Battle of Fort Donelson
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Location: Stewart County, TN
               (near Dover, TN)
Dates: February 12-16, 1862
Union Commander:  Ulysses S. Grant, Brigadier General
                                Andrew H. Foote, Flag Officer
Confederate Commander:  John B. Floyd, Brigadier General 
                                         Gideon J. Pillow, Brigadier General
                                         Simon Buckner, Brigadier General

Battle Summary:
In November, 1861, Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant, was rumored to be battling again.  Not the rebels, but the type that was in the bottle.  There were numerous reports that Grant, while at Cairo, IL, was guilty of actions, unbecoming an officer.  While these allegations were proven mostly untrue, Grant was desiring action, to restore his name.

Grant's boss, at St. Louis, MO, Major General Henry W. Halleck, heard the rumors and was concerned.  On January 20, 1862, Grant requested permission, and was granted opportunity to travel from Cairo, to St. Louis, to meet with Halleck.  Grant had requested this meeting to review his plan to attack Forts Henry, and Donelson, in northern Tennessee.  Working with Flag Officer Andrew Foote's fleet of river "iron clads," Grant was convinced that Fort Henry, on the Tennessee River, and Fort Donelson, on the Cumberland River, were vulnerable.  However, according to Grant, the forts would be reinforced making promptness a necessity.  Grant received a chilly reception from Halleck.  In his memoirs, Grant stated that, "I returned to Cairo very much crestfallen."  It is believed, at this time, that Halleck was fearful of a general movement of Grant's army, fearing that it might be unsuccessful.  Halleck was vying for expanded responsibilities and was concerned that Major General Don Carlos Buell's successful battle at Mill Springs, KY (also known as Logan's Cross-Roads and Fishing Creek) was a potential suitor for this expanded command.  However, when Halleck received information, from his boss, Major General George B. McClellan, that CS General P.G.T. Beauregard was moving, from the eastern theater, to potentially link up with Albert Sidney Johnston's Army of the Tennessee, Halleck authorized Grant, and Foote, to move on Fort Henry.

On February 6, at 11:00 AM, in a battle fought almost exclusively by Foote's river boats, Grant received the surrender of Fort Henry, from CS Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman.  While the fort was for the most part, flooded and empty, the fall was viewed as a huge win for the North, leaving the Tennessee River open to the northern armies, from its confluence with the Ohio River, upstream to Muscle Shoals in northern Alabama.  After the capture of Fort Henry, Grant would wire Halleck's headquarters informing them that Henry had fallen and that he would be moving on Fort Donelson on February 8 unless he received specific instructions to not move.

By the time Grant captured Fort Henry, Fort Donelson was well manned and strongly protected.  Manning the fort were 21,000 Confederate troops under the command of CS Brigadier General John B. Floyd.  Brigadier General Gideon Pillow, a political appointee, was second in charge and Brigadier General Simon B. Buckner was third.  It was Grant's hope, that Foote's fleet could soften the defenses of Fort Donelson, as he had at Fort Henry.  However, Fort Donelson was on high ground and swept a large area, of the Cumberland River, with much larger guns than were available at Fort Henry.  Fort Donelson was impressive.  Consisting of large earthworks, surrounding 15 acres of troop huts, it sat prominently on a hill.  Surrounding the fort, were two miles of outer defensive works and two large batteries.  On the east, was the Cumberland River, to the north was Hickman Creek and to the south was Lick Creek.  From the west, the Union forces would have to assault formidable earth works, protected by felled trees, sharpened and positioned, as abatis.  The big siege guns, in the outer works would prove very effective at repulsing Foote's iron clad fleet.

Grant, advanced on Fort Donelson on February 12 - four days later than expected, due to drenching rains.  He had received token resistance from the troops, under Tilghman, that were retreating from Fort Henry, and captured several cannon.  Grant ordered US Brigadier General Charles Smith to probe the Confederate right, while US Brigadier General John McClernand was tasked with determining the strength on their left.  Smith and McClernand both determined that the outer works were too strong to assault, so they circled the outer perimeter, leaving a small gap on their right.  Later, in the evening, Foote's fleet was positioned north of Fort Donelson and brought another division of troops, under US Brigadier General Lew Wallace Grant's army would number 27,000.

Overnight, February 12-13, troops under both armies would suffer from the elements.  Many of Grant's soldiers, in the unusually balmy, wet weather, on their march from Fort Henry, scuttled their heavy blankets.  They regretted it this night. 

