The Battle of Fort Donelson was fought February 12–16, 1862 in the American Civil War. The capture of the fort by Union forces opened the Cumberland River as an avenue of invasion of the South and elevated Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant from an obscure and largely unproven leader to the rank of major general and the nickname “Unconditional Surrender” Grant.
The battle of Fort Donelson took place shortly after the battle of Fort Henry, Tennessee, also a Union victory under Grant, which opened the Tennessee River for future Union movements.
After their loss of Fort Henry, the Confederates faced some disagreeable choices. The forces of General Grant were now between Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston’s two main forces. Fort Henry had been lost, and the railroad south of it had been cut. The Union might attack Columbus, Tennessee; they might attack Fort Donelson and thence Nashville, Tennessee, or Grant and Major General Don Carlos Buell might attack Johnston head-on, Grant from behind, Buell from in front.
None was a pleasant choice to the Confederates. They could defend Fort Donelson, after which, if successful, they could retake the poorly constructed Fort Henry, or they could abandon Kentucky to defend the important factories and depots at Nashville. They decided to make a stand at Donelson.
Albert Sidney Johnston gave Confederate General John B. Floyd command at Donelson. Floyd arrived after losing western Virginia to Union general George B. McClellan. Floyd was a wanted man in the North, for graft and secessionist activities as Secretary of War under the administration of President James Buchanan. Johnston gave him an additional 12,000 men and withdrew the rest of his force to Nashville to stop an expected Union attack there.
Grant’s Union army consisted of three divisions, commanded by Brigadier Generals John A. McClernand, Charles F. Smith, and Lew Wallace. Supporting the infantry divisions were two regiments of cavalry and eight batteries of artillery, altogether about 25,000 men. The naval squadron under U.S. Navy Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote consisted of six ironclad and wooden gunboats including the USS Cincinnati (the flagship), the USS Carondelet, the USS St. Louis, the USS Conestoga, the USS Tyler, and the USS Lexington. (The USS Essex had been damaged at Fort Henry.)
Floyd’s force of approximately 20,000 men consisted of three divisions, garrison troops, and attached cavalry. The three divisions were commanded by Floyd himself (temporarily commanded by Colonel Gabriel C. Wharton when Floyd took command of the entire force) and Brigadier Generals Gideon J. Pillow and Simon Bolivar Buckner. The garrison troops were commanded by Colonel John W. Head and the cavalry by Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest.
The fort had twelve heavy guns about 100 feet (30 m) above the Cumberland River, and three miles of trenches in a semicircle around the fort, which was more of a stockade than a fort. It was considerably more formidable than Fort Henry. The Confederate line of trenches, located on a commanding ridge, backed up by artillery, was manned by Buckner on the right (with his left flank anchored on Hickman Creek) and Pillow on the left (with his right flank near the Cumberland River). Facing them from left to right were Smith, Wallace, and McClernand. McClernand’s right flank, facing Pillow, was inexplicably left open.
Initial Union probing attacks on February 13 were repulsed, but on February 14, another 10,000 Union reinforcements arrived, with six gunboats, four of them ironclads. The ironclads approached too close to the fort, enabling the Confederates to pummel them. Crippled, they drifted downstream; fifty-four Union sailors were killed or wounded while the Confederates lost nothing. However, on land the Confederates were surrounded by well-armed Union soldiers, and while the Union boats had been damaged, they still controlled the Cumberland River. The Union soldiers settled in begrudgingly for a siege. They were hungry, many without adequate clothing, and they were enduring fierce winter winds that brought temperatures down to 12° F.
On the morning of February 15, the Confederates launched a dawn assault by Pillow against McClernand’s division on the unprotected right flank of the Union line, in an attempt to gain the road to Nashville, their only means of retreat. The plan was for Pillow to push McClernand out of the way and for Buckner to move his division across Wynn’s Ferry Road and act as rear guard for the remainder of the army as it withdrew from Donelson and moved east. One of Buckner’s brigades was designated to stay in the trenches and prevent Federal pursuit. The attack started well and after two hours of heavy fighting, Pillow’s men were able to push McClernand out of the way and open the escape route. His attack was primarily successful due to the leadership of his second-in-command, Brigadier General Bushrod R. Johnson, and a flanking attack by Confederate cavalry under Forrest. Despite seeing that his attack was successful, by 1:30 p.m. Pillow believed he should regroup his forces before pushing forward and, to the amazement of Floyd and Buckner, he ordered his men back to their trenches. At that moment, Floyd lost his nerve and, believing that Charles F. Smith’s division was being heavily reinforced, ordered the entire defensive force back inside the lines of Fort Donelson.
