The Battle of Fort Donelson was fought from February 12 to February 16, 1862, in the Western Theater of 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 Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant from an obscure and largely unproven leader to the rank of major general and earned him the nickname "Unconditional Surrender" Grant.
The battle followed the capture of Fort Henry on February 6. Grant moved his army 12 miles overland to Fort Donelson on February 12 through February 13 and conducted several small probing attacks. On February 14, U.S. Navy gunboats under Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote attempted to reduce the fort with naval gunfire, but were forced to withdraw after sustaining heavy damage from Donelson's water batteries.
On February 15, with their fort surrounded, the Confederates, commanded by Brig. Gen. John B. Floyd, launched a surprise attack against Grant's army, attempting to open an avenue of escape. Grant, who was away from the battlefield at the start of the attack, arrived to rally his men and counterattack. Despite achieving a partial success, Floyd lost his nerve and recalled his men back into their entrenchments.
On the morning of February 16, Floyd and his second-in-command, Brig. Gen. Gideon J. Pillow, both turned over their command to Brig. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner, who agreed to unconditional surrender terms from Grant.
The Confederates now faced some difficult choices. Grant's army was now between Confederate Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston's two main forces (P.G.T. Beauregard at Columbus, Kentucky, with 12,000 men, and William J. Hardee at Bowling Green, Kentucky, with 22,000). Fort Henry was a deep salient in the center of the line defending Tennessee, and the railroad south of it had been cut, restricting the lateral mobility needed to rush reinforcements against the larger Union forces that faced them. Nearby Fort Donelson had only about 5,000 men. The Union might attack Columbus; they might attack Fort Donelson and thereby threaten Nashville, or Grant and Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell (in Louisville with 45,000 men) might attack Johnston head-on, Grant from behind, Buell from in front. Johnston was apprehensive about the ease in which Union gunboats defeated Fort Henry (not comprehending that the rising Tennessee River played a crucial role as it inundated the fort), but he was frankly more concerned about the threat from Buell than he was from Grant, suspecting the river operations might simply be a diversion.
Johnston decided on a course of action that forfeited the initiative across most of his defensive line, tacitly admitting that the Confederate defensive strategy for Tennessee was a sham. On February 7, at a council of war held in the Covington Hotel in Bowling Green, he decided to abandon Western Kentucky by withdrawing Beauregard from Columbus and to evacuate Bowling Green and move his forces south of the Cumberland River at Nashville. Despite his misgivings about its defensibility, he agreed to advice from Beauregard that he should reinforce Donelson with another 12,000 men, knowing that a defeat there would mean the inevitable loss of Middle Tennessee and the vital manufacturing and arsenal city of Nashville.
Johnston wanted to give command of Fort Donelson to Beauregard, who had performed ably at Bull Run, but the latter declined because of a throat ailment. Instead, the responsibility went to Brig. Gen. John B. Floyd, who had just arrived following an unsuccessful assignment under Robert E. Lee in western Virginia. Floyd was a wanted man in the North for graft and secessionist activities as Secretary of War under the administration of President James Buchanan. His background was political, not military, but he was the senior brigadier general on the Cumberland.
On the Union side, Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, Grant's superior as commander of the Department of the Missouri, was also apprehensive. He had authorized Grant to capture Fort Henry, but now he felt that continuing to Donelson was a risky enterprise. And despite Grant's success so far, Halleck had little confidence in his subordinate, considering him reckless. He attempted to convince his own rival, Don Carlos Buell, to take charge of the campaign as a means of getting his additional forces engaged, but despite Johnston's high regard for Buell, he was as passive as Grant was aggressive. Grant never suspected that his superiors were considering relieving him, but he was well aware throughout the campaign that any delay or reversal might be an opportunity for Halleck to lose his nerve and cancel the operation.
On February 6, Grant had wired to Halleck, "Fort Henry is ours. ... I shall take and destroy Fort Donelson on the 8th and return to Fort Henry. This self-imposed deadline was overly optimistic because of three factors: miserable road conditions on the 12-mile march to Donelson; the need to use troops to carry supplies away from the rising flood waters (by February 8, Fort Henry was completely submerged); and damage that had been sustained by Foote's Western Flotilla during the artillery duel at Henry. If he had been able to move that quickly, Grant might have taken Fort Donelson on that day. Early in the morning of February 11, Grant held a council of war in which all of his generals supported his plans for an attack on Donelson, with the exception of McClernand, who had some reservations. This was the last time that Grant held such a council during the Civil War.