On February 14, Foote's iron clads tested the defenses of Fort Donelson and were well targeted by the batteries of the fort.  Several of Foote's ships would receive significant damage this day.

Early on February 15, Grant was consulting with Foote on one of his damaged gun ships.  Brigadier Gideon Pillow chose this time to hit the Union right with significant force.  While weakening his line elsewhere, Buckner allowed Pillow the forces necessary to push McClernand's right flank back.  Lew Wallace would send reinforcements to McClernand, but McClernand would be pushed back far enough that the rebels, under Pillow would have control of the Forge Road - a potential escape route to Nashville.  At this point, Pillow had a choice: take advantage of his gains, consolidating forces and pushing further, or evacuate Fort Donelson, using the Forge Road.  Amazingly enough, he did neither.  Instead, he pulled back to his original lines, within the fort.

McClernand's troops, caught off guard, were demoralized and confused.  Grant, had rode his horse hard, upon hearing Pillow's attack and arrived in time to see his demoralized army.  Additionally, by examining the items left by the Confederate army, he was able to determine they had been considering a retreat.  He immediately ordered his army to press the rebels.

Having weakened his right, to bolster Pillow's troops, on the left, Brigadier General C.F. Smith, had success on the Union left.  His division was able to push into the exterior lines and threaten the inner fort.  While the rebels believed Grant had received significantly more reinforcements than Wallace's division, they were not in as desperate straits as they believed.

On the evening of February 15, the Confederate leadership met and determined that the had no option but surrender.  Floyd relinquished his command to Pillow - and Pillow immediately relinquished command to Buckner.  Floyd, Pillow and a little known cavalry commander, Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest escaped through the freezing waters of Lick Creek.

Overnight, Grant received a note from brigadier Simon Buckner asking what terms of capitulation would be offered him.  Grant quickly replied, "No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.  I propose to move immediately upon your works." (Grant would be forever famous for this reply.)  Buckner, an old friend of Grant's, was incensed.  In his reply Buckner could not hide his disdain for Grant's offer, ".....notwithstanding the brilliant success of the Confederate arms yesterday, (I am compelled) to accept the ungenerous and unchivalrous terms which you propose."

Grant would receive the surrender of Buckner's forces, later in the day, at the now historic, Dover Hotel.

Campaign: Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers

Outcome: Union Victory

Troop Strengths
Union: 27,000
Confederate: 21,000

Casualties (estimated):
Union: 2,832 (killed, wounded or missing/captured)
Confederate: 17,000 (killed, wounded or missing/captured)

Battle Aftermath:
The news of the fall of Forts Henry, and Donelson, caused jubilation through the north.  It also caused Grant's star to rise.  Grant, concerned about his future, while sitting idly by at Cairo, was now being extolled, by the press, as the hero of Forts Henry and Donelson.  Grant was promptly promoted to Major General, Volunteers, as were the other brigadier generals at Fort Donelson.

The Confederacy was under a pall of despondency after news of the capitulation of their forts.  With his center broken, CS General A.S. Johnston, determined his positions in Kentucky untenable, and was forced to pull his lines back and retreat into the inner reaches of Tennessee.

Grant's roller coaster ride would not be over.  Halleck would feel threatened by the "rising star" he helped create.  Grant, not sitting on his laurels, wired Halleck, shortly after the fall of Donelson, that he was determined to push his gains.  In his wire to Halleck, he stated his intentions to move C.F. Smith's division to Clarksville and the remainder of his troops to Nashville, to cooperate with Don Carlos Buell.  Unfortunately, this message never reached Halleck (Grant later claimed a rebel sympathizer was intercepting his communications to Halleck.).  Grant sent C.F. Smith to Clarksville, and went to meet Buell in Nashville.  While gone, Halleck repeatedly wired Grant to ascertain his troop strengths.  Grant was not there to reply.  When Grant did return to Fort Donelson, he had orders, from Halleck, ordering him to return with his troops to Fort Henry.  On March 4, Grant received another telegram from Halleck, placing Grant's troops under the command of Major General C.F. Smith.  Grant was arrested,  and without a command.  By March 13, Grant would be back in charge of his army, and would be fully exonerated by Halleck.  He would also be on the move, chasing General Johnston's troops into the interior of Tennessee.

The fall of Forts Henry and Donelson, left the deep south, open to attack, from the great rivers: Cumberland and Tennessee.  Grant would use the Tennessee to launch into his next offensive at a small church, in southern Tennessee, Shiloh.                Close Window