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Fort Donelson

Fort Donelson was the first significant Union victory of the American Civil War. It also elevated Union general U.S. Grant from a questionable, largely unproven leader with a reputation for drunkeness to the rank of major general and the nickname "Unconditional Surrender" Grant.

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Introductory material

The battle of Fort Donelson took place from February 12-16, 1862, shortly after the battle of Fort Henry, Tennessee[?], also a Union victory under then-brigadier general Grant.

After their loss of Fort Henry, the Confederates faced some disagreeable choices. The forces of General Grant were now between Confederate general Joe Johnston's[?] two main forces. Fort Henry had been lost, and the railroad south of it had been cut. The Union might attack Columbus, Tennessee[?]; they might attack Fort Donelson and thence Nashville, Tennessee, or Grant and General Buell[?] might attack Johnston head-on, Grant from behind, Buell from in front.

None was a pleasant choice to the Confederates. They could defend Fort Donelson, after which, if successful, they could re-take the poorly-constructed Fort Henry, or they could abandon Kentucky to defend the important factories and depots at Nashville. They decided to make a stand at Donelson.

Joe Johnston gave Confederate General John Floyd[?] command at Donelson, whose dubious most recent service for the Confederate Army was to lose Western Virginia to Union general George McClellan, which became the Union state of West Virginia in 1863 in a constitutionally questionable move by Union president Abraham Lincoln. Floyd was a wanted man in the North, for graft and secessionist activities as Secretary of War under the administration of the notoriously corrupt President James Buchanan. Johnston gave him an additional 12,000 men, retreated the rest of his force to Nashville to stop an expected Union attack there.

General U.S. Grant and Union general Andrew H. Foote[?] had more trouble than they expected in the taking of Donelson, and did not catch Floyd.

The fort had twelve heavy guns about 100 feet above the Cumberland River[?], and three miles of trenches around the fort, which was more of a stockade[?] than a fort.

The battle

Initial Union probing attacks on February 13 were repulsed, but on Februrary 14, another ten thousand Union reinforcements arrived, and six gunboats, four of them ironclads. The ironclads approached too close to the fort, enabling the Confederates to pummel them. Crippled, they drifted downstream; fifty-four Union sailors were killed or wounded while the Confederates lost nothing.

However, on land the Confederates were surrounded by well-armed Union soldiers, and while the Union boats had been wounded, they still controlled the Cumberland river.

On the morning of February 15, the Confederates launched an defense from their own left against the over-ambitious and glory-hungry Union general John A. McClernand[?]'s rash attack by his division on the Union right. The Union was caught off-guard, but the Confederates failed to capitalize on their advantage.

True to his nature, U.S. Grant did not panic at the Confederate assault. He ordered a counterattack the next day; the lost ground was soon re-taken. By morning, Union artillery was scowling down on the Confederate fort.

But nearly 1000 soldiers on both sides had been killed with about three thousand wounded still on the field; many froze to death in a snowstorm, many Union soldiers having thrown away their blankets and coats, now swearing at the "sunny south."

General Floyd expected a Confederate loss, and to be captured and face justice in the North. He gave command to the indecisive General Gideon Pillow[?], who gave it to the somewhat cautious General Simon Buckner[?]; Floyd escaped down the Cumberland in the night; Pillow also escaped.

Disgusted at this show of cowardice, Confederate cavalry general Nathan Bedford Forrest heatedly said, "I did not come here to surrender my command," and stormed out, leaving with his 700 men and not encountering a single Yankee at Donelson.

Preparatory to the next two paragraphs, we must point at that in 1854 Grant had lost a command in California in part due to his fondness for the bottle, and now-Confederate General Buckner had loaned him money to get home after his resignation. Buckner expected some mercy from Grant. But Grant would shortly show he had no mercy towards men who had rebelled against the Union.

In the morning of February 16, Buckner sent a note to Grant requesting terms of surrender. Union General U.S. Grant's reply was one of the most famous quotes to come out of the war, giving him his nickname of "Unconditional Surrender"; in part:

Sir: Yours of this date proposing Armistice, and appointment of Commissioners, to settle terms of Capitulation is just received. No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.

I propose to move immediately upon your works.

I am Sir: very respectfully
Your obt. sevt.
U.S. Grant
Brig. Gen.

Buckner shortly surrendered his twelve to thirteen thousand troops, the first of two Confederate armies that Grant would capture in their entirety in the West (The second at Battle of Vicksburg; though they were paroled).


Cannons were fired and church bells rang throughout the North at the news. Grant was promoted to major general, second in command to only Henry Halleck[?] in the West. Close to a third of Joe Johnston's forces were prisoners; Grant had captured more Confederates than all previous Union generals combined. The rest of Johnston's forces were 200 miles apart between Nashville and Columbus with Grant's army between them controlling all rivers and railroads. General Buell's army was threatening Nashville while John Pope[?] was threatening Columbus. Johnston shortly evacuated Nashville, soon giving this important industrial center to the Union, the first Confederate state capital to fall. The lion's share of Tennessee fell under Union contrtol, as did all of Kentucky, though both were subject to periodic Confederate raiding.

Ultimately, after the fall of Vickburg on July 4 1863, and Port Hudson on July 9 1863, the entire Mississippi Valley was in Union hands.

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