on the west, became Union highways for movement of troops and material.

And with the capture of Fort Donelson and its sister fort, Henry, the North had not only won its first great victory, it had also gained a new hero—"Unconditional Surrender" Grant, who was promoted to major general. Subsequent victories at Shiloh , Vicksburg , and Chattanooga would lead to his appointment as lieutenant general and commander of all Union Armies. Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox would send Grant to the White House.

Following the capitulation of Fort Donelson, the South was forced to give up southern Kentucky and much of Middle and West Tennessee. The Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, and railroads in the area, became vital Federal supply lines. Nashville was developed into a huge supply depot for the Union army in the west. The heartland of the Confederacy was opened, and the Federals would press on until the "Union" became a fact once more.

"The weather was intensely cold a great many of the men were already frost-bitten, and it was the opinion of the generals that the infantry could not have passed through the water and have survived it." Nathan Bedford Forrest, Colonel, Commanding Forrest's Regiment of Cavalry at the Battle of Fort Donelson

Forts Donelson and Henry Map

Fort Donelson and Fort Henry Battlefield Map

Fort Donelson: United States of America [Union] Order of Battle

Brigadier General U.S. Grant, Commanding

First Division (Brigadier General John A. McClernand)

1st Brigade (Oglesby)
8th, 18th, 29th, 30th, 31st Illinois Infantry
Battery D, E, 2d Illinois Light Artillery
Companies A, B, 2d Illinois Cavalry
Company C, 2d US Cavalry
Company I, 4th US Cavalry
Carmichael's Illinois Cavalry
O'Harnett's Illinois Cavalry
Stewart's Illinois Cavalry

2d Brigade (W.H.L. Wallace)
11th, 20th, 45th, 48th Illinois Infantry
Battery B, D, 1st Illinois Light Artillery
4th Illinois Cavalry

3d Brigade (Morrison passed to W.H.L. Wallace)
17th, 49th Illinois Infantry

Second Division (Brigadier General Charles F. Smith)

1st Brigade (McArthur)
9th, 12th, 41st Illinois Infantry

3d Brigade (Lauman)
25th Indiana Infantry
2d, 7th, 14th Iowa Infantry
Birge's Western Sharpshooters

2d Brigade (Cook)
Batteries D, H, K Missouri Light Artillery
7th, 50th Illinois Infantry
12th Iowa Infantry
13th Missouri Infantry

4th Brigade (M.L. Smith)
8th Missouri Infantry
11th Indiana Infantry

Third Division (Brigadier General L. Wallace)

1st Brigade (Cruft)
31st, 44th Indiana Infantry
17th, 25th Kentucky Infantry

3d Brigade (Thayer)
1 st Nebraska Infantry
58th, 68th, 76th Ohio Infantry

2d Brigade (attached to 3d Brigade)
46th, 57th, 58th Illinois Infantry

Not Brigaded
Company A, 32nd Illinois Infantry
Battery A, 1st Illinois ( Chicago Light Artillery)

Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote, USN, Commanding Naval Fleet Fort Donelson

St. Louis (Paulding) Carondelet (Walke) Louisville (Dove) Pittsburg (Thompson) Tyler (Gwinn) Conestoga (Phelps)

Fort Donelson: Confederate States of America Order of Battle

Brigadier General John B. Floyd, Commanding

Brigadier General Gideon J. Pillow's Division

Colonel Heiman's Brigade
10th, 30th, 42nd, 48th, 53d Tennessee Infantry
27th Alabama Infantry
Maney's Tennessee Battery Light Artillery
Colonel Simonton's Brigade
1st, 3d Mississippi Infantry
7th Texas Infantry
8th Kentucky Infantry
Colonel Wharton's Brigade
51st, 56th Virginia Infantry

Colonel Drake's Brigade
4th Mississippi Infantry
15th Arkansas Infantry
26th Alabama Infantry ( 2 companies )
Colonel Baldwin's Brigade
26th Tennessee Infantry
20th, 26th Mississippi Infantry

Guy's Battery , Goochland (VA) Light Artillery
Green's Tennessee Battery Light Artillery
French's Virginia Battery Light Artillery

Brigadier General Simon B. Buckner's Division

Colonel Brown's Brigade
3d, 18th, 32nd Tennessee Infantry
Porter's Tennessee Battery Light Artillery
Graves ' Cumberland Kentucky Light Artillery

Colonel Baldwin's Brigade
2d Kentucky Infantry
14th Mississippi Infantry
41st Tennessee Infantry
Jackson 's Virginia Battery Light Artillery

Colonel Nathan B. Forrest's Cavalry Brigade

3d Tennessee Cavalry Regiment
9th Tennessee Cavalry Battalion
1st Kentucky Cavalry Regiment

Colonel John W. Head's Fort Donelson Garrison Units

30th, 49th, 50th Tennessee Infantry
Maury's Tennessee Battery Light Artillery (Ross)
Taylor 's Company Tennessee Light Artillery (Stankiewicz)
Water Battery Heavy Artillery (Culbertson)

Location of Forts, Henry, Donelson, and Heiman

Civil War Preservation Trust Map

Poem, Bivouac of the Dead

(Click to Enlarge)

Fort Donelson National Cemetery


In July 1862, Congress passed legislation giving the President of the United States the authority to purchase land for the establishment of cemeteries “for soldiers who shall die in the service of their country”.

The legislation effectively began the national cemetery system. In 1863, the Union Army abandoned the Confederate works and constructed a new fortification on the ground that became the cemetery site. A freedmen's community developed around the new Union fort. Four years later (1867), this same site was selected for the establishment of the Fort Donelson National Cemetery (15.34 acres) and 670 Union soldiers were reinterred here. These soldiers (which included 512 unknowns) had been buried on the battlefield, in local cemeteries, in hospital cemeteries, and in nearby towns. (These totals include five known and nine unknown soldiers from the United States Colored Troops.)

The high percentage of unknown soldiers (512) can be attributed to the "haste in cleaning up the battlefield" and the fact that civil war soldiers did not carry government-issued identification. In 1867, Fort Donelson Cemetery was established as the final resting for Union soldiers and sailors initially buried in the Fort Donelson area. Today the national cemetery contains both Civil War veterans and veterans who have served the United States since that time. Furthermore, many spouses and dependent children are also buried here. The cemetery is presently unavailable for additional burials.

Fort Donelson Battle Map

Civil War Fort Donelson Battlefield Map

Recommended Reading : Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862 . Review: The bloody and decisive two-day battle of Shiloh (April 6-7, 1862) changed the entire course of the American Civil War. The stunning Northern victory thrust Union commander Ulysses S. Grant into the national spotlight, claimed the life of Confederate commander Albert S. Johnston, and forever buried the notion that the Civil War would be a short conflict. The conflagration at Shiloh had its roots in the strong Union advance during the winter of 1861-1862 that resulted in the capture of Forts Henry and Donelson in Tennessee . Continued below.

