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Fort Donelson

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February 11 - 16, 1862

The Battle of Fort Donelson

With Kentucky’s decision to not join the Confederacy, Southern military leaders were forced to create key defensive positions along the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers south of the Kentucky border. Forts Henry, Heiman, and Donelson were built to prevent Union armies from using the rivers to advance into the Confederate interior. 

Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck approved Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s plan to attack Fort Henry on the Tennessee River before Confederate reinforcements could arrive. As Grant’s two divisions began their march south, gunboats under the command of Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote proceeded up the river to attack the forts. In a swift, violent exchange of gunfire, Forts Heiman and Henry quickly fell to the Union gunboats on February 6, 1862.  

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 Donelson. 

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 to the fort. On February 11, Johnston appointed Brig. Gen. John B. Floyd as the commander of Fort Donelson and the surrounding region. Around 17,000 Confederate soldiers, combined with improved artillery positions and earthworks convinced Floyd that a hasty retreat was unnecessary.

By February 13, most of Grant’s soldiers had arrived near Donelson and had begun to arrange themselves around the landward side of the fort. Several inches of snowfall and a cold winter wind sent shivers through both armies. With Grant’s reinforced army now blocking a landward exit, the Confederate forces knew that they would have to fight their way out.

On February 14, 1862, 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 retreated.

While Grant was now contemplating an extended siege, the Confederate leadership devised a bold plan to move all the forces they could to the Union right and 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.  Brig. Gen. 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 in what would become one of the oddest and most improbable acts on any Civil War battlefield, Confederate Brig. Gen. Gideon Pillow, sensing a complete victory over the Union forces, ordered the attacking force back to their earthworks, thereby abandoning the hard-fought gains of the morning.  

Grant ordered Brig. Gen. Lew Wallace and McClernand 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 Confederate assault on their 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 managed to make various excuses and crossed the river to safety. 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. Brig. Gen. 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 and Grant’s uncompromising demand brought an avalanche of acclaim to the young, promising general from Point Pleasant, Ohio.