The Battle of Fort Donelson was fought from February 11 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 for the invasion of the South. The success elevated Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant from an obscure and largely unproven leader to the rank of major general, earning him the nickname "Unconditional Surrender" Grant in the process (utilizing his first two initials, "U.S.").
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. (Although the name was not yet in use, the troops serving under Grant were the nucleus of the Union's very consequential and successful Army of the Tennessee.) 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 to 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 battle of Fort Donelson took place shortly after the battle of Fort Henry, Tennessee, February 6, 1862, in which Grant and Foote captured the fort and opened the Tennessee River for future Union movements. About 2,500 of the Confederate defenders at Fort Henry escaped before the surrender, marching the 12 miles (19 km) east to Fort Donelson.
The Confederates 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 to defend against the larger opposing Union forces. Nearby Fort Donelson had only about 5,000 men. Union forces 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 following behind Buell. Johnston was apprehensive about the ease with which Union gunboats defeated Fort Henry (not comprehending that the rising Tennessee River played a crucial role as it inundated the fort). Frankly, he was more concerned about the threat from Buell than he was from Grant, suspecting the river operations might simply be a diversion.
Johnston decided upon 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, evacuate Bowling Green, and move his forces south of the Cumberland River at Nashville. Despite his misgivings about its defensibility, Johnston agreed to advice from Beauregard that he should reinforce Fort 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.
Battle of Fort Henry and the movements to Fort Donelson.
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 council in early 1862 was the last one that Grant held for the remainder of the Civil War.
Henry W. Halleck
Ulysses S. Grant
Andrew H. Foote
John A. McClernand
Charles F. Smith
Further information: Fort Donelson order of battle
Grant's Union army of the District of Cairo consisted of three divisions, commanded by Brig. Gens. John A. McClernand, C.F. Smith, and Lew Wallace. (Wallace started as a brigade commander in reserve at Fort Henry, but was summoned to Donelson on February 14 and charged with assembling a new division that included reinforcements arriving by steamship, including Charles Cruft's brigade on loan from Don Carlos Buell.) Supporting the infantry divisions were two regiments of cavalry and eight batteries of artillery, altogether almost 25,000 men, although at the start of the battle, only 15,000 were available.
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.
Albert Sidney Johnston
John B. Floyd
Gideon J. Pillow
Simon B. Buckner
Nathan Bedford Forrest
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.
Preliminary movements and attacks (February 12–13)
On February 12, most of the Union troops departed Fort Henry and proceeded about 5 miles (8 km) on the two main roads leading between the forts. They were delayed most of the day by a cavalry screen commanded by Nathan Bedford Forrest. USS Carondelet was the first gunboat to arrive up the river, and she fired numerous shells into the fort, testing its defenses, before retiring. Grant arrived on February 12 and established his headquarters near the left side of the front of the line, at the Widow Crisp's house.
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 four 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.\
Reinforcements and naval battle (February 14)
At 1:00 a.m. on February 14, Floyd held a council of war in his headquarters, the Dover Hotel, and there was general agreement that Fort Donelson was probably untenable. General Pillow was designated to lead a breakout attempt. Troops were moved behind the lines and the assault readied, but at the last minute a Union sharpshooter killed one of Pillow's aides. Pillow, normally quite aggressive in battle, was unnerved and announced that since their movement had been detected, the breakout had to be postponed. Floyd was furious at this change of plans, but by then it was too late in the day to proceed.
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.
Part of the lower river battery at Fort Donelson, overlooking the Cumberland River.
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.