The offensive collapsed General Albert S. Johnston advanced line in Kentucky and forced him to withdraw all the way to northern Mississippi . Anxious to attack the enemy, Johnston began concentrating Southern forces at Corinth , a major railroad center just below the Tennessee border. His bold plan called for his Army of the Mississippi to march north and destroy General Grant's Army of the Tennessee before it could link up with another Union army on the way to join him. On the morning of April 6, Johnston boasted to his subordinates, "Tonight we will water our horses in the Tennessee !" They nearly did so. Johnston 's sweeping attack hit the unsuspecting Federal camps at Pittsburg Landing and routed the enemy from position after position as they fell back toward the Tennessee River . Johnston 's sudden death in the Peach Orchard, however, coupled with stubborn Federal resistance, widespread confusion, and Grant's dogged determination to hold the field, saved the Union army from destruction. The arrival of General Don C. Buell's reinforcements that night turned the tide of battle. The next day, Grant seized the initiative and attacked the Confederates, driving them from the field. Shiloh was one of the bloodiest battles of the entire war, with nearly 24,000 men killed, wounded, and missing. Edward Cunningham, a young Ph.D. candidate studying under the legendary T. Harry Williams at Louisiana State University , researched and wrote Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862 in 1966. Although it remained unpublished, many Shiloh experts and park rangers consider it to be the best overall examination of the battle ever written. Indeed, Shiloh historiography is just now catching up with Cunningham, who was decades ahead of modern scholarship. Western Civil War historians Gary D. Joiner and Timothy B. Smith have resurrected Cunningham's beautifully written and deeply researched manuscript from its undeserved obscurity. Fully edited and richly annotated with updated citations and observations, original maps, and a complete order of battle and table of losses, Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862 will be welcomed by everyone who enjoys battle history at its finest. Edward Cunningham, Ph.D., studied under T. Harry Williams at Louisiana State University . He was the author of The Port Hudson Campaign: 1862-1863 (LSU, 1963). Dr. Cunningham died in 1997. Gary D. Joiner, Ph.D. is the author of One Damn Blunder from Beginning to End: The Red River Campaign of 1864, winner of the 2004 Albert Castel Award and the 2005 A. M. Pate, Jr., Award, and Through the Howling Wilderness: The 1864 Red River Campaign and Union Failure in the West. He lives in Shreveport , Louisiana . About the Author: Timothy B. Smith, Ph.D., is author of Champion Hill: Decisive Battle for Vicksburg (winner of the 2004 Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Non-fiction Award), The Untold Story of Shiloh: The Battle and the Battlefield, and This Great Battlefield of Shiloh: History, Memory, and the Establishment of a Civil War National Military Park. A former ranger at Shiloh, Tim teaches history at the University of Tennessee .

Recommended Reading : Forts Henry and Donelson: The Key to the Confederate Heartland. Description: The Twin Rivers Campaign, aka the Union campaign against Fort Henry and Fort Donelson , was a direct result of Gen. Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan… But, after the Twin River forts were captured by a Federal army-navy force and coupled with the fall of Nashville , the Union enjoyed a fresh and much needed momentum. The fall of the forts signaled the beginning of the Confederate collapse in the West, which ultimately decided the war. Continued below.

Benjamin Franklin Cooling, author of several Civil War studies, conveys the actions of both Federal and Confederate authorities before and during the campaign, and applies the exact words of the frontline soldiers’ to the subject. The campaign is described in good detail, and with great writing. With little written about this dramatic and pivotal campaign, it is a great joy to read Mr. Cooling's book. The maps in this book, while not the best, are well above average. They cover the fighting at the forts in very good detail. The illustrations are helpful as well. I encourage Civil War buffs to read this book and enjoy the history of this rarely written about pivotal campaign.

Recommended Reading : Naval Campaigns of the Civil War. Description: This analysis of naval engagements during the War Between the States presents the action from the efforts at Fort Sumter during the secession of South Carolina in 1860, through the battles in the Gulf of Mexico, on the Mississippi River, and along the eastern seaboard, to the final attack at Fort Fisher on the coast of North Carolina in January 1865. This work provides an understanding of the maritime problems facing both sides at the beginning of the war, their efforts to overcome these problems, and their attempts, both triumphant and tragic, to control the waterways of the South. The Union blockade, Confederate privateers and commerce raiders are discussed, as is the famous battle between the Monitor and the Merrimack . Continued below…

An overview of the events in the early months preceding the outbreak of the war is presented. The chronological arrangement of the campaigns allows for ready reference regarding a single event or an entire series of campaigns. Maps and an index are also included. About the Author: Paul Calore, a graduate of Johnson and Wales University , was the Operations Branch Chief with the Defense Logistics Agency of the Department of Defense before retiring. He is a supporting member of the U.S. Civil War Center and the Civil War Preservation Trust and has also written Land Campaigns of the Civil War (2000). He lives in Seekonk , Massachusetts .

Recommended Reading : Naval Strategies of the Civil War: Confederate Innovations and Federal Opportunism. Description: One of the most overlooked aspects of the American Civil War is the naval strategy played out by the U.S. Navy and the fledgling Confederate Navy, which may make this the first book to compare and contrast the strategic concepts of the Southern Secretary of the Navy Stephen R. Mallory against his Northern counterpart, Gideon Welles. Both men had to accomplish much and were given great latitude in achieving their goals. Mallory's vision of seapower emphasized technological innovation and individual competence as he sought to match quality against the Union Navy's (quantity) numerical superiority. Welles had to deal with more bureaucratic structure and to some degree a national strategy dictated by the White House. Continued below.

The naval blockade of the South was one of his first tasks - for which he had but few ships available - and although he followed the national strategy, he did not limit himself to it when opportunities arose. Mallory's dedication to ironclads is well known, but he also defined the roles of commerce raiders, submarines, and naval mines. Welles's contributions to the Union effort were rooted in his organizational skills and his willingness to cooperate with the other military departments of his government. This led to successes through combined army and naval units in several campaigns on and around the Mississippi River .

Consider Also: CIVIL WAR IN WEST SLIP CASES: From Stones River to Chattanooga [BOX SET], by Peter Cozzens ( 1528 pages ) ( University of Illinois Press ). Description: This trilogy very competently fills in much needed analysis and detail on the critical Civil War battles of Stones River , Chickamauga and Chattanooga . "Cozzens' comprehensive study of these three great battles has set a new standard in Civil War studies. the research, detail and accuracy are first-rate."

Recommended Reading : Mississippi River Gunboats of the American Civil War 1861-65 (New Vanguard). Description: At the start of the American Civil War, neither side had warships on the Mississippi River . In the first few months, moreover, both sides scrambled to gather a flotilla, converting existing riverboats for naval use. These ships were transformed into powerful naval weapons despite a lack of resources, trained manpower and suitable vessels. Continued below.

Fort Donelson

After the fall of Fort Henry, Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was determined to move quickly onto the much larger Fort Donelson, located on the nearby Cumberland River. Grant’s boast that he would capture Donelson by the 8th of February quickly ran into challenges. Poor winter weather, late-arriving reinforcements, and difficulties in moving the ironclads up the Cumberland all delayed Grant’s advance on the fort.

