Fort Donelson, Tennessee, guarding the Cumberland River, became the site of the first major Confederate defeat in the Civil War. Victory at Donelson started Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant on his road to Appomattox and the White House. His cool judgment under pressure saved the day after the Confederates threatened to break his troop lines, yet errors by his opponents handed him a victory that he did not fully earn on his own. Possession of the better part of two states vital to the South depended on the outcome of the battle at Fort Donelson.
When war began in April 1861, Kentucky declared its neutrality, in response to deep conflicts of opinion among its citizens. Considering neutrality impossible to maintain, North and South maneuvered for position once Kentucky was opened to military operations. The Confederates constructed fortifications on both the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers just south of the Kentucky line. They built Fort Henry on the Tennessee River, on ground susceptible to flooding, but chose higher ground for Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River.
Both sides wanted Kentucky but recognized that the first to cross its borders risked losing popular support. Confederate Brigadier General Gideon J. Pillow rashly seized Columbus, Kentucky, on the Mississippi River bluffs, a move that appalled President Jefferson Davis, who first ordered Pillow to withdraw, then allowed him to stay when he realized that the deed could not be reversed. Grant, commanding at Cairo, Illinois, then occupied Paducah at the mouth of the Tennessee and Smithland at the mouth of the Cumberland, strategic points neglected by General Gideon Pillow.
In November Grant tested Confederate strength at Columbus by landing troops across the Mississippi River at Belmont, Missouri. The drawn battle that followed sent him back to Cairo still eager to advance, but not necessarily along the Mississippi River. Knowing of the poor location of Fort Henry, he wanted to use Union gunboats to advantage, and foresaw that the fall of Fort Henry would open the Tennessee River as far north as Alabama. Winning reluctant permission from his superior, Major General Henry W. Halleck, Grant moved south in early February.
The flooded Fort Henry fell to the gunboats on February 6, 1862 and most of the garrison fled to Fort Donelson, which was eleven miles away. Grant then followed, after sending the gunboats back down the Tennessee and over to the Cumberland. In St. Louis, Halleck, a “military bureaucrat par excellence”, took no official insight of Grants plans. If Grant captured Fort Donelson, Halleck would assume credit; if Grant failed, he would avoid responsibility. Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston, overall commander in the west, concentrated his troops at Fort Donelson, anticipating the loss of Nashville if Donelson fell.
Torn between defending and abandoning the fort, Johnston took a middle course that led to disaster. He was criticized later for sending so many troops to Donelson with out sending his whole force and taking command himself. By the time Grant arrived, with approximately 15, 000 men. Donelson held nearly 21,000, including at least two generals too many. Brigadier General John B. Floyd, who was commanding Donelson, had been a former secretary of war in the cabinet of President James Buchanan and was widely suspected by northerners of transferring arms and munitions southward before the rebellion broke out.
Pillow, the second-in-command, had little respect from his own men and contempt from Grant. Third in line but first in ability was Brigadier General Simon B. Buckner, the only professional soldier of the three. Fort Donelson consisted of earthworks surrounding abut fifteen acres, where the garrison lived in huts. Two batteries outside the fort commanded the river, and about two miles of fortifications, protecting both the artillery encampment and the nearby hamlet of Dover, stretched from Hickman Creek on the right to Lick Creek on the left. The creeks, flooded in February, protected both flanks.
Confederate officers and engineers had complained continuously of shortages of men and supplies to complete the fortifications, but Federal forced encountered formidable earthworks fronted by trees fell, tangled, and sharpened to obstruct the attack. Grant advanced on February 12, and began to encircle Fort Donelson the next day, ordering Brigadier General Charles F. Smiths division to investigate the Confederate right, commanded by Buckner, and Brigadier General John A. McClenands division to investigate the Confederate left, under Brigadier General Bushrod R. Johnson.
Grant found the Confederate lines too strong and well positioned for assault. Relying on this strength, however, the Confederates permitted Union troops to complete a virtual encirclement, leaving only a small gap on their right, and to select high ground for their base. If Grants boldness had been matched by his opponents, they might have struck Union troops as they marched on two separate roads to Donelson, or the Confederates might have counterattacked at Donelson while they had superior numbers and Grant lacked naval support.
However, they did not. Flag Officer Andrew H. Footes gunboat fleet arrived late at night, carrying fresh troops, and a division commanded by Brigadier General Lewis Wallace marched from Fort Henry. Ultimately, Grants army numbered 27,000. Both armies froze when overnight temperatures unexpectedly fell to twelve degrees Fahrenheit. On February 14, Foote tested the water batteries with six warships, four of the ironclads, and the batteries prevailed, inflicting heavy damage on the flotilla. Although heavily outgunned, artillerists found the range when the gunboats came to close, and the fleet suffered too much to resume the assault.
The next mooring Grant consulted Foote on his flagship, where he lay immobilized by a would inflicted by the Confederate batteries. While they discussed their next move, Pillow struck the Union right with devastating force. Buckners line was denuded as the Confederates massed troops to break free of encirclment. McClernands right began to roll back on the center, until reinforcements from Wallace halted the victorious Confederates. Why the fighting diminished, Pillow held the Forge Road, leading to Nashville.
Pillow had tow sound choices; to press the attack to consolidate victory or to break free of Grants grip by evacuating Fort Donelson. Inexplicable, he reflected both and withdrew his original line. Stung by the morning offensive, the Union stoops were confused and demoralized until Grant returned. Inspecting the haversacks of fallen Confederates, which contained rations for three days, Grant concluded that the assault represented a desperate effort to escape and ordered his troops to press the enemy.
Smiths division was successful against Buckners weakened line, which put U. S. oops inside the Confederate fortifications. Otherwise, the three days of fighting had left the armies close to their initial positions. Grants reinforcements, however, were much exaggerated in the Confederate imagination, and Floyd and Pillow had squandered their only opportunity to evacuate. During the evening of February 15, the Confederate commanders planned the surrender. Floyd relinquished command to Pillow and Pillow to Buckner. The top brass slipped away by water with about 2,000 men. Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest led his cavalry and a few infantry safely by land to Nashville.
When Buckner asked Grant to appoint commissioners to negotiate the terms of surrender, Grant responded that “no terms except an immediate surrender can be accepted. ” Denouncing this as a response as “ungenerous and unchivalrous,” Buckner surrendered anyway. Meeting later at the Dover Hotel, Buckner told his old friend and military academy schoolmate that if he had held command, Union forces would not have encircled Donelson so easily. Grant answered that if Buckner had been in command, he (Grant) would gave chosen different tactics.
Grant lost 2,832 who where killed or wounded. Floyd about 2,000, but Grant took over about 15,000 prisoners, 48 artillery pieces, and other war material the South could not afford to lose. The Confederates fell back from Kentucky and from much of middle Tennessee, abandoning Nashville. Grant won fame and promotion, while both Floyd and Pillow lost command. Robert E. Lees later successes in Virginia obscured the significance of Fort Donelson as the first step toward the Confederate loss of the west, which spelled doom for the new nation.