In early 1862, then-Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant led a campaign to capture a number of Confederate forts and towns along vital waterways in southern Kentucky and northern Tennessee. The climax of this campaign came with the capture of Fort Donelson on February 16, 1862 following a battle.
By Seth Marshall
Prior to the start of hostilities in the Civil War, Confederate officials both in Tennessee and further east recognized that defensive positions needed to be established along the Tennessee/Kentucky border to protect the Southern state and its vital waterways. Tennessee governor Isham G. Harris began development of such fortifications during the summer of 1861. Though positions across the Cumberland River would have provided better defenses, the Confederates wished to respect Kentucky’s neutrality. Eventually, a 100-acre site near Dover, the county-seat of Stewart, Tennessee, was selected for what would become Fort Donelson. Named after a senior militia leader, the fort was just 75 miles downstream from Nashville. The fort’s primary armament took the firm of two batteries; the lower battery featured a 10-inch Columbiad and two 32-pounder cannons, while the upper battery contained one rifled 64-pounder Columbiad and two 64-pounder howitzers. All of these guns were dug into the hillside and reinforced with sandbags.
In early 1862, Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant presented a plan to capture the forts along the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers to his commander, Major General Henry Halleck. Though he initially declined the plan, Halleck was eventually convinced by Grant along with Captain Andrew Foote of the US Navy. On February 6th, Grant seized Fort Heiman and Fort Henry after Foote’s gunboats bombarded both. As Confederate soldiers straggled their way to Donelson, Lieutenant General Albert Sidney Johnston ordered reinforcements be sent to the fort. On February 11th, he appointed Brigadier General John B. Floyd as the fort’s commander. Reinforcements meant that the fort now had some 28 infantry regiments, a cavalry regiment, two independent battalions, and six light artillery batteries. Additionally, the fort’s main batteries along the river now had 17 heavy guns covering Cumberland. Altogether, there was some 17,000 soldiers defending the fort. Delayed by a river that had swelled over its banks and snows that had turned the roads to mud, Grant did not move on Donelson until February 12th. The pause gave Halleck time to send Grant additional reinforcements from Cairo. Now with three divisions and 21,500 soldiers under his command and the support of Foote’s six gunboats, Grant set off for Donelson. He left 2500 men under the command of Brigadier General Lew Wallace at Fort Henry. Grant’s forces appeared in front of the Confederate defensive positions near the end of the day, and small skirmishes broke out just before night fell.
February 13th saw additional skirmishes, as several Union brigade commanders decided to ignore Grant’s order to avoid an engagement during the day and probe the Confederate lines. Though the reconnaissance mission was short, the Union suffered many killed on the first day. Additionally, Union gunboats bombarded the fort, though at least one, the Carondelet, was damaged by a 128-pound projectile that penetrated through both sides of the boat and detonated in the water on the other side. That night, snow fell, leaving several inches on the ground. Temperatures plummeted below 12 degrees Farrenheit. Making matters worse, commanders on both sides forbade fires for fear that it would give their positions away, leaving the soldiers to shiver through the night. The following morning, Foote’s seven gunboats moved towards Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River. Composed of four ironclads, the USS St. Louis, the USS Carondelet, the USS Louisville, and the USS Pittsburg, as well as three timberclads, the USS Conestoga, the USS Tyler, and the USS Lexington, the warships were confident- just days earlier, their guns had forced Fort Henry to surrender relatively quickly. Their hopes were quickly dispelled when the Confederate batteries opened fire. Over the course of an hour and a half, the gunboats dueled with the riverine artillery, with several becoming severely damaged in the process. Eventually Foote’s ships retreated back from where they had come. In a report following the bombardment, Foote wrote:
“… I made an attack on Fort Donelson yesterday, the 14th instant, at 3 o’clock p.m. with four iron clad and two wooden gunboats, the St. Louis, Carondelet, Louisville, and Pittsburg, with the Tyler and Conestoga, and after a sever fight of an hour and a half, being in the latter part of the action less than 400 yards from the fort, the wheel of this vessel, by a shot through her pilot-house, was carried away, and the tiller-ropes of the Louisville also disabled by a shot, which rendered the two boats wholly unmanageable. They then drifted down the river, the relieving tackles not being able to steer or control them in the rapid current. The two remaining boats, the Pittsburg and Carondelet, were also greatly damaged between wind and water, and soon followed us, as the enemy rapidly renewed the fire as we drifted helplessly down the river. This vessel, the St. Louis, alone received 59 shoots, 4 between wind and water and one in the pilot-house, mortally wounding the pilot and others… There were 54 killed and wounded in this attack…”
With Foote’s gunboats out of action, it fell to Grant’s troops to take the fort. Early on the morning of February 15th, before the Union could attack, the Confederates seized the iniative and mounted their own attack. Brigadier General McClernand’s division took heavy losses and was driven back from their positions. Curiously though, just as it seemed that the Confederates were close to breaking through the Union lines entirely, Brigadier General Gideon Pillow called his attack to a halt. In the time that the Confederates paused, the Union struck back. Brigadier General Lew Wallace, though unable to communicate with Grant, ordered his division to counter-attack and drove the southerners back to their lines with heavy casualties. At this point, Grant reappeared on the battlefield and ordered Brigadier General C.F. Smith to attack the Confederate lines opposite his position. Smith’s men quickly overwhelmed the southerners in his sector and took a large portion of the earthworks in the area. His attack was stopped by the onset of darkness.