Despite being convinced that no earthen fort could withstand the power of the Union gunboats, Confederate Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston allowed the garrison at Fort Donelson to remain and even sent new commanders and reinforcements there. On February 11, Johnston appointed Brig. Gen. John B. Floyd as the commander of Fort Donelson and the surrounding region. Nearly 17,000 Confederate soldiers, combined with improved artillery positions and earthworks convinced the inept Floyd that a hasty retreat was unnecessary.

By February 13, most of Grant’s soldiers were positioned on the landward (western) side of the fort. The next day, Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote’s ironclads moved upriver to bombard Fort Donelson. The subsequent duel between Foote’s “Pook Turtles” and the heavier guns at the fort led to a Union defeat. Many of Foote’s ironclads were heavily damaged and Foote himself was wounded in the attack. Grant’s soldiers could hear the Confederate cheers as the gunboats withdrew.

While Grant contemplated an extended siege, the Confederate leadership devised a bold plan to mass their troops against the Union right to force open a path of escape. Early on the morning of February 15, the Confederate assault struck the Union right and drove it back from its positions on Dudley’s Hill. Brigadier General John McClernand’s division attempted to reform their lines, but the ongoing Rebel attacks continued to drive his forces to the southeast. Disaster loomed for the Union army.

But inexplicably Confederate Brig. Gen. Gideon Pillow ordered the attacking force back to their earthworks, thereby abandoning the hard-fought gains of the morning.

Grant ordered McClernand and Brig. Gen. Lew Wallace to retake their lost ground and then rode to the Union left to order an attack upon the Confederate works opposite Brig. Gen. Charles F. Smith’s division. Grant reasoned, correctly, that the Confederate right must be greatly reduced in strength given the heavy assault from the Confederate left. Smith’s division surged forward and overwhelmed the lone Confederate regiment occupying the rifle pits in advance of the Confederate line. Capturing large stretches of the earthworks, Smith’s division was stopped only by the onset of darkness.

During the night of February 15 and 16, Confederate leaders discussed their options. Despite many disagreements, it was determined that surrender was the only viable option for the garrison. Generals Floyd and Pillow abandoned their men and fled across the river, while Lt. Col. Nathan Bedford Forrest, disgusted with the Confederate decision to surrender, took his cavalrymen and escaped down the Charlotte Road. Even with these defections, more than 13,000 Confederate soldiers remained in the fort.

With another Union attack poised to strike, the Federal soldiers were surprised to see white flags flying above the Confederate earthworks. Brigadier General Simon B. Buckner, now in command, met with Grant to determine the terms of surrender. Buckner, who was hoping for generous terms from his old West Point friend, was disappointed at Grant’s response: “No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.”

The decisive Union victories at Forts Henry and Donelson thrust Grant into the national spotlight and opened the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers to the Union navy. Tennessee was about to be cut in two by Union forces.

One of the great historical treasures of the Kentucky Lake area, Fort Donelson provides an entertaining and educational experience for explorers of every age.

During a one and one half hour battle, Confederate soldiers forced the Union naval fleet to retreat. This initial victory was short lived. In the days that followed Union forces surrounded the fort and General Ulysses S. Grant forced their surrender. The Union victory at Fort Donelson (and Fort Henry, it's sister fort) was the first great victory for the North. The battle lead to many other victories for the north and also helped General Grant to be promoted to Major General.

Fort Donelson National Cemetery.

Today, there are many interesting sites to be seen at the Fort Donelson National Battlefield. There is a Confederate Monument which commemorates the hundreds of Confederate soldiers who were buried on the battlefield in unmarked graves and the river batteries which show the placement of Confederate forces during the battle.

The Dover Hotel which served as a Union hospital after the surrender, the National Cemetery, and a variety of other batteries which will help you reenact the battle for yourself can also be seen.

Fort Donelson can be found just 3 miles east of Land Between the Lakes and one mile west of Dover, Tennessee. The fort also hosts many events. This is a Kentucky Lake attraction that you definitely won't want to miss!

Visual materials in the Archives do not circulate and must be viewed in the Society's Archives Research Room.

For the purposes of a bibliography entry or footnote, follow this model:

Wisconsin Historical Society Citation Wisconsin Historical Society, Creator, Title, Image ID. Viewed online at (copy and paste image page link). Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research Citation Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, Creator, Title, Image ID. Viewed online at (copy and paste image page link).

Fort Donelson Battlefield

Fort Donelson Battlefield was the site of a fierce and pivotal battle fought from 11 to 16 February 1862 as part of the American Civil War. The two parties involved were the Unionists commanded by the then Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant and the Confederates, led by Brigadier General John B. Floyd.

The Battle of Fort Donelson was preceded by the capture of Fort Henry in western Tennessee by Grant a few days earlier. Viewing this victory as a chance to invade the South, Grant moved his forces towards Fort Donelson on 12 February.

The Battle
After a number of probing attacks and a naval gunship battle won by the Confederates, the Unionists started gaining momentum, due in large part to the reinforcements amassed by Grant. By 16 February, the Confederates had suffered major losses and Confederate Brigadier General Buckner asked Grant for terms to end the fighting. Grant’s now famous response was “No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.” And thus Buckner surrendered.

The Battle of Fort Donelson marked a significant win for the Unionists, breaking the South and forcing the Confederates to relinquish southern Kentucky as well as much of West and Middle Tennessee. Grant was promoted to the rank of major general and nicknamed “Unconditional Surrender” Grant. His army would later be known as the Army of Tennessee.

Visiting Fort Donelson
Visitors to Fort Donelson Battlefield can learn more about the battle, its participants and its effects though a six mile self-guided tour as well as visiting the Fort Donelson cemetery.

It’s best to start at the Fort Donelson Battlefield visitor centre, which houses a number of exhibits and offers a short introductory film, giving an insight into the battle and a starting off point from which to plan your day.

Battle of Fort Donelson - HISTORY

By Pedro Garcia

One evening around Christmas of 1861 Union Maj. Gen. Henry “Old Brains” Halleck, commanding the Department of Missouri, dined with his chief of staff, Brig. Gen. George Cullum, and an old Mexican War friend, Brig. Gen. William T. Sherman. Halleck, standing over a map on his table with a large pencil in his hand, asked, “Where is the Rebel line?”

Cullum drew a line through three points: Bowling Green in south central Kentucky Columbus, a Kentucky town on the Mississippi River and Forts Henry and Donelson in between the two towns just south of the Tennessee border.

“That is their line,” said Halleck. “Now where is the proper place to break it?” Either Cullum or Sherman responded, “Naturally, the center.”

Then Halleck drew a line perpendicular to the first near its middle, the pencil stroke following the general course of the Tennessee River. He said, “That’s the true line of operations.” Halleck had marked the great geographical axis by which the lower South could be pierced.

The Drunkards Grant and Foote

Admiral Andrew Foote.

