Jefferson Davis– The Fall of Fort Donelson


When the state of Tennessee seceded, measures were immediately adopted to occupy and fortify all the strong points on the Mississippi, such as Memphis, Randolph, Fort Pillow, and Island No. 10. As it was our purpose not to enter the state of Kentucky and construct defenses for the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers on her territory, they were located within the borders of Tennessee, and as near to the Kentucky line as suitable sites could be found. On these were commenced the construction of Fort Donelson on the west side of the Cumberland, and Fort Henry on the east side of the Tennessee, about twelve miles apart. The latter stood on the low lands adjacent to the river about high-water mark, and, being just below a bend in the river and at the head of a straight stretch of two miles, it commanded the river for that distance. It was also commanded by high ground on the opposite bank of the river, which it was intended should be occupied by our troops in case of a land attack. The power of ironclad gunboats against land defenses had not yet been shown, and the low position of the fort brought the battery to the water level, and secured the advantage of ricochet firing, the most effective against wooden ships.

Fort Donelson was placed on high ground; with the plunging fire from its batteries, it was thereby more effective against the ironclads

brought to attack it on the water side. But on the land side it was not equally strong, and required extensive outworks and a considerable force to resist an attack in that quarter.

In September, 1861, Lieutenant Dixon of the Engineer Corps was instructed to make an examination of the works at the two forts. He reported that Fort Henry was nearly completed. It was built, not at the most favorable position, but it was a strong work, and, instead of abandoning it and building at another place, he advised that it should be completed, and other works constructed on the high lands just above the fort on the opposite side of the river. Measures for the accomplishment of this plan were adopted as rapidly as the means at disposal would allow.

In relation to Donelson, it was his opinion that, although a better position might have been chosen for this fortification on the Cumberland, under the circumstances surrounding the command, it would be better to retain and strengthen the position chosen.

General Polk, in a report to General Johnston just previous to the battle of Shiloh, said: "The principal difficulty in the way of a successful defense of the rivers, was the want of an adequate force-a force of infantry and a force of experienced artillerists." This was the unavoidable result of the circumstances heretofore related, but tells only half of the story. To match the vessels of the enemy (floating forts) we required vessels like theirs, or the means of constructing them. We had neither.

The efforts which were put forth to resist the operations on Western rivers, for which the United States made such vast preparations, were therefore necessarily very limited. There was a lack of skilled labor, of shipyards, and of materials for constructing ironclads, which could not be readily obtained or prepared in a beset and blockaded country. Proposals were considered both for building gunboats and for converting the ordinary side-wheel, high-pressure steamboats into gunboats. But the engineer department, though anxious to avail itself of this means of defense, decided that it was not feasible. There was not plate iron with which to armor a single vessel, and even railroad iron could not be spared from its uses for transportation. Unless a fleet could have been built to match the enemy's we had to rely on land batteries, torpedoes, and marching forces. It was thought best to concentrate the resources on what seemed practicable. One ironclad gunboat, however, the East port-, was undertaken on the Tennessee River, but under so many difficulties that, after the surrender of Fort Henry, while still unfinished, it was destroyed, lest it should fall to the enemy.

The fleet of gunboats prepared by the United States for the Mississippi and its tributaries consisted of twelve, seven of which were irondads and able to resist all except the heaviest solid shot. The boats were built very wide in proportion to their length, so that in the smooth river< waters they might have almost the steadiness of land batteries when discharging their heavy guns. This flotilla carried one hundred forty-three guns, some sixty-four pounders, some thirty-two pounders, and some seven-inch rifled guns carrying eighty-pound shells.

On February 2d General Grant started from Cairo with seventeen thousand men on transports. Commodore Foote accompanied him with seven gunboats. On the 4th the landing of the troops commenced three miles or more below Fort Henry. General Grant took command on the east bank with the main column, while General Charles F. Smith, with two brigades of some five to six thousand men, landed on the left bank, with orders to take the earthwork opposite Fort Henry, known as Fort Hindman. On the th the landing was completed, and the attack was made on the next day. The force of General Tilghman, who was in command at Fort Henry, was about thirty-four hundred men. It is evident that on the 5th he intended to dispute Grant's advance by land; on the 6th, however, before the attack by the gunboats, he changed his purpose, abandoned all hope of a successful defense, and made arrangements for the escape of his main body to Fort Donelson, while the guns of Fort Henry should engage the gunboats. He ordered Colonel Hindman to withdraw the command to Fort Donelson, while he himself would obtain the necessary delay for the movement by use of the battery, and standing a bombardment in Fort Henry. For this purpose he retained his heavy artillery company-seventy-five men-to work the guns, a number unequal to the strain and labor of the defense. 2

