Battle of Fort Donelson - Reinforcements and Naval Assault

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.

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.

Other Names: None

Location: Stewart County

Campaign: Federal Penetration up the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers (1862)

Date(s): February 11-16, 1862

Principal Commanders: Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Flag-Officer A.H. Foote [US]; Brig. Gen. John B. Floyd, Brig. Gen. Gideon Pillow, and Brig. Gen. Simon B. Buckner [CS]

Forces Engaged: Army in the Field [US]; Fort Donelson Garrison [CS]

Estimated Casualties: 17,398 total (US 2,331; CS 15,067)

Description: After capturing Fort Henry on February 6, 1862, Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant advanced cross-country to invest Fort Donelson. On February 16, 1862, after the failure of their all-out attack aimed at breaking through Grant’s investment lines, the fort’s 12,000-man garrison surrendered unconditionally. This was a major victory for Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and a catastrophe for the South. It ensured that Kentucky would stay in the Union and opened up Tennessee for a Northern advance along the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. Grant received a promotion to major general for his victory and attained stature in the Western Theater, earning the nom de guerre “Unconditional Surrender.”

Result(s): Union victory

CWSAC Reference #: TN002

Preservation Priority: I.1 (Class A)