During the night, the Confederate commanders discussed their options. Their best chance to get most of their men out had been lost when their attack had foundered earlier in the day. During the early hours of the morning, a then-relatively unknown cavalry commander, Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest, reported to the Confederate headquarters:
“During the conversation that then ensued among the general officers General Pillow was in favor of trying to cut our way out. General Buckner said that he could not hold his position over half an hour in the morning, and that if he attempted to take his force out it would be seen by the enemy (who held part of his intrenchments), and be followed and cut to pieces. I told him that I would take my cavalryaround there and he could draw out under cover of them. He said that an attempt to cut our way out would involve the loss of three-four. General Floyd said our force was so demoralized as to cause him to agree with General Buckner as to our probable loss in attempting to cut our way out.”
After weighing these considerations, the decision was made to surrender the following day.
Forrest decided that he himself would not surrender and chose to break out with his cavalry unit by crossing Lick Creek, swollen by flood waters. Floyd also slipped away with Pillow and 2,000 men and retreated towards Nashville- he left Bruckner in command to surrender the fort and its garrison. Later in the morning, Buckner sent a message for terms to Grant, asking for terms of surrender. Grant responded, “No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.” Bruckner’s position left him little option, as he reported later.
“My men were in a state of complete exhaustion from extreme suffering from cold and fatigue. The supply of ammunition, especially for the artillery, was being rapidly exhausted; the army was to a great extent demoralized by the retrograde movement. On being placed in command I ordered such troops as could not cross the river to return to their intrenchments, to make at the last moment such resistance as was possible to the overwhelming force of the enemy. But a small portion of the forces had returned to the lines when I received from General Grant a reply to my proposal to negotiate for terms of surrender. To have refused his terms would, in the conditions of the army at the time, have led to the massacre of my troops without any advantage resulting from the sacrifice. I therefore felt it my highest duty to these brave men… to accept the ungenerous terms proposed by the Federal commander…”
Bruckner surrendered Fort Donelson, along with between 12,000-15,000 soldiers, 48 artillery pieces, all of the heavy guns facing the river, and 2,000-4,000 horses. Following the end of the battle, the Union counted 507 killed, 1,976 wounded, over 200 missing or captured. In addition to the 12,000+ captured troops, the Confederates lost 327 killed and 1,127 wounded. The victory at Fort Donelson was the Union’s first major win during the war and would have several important effects. The fort’s capture left the road to Nashville open- several towns downstream along the Cumberland surrendered in the wake of the fort’s fall, and eventually Nashville itself was surrendered without a fight. Just as important was the loss of the Cumberland itself, an important waterway used for transportation in northern Tennessee. Finally, the battle established Grant as a leading general among the north’s commander- he became known as “Unconditional Surrender” Grant thereafter and was promoted to Major General.
Today, part of the Fort Donelson battlefield is preserved as the Fort Donelson National Battlefield. Originally established in 1928, the fort’s original earthworks have been partially preserved. Both the upper and lower batteries have been preserved, along with the revetments in which they were emplaced. The perimeter wall of the fort has also partially been preserved, though it has eroded considerably in the 155 years since the battle was fought. A number of replica or restored artillery pieces have been set in various places around the wall. Much of the trenchworks dug by the Confederate soldiers are also still in existence, though again erosion has taken its toll on the trenches. In 1933, the Daughters of the Confederacy raised a memorial dedicated to fallen Confederate soldiers; this monument stands near the park’s entrance. The National Park Service has a visitor’s center located near the entrance as well, though at the time of this writing the building is currently closed for renovations. The NPS has also erected numerous placards discussing the history of the fort, its batteries, as well as the various sites of defensive positions and offensive actions. Also preserved outside of the park is the Dover Hotel, where the formal surrender took place, and the Fort Donelson National Cemetery, which currently serves as the final resting place of hundreds of Union soldiers and sailors who were reinterred at the site following the war. While none of the original structures of the interior remain, the remnants of the earthworks and the battery positions stand as a reminder of the battle that took place in early 1862 and played such a pivotal role early in the war.
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2. "The Battle of Fort Donelson Summary & Facts." Civil War Trust. Civil War Trust, 2014. Web. 24 Jan. 2017. http://www.civilwar.org/battlefields/fort-donelson.html?tab=facts
3. "Civil War Academy." Civil War Academy - American Civil War. Civil War Academy.com, 2007. Web. 24 Jan. 2017. http://www.civilwaracademy.com/fort-donelson.html
4. "Foote's Fort Donelson's OR." Foote's Fort Donelson's OR. CivilWarTalk Network, 11 Jan. 2009. Web. 24 Jan. 2017. http://www.civilwarhome.com/donelson.html
5. United States. National Park Service. "The Battle." National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, n.d. Web. 24 Jan. 2017. https://www.nps.gov/fodo/planyourvisit/thebattleforfortdonelson.htm