The Western Flotilla under U.S. Navy Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote consisted of four ironclad gunboats (flagship USS St. Louis, USS Carondelet, USS Louisville, and USS Pittsburg) and three wooden ("timberclad") gunboats (USS Conestoga, USS Tyler, and USS Lexington). USS Essex and USS Cincinnati had been damaged at Fort Henry and were being repaired.
Floyd's Confederate force of approximately 17,000 men consisted of three divisions, garrison troops, and attached cavalry. The three divisions were commanded by Floyd (replaced by Colonel Gabriel C. Wharton when Floyd took command of the entire force) and Brig. Gens. Bushrod Johnson and Simon Bolivar Buckner. During the battle, Johnson, the engineering officer who had briefly commanded Fort Donelson in late January, was effectively superseded by Brig. Gen. Gideon J. Pillow (Grant's opponent at his first battle, Belmont), who had been displaced from overall command of the fort when the more-senior Floyd arrived. The garrison troops were commanded by Col. John W. Head and the cavalry by Col. Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Fort Donelson was named for Brig. Gen. Daniel S. Donelson, who selected its site and began construction in 1861. It was considerably more formidable than the hapless Fort Henry. It rose about 100 feet (30 m) on dry ground above the Cumberland River, which allowed for plunging fire against attacking gunboats, an advantage Fort Henry did not enjoy. The river batteries included ten 32-pounder smoothbore cannons, a 6.5-inch rifle, and a 10-inch Columbiad. There were three miles (5 km) of trenches in a semicircle around the fort and the small town of Dover. The trenches, located on a commanding ridge and fronted by dense abatis, backed up by artillery, were manned by Buckner and his Bowling Green troops on the right (with his flank anchored on Hickman Creek) and Johnson/Pillow on the left (with his flank near the Cumberland River). Facing them from left to right were Smith, Lew Wallace (arrived February 14), and McClernand. McClernand's right flank, facing Pillow, had insufficient men to reach overflowing Lick Creek, so was left unanchored. Through the center of the Confederate line ran the marshy Indian Creek and this point was defended primarily by artillery overlooking it on each side.
On February 13, several smaller probing attacks were carried out against the Confederate defenses, essentially ignoring orders from Grant that no general engagement be provoked. On the Union left, C.F. Smith sent two of his three brigades (under Cols. Jacob Lauman and John Cook) to test the defenses along his front. The attack suffered few casualties and made no gains, but Smith was able to keep up sniping fire throughout the night. On the right, McClernand also ordered an unauthorized attack. Two regiments of Col. William R. Morrison's brigade, along with one regiment, the 48th Illinois, from Col. W.H.L. Wallace's brigade, were ordered to seize a battery ("Redan Number 2") that had been plaguing their position. Isham N. Haynie, Colonel of the 48th Illinois, was senior in rank to Colonel Morrison. Although rightfully in command of two of the three regiments, Morrison volunteered to turn over command once the attack was under way. When the attack commenced, Morrison was wounded, eliminating any leadership ambiguity, but for some reason Haynie never fully took control and the attack was repulsed. Some wounded men caught between the lines were burned to death by grass fires ignited by artillery.
Although the weather had been mostly only wet up to this point in the campaign, a snow storm arrived the night of February 13, with strong winds that brought temperatures down to 10–12°F (-12°C) and deposited 3 inches (8 cm) of snow by morning. Guns and wagons were frozen to the earth. Because of the proximity of the enemy lines and the active sharpshooters, the soldiers could not light campfires for warmth or cooking, and both sides were miserable that night, many having arrived without blankets or overcoats.
Also on February 14, General Lew Wallace's brigade arrived from Fort Henry around noon and Foote's flotilla arrived, bringing six gunboats and another 10,000 Union reinforcements on twelve transport ships. Wallace assembled these new troops into a third division of two brigades, under Cols. John M. Thayer and Charles Cruft, and occupied the center of the line facing the Confederate trenches. This provided sufficient troops to extend McClernand's right flank to be anchored on Lick Creek, by moving Col. John McArthur's brigade of Smith's division from the reserve to a position from which they intended to plug the 400-yard gap at first light the next morning.