Noon was the time fixed for the attack. But Grant, impeded by the overflow of water and unwilling to expose his men to the heavy guns of the fort, held them back to await the result of the gunboat attack. In the meantime the Confederate troops were in retreat. Four ironclads, mounting forty-eight heavy guns, approached and took position within six hundred yards of the fort, firing as they advanced. About half a mile behind these came three unarmored gunboats, mounting twenty-seven heavy guns, which took a more distant position, and kept up a bombardrnent of shells that fell within the works. Some four hundred of the formidable missiles of the ironclad boats were also thrown into the fort. The officers and men inside were not slow to respond, and as many as fifty-nine of their shots were counted as striking the gunboats. On the ironclad Essex a cannon bail ranged her whole length; another shot, passing through the boiler, caused an explosion that scalded her commander, Porter, and many of the seamen and soldiers on board.

Five minutes after the fight began, the twenty-four pounder rifled gun, one of the most formidable in the fort, burst, disabling every man at the piece. Then a shell exploded at the muzzle of one of the thirty-two pounders, ruining the gun, and killing or wounding all the men who served it. About the same moment a premature discharge occurred at one of the forty-two pounder guns, killing three men and seriously injuring others. The ten-inch columbiad, the only gun able to atch the artillery of the assailants, was next rendered useless by a pflming wire that was jammed and broken in the vent. An heroic blacksmith labored for a long time to remove it, under the full fire of the enemy, but in vain. The men became exhausted and lost confidence; Tilghman, sceing this, served in person a thirty-two pounder for some fifteen minutes. Though but four of his guns were disabled, six stood idle for want of artillerists, and but two were replying to the enemy. After an engagement of two hours and ten minutes he ceased firing and lowered his flag. For this soldierly devotion and self-sacrifice the gallant commander and his brave band must be honored while patriotism has an advocate and self-sacrifice for others has a votary. Our casualties were five killed and sixteen wounded; those of the enemy were sixty-three of all kinds. Twelve officers and sixty-three noncommissioned officers and privates were surrendered with the fort. The Tennessee River was thus open, and a base by short lines was established against Fort Donelson.

The next movement was a combined attack by land and water upon Fort Donelson. As has been stated, this fort was situated on the left bank of the Cumberland, near its great bend and about forty miles from the mouth of the river. It was about one mile north of the village of Dover, where the commissary and quartermaster's supplies were in depot. The fort consisted of two water batteries on the hillside, protected by a bastioned earthwork of irregular outline on the summit, enclosing about one hundred acres. The water batteries were admirably placed to sweep the river approaches, with an armament of thirteen guns: eight thirty-two pounders, three thirty-two pound carronade, one ten-inch columbiad, and one rifled gun of thirty-two pound caliber. The field work, which was intended for infantry supports, occupied a plateau about one hundred feet above the river, commanding and protecting the water batteries at close musket range. These works afforded a fair defense against gunboats; they were not, however, designed or adapted for resistance to a land attack or investment by an enemy.

Generals Pillow and Floyd were ordered with their separate commands to Fort Donelson. General Buckner also was sent with a division from Bowling Green, so that the Confederate effective force at the fort during the siege was between fourteen thousand five hundred and fifteen thousand men. The force of General Grant was not less than thirty to thirty-five thousand men. On February 12th he commenced his movement across from Fort Henry, and the investment of Donelson was made without any serious opposition. On the 13th General Buckner reports that "the fire of the enemy's artillery and riflemen was incessant throuhout the day; but was responded to by a well-directed fire from the intrenchments, which inflicted upon the assailant a considerable loss, and almost silenced his fire late in the afternoon." The object of the enemy undoubtedly was to discover the strength and position of our forces. The artillery fire was continued at intervals during the night. Nearly every Confederate regiment reported a few casualties from the shot and shell which frequently fell inside of the works. Meanwhile, a gunboat of thirteen guns arrived in the morning, and, taking a position behind a headland, fired one hundred thirty-eight shots, when our one hundred twenty-eight pound shot crashed through one of her ports, injuring her machinery and crippling her. The enemy's fire did no damage to the fort itself, but a shot disabled a gun and killed Captain Dixon, a valuable engineer, whose loss was greatly deplored.

The weather became cold during the night, and a driving snowstorm prevailed, so that some of the soldiers were frozen, and the wounded between the lines suffered extremely. The fleet of gunboats under Commodore Foote arrived, bringing reenforcements to the enemy. These were landed during the night and the next day, which was occupied with placing them in position. Nevertheless, though no assault was made, a rambling and ineffective fire was kept up. About 3 P. M. the commander of the naval force, expecting an easy victory like that at Fort Henry, brought his four ironclads, followed by two gunboats, up to the attack. Each of the ironclads mounted thirteen guns and the gunboats nine. Any one of them was more than a match for the guns of the fort. Their guns were eight-, nine-, and ten-inch, three in the bow of each. Our columbiad and the rifled gun were the only two pieces effective against the ironclads. The enemy moved directly toward the water batteries, firing with great weight of metal. It was the intention of Commodore Foote to silence these batteries, pass by, and take a position where he could enfilade the fort with broadsides. The gunboats opened at a mile and a half distance, and advanced until within three or four hundred yards. The shot and shell of the fleet tore up the earthworks, but did no further injury. But the Confederate guns, aimed from an elevation of not less than thirty feet by cool and courageous hands, sent their shot with destructive power, and overcame all the enemy's advantages in number and weight of guns. The bolts of our two heavy guns went crashing through iron and massive timbers with resistless force, scattering slaughter and destruction through the fleet. 4 Hoppin, in his Life of Commodore Foote, says:

