On a frigid day in February 1862, Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant accepted the surrender of Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River in Tennessee. That victory, combined with Grant’s success in reducing Fort Henry on the Tennessee River a week earlier, brought the general’s name into the national headlines and more importantly opened the state of Tennessee and the Rebel heartland to riverborne invasion. Grant’s victories proved the Rebels could not hold their vast borders tight against Union advances.
The campaign began in late January when Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck ordered Grant to lead his 25,000 infantrymen on land from Cairo, Ill., while Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote’s gunboats pushed up the Tennessee River against Fort Henry. The gunboats overwhelmed the poorly placed stronghold, which had been flooded by the rain-swollen Tennessee, on February 4.
Confederate authorities were convinced that Fort Donelson, 12 miles east of Fort Henry on the Cumberland River, would soon fall—forcing Rebel troops to pull out of Kentucky and abandon Nashville. It was imperative for the Southerners that Donelson hold out long enough for the Confederate army at Bowling Green, Ky., to make its way out of the state and over the Cumberland River at Nashville.
Grant’s army posed a threat, however, for which Confederates gathered at Fort Donelson were ill prepared. The fort itself was strongly built, but the defense suffered from a poor and confused triumvirate of leaders.
Brig. Gen. John B. Floyd had overall command, while Brig. Gens. Gideon J. Pillow and Simon B. Buckner command Floyd’s divisions. Also in the mix was Brig. Gen. Bushrod Johnson, an Ohio native who chose to fight for the South and had been placed in command of Donelson shortly before the battle, only to be superseded within hours by Pillow. Pillow relinquished overall command himself upon Floyd’s arrival.
Grant’s army began the muddy slog toward Donelson on the morning of February 12 with 15,000 men. The Confederates could have made things more miserable, but they offered no serious opposition until he was near the fort. By evening Grant’s force faced about 16,000 Confederates entrenched along the rolling hills west of the fort and the village of Dover.
Fighting began on February 13, when the Rebel defenders repulsed Union sorties by the divisions of Brig. Gens. John A. McClernand and Charles F. Smith.
That night, a storm raged that brought temperatures well below freezing and dumped three inches of snow on the shivering soldiers. The tempest also rendered useless the outdated flintlock muskets carried by some of Donelson’s defenders, dampening the guns’ vital priming powder.
As the wind howled, Floyd and his commanders met at around 1 a.m. February 14 in the Dover Hotel to decide what to do. So far, things had gone fairly well for the Confederates, and Floyd proposed that Pillow, who had assumed command of Johnson’s left wing, lead a breakout attack against McClernand’s vulnerable right flank near the River Road.
As preparations began for that onslaught, Foote’s gunboats steamed up the Cumberland River to attack the fort. The Union commander was confident of repeating his Henry success, but it was not to be. Unlike Henry, Donelson was on elevated ground and Foote’s flotilla had trouble raising its guns high enough to have much effect. The Rebel defenders, meanwhile, hammered the Federals with approximately 500 shells, disabling two gunboats and wounding Foote.
One shot hit USS Carondelet, recalled Commander Henry Walke, and “beheaded two seaman and cut another in two.” The Federal boats meekly headed back downriver. It would be up to the frozen Union groundpounders to take the fort.
Pillow’s first breakout attempt meanwhile, had misfired. The general lost his nerve when an aide was killed, and called off the attack. An angry Floyd ordered Pillow to try again, and the effort finally went off on the morning of February 15.
The Confederates, at least happy to be out of their frigid lines and on the move, surged over McClernand’s flank and wheeled to the right, barreling down the Union line screaming the notorious Rebel Yell.
The musketry was “deafening,” an Ohioan recalled, and he saw wounded Federals “pouring toward us in streams from all directions.” Grant and his men had been caught largely by surprise.
Floyd had planned to have Buckner’s men shift to cover Pillow’s troops and act as a rearguard while the Donelson garrison slipped away eastward. Buckner’s infantry moved forward, but too slowly to capitalize on Pillow’s success—to the chagrin of Rebel cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest
Then, at about 1:30 p.m., both Pillow and Floyd pushed the panic button and ordered their men back to their lines. Grant moved quickly to seize on the Rebel uncertainty, ordering Foote to bombard Donelson, and C.F. Smith and Lew Wallace to launch counterattacks. By nightfall, the Federals had recovered their lost ground and overrun the outer line of Rebel works on the right. The next day, after a final council of war, the Confederates surrendered. Floyd and Pillow slipped away, leaving Buckner holding the bag. Forrest, meanwhile, disgusted with his superiors, refused to surrender and led his 700 troopers on a daring escape down the banks of the Cumberland to Nashville.
Grant demanded “unconditional surrender” of the fort and Buckner’s unlikely command, and got it. Admirers used the phrase as a nickname that played on his initials.
Some 12,000 Confederates became prisoners at Donelson. Buckner was exchanged a few months later and returned to fight at Perryville, Chickamauga and in the Trans-Mississippi Theater. Johnson, though a general, managed to avoid detection and slipped away from captivity two days later. He served the remainder of the war and was with Robert E. Lee’s army during the Appomattox Campaign.
Confederate President Jefferson Davis immediately ordered Floyd discharged from the Army; Floyd died the following August. Pillow was given command of a brigade at the Battle of Stones River that December, but served mostly in an administrative capacity thereafter.
With the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers now open as Union invasion routes, the Confederates were soon forced to relinquish Nashville. With the war not even a year old, the Confederacy had already lost one of its key capital cities.
Lee White is a ranger at the Chickamauga-Chattanooga National Military Park. He is the author of several essays and articles.
Originally published in the January 2012 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.