As soon as Foote arrived, Grant urged him to attack the fort's river batteries. Despite his reluctance to proceed before adequate reconnaissance, by 3:00 p.m. Foote moved his gunboats in close to the shore and opened fire, just as he had done at Fort Henry. Waiting until the gunboats were within 400 yards, the Confederate gunners returned fire. The artillery pummelled the fleet. Foote was wounded (ironically in his foot) and the wheelhouse to his flagship, USS St. Louis, carried away. Uncontrollable, she floated helplessly down river. USS Louisville was also disabled and Pittsburg began to take on water. The damage to the fleet was terrific. From a total of 500 Confederate shots, St. Louis was hit 59 times, Carondelet 54, Louisville 36, and Pittsburg 20. Foote had miscalculated following his easy success at Fort Henry. Historian Kendall Gott suggested that it would have been more prudent to stay as far down river as possible, and use the fleet's longer-range guns to reduce the fort. An alternative might have been to run the batteries, probably at night as would be done successfully in the 1863 Vicksburg Campaign; once past the fixed river batteries, Fort Donelson would have been defenseless.
Eight Union sailors were killed and 44 wounded while the Confederates lost none; Captain Joseph Dixon of the river batteries had been killed the previous day during Carondelet's bombardment. 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. Grant realized that any success at Donelson would have to be carried by the army without strong naval support, and he wired Halleck that he might have to resort to a siege.
Despite their unexpected naval success, the Confederate generals were still gloomy about their chances in the fort and held another late-night council of war, deciding to retry their aborted escape plan. On the morning of February 15, the Confederates launched a dawn assault by Pillow against McClernand's division on the still unprotected right flank of the Union line. The Union troops were not caught entirely by surprise because they had been unable to sleep in the cold weather. But one Union officer was surprised—Ulysses S. Grant. Not expecting any land actions that he did not initiate himself, Grant was up before dawn and traveled to visit Flag Officer Foote down river on his flagship. He left orders that none of his generals was to initiate an engagement, and he left no one designated as second-in-command during his absence.
The Confederate 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. A lone regiment from Buckner's division—the 30th Tennessee—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. It was in this attack that Union troops in the West first heard the famous, unnerving rebel yell.
The attack was primarily successful because of the poor positioning of McClernand's troops, and a flanking attack by sometimes-dismounted Confederate cavalry under Forrest. The brigades of Cols. Richard Oglesby and John McArthur were hit hardest; they withdrew in a generally orderly manner to the rear for regrouping and resupply. McClernand sent messengers to obtain assistance from Lew Wallace, but Wallace was reluctant to act without orders from Grant, who was still absent. McClernand's withdrawal had not yet assumed the frantic energy of a rout, but ammunition was running out. (The army of former quartermaster Ulysses S. Grant had not yet learned to organize supply lines effectively, and extra ammunition was not immediately available to these front-line brigades.) A second messenger arrived at Wallace's headquarters in tears, crying "Our right flank is turned! ... The whole army is in danger!" Wallace finally released one of his brigades, under Col. Charles Cruft, to aid McClernand. Cruft's brigade replaced Oglesby's and McArthur's in the line, but as they realized they were being flanked, they too began to fall back.
Not everything was going well with the Confederate advance. By 9:30 a.m., as the lead Union brigades were falling back, Nathan Bedford Forrest urged Bushrod Johnson to launch an all-out attack on these disorganized troops. Johnson was too cautious to approve of a general assault, but he did agree to keep the infantry moving slowly forward. Two hours into the battle, Gen. Pillow realized that Buckner's wing was not attacking alongside his. After a confrontation between the two generals, Buckner's troops moved out and, combined with the right flank of Pillow's wing, hit W.H.L. Wallace's brigade. But this delay of Buckner's provided time for Lew Wallace to reinforce McClernand before he was completely routed. The Confederate offensive stopped around 12:30 p.m., when Col. Thayer's Union troops formed a defensive line on a ridge astride Wynn's Ferry Road. The Confederates assaulted three times unsuccessfully and withdrew to a ridge one half mile (1 km) back. Nevertheless, they had had a good morning. They had pushed the Union defenders back one to two miles (2-3 km) and had opened their escape route.
Grant, who apparently could not hear the sound of battle, eventually was notified by an aide. He galloped 7 miles (11 km) over icy roads to reach Wallace's headquarters by 1:00 p.m. and was dismayed to find the confusion and lack of leadership he had left behind. McClernand grumbled "This army wants a head." Grant replied, "It seems so. Gentlemen, the position on the right must be retaken." But true to his nature, Grant did not panic at the Confederate assault. As he rode back from the river, 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 observed that some of the Confederates (Buckner's) were fighting with knapsacks filled with three days of rations, which implied to him that they were attempting to escape, not pressing for a combat victory. He told an aide, "The one who attacks first now will be victorious. The enemy will have to be in a hurry if he gets ahead of me.