Seen from the Atlantic coast, the task of Northern armies appeared (at least to a skeptic) almost impossible, for the South looked truly boundless, an ocean of fields, valleys, mountains, forests, and rivers. But rivers could be daggers as well as obstacles. They cut deeply into the Confederacy’s heartland. Indeed, no geography was ever more favorable to a modern invading army than Kentucky’s was to the Union Army in early 1862. What made it so were the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers. The Tennessee, navigable all the way from its mouth at the Ohio River to the Muscle Shoals at Decatur, Ala., and the Cumberland, navigable from its mouth at the Ohio River to Nashville, Tenn., and beyond, pierced the Confederate east-west defensive line that Cullum had marked. They pierced it, in fact, not more than 20 miles apart. It was along this geographical axis that Generals Halleck and Ulysses S. Grant and Flag Officer Andrew Foote ruptured the defenses of Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston.

At the end of the summer of 1861, Southerners realized that the most immediate and potentially deadly threat to the Confederacy would not come from the east, but from the west, where the Union was unexpectedly seizing the initiative. In mid-August, the Missouri engineer and entrepreneur James Eads, a man of boundless energy, talent, and ability, was given a contract to build seven ironclad gunboats in 64 days. A true mechanical and organizational genius, the Indiana native was included in the Southern sneer at the North as “a race of pasty-faced mechanics.” Working at drumbeat speed, by the end of November he was able to launch eight “turtle-backed” steamers. These vessels made a formidable squadron totaling 5,000 tons, mounting 107 guns, and with an average cruising speed of 9 knots. The 175-foot river craft drew only 5 1/ 2 feet of water, and, in river parlance, “could run on a heavy dew.”

To command this flotilla, the U.S. Navy commissioned Captain Andrew Foote with the rank of flag officer. A staunch Calvinist, Foote was a 56-year-old, teetotaling Connecticut Yankee with burning eyes. A man who spoke sparingly, he was one of those Puritans who “prayed like saints and fought like devils.” A 40-year veteran, Foote had fought the Chinese in Canton, battled pirates in Sumatra, chased slave traders in the South Atlantic, and 20 years before had commanded the first temperance ship in the U.S. Navy. Indeed, he had spent his entire career fighting the two things he hated most: slavery and whisky.

Odd then was the fate that teamed Foote in the coming campaign with Ulysses S. Grant, a man who had a reputation as a drunkard and a drifter in the prewar Army. In 1854, Grant had resigned his captain’s commission because of his drinking problems and had fared poorly in civilian life. When war came, however, Grant had impressed enough people that he received an appointment as colonel of Illinois volunteers, and soon was promoted to brigadier general, proving himself an excellent executive officer. Grant was an unobtrusive, mild-mannered, colorless officer, a recent biographer admitting that “there is almost no glamour in the figure.” Yet Grant was a relentless warrior and an extraordinary general whose approach to war was uncomplicated. He later wrote that “the art of war is simple enough, find out where your enemy is, get at him as soon as you can, strike him as hard as you can, and keep moving on.” Both Grant and Foote believed strongly in combined operations, trying to convince Halleck that the Army and Navy “were like blades of a shears—united, invincible, [but] divided, almost useless.”

Albert Sidney Johnston: “A Real General”

Albert Sidney Johnston was painfully aware of the weakness of his position. Commanding the Confederacy’s vast Department No. 2, he was expected to hold a line nearly 600 miles long and broken by three navigable rivers. He had few troops and even fewer arms. “The General lacked nothing except men, munitions of war and the means of obtaining them,” his son later wrote in a bitter reminiscence. A 58-year-old, Kentucky-born Texan, he had distinguished himself in a colorful career: frontier officer, Texas revolutionist, Secretary of War in Sam Houston’s cabinet, Mexican War colonel, and commander of the famed 2nd Cavalry, whose roster included the names of 10 future generals. Grant “expected him to be the most formidable the Confederacy would produce,” and William Sherman pronounced him “a real general.”

This counted for little, however, when he was outnumbered nearly 2 to 1. In reality, Johnston held no line. What he held was a series of points divided by wide stretches of unoccupied territory. In fact, there was a fourth avenue of invasion available to the Union along the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, which connected with rail lines to Chattanooga and the lower South. The river routes, however, were the most likely approaches because they offered excellent and secure communications. There was no practical limit to the capacity of navigable rivers to supply the Union armies so long as they had enough boats. As Sherman said, “We are much obliged to the Tennessee which has favored us most opportunely … for I am never easy with a railroad which takes a whole army to guard … whereas they can’t stop the Tennessee, and each boat can make its own game.”

Forts Henry and Heiman

The Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, crossing the critical center of Johnston’s “line,” constituted, as author Shelby Foote aptly put it, “a double barreled shotgun leveled at his heart.” To protect against this threat, the rivers were guarded by hastily built forts. Forts Henry and Heiman stood on opposite banks of the Tennessee River near the Kentucky-Tennessee border. Fort Henry stood on the marshy eastern bank and was built in a tactically vulnerable position, being relatively low in elevation, partially inundated by floodwater, and on a dangerous salient open to enfilading fire.

The smaller Fort Heiman stood on the western shore, unfinished and unarmed, and in such bad shape that when Brig. Gen. Lloyd Tilghman arrived on the scene to take command he ordered Heiman’s men to abandon it in favor of consolidating at Fort Henry. In all, Tilghman counted 3,400 defenders who “were not drilled, badly equipped, and very indifferently armed with shotguns and hunting rifles.” Additionally, poor camp sanitation and sickness had further reduced the garrison by as much as one- fifth, and one company’s only duty was “trying to keep water out of the fort.” In fact, the river had recently risen so quickly that only nine of the 15 guns bearing riverward remained above water. The rising water also negated the effectiveness of some 20 mines, called torpedoes, that had been placed in the river. These sheet-iron cylinders, 5 feet long by 1 foot in diameter, held 70 pounds of black powder and were anchored to the river bottom at normal flow level. A tiprod from the top of each activated a musket lock that fired the weapon when a vessel brushed the rod. As the water rose, these became useless.

Union Gunboats on the Tennessee

Halleck, aware of the frightful condition of the winter roads, planned to use the superior mobility afforded by water transportation. But it was Grant who took the initiative and forced the issue. When Foote advised Grant about the onset of low water, Grant pressed his commander until Halleck committed himself to the action. The campaign began in the rainy, early evening darkness of February 3, when the fleet slipped its moorings and moved southward up the swift-flowing Tennessee toward Forts Henry and Heiman. Leading the way was a squadron of gunboats: five ironclads—USS Essex, Lexington, St. Louis, Carondelet, and Foote’s own flagship, USS Cincinnati—and two timber-clads—Tyler and Conestoga. They escorted nine transports that carried Grant’s Army of West Tennessee, comprising 15,000 men in three divisions commanded by Brig. Gens. John McClernand, Charles Smith, and Lew Wallace. Supporting the infantry were two regiments of cavalry and eight batteries of artillery. Grant’s movement would take place in two columns on either side of the river. He intended to land as close to the forts as possible.

Union gunboats bombard Fort Henry on the Tennessee River. They are, from left to right, the St. Louis, Carondelet, Cincinnati, and Essex. Two Confederate boats flee south, up the river. The Union bombardment, unassisted by a land assault, was successful. Although the artist has shown otherwise, the three largest gunboats were exactly the same size.