The Louisville was disabled by a shot, which cut away he rudder-chains, making her totally unmanageable, so that she drifted with the' current out of action. Very soon the St. Louis was disabled by a shot through her pilot-house, rendering her steering impossible, so that she also floated down the river. The other two armored vessels were also terribly struck, and a rifled cannon on the Carondelet burst, so that these two could no longer sustain thc action; and, after fighting for more than an hour, the little fleet was forced to withdraw. The Stt Louis was struck fifty-nine times, the Louisville thirty-six times, the Carondelet twenty-six, the Pittsburg twenty, the four vessels receiving no less than one hundred and forty-one wounds. The fleet, gathering itself together, and rendering mutual help to its disabled members, proceeded to Cairo to repair damages.

The loss of the enemy was fifty-four killed and wounded. The report of Major Gilmer, who laid out these works, says:

Our batteries were uninjured, and not a man in them killed. The repulse of the gunboats closed the operations of the day, except a few scattering shots along the land defenses.

In consequence of reenforcements to the enemy, the plan of operations for the next day was determined by the Confederate generals about midnight. The whole of the left wing of the army, except eight regiments, was to move out of the trenches, attack, turn, and drive the enemy's right until the Wynn's Ferry road, which led to Charlotte through a good country, was cleared, and an exit thus secured.

The troops, moving in the small hours of the night over the icy and broken roads, which wound through the obstructed area of defense made slow progress, and delayed the projected operations. At 4 A. M. on the 15th, Pillow's troops were ready, except one brigade, which came late into action. By six o'clock Baldwin's brigade was engaged with the enemy, only two or three hundred yards from his lines, and the bloody contest of the day had begun. At one o'clock the enemy's right was doubled back. The Wynn's Ferry road was cleared, and it remained only for the Confederates to do one of two things: the first was, to seize the golden moment and, adhering to the original purpose and plan of the sortie, move off rapidly by the route laid open by such strenuous efforts and so much bloodshed; the other depended on the inspiration of a master mind equal to the effort of grasping every elemen of the combat, and which should complete the partial victory by the utter route and destruction of the enemy.

While one or the other alternative seems to have been the only possible safe solution, [says the author of The Life of Genemf Aibert Sidney Johnston the Confederate commander tried neither. A fatal middle policy was suddenly but dubiously adopted, and not carried out. The Spirit of vacillation and divided counsels prevented that unity of action which is essential to success. For seven hours the Confederate battalions had been pushing over rough ground and through thick timber, at each step meeting fresh troops massed, where the discomfited regiments rallied. Hence the vigor of assault slackened, though the wearied troops were still ready and competent to continue their onward movement. Ten fresh regiments, over three thousand men, had not fired a musket. But in tlie turmoil of battle no one knew the relations of any command to the next, or indeed whether his neighbor was friend or foe.

General Buckner had halted, according to the preconcerted plan, to allow the army to pass out by the opened road and to cover their retreat. At this point of the fight, Pillow, finding himself at Hindman's position, heard of (or saw) preparations by General C. F. Smith for an assault on the Confederate right; but, whether he understood this to be the purpose or construed the movement as the signs of a flight, was left uncertain by his language at the time. . .. He ordered the regiments which had been engaged to return to the trenches, and instructed Buckner to hasten to defend the imperiled point. Buckner, not recognizing him as a superior authorized to change the plan of battle, or the propriety of such change, refused to obey, and, after receiving reiterated orders, started to find Floyd, who at that moment joined him. He urged upon Floyd the necessity of carrying out the original plan of evacuation. Floyd assented to this view, and told Buckner to stand fast until he could see Pillow. He then rode back and saw Pillow, and, hearing his arguments, yielded to them. Floyd simply says that he found the movements so nearly executed that it was necessary to complete it. Accordingly, Buckner was recalled. In the mean time, Pillow's right brigades were retiring to their places in the trenches, under orders from the commanders.

