Today, is the 147th anniversary of the Confederate capitulation of Fort Donelson¹. This battle would mark the rising of one star, US Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant and the falling of two other stars, CS Brigadier Generals John B. Floyd, and Gideon J. Pillow.
The capture of Fort Donelson, part of an overall operational plan, that U.S. Grant envisioned, in December 1861, would allow the United States to control two of the most important rivers in the Confederacy: the Tennessee and Cumberland. The Tennessee opened the deep south, reaching into southern Tennessee, Alabama and eastern Tennessee. Controlling the Cumberland River exposed the capitol of Tennessee – Nashville. Grant would accomplish the first part of his operational plan by capturing Fort Henry, on the Tennessee River, on February 6. In a battle that was largely fought by Federal gunboats, the flooded fort, with a small garrison would surrender without a significant fight. Fortunately, for the Confederacy, the commander, CS Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman would send most of his garrison to Floyd, and Pillow, at Fort Donelson.
After capturing Fort Henry, Grant next set his sights on capturing the larger Fort Donelson. He planned on using similar tactics to defeat this fort – an infantry assault east, towards Fort Donelson, coordinated with a massive naval bombardment by Rear Admiral Andrew H. Foote’s gunboats. The battles for Fort Donelson would actually begin, on February 12, when Grant’s infantry, and artillery would start pushing east, from Fort Henry to Fort Donelson. Grant would arrive on the 12th after skirmishing with CS Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry. Meanwhile, Foote would arrive downstream, of the fort, with the USS Carondelet, which fired several large rounds into the fort, testing it defensive capacity. On the 13th, other small, unauthorized Federal movements would take place. However, the biggest news was the change in weather conditions. That night a winter storm blew in, dropping temperature into the teens, and single digits. By the morning of the 14th there were 3–4 inches of fresh snow on the ground. The soldiers were miserable. Due to their proximity, to the Confederate works, the Federal commanders forbade campfires, due to incessant sharpshooter fire.
The 14th brought significant Federal reinforcements. With the arrival Foote’s entire gunboat fleet, and US Brigadier General Lew Wallace’s division, from Fort Henry, U.S. Grant was able to extend his lines, from Lick Creek on the north, to the south of the fort. The Federal divisions (deployed left to right) were commanded by US Brigadier Generals Charles F. Smith, Lew Wallace and John McClernand.
The atmosphere in the fort, was very tense. During a council of war, early morning, on the 14th, Floyd determined to abandon the fort. He would use Gideon Pillow’s troops to open an escape route, to the north. With his troops prepared, on the morning of the 14th, Pillow would lose his nerve, postponing his break out attempt. This enraged Floyd who was becoming more concerned about being captured by the larger Federal force.
With the arrival of Foote’s entire fleet, Grant urged him to bombard the fort, weakening it for an infantry attack. Foote concerned that a proper recognizance had not been completed, followed Grant’s suggestion. Moving his fleet towards the fort, they opened fire. The Confederates, with large sea fort guns, were able to wreck havoc on Foote’s fleet. Foote’s flagship, the USS St. Louis would be disabled, along with USS Louisville and USS Pittsburg. Foote would be injured, along with 52 other naval casualties (eight of which were killed). He would have to remove his fleet several miles down river, for repairs.
On February 15th, the Confederate break out attempt occurred. Pillow, early in the morning, would launch an assault against the Federal right flank, commanded by John McClernand. While not a total surprise, to the Union foot soldiers, as they could hear activity in their front, U.S. Grant would be surprised. Expecting the Rebels to hold to their defensive position, Grant was making plans for his offensive and was caught off guard. When the attack started, Grant would be several miles down river discussing his tactical plan with Foote. The Confederate assault would initially be successful, with Pillow pushing McClernand’s poorly positioned division out of the way. The plan was for CS Brigadier General Simon B. Buckner to move in, along the Wynn’s Ferry Road, and act as a rear guard, while the rest of the army escaped. They would leave one regiment, the 30th Tennessee, in the trenches to prevent a rapid Federal pursuit. McClernand recognizing his division had been flanked, requested the adjacent division, of Lew Wallace, to support him. While concerned about sending assistance, due to Grant’s order forbidding a general engagement, he would finally give in, sending a single brigade commanded by Colonel Charles Cruft. When Cruft arrived, he too realized the position had been flanked. The Confederates, lacking organization were not able to take advantage of the disorganized Yankees. Several tentative attacks against McClernand’s division were repulsed. They would settle into defensive positions along the Wynn’s Ferry Ferry Road, protecting the gains they had fought for.
U.S. Grant, finally learning there was a general engagement, mounted his horse and galloped seven miles back, over icy roads, to Lew Wallace’s headquarters. He was aghast at what he saw. McClernand’s division was all but taken out of the fight, and Wallace’s division was in jeopardy of being rolled up. Grant, cool as ever, ordered the position on the right, to be re-taken. He also recognized by the Confederate soldiers knapsacks, that they were taking significant rations with them – a sign they did not want to fight - but escape. Grant knew that he needed to attack, and attack first.
It was at this time, Pillow made a crucial mistake. Believing his troops needed to resupply, and reorganize, he ordered them back to their trenches. Floyd, upset with Pillow’s decision, and believing that C.F. Smith, on his right, was reinforcing, ordered all the troops back into the fort, giving up all the ground they had fought so hard to gain. Grant saw the opportunity, and immediately ordered Smith to attack the entrenched enemy. Smith was able to capture the outer works held by the lone 30th Tennessee. The counter attacks by the Confederates would fail to push Smith’s regiments from the outer works. Swiftly, Grant would send two brigades, from the right, one from each division. The attacks were successful, and before nightfall, the Union had pushed the Confederates back to their original positions.
At a Confederate council of war, Buckner convinced Floyd, and Pillow, that they could not hold out during a full scale Federal attack, expected the next morning. At this point, Floyd, and Pillow, realizing they might be captured, determined to sneak out. Successively, Floyd passed command to Pillow who in turn, passed it to Buckner. They made their escape, overnight. Nathan Bedford Forrest, not content to surrender his cavalry, fought his way out, along Wynn’s Ferry Road, saving his entire cavalry command.
Overnight, Grant making plans for his next moves, would receive a letter from Buckner, asking what terms of capitulation Grant would offer. The letter, being originally received by Brigadier General Charles Smith, would be passed to Grant, stating, “no terms to the Rebels.” Grant would quickly reply to Buckner, in a letter that would make him a celebrity in the north, “Sir: Yours of this date proposing Armistice, and appointment of Commissioners, to settle terms of capitulation just received. No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works. Your obt. sevt., U.S. Grant, Brigadier General.” Buckner, an old friend of Grant, would call his terms, “ungenerous and unchivalrous,” but agreed to surrender his forces. Meeting later that morning, at the Dover Hotel, Grant would receive Buckner’s surrender including 12,000+ troops and 48 artillery pieces.
U.S. Grant would become known as “Unconditional Surrender” Grant and would receive cigars, and other presents from an admiring northern populace. With the fall of Forts Henry, and Donelson, CS General Albert Sidney Johnston’s line of operations, stretching from the Cumberland Gap, in the east, to Columbus, Kentucky, in the west, would become untenable. He would remove his armies to the area of Corinth, Mississippi, leaving Kentucky, and most of Tennessee, including Nashville, in possession of the Federal government.