Dawn brought good and ill for the Confederates. The temperature was unseasonably warm for February, which no doubt pleased them, but daylight also revealed the approach of their enemy. “Far as the eye could see, the course of the river could be traced by the dense volumes of smoke issuing from the flotilla—indicating that the long-threatened attempt to break our lines was about to be made in earnest,” recalled Rebel artillery officer Captain Jesse Taylor.

To reconnoiter suitable points along the riverbanks for landing his troops, Grant boarded the ironclad Essex, William D. “Dirty Bill” Porter commanding. The boats steamed to within two miles of the forts, crabbed into line abreast, and opened fire. The guns of Fort Henry barked wildly in protest. They quickly found their range, and a solid shot was put squarely into the Essex. The shell screamed over the spar-deck, narrowly missing Grant and Porter, and slammed into the officer’s quarters. After ripping through the captain’s quarters and steerage, the shell erupted from the stern and dropped hissing into the river. A visibly shaken Grant decided to turn about and have his army disembark four miles downriver. That having been decided, Grant resolved to take command on the east bank, and ordered Smith to command the west bank and capture Fort Heiman. The landing was completed the next day, February 4.

Jesse Taylor recalled it as a day “of unwonted animation on the hitherto quiet waters of the Tennessee … the flood-tide of arriving and departing transports continued ceaselessly.” Then, at sunset, the skies opened up, flooding the already swollen river to new heights.

Withdrawing to Fort Donelson

Fort Henry commander Lloyd Tilghman.

As the enemy buildup continued, General Tilghman began to comprehend the enormity of the odds he faced, and that night called a council of war. He announced that he could not allow himself to be entrapped in a shipwrecked fort or have his communications cut, and so would withdraw the garrison to Fort Donelson. As Tilghman’s artillery chief observed, “Surrounded by water … cut off from the support of infantry, and on the point of being submerged, our whole force is wholly inadequate to cope with that of the enemy, even if there had been no extraordinary rise in the river.” To discourage pursuit and buy time for the fleeing troops, Tilghman stayed with a skeletal force of about 75 men to work the guns. Only two of these, a high-velocity six-inch rifle, which had already struck the Essex, and a giant 128-pound Columbiad, were capable of damaging the gunboats’ armor.

On the morning of February 6, the Union fleet awoke to a deep mist and found that the storm of the evening before had sent great bulwarks of rushing flotsam, including whole trees torn out by their roots, piling up around the bows of the vessels. Lookouts aboard the Carondelet reported a number of large white objects, “which through the fog looked like polar bears coming down the stream,” recalled Captain Henry Walke. These were the mines that had lolled beneath the surface of the river, torn from their moorings by the swift current.

It was careful work to drag these mines ashore and remove all other impediments, but soon a breeze came up, clearing the fog, and the warships weighed anchor. The squadron of four ironclads and three timberclads steamed up to within 1,700 yards of Fort Henry, “until as they swung into the main channel … they showed one broad and leaping sheet of flame,” observed Taylor. “At once the fort was ablaze with the flame of her heavy guns,” recalled Walke. One defender proudly called the reply “as pretty and simultaneous a broadside as I ever saw flash from the sides of a frigate.”

“The Gunboats Are the Devil.”

The guns also delivered with trip-hammer rapidity and accuracy. As many as 62 hits were scored against the Union flotilla, one against the luckless Essex. After taking the head off the master’s mate, the solid shot smashed into one of Essex’s boilers, spewing forth a ghastly brew of gaseous fires and tons of boiling water. A wall of superheated steam, shooting through the forward end of the casemate, flashed up the hatchway into the pilothouse, instantly killing the helmsman and a gunner.

“The scene was almost indescribable,” remembered James Laning. “The dead man, transformed into a hideous apparition, was still at the wheel, standing erect, his left hand holding the spoke, and his right hand holding the signal bell-rope…. One man was on his knees in the act of taking a shell from the box to be passed to the loader. The escaping steam had struck him square in the face, and he met death in that position.” Badly mauled, and with 38 casualties, the out-of-control Essex drifted downstream.

“The fleet seemed to hesitate,” noticed Taylor. But it was only for a moment. Relentlessly the “turtles” pressed forward, closing the range. Fifteen-second fuses were cut to 10, then five. Gun elevations came down nearly flat, “and every shot went straight home. His shot and shell penetrated our earthworks as readily as a ball from a navy Colt would pierce a pine board,” Taylor recalled. The Confederates put up a valiant fight for about two hours, but when the six-inch rifle burst and the giant Columbiad was accidentally spiked by a broken priming wire, they lost heart. Aware that the long odds were getting longer, and satisfied that he had given the fleeing garrison a two-hour headstart to Fort Donelson, Tilghman struck his colors.

“The river had risen so high,” wrote historian Stanley Horn, “that when Foote’s officer approached to receive the surrender his cutter sailed through the sally port.” Meanwhile, Grant’s army was battling the backwater sloughs, slugging through the muck and mire in the marshy bottoms, arriving one hour later, at 3 pm.

This had been Foote’s fight. He had lost 12 killed or missing and 27 wounded, compared to the fort’s 10 killed or missing and 11 wounded. Drawing on the Nashville Union and American newspaper of February 8, Foote could proudly quote the Southern feeling about the operation:“We had nothing to fear from a land attack, but the gunboats are the devil.”

Johnston Divides His Forces

Suddenly it was a different war. Fort Henry was like the first domino that, in falling, sets in motion the collapse of an entire row. Grant immediately exploited the success by sending Foote’s gunboats upstream to break the Memphis and Ohio Railroad bridge over the river, thus protecting himself by severing a major artery of Rebel communications, supplies, and troops. The gunboats continued 150 miles upstream, knocking out other bridges and cutting telegraph lines, all the way to Muscle Shoals, Ala., where the town of Florence was surrendered. The fact was, with Fort Henry in Union hands, all the Confederates could do was retreat. This was clearly seen by the man who would eventually lead Union armies to victory in the war. Grant wrote his wife that the advance on the Tennessee River gave the Union “such an inside track on the enemy that by following up our success we can go anywhere.”

As the Union commander was preparing to get his army across the 12-mile neck of land from Fort Henry to Fort Donelson, Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston decided on February 11 to abandon Bowling Green, a vital point of his defensive “line” in Kentucky, and concentrate his forces at Nashville, Tenn. He also reasoned that with Fort Henry taken, Fort Donelson would be untenable. Yet inexplicably, after deciding the fort was indefensible, he ordered several thousand troops into it. Thus Johnston divided his army, failing to achieve a concentration.

Advancing on Fort Donelson

Brig. Gen. Gideon Pillow.

Brigadier General John B. Floyd commanded these reinforcements. Floyd was a former governor of Virginia whose ignorance of military affairs had not been remedied by lackluster service as secretary of war in the 1850s, nor by his feckless and inept performance in the fall of 1861 under Robert E. Lee in West Virginia. He had shown a tendency to get flustered under pressure and would again prove indecisive and vacillating. His uninspiring subordinates were Brig. Gen. Gideon Pillow, a pretentious Tennessee lawyer who should have stayed at the bar, and Brig. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner, an old friend and West Point classmate of U.S. Grant who inclined toward being saturnine.

