With Kentucky’s decision to not join the Confederacy, southern military leaders were forced to create key defensive positions along the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, south of the Kentucky border. Forts Henry, Heiman, and Donelson were devised to protect western Tennessee from Union forces using the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers as approach avenues. Unfortunately for the Confederacy, there were few good locations to choose from along the two rivers.
Henry Halleck approved Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s plan to move swiftly to attack Fort Henry before Confederate reinforcements could arrive. As Grant’s two divisions began their march south, gunboats under the command of Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote proceeded down river to attack the Confederate forts on the Tennessee. In a swift, violent exchange of gunfire, Forts Heiman and Henry quickly fell to the Union gunboats on February 6, 1862.
Now consolidated around the two former Confederate forts on the Tennessee River, Grant was determined to move quickly on the much larger Fort Donelson, located on the nearby Cumberland River. Grant’s boast that he would capture Donelson by the 8th of February quickly ran into challenges. Poor winter weather, late-arriving reinforcements, and difficulties in moving the ironclads to the Cumberland, all delayed Grant’s departure for Donelson.
Despite being fairly convinced that no earthen fort could withstand the power of the Union gunboats, Confederate Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston allowed the garrison at Fort Donelson to remain and even sent new commanders and reinforcements to the site. On February 11th, Johnston appointed Brig. Gen. John B. Floyd as the commander of Fort Donelson and the surrounding region. 17,000 Confederate soldiers, combined with improved artillery positions and earthworks convinced Floyd that a hasty retreat was unnecessary.
By February 13th, most of Grant’s Union soldiers had arrived in the vicinity of Fort Donelson and had begun to arrange themselves around the landward side of the fort. Several inches of snowfall and a cold winter wind sent shivers through both armies. With Grant’s reinforced army now blocking a landward exit, the Confederate forces knew that they would have to fight their way to freedom.
On February 14, 1862, Foote’s ironclads moved upriver to bombard Fort Donelson. The subsequent duel between Foote’s “Pook Turtles” and the heavy guns at Fort Donelson led to a Union defeat on the Cumberland. Many of Foote’s ironclads were heavily damaged and Foote himself was wounded in the attack. Grant’s soldiers could hear the Confederate cheers as the Union gunboats retreated.
While Grant was now contemplating an extended siege, the Confederate leaders had devised a bold plan to move all the forces they could to the Union right and to force open a path of escape. Early on the morning of February 15th, the Confederate assault struck the Union right and drove it back from its positions on Dudley’s Hill. Brig. Gen. John McClernand’s division attempted to reform their lines, but the ongoing Rebel attacks continued to drive his forces to the southeast. Disaster loomed for the Union army.
But in what would become one of the oddest and most improbable acts on any Civil War battlefield, Confederate Brig. Gen. Gideon Pillow, sensing a complete victory over the Union forces, ordered the attacking force back to their earthworks, thereby abandoning the hard-fought gains of the morning.
Grant, who had hurriedly returned to the front, ordered Brig. Gen. Lew Wallace and McClernand to retake their lost ground and then rode to the Union left to order an attack upon the Confederate works opposite Charles Smith’s division. Grant reasoned, correctly, that the Confederate right must be greatly reduced in strength given the heavy Confederate assault on their left. Smith’s division surged up to the works and overwhelmed the one Confederate regiment holding an extended line. Capturing large stretches of the Confederate earthworks, Smith’s division was stopped only by the onset of darkness.
During the night of the 15th and 16th, Confederate leaders discussed their options. Despite many disagreements, it was determined that surrender was the only viable option for the Confederate army. Generals Floyd and Pillow managed to make various excuses and crossed the river to safety. Lt. Col. Nathan Bedford Forrest, disgusted with the Confederate decision to surrender, took his cavalrymen and escaped down the Charlotte Road. Even with these defections, more than 13,000 Confederate soldiers remained at Donelson.
With a Union attack poised to strike Fort Donelson, the Federal soldiers were surprised to see white flags flying above the Confederate earthworks. Brig. Gen. Simon B. Buckner, now left in command, met with Ulysses S. Grant to determine the terms of surrender. Buckner, who was hoping for generous terms from his old West Point friend, was disappointed to get Grant’s response. “No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.” The great Union victory at Fort Donelson, and Grant’s uncompromising demand brought an avalanche of acclaim to the Brig. General from Point Pleasant, Ohio.
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