Despite seeing that his attack was successful and his escape route was open, by 1:30 p.m. Pillow believed he should regroup and resupply his wing 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 C.F. Smith's division was being heavily reinforced, ordered the entire force back inside the lines of Fort Donelson.
Grant 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 two-brigade counterattack quickly succeeded in seizing the outer line of entrenchments on the Confederate right, where the 30th Tennessee, commanded by Col. John W. Head, had been left behind from Buckner's division. Despite repeated counterattacks over two hours, the Confederates could not repel Smith from the captured earthworks. The Union was now poised to seize both Fort Donelson and its river batteries when light returned the next morning.
On the Union right, Lew Wallace formed an attacking column with three brigades—one from his own division, one from McClernand's, and one from Smith's. Col. Morgan L. Smith's brigade from C.F. Smith's Division was composed of two regiments formerly commanded by Wallace and it was chosen to lead the attack. The brigades of Cruft (Wallace's Division) and Leonard Ross (McClernand's Division) were placed in support on the flanks. Waiting just a moment for Col. Smith to light a cigar, Wallace ordered the attack forward. Smith's brigade advanced a short distance up the hill, repeatedly rushing and then falling to the ground in the prone position, all the while listening to taunts from Drake's Confederate brigade opposing them. Wallace's troops charged and succeeded in retaking all the ground lost that morning. Smith was on horseback immediately behind his lead regiment and a bullet shot off the cigar close to his mouth, but he coolly replaced it with a fresh one. By nightfall, all of the Confederate troops had been driven back to their original positions. Grant began planning to resume his assault in the morning, although neglecting to close the escape route that Pillow had opened.
Nearly 1,000 soldiers on both sides had been killed, with about 3,000 wounded still on the field; some froze to death in the snowstorm, many Union soldiers having thrown away their blankets and coats.
Generals Floyd and Pillow were somehow happy about the day's performance and wired General Johnston at Nashville that they had won a great victory. Buckner, however, argued that they were in a desperate position that was getting worse because Union reinforcements were arriving. At their final council of war in the Dover Hotel at 1:30 a.m. on February 16, he stated that if C.F. Smith attacked again, he could only hold out 30 minutes, and he estimated that the cost of defending the fort would be 75% casualties. Buckner's defeatism carried the meeting. And large-scale escape would be difficult—most of the river transports were currently transporting wounded men to Nashville and could not return in time.
Floyd came to realize that he was about to be captured and face justice in the North. He turned over his command to General Pillow, who also feared Northern reprisals and gave it in turn to General Buckner, who agreed to remain behind and surrender the army. Pillow escaped by small boat across the Cumberland in the night, Floyd the next morning on a steamer with two regiments of Virginia infantry. Disgusted at this show of cowardice, Nathan Bedford Forrest heatedly said, "I did not come here to surrender my command," and stormed out, leaving with his 700 men. They traveled toward Nashville through the shallow, icy waters of Lick Creek.
On the morning of February 16, Buckner sent a note to Grant requesting an armistice and 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 partly because of a drinking problem, and 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":
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, although objecting to Grant's "ungenerous and unchivalrous terms," shortly surrendered from 12,000 to 15,000 troops and 48 guns, the first of three Confederate armies that Grant captured during the war (the second was John C. Pemberton's 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. Buckner was held as a Union prisoner until he was exchanged in August.
Cannon were fired and church bells rung throughout the North at the news. The Chicago Tribune wrote that "Chicago reeled mad with joy." 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 of volunteers, second in seniority only to Henry W. Halleck in the West. After newspapers reported that he had won the battle with a cigar clamped in his teeth, he was inundated with cigars sent to him by many admirers. Close to a third of all Albert Sidney Johnston's forces were prisoners; Grant had captured more soldiers than all previous American generals combined. Johnston was thereby deprived of over twelve thousand soldiers that could have otherwise provided a decisive advantage at the impending Battle of Shiloh in less than two months time. The rest of Johnston's forces were 200 miles (320 km) 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 evacuated Nashville on February 23, giving this important industrial center to the Union, the first Confederate state capital to fall. Columbus was evacuated on March 2. Most of Tennessee fell under Union control, as did all of Kentucky, although both were subject to periodic Confederate raiding.