Grant originally expected to take Fort Donelson two days after the fall of Fort Henry, but he found himself slowed, “perfectly locked in by high water and bad roads, and prevented from acting offensively.” As he stood gazing forlornly at the waste of wetness in his path, it began to snow and then violently rain. The roads became “bottomless gumbo,” wrote Grant. The rain “soaked the soft alluvial soil of the bottoms, until under the tread of troops it speedily became reduced to the consistency of soft porridge of almost immeasurable depth, rendering marching very difficult for the infantry, and for the artillery almost impassable.”

Halleck, meanwhile, perceiving a Confederate counterattack because Grant had been delayed, reinforced him with 10,000 troops, as well as picks and shovels. About midmorning of the 12th the weather turned fair and the troops moved out under a hot sun. In the spring-like atmosphere the soldiers began to discard what they felt they could spare. Major James Connolly wrote that “the ground was strewn with … coats, pants, canteens, cartridge boxes, bayonet scabbards, knapsacks … all sorts of things that are found in the army.” By nightfall, most of the Federals were deployed on a high ridge opposite Fort Donelson. “We kept closing in slowly, and at dusk were within pistol shot of their rifle pits,” recalled Lieutenant W.D. Harland of the 18th Illinois. Meanwhile, Grant had urged Foote to bring his gunboats in position on the Cumberland and repeat the bombardment given at Henry.

The Untactful McClernand and the Outstanding Smith

Fort Donelson, encompassing about 20 acres, consisted of a semicircle of earthworks and entrenchments situated on a ridge west of the hamlet of Dover, Tenn. Formidable batteries set high on a bluff guarded the river approach. It enjoyed the advantage of being fronted by deep gullies and flanked by swamps and two flooded creeks—Hickman Creek to the north and Indian Creek to the south. Floyd’s ring of trenches had Pillow’s troops south of the fort and town, and Buckner’s west of it.

Fort Donelson consisted of a semicircle of earthworks and entrenchments on a ridge west of Dover. The river approach was guarded by batteries located on a high bluff.

The cavalry was led by Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest, who would become one of war’s more remarkable figures. Tennessee-born Forrest had moved to Mississippi and, despite receiving a scant education, had become a wealthy planter and slave trader.

Floyd commanded 28 regiments, 17,000 men in all, including cavalry and artillery, and carried six light batteries in addition to the big guns bearing riverward. He liked his chances, but he also had to defend a position that had a river at its back, which denied him security for his rear. The Confederates, focusing their attention on the river and the fort’s batteries, thus allowed Grant to reach their positions and make contact with the river both above and below the fort, cutting their communications.

On February 13, the two principal Union divisions, those of Charles Smith and John McClernand, tested the defenses. The day saw heavy skirmishing, artillery duels, and sharpshooter activity. Little was accomplished, however, beyond bloodying raw troops, expending ammunition, and bolstering the morale of the Rebels. Smith was placed on the Army’s left, due west of Buckner’s line, and McClernand on the right, south of Pillow’s line.

McClernand was a political appointee, an Illinois lawyer-politician whose only military experience consisted of a few marches in the Black Hawk War. He was ambitious, untactful, hated West Pointers, and although energetic, had little ability. By contrast, Smith was Regular Army, thrice breveted for bravery in Mexico. A thoroughly outstanding soldier, he had the bearing of a marshal of France. Lew Wallace described him as “a person of superb physique, very tall, perfectly proportioned, straight, square-shouldered, ruddy-faced, with eyes of perfect blue and a long snow-white moustache.”

Planning a Joint Assault

That evening it began to rain, turning to sleet by nightfall as the temperature dropped to 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Troops who had abandoned coats and blankets cursed and spent a miserable night, while wounded men between the lines slowly froze to death. By midnight it was snowing heavily, and the armies awoke on February 14 to a wintry landscape. On the river, Foote and the remainder of his flotilla arrived, bringing with them the bulk of Wallace’s division. Wallace, a newspaper reporter, lawyer, politician, veteran of the Mexican War, and future author of the novel Ben-Hur, was placed in the center between Smith and McClernand. Foote and Grant agreed that the simultaneous assault would begin with the Navy destroying the lower water batteries, then running past them to enfilade the open rear of the fort while the Army surrounded the garrison.

Foote, however, was reluctant to engage his gunboats in attack. Tilghman’s rough handling of his turtles at Fort Henry had undermined his confidence. The Cincinnati and Essex were out of action, and repairs to equipment took time. Repairs to men’s spirits took even longer—they feared being scalded to death aboard his iron coffins. Several of his tars had deserted and replacements balked. He would have preferred to wait a couple of weeks until he had enough men for all his gunboats and some mortar scows as well. Foote could then lay off at long range and methodically demolish the fort stone by stone.

Duty-bound, though against his better judgment, Foote ordered the fleet into the floodwaters of the Cumberland River at 1:45 pm. In line abreast were the ironclads (Carondelet on the starboard wing, nearest the fort, then Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Louisville), followed by the timberclads, Tyler and Conestoga.

Foote’s Gunboats Assail Fort Donelson

Except for the thudding of the engines and the gurgled screech of a flight of startled geese, nothing broke the profound silence that had settled over the snowy valley. Wrote Walke: “Not a living creature could be seen, only the black rows of heavy guns, pointing down at us, reminding me of the dismal-looking sepulchers cut in the rocky cliffs near Jerusalem, but far more repulsive.” At 2:35, the flotilla came within sight of the fort, and at about 1 1 /2 miles, the Confederates opened the affair by firing two shells to get the range. Both shots fell short, followed by several other misses.

Presently, Foote gave the word and the 8-inch bow gun of the St. Louis blasted forth, the shell dropping just in front of the lower battery. The firing on both sides was slow at first, but gradually became incessant. For a hellish hour the gunboats delivered a heavy and accurate fire, smashing the enemy parapets. Among the onlookers was Forrest, who turned and yelled to his preacher aide, “Parson, for God’s sake, pray nothing but God Almighty can save that fort!”

A newsman aboard the St. Louis, Foote’s flagship, was more favorable of Confederate chances and thought their fire accurate. Confederate artillery Captain Reuben Ross recalled that “a singular paralysis” took possession of the flotilla. Nonetheless, Foote pressed forward to within 400 yards. Victory was a hairbreadth away in 200 more yards the ironclads could slip past the Rebel batteries to enfilade the open rear of the fort.

Firing on the Flagship St. Louis

Here their intentions dissolved. Confederate Captain Bell Bidwell recalled that the Union “fire was far more destructive to our works at two miles than at 200 yards. They over-fired us from that distance.” Plunging Rebel fire from the bluffs produced a 30 to 35 degree depressed, right-angle bombardment that smashed into the turtles’ angled sides and unarmored upper decks. Pillow wrote, “I could see distinctly the effect of our shot to one of his boats … when he shrunk back and drifted below the line. Several shots struck another boat, tearing her iron case, splintering her timbers and making them crack as if by a stroke of lightning, when she, too fell back.”