True to his nature, Grant did not panic at the Confederate assault. In fact, he had been absent for most of the time, visiting Foote’s flagship downriver. He had not expected a Confederate attack and had not left a second-in-command to coordinate the defense that was needed. As he rode back, he heard the sounds of guns and sent word back to Foote to start a demonstration of naval gunfire, assuming that his troops would be demoralized and could use the encouragement. Grant reached the Union right at about 3 p.m. and pushed McClernand and Wallace to counterattack and retake the ground they had lost earlier in the day. Grant observed that the Confederates were fighting with filled knapsacks, which implied to him that they were going to attempt a breakout. He moved quickly to exploit the opening that the indecisive Floyd had left him and told Smith that “All has failed on our right—you must take Fort Donelson.” Smith replied, “I will do it.” Smith’s counterattack quickly succeeded in seizing the outer line of entrenchments on the Confederate right, the brigade that had been left behind from Buckner’s division. By nightfall, all of the Confederate troops had been driven back to their original positions.
Nearly 1,000 soldiers on both sides had been killed, with about 3,000 wounded still on the field; some froze to death in a snowstorm, many Union soldiers having thrown away their blankets and coats, now swearing at the “sunny South”.
General Floyd expected a Confederate loss, and to be captured and face justice in the North. At a council of war at 1:30 a.m. on February 16, he turned over his command to the indecisive General Pillow, who also feared Northern reprisals and gave it in turn to the somewhat cautious General Buckner; Floyd escaped down the Cumberland in the night; Pillow also escaped. Disgusted at this show of cowardice, Confederate cavalry general Nathan Bedford Forrest heatedly said, “I did not come here to surrender my command,” and stormed out, leaving with his 700 men. They traveled by a flooded trail paralleling the river, 15 minutes before the escape route was cut by McClernand.
On the morning of February 16, Buckner sent a note to Grant requesting terms of surrender. Buckner had expectations that Grant would offer generous terms because of their previous relationship. In 1854 Grant had lost a command in California in part due a drinking problem, and then-U.S. Army officer Buckner had loaned him money to get home after his resignation. But Grant showed he had no mercy towards men who had rebelled against the Union. His reply was one of the most famous quotes to come out of the war, giving him his nickname of “Unconditional Surrender”; in part:
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.
Grant was not bluffing. Smith was in a good position, having captured the outer lines of fortifications, and was under orders to launch an attack, supported by the other divisions, the next day. Grant believed his position now allowed him to forego his planned siege and storm the fort successfully.
Buckner shortly surrendered his 14,000 troops and 40 guns, the first of three Confederate armies that Grant would capture during the war (the second was at the Battle of Vicksburg, the third was Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia). He also surrendered considerable equipment and provisions, which Grant’s hungry troops needed badly. Over 7,000 Confederate prisoners of war were eventually transported from Fort Donelson to Camp Douglas in Chicago; others were sent elsewhere throughout the North.
Cannons were fired and church bells rung throughout the North at the news. The capture of Forts Henry and Donelson were the first significant Union victories in the war, and opened two great rivers as avenues of invasion to the heartland of the South. Grant was promoted to major general, second in command only to Henry W. Halleck in the West. Buckner was held as a Union prisoner of war until he was exchanged in August. Close to a third of all Albert Sidney Johnston’s forces were prisoners; Grant had captured more Confederates than all previous Union generals combined. The rest of Johnston’s forces were 200 miles apart between Nashville and Columbus with Grant’s army between them controlling all rivers and railroads. General Buell’s army was threatening Nashville while John Pope was threatening Columbus. Johnston shortly evacuated Nashville, soon giving this important industrial center to the Union, the first Confederate state capital to fall. The lion’s share of Tennessee fell under Union control, as did all of Kentucky, though both were subject to periodic Confederate raiding.