On 13 February 1862, Union commanding General U.S. Grant’s positioning was complete and the time had come to attack Fort Donelson. The Union forces had spent the 12th of February closing in from Fort Henry and exchanging picket fire with the Confederates manning the earthen works of Fort Donelson. The gunboats had also spent the 12th testing the river batteries and found them tough, but assumed they could be taken as Fort Henry’s had been.
A False Start
On the morning of 13 February 1862, Grant meant to have a simultaneous push along the right and left, but General John A. McClernand had jumped the gun and got manhandled by the Confederates, led by General Gideon Pillow. A push on the other side by General C.F. Smith was more disciplined and originally successful, but met with the same fate at the hands of General Simon Bolivar Buckner’s troops. Overnight, a snow and ice storm befell the area and the lines woke on the 14th to a white landscape, ice laden trees and wounded who had died from exposure overnight.
Commodore Foote’s Gunboats
On 14 February 1862, Commodore Andrew Foote was to unleash his gunboats on the Fort Donelson river batteries just like he had at Fort Henry. However, Donelson was not Henry. Fort Donelson’s batteries were on tiered bluffs overlooking the Cumberland River, which gave them great range and an enviable angle of fire up close. This was to prove decisive. Foote was to preclude the ground assault with a show of force and hopefully take out the batteries. Foote came on and made considerable progress, until the flotilla got close enough for the Confederate gunners to zero in. When very close, the Donelson guns were firing right down on the Yankee ships, delivering devastating blows. Virtually the entire flotilla lost navigation capabilities due to direct hits and were floating helplessly down stream. Foote was seriously injured and many were dead. Donelson would not be another Henry. The overall Rebel commander, General John B. Floyd, was ecstatic, because his original mission was to slow down the Yankee advance long enough to let Rebel troops in Bowling Green, Kentucky retreat to Nashville unhindered and this he had accomplished. His follow-on mission would drive the course of the battle, though.
Fight in the Snow and Ice
Grant now had to face the very real possibility that his confidence in taking Donelson was misplaced. The next day would be critical, but not in the way Grant expected. On 15 December 1862, Grant had to go meet Foote as the Navy man was too injured to travel to Grant. As Grant left, he left explicit instructions not to engage with the Confederates in the belief that the Confederates would not dream of attacking. Grant met with Foote and asked for whatever force Foote could give the following day to keep the batteries busy, whilst he attacked on land. As Grant rode back on the icy roads, he got news that McClernand was under pressure on the right. The fight was on, but not at Grant’s bidding.
The Confederate leadership of Floyd, Buckner and Pillow had querulously decided to attempt a breakout around Dover. Buckner was to provide a rear guard, Pillow, with the help of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Cavalry, would push McClernand out of the way, then Floyd would lead the vanguard to Nashville. Pillow and Buckner would then retreat under fire and provide cover for Floyd.
Pillow’s and Forrest’s push on McClernand was what the reports Grant was receiving were all about. Grant made his way forward and heard that the Rebels were carrying 3 days of rations on them. This told him that they were trying to breakout. Grant immediately ordered re-enforcements to McClernand and also told Smith to attack Buckner’s rear guard with force. Smith put such pressure on Buckner that Pillow had to send some help to stave off a collapse of the rear. Pillow thought this was OK, because he and Forrest had opend the road near Dover for a retreat. However, as the Rebels settled back into their positions after opening the road, a stasis developed. As the intitative ebbed away, Floyd, Pillow and Buckner traded turns in being optimistic, pessimistic and openly hostile to each other.
Unconditional Surrender Grant Takes Fort Donelson
Floyd was a deer in the headlights now. Finally, Pillow wanted to hold the position and Buckner wanted to ram the forces through the hole created during the day. Floyd lost nerve and decided to hold the position. The day ended in much the same position as it had began with the notable exception of some of Smith’s unit occupying some of the ridge line near the fort, putting artillery in range of the main fort. It might have continued that way had Pillow and Floyd stuck around, but both were former Federal officials and feared being tried for treason if caught. So, under the cover of darkness, they caught the first thing steaming to Nashville. A small number of Confederate troops also got up river that night. Forrest, who was disgusted by the trio of Generals, stomped out and took his cavalry command across a swollen stream and into the Tennessee darkness. Buckner was left in charge and immediately drafted a request for terms to send to his old friend, Grant. Buckner was probably hoping for some leniency based on his previous relationship with Grant. The request reached Grant in the early morning and he responded with what was to make him famous, “No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.” Buckner called him “unchivalrous,” but accepted the terms anyway.
Grant Takes Fort Donelson Motorcycle Ride Recommendation
This is my home ride and I recommend it as one of the most beautiful rides anywhere. It splits the the Land Between the Lakes from North to South. Along the way, you will pass the Homeplace 1850s Working Farm and Living History Museum which gives you a good feel for how the people lived in that area in that era. Finish off the ride with a visit to Fort Campbell, KY, home of the 101st Airborne Division’s Don F. Pratt Museum and a little WWII to modern era military history.