Drawing a bead on the flagship, Confederate Private John Frequa shouted to his mates, “Now boys, see me take a chimney!” True to his word, Frequa’s next shot carried away both the smokestack and flagstaff of the St. Louis. A 32-pound iron ball struck the pilothouse, wounding three men and killing its pilot. Foote, standing next to him, was hit in the ankle, but managed to grab the wheel and continue the fight. Yet the shot had badly damaged the steering mechanism and, unmanageable, the flagship drifted downriver. The commodore then went down to the gun deck to urge on his gunners and help supervise the treatment of the wounded. As he was standing on one side of a gun, a shell struck, knocking down five of the six men manning it and wounding Foote in the left arm.

The Union Navy Repulsed

Next in line for punishment was the Louisville. She took a 32-pound shot that swept her from bow to stern. Then a 128-pound projectile shattered the gun carriage of an 8-inch Dahlgren gun, decapitating three crewmen. Another Columbiad round struck an angle formed by the upper deck and pilothouse. Still a fourth shot, a short shell from the Tyler, severed her tiller ropes. Without steering, she was compelled to drop downriver.

Elsewhere, the Pittsburgh was staggered by numerous hits at the waterline and she began to flood. Her crew could not serve guns and pumps at the same time, so to keep from sinking she retired. Embarrassingly, in retreating, she struck the Carondelet’s stern, smashing her starboard rudder. Only the Carondelet remained in the point-blank fight. Rebel Captain Ross worried that the gunboat, by standing so close to the batteries, would send landing parties to capture the works. Ross claimed everybody determined to sell their lives dearly, using staves, sponger staffs, and handspikes in place of the customary but nonexistent cutlasses.

The Carondelet was one of James Eads’s hastily but soundly constructed gunboats. She bombarded both forts and eventually became the most celebrated boat in the West.

Ross need not have worried, for within minutes the ironclad was a shambles. Walke recalled that his “vessel was terribly cut up, with the pilot house and smoke pipes riddled, port side cut open 15 feet, and our decks ripped up.” She was struck 54 times, many of these were from cannon balls skipped across the water’s surface aimed at her waterline. Her decks slippery with blood, leaking badly, the final insult came as a 42-pounder cannon burst. Walke had had enough and retired in confusion.

“I Won’t Run Into Fire Again”

Foote’s flotilla had been cut to pieces, the St. Louis hit 59 times, the Louisville 36, and the Pittsburgh 20. He attempted to accentuate the positive, however, by asserting that the gunboat assault “would in 15 minutes more, could the action have been continued, have resulted in the capture of the fort bearing upon us, as the enemy were running from his batteries.” Privately, he was shaken by the pounding he had taken. His wounded foot and arm, combined with the horribly mutilated bodies of his men, had made a profound impression. He felt he had been forced into battle before he was ready and wrote his wife the next day, assuring her that “we will keep off a good distance from the Rebel forts in future engagements. I won’t run into fire again, as a burnt child dreads it.”

Grant was also greatly disappointed at this rebuke of the Navy. He had done nothing in the way of any land diversion to supplement the assault—joint Army-Navy operations had not progressed that far at this stage of the war. The Confederates were jubilant at their decisive blow and were confident they could do the same to the Army. When the euphoria subsided, their commanders understood that they had inflicted little more than a temporary setback. News from them fluctuated from confidence to despair, leaving their theater commander, Sidney Johnston, to send a cryptic and enigmatic wire: “If you lose the fort, bring the troops to Nashville, if possible.”

Planning a Breakout From Fort Donelson

That night at a council of war, the three brigadiers decided that Grant’s stranglehold must be broken. They planned a dawn attack “on our left, and thus to pass our people into the open country lying southward towards Nashville.” However, there were procedural and logistical flaws in the planned breakout concerning the crucial issue of what would happen after a successful attack. Each man left the meeting with a different idea.

Pillow held the belief that his troops would return to the defenses and that victory would be so complete that time would permit retrieval of equipment, rations, and the skeletal units left behind guarding the fort’s trenches during the assault. Then the retreat to Nashville would begin. Buckner and his subordinates thought that nobody would return after the battle, but rather press on to Nashville. In anticipation of this, Colonel John C. Brown’s brigade had packed three days of rations in their haversacks. Floyd, as the senior commander, had the responsibility to make certain that everyone was on the same page. Perhaps at the time he thought they were. In any case, his subsequent actions implied agreement with Pillow’s interpretation of the plan.

The Rebel Yell

The third day at Fort Donelson began shortly before dawn on February 15, with the high-pitched Rebel yell—“a screeching sound symbolizing men’s frustrations with cold, snow and Yankee bullets, a searching cry for freedom and warm food,” wrote Mississippian John Simmonton. Eight to ten thousand Rebels, with Forrest’s cavalry in the lead, charged toward McClernand’s division. The sudden onrushing Southern tide scattered the sleepy Union pickets and struck with a heavy blow. For the next two hours there were sharp firefights between individual regiments and brigades, slashing thrusts by Confederate infantry and cavalry in combined assaults—and stubborn resistance from determined Federals.

Indeed, the Federals fought well but were simply swamped and outflanked. By 8 am, McClernand was in trouble and called for help. Wallace, whose right flank was exposed as McClernand fell back, sent a brigade on his own authority, while couriers were sent to find Grant. Meanwhile, the mounting pressure from Confederate infantry and cavalry, and the relentless pounding from Confederate artillery, rapidly wore down Union resistance, which was also suffering from dwindling ammunition. Some sectors of the battlefield witnessed vicious hand-to-hand fighting as well as extensive use of bayonets.

General Lew Wallace’s men charge at Confederates who have broken out of Fort Donelson. The Rebels seemingly had an opening to make good their escape when Wallace’s men moved in to cut them off.

In a fight where progress could be measured in yards from hillock to hillock, it was “the spirit and determination that insured success” for the Southern soldier, recalled Simmonton. In fact, after-action reports on both sides were sprinkled with phrases such as “the enemy pressing us very hard,” the ground being “hotly contested,” and the holding of ground “under a galling fire.”

By early afternoon the Confederates had punched a hole in Union lines large enough to march their army through. “Our success against the right wing is complete,” declared Major Jeremy Gilmer. The attack had cleared both the Wynne’s Ferry and Forge roads and the way to Nashville lay before them. Yet, by 1:30 the punch had quite literally gone out of the Confederate breakout attempt. Fatigued soldiers on both sides simply stopped moving as their officers tried to reorganize units broken, mixed, or scattered over the field.

A Paralysis of Confederate Leadership

The lull proved decisive for both sides, for the entire battle changed abruptly. (The results were to be governed by the vital qualities of initiative, character, and leadership.) Pillow, having achieved his objective, immediately ordered the troops back to the trenches to consolidate, pack gear, draw rations, and retrieve the artillery. An incredulous and indignant Buckner at first refused to obey the order. When Floyd arrived on the scene, he was confronted by the irate Buckner. “At his [Floyd’s] request to know my opinion of the movement, I replied that nothing had occurred to change my views of the necessity of evacuation of the post, that the road was open, and I thought we should at once avail ourselves of the existing opportunity to regain our communications.” Floyd seemed to agree, and then rode off to find Pillow. When Floyd found him, he demanded: “In the name of God, General Pillow, what have we been fighting all day for? Certainly not to show our powers, but solely to secure the Wynne’s Ferry Road, and now after securing it, you order it to be given up?”