The conflict on the left soon ended. Three hundred prisoners, five thousand stand of small arms, six guns, and other spoils of victory, had been won by our forces. But the enemy, cautiously advancing, gradually recovered most of his lost ground. It was about 4 P. M. when the assault on the right was made by General C. F. Smith. The enemy succeeded in carrying the advanced work, which General Buckner considered the key to his position. The loss of the enemy during the siege was four hundred killed, seventeen hundred eighty-five wounded, and three hundred prisoners. Our losses were about three hundred twenty-five killed and one thousand ninety-seven wounded; including those missing, it was estimated at fifteen hundred.

After nightfall a consultation of the commanding officers was held and after a consideration of the question in all its aspects as to what should be done, it was decided that a surrender was inevitable, and that to accomplish its objects it must be made before the assault, which was expected at daylight. General Buckner in his report, says:

I regarded the position of the army as desperate, and that the attempt to extricate it by another battle, in the suffering and exhausted condition of the troops, was almost hopeless. The troops had been worn down with watching, with labor, with fighting. Many of them were frosted by the cold, all of them were suffering and exhausted by their incessant labors. There had been no regul issue of rations for several days, and scarcely any means of cooking. The ammunition was nearly expended. We were completely invested by a force fully four times the strength of our own.

The decision to surrender having been made, it remained to determine by whom it should be made. Generals Floyd and Pillow declared they would not surrender and become prisoners; the duty was therefore allotted to General Buckner. Floyd said, "General Buckner, if I place you in command, will you allow me to draw out my brigade?" General Buckner replied, "Yes, provided you do so before the enemy act upon my communication." Floyd said, "General Pillow, I turn over the command." General Pillow, regarding this as a mere technical form by which the command was to be conveyed to Buckner, then said, "I pass it." Buckner assumed the command, sent for a bugler to sound the parley, for pen, ink, and paper, and opened the negotiations for surrender.

There were but two roads by which it was possible for the garrison to retire. If they went by the upper road, they would certainly have to cut through the main body of the enemy; if by the lower road, they would have to wade through water three feet deep. This, the medical director stated, would be death to more than one half the command, on account of the severity of the weather and their physical prostration.

To cut through the enemy, if effected, would, it was supposed, involve the loss of three-fourths of the command, a sacrifice which, it was conceded, would not be justifiable.

The enemy had, in the conflict of the preceding day, gained possession of our rifle pits on the right flank, and General Buckner, an experienced soldier, held that the fort would immediately fall when the enemy attacked in the morning. General Pillow dissented from this conclusion, believing that the fort could be defended until boats could be obtained to convey the garrison across the river, and also advocated an attempt to cut through the investing lines of the enemy. Being overruled on both points, he announced his determination to leave the post by any means available, so as to escape a surrender, and he advised Colonel N. B. Forrest, who was present, to go out with his cavalry regiment, and any others he could take with him through the overflow. General Floyd's brigade consisted of two Virginia regiments and one Mississippi regiment; these, as before mentioned, it was agreed that General Floyd might withdraw before the surrender. Two of the field officers, Colonel Russell and Major Brown of the Mississippi regiment, the twentieth, had been officers of the First Mississippi Riflemen in the war with Mexico; the twentieth, their present regiment, was reputed to be well instructed and under good discipline. This regiment was left to be surrendered with the rest of the garrison, under peculiar circumstances, of which Major Brown, then commanding, gives the following narrative:

About twelve o'clock of the night previous to the surrcnder, I received an order to report in person at headquacters. On arriving I met Colonel N. B. Forrest, who remarked: "I have been looking for you; they are going to surrender this place, and I wanted you with your command to go out with me, but they have other orders for you." On entering the room, Generals Floyd and Pillow also informed me of the proposed proceedings. General Floyd ordered me to take possession of the steamboat-landing with my command; that he had reserved the right to remove his brigade; that, after having guarded the landing, my command should be taken aboard the boat; the Virginia regiments, first crossing to the other side of the river, could make their way to Clarksville.

I proceeded at once with my command to the landing; there was no steamboat there, but I placed my regiment in a semicircular line so as to cover the landing-place. About daylight the steamer came down, landed, and was soon loaded with the two Virginia regiments, they passing through my ranks. At the same time the General and staff, or persons claiming to belong to the staff, passed aboard. The boat, being a small one, was considerably crowded. While the staging of the boat was being drawn aboard, General Floyd hallooed to me, from the "hurricane-roof," that he would cross the river with the troops aboard and return for my regiment. But, about the time of the departure of the boat, General S. B. Buckner came and asserted that he had turned over the garrison and all the property at sunrise; that, if the boat was not away immediately, he would be charged by the enemy with violating the terms of the surrender. I mention this incident as furnishing, I suppose, the reason why my regiment was left on the bank of the river.

Sorrowfully I gave the necessary orders to stack arms and surrender. . .

Both morally and materially the disaster was a severe blow to us. Many, wise after the event, have shown their skill in telling what all knew afterward, but nobody told before.