Using all of his political talents, Pillow sought to convince Floyd of the correctness of his action. Floyd’s decision making seemed as frozen as the bloodstained soil. At this juncture, both generals became immobilized by reports of Union reinforcements, and the irresolution Floyd had previously displayed in West Virginia, together with his tendency to get flustered under pressure, took hold. The Army would return to the trenches.

Confederate Lieutenant Selden Spencer expressed the general opinion among the soldiers at this turn of events: “His [ Pillow’s ] head was turned with the victory just gained, and he was too short-sighted [here Spencer crossed out the words ‘a fool’] to see that it was entirely thrown away, unless we used it for escape.”

“The Position on the Right Must Be Taken”

Grant had risen at his headquarters before dawn, then set off to visit Foote at his anchorage below Donelson, there to see the damaged gunboats. When Grant arrived, the wounded and shaken Foote told him he was taking the gunboats back for repairs. At this point, neither man knew of the attempted breakout of the Rebels south of the fort. Apparently, the sounds of the battle were muffled by the intervening woods and river bends. When the conference ended, a visibly upset Grant was taken ashore where he met an aide, livid with fear, bearing news of imminent disaster.

It was about 1 pm when Grant finally arrived back at headquarters where his staff briefed him on the seriousness of the situation. Remaining imperturbable through it all, he calmly replied, “Gentlemen, the position on the right must be retaken.” He correctly perceived that the Confederates had done their worst. Grant also reasoned that the strength of the Confederate attack meant that they had weakened their right, concluding that “the one who attacks first will be victorious.” With that he proclaimed, “General Smith, all has failed on our right, you must take Fort Donelson.”

Brig. Gen. Charles Smith.

“I will do it,” was Smith’s simple reply. With much energy and precision the 60-year old general—who had been commandant at West Point when Grant was a cadet—deployed his troops, and by 2:35 all was in readiness. Smith, sword held aloft with hat on blade tip, his long white moustache flowing in the wind, was the stuff of heroic paintings. “You must take the fort take your caps off your guns, fix bayonets, and I will lead you,” he bellowed. Lead them he did, but regimental formations became ragged crossing incorrigible obstructions, and confusion attended the ascendance of a slippery slope into the Rebel abatis. Then came a murderous fire that struck down 400 of the bluecoats. Nevertheless, Smith and his soldiers pressed forward. By 3 pm, they had cleared out the Rebels on the left and had cracked Fort Donelson’s outer defense line.

Wrote Captain Seth Leyard Phillips, USN: “Do you know that our army was at one time defeated before Fort Donelson & General Smith—one of the first soldiers of our country—retrieved the fortunes of the day by leading his brigade to the charge of the chief redoubt, himself the first man in it! It is no stretch to say that defeat or victory hung upon his life & heaven guarded him in the terrible fire that for a while was forced upon him and his command.”

A Victory “Complete and Glorious”?

Meanwhile, Wallace was encountering feeble resistance reclaiming most of the ground on the right. He found Confederates withdrawing from positions gained at great cost only hours before. As the sun sank, the fighting dwindled.

Another bitterly cold night ensued, but Grant took advantage of the hours by moving up artillery and reinforcements to positions won by Smith and Wallace that commanded the whole Confederate defensive works. Inside the fort, Floyd and Pillow fatuously wired Johnston in Nashville that they had won a victory “complete and glorious.” In time, a clearer picture began to emerge. The Confederate officers began to realize the hopelessness of their situation the fort could not be held nor could its troops now escape to Nashville. They resolved to surrender. Upon learning of the planned capitulation, Forrest exploded in anger. Insisting there was more fight in the army than the generals gave it credit for, he announced to his troopers, “Boys, these people are talking about surrender and I am going to go out of this place before they do or bust hell wide open.” Accordingly, he started to make his plans.

Also during the night occurred one the most comic and shameful episodes of the war. Floyd abdicated his command to Pillow then Pillow abdicated it to Buckner. Floyd escaped by river with a few of his regiments, while Pillow fled in a small boat. On a more heroic note, the wily Forrest managed to cut his entire command out of the trap. They rode through swamps of ice-cold water until they reached safety.

General Buckner’s Surrender

Early the next morning, February 16, the hapless but responsible Buckner sent word to Grant that he desired terms of surrender. Grant’s answer to his old friend and classmate not only made Grant famous, but gave impetus and direction to the whole war: “No terms other than an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to immediately move upon your works.” Buckner petulantly replied that he found the “ungenerous and unchivalrous” offer insulting, but he had no choice. Either by siege or starvation, surrender was now inevitable.

Although its strategic impact gave the battle at Fort Donelson significance, Grant had also attained one of the major tactical successes of war. His own casualties in killed and wounded were slightly more than those of the Confederates, but his total casualties amounted to only 2,832 or 10.5 percent of his 28,000 men. Because of the surrender, Confederate losses totaled 16,623 or 79 percent of their 21,000 men.

Grant had thus virtually annihilated an enemy army by cutting his opponent’s communications by pinning him against a river. In spite of Halleck’s excellent strategy and good management and Grant’s energy and ability, the eminent 19th-century military theorist Karl von Clausewitz had foreseen that such a victory could not have taken place without “major, obvious, and exceptional mistakes on the enemy’s part,” as when the Confederate command had divided its forces and placed Floyd’s command where Grant could so readily trap it.

Taking the Heart of Tennessee

The fall of these two forts ensured the collapse of the entire Rebel line across Kentucky and propelled Grant into the limelight as the North’s premier commander. Indeed, the Henry and Donelson fights marked the first turning point of the war, because what followed in the next few weeks was a series of Union triumphs, several directly or indirectly attributable to the falls of the two forts. These losses left the western Confederacy struggling for its life.

First among these triumphs was the capture of Nashville, the first major Confederate city and first Confederate state capital to fall. Abandoned a week after Fort Donelson surrendered, this was a serious blow, since Nashville was not only the western Confederacy’s most important city for manufacture, but also a major arsenal and supply depot. The total loss of middle Tennessee amounted to much more, as the state was the greatest iron-ore-producing region in the Confederacy. The heart of Tennessee’s growing industrial complex and its great war potential were gone. The loss of the two forts effectively rocked the Confederacy to its core.

Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, wrote: “The cause of the Union now marches on in every section of the country. Every blow tells fearfully against the rebellion. The rebels themselves are panic-stricken … or despondent. It now requires no far-reaching prophet to predict the end of this struggle.”

Robert Henry, in his book Story of the Confederacy (1931), echoed these thoughts when he wrote, “Fort Donelson, in many ways, may be considered the critical event of the Civil War.” More recently (1987), Frank Cooling, in a study of the fall of the two forts, wrote of “the expedition that broke open the West.” Bruce Catton further opined that “Fort Donelson was not only a beginning it was one of the decisive engagements of the entire war, and out of it came the slow progression toward Appomattox. n

Watch the video: American Civil War: Battle of Fort Donelson - Unconditional Surrender (January 2022).