Battles and campaigns

The Fort Donelson Campaign of February 1862 - Grant Wins His Spurs

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by Miles Thomson

 

It is tricky to know how to write up my talk in the space available. There is quite a lot already extant about the actual fighting around the forts, but how did it all come about? There is also a fair amount written about the various personalities and there is an argument that it is a bit of a waste of space to regurgitate it here. On the other hand there are quite a few seemingly minor aspects of the campaign which I have come across, less well known than the main action round the two forts, which are interesting but again space is against me, But for someone with time on their hands there are opportunities for what school timetables used to describe as "private study"! Interestingly I have already had enquiries as to possible sources of information on The Phelps Raid.

 


I reckon we are all pretty familiar with the topography and man made features of the area of operations so here I only list the basics. The roads in the region were poor, and frankly not all that significant, the railways were important, especially the East - West links for the Confederacy. The rivers, however, were of absolute prime importance, the Mississippi of course, but of more significance to this campaign, the Tennessee and the Cumberland, both flowing from deep in Confederate territory and thus affording, for anybody with boat and an engine, easy access into Confederate territory.

 

The neutrality of Kentucky was also hugely significant, both the Confederacy and the US were poised to occupy the state, which was slightly seething internally, and claim it as one of theirs. But neither of wanted to be the first to "violate Kentucky 's neutrality".

 

1861 - Introduction to the Theatre

 

In 1861 military operations in the Western Theatre got off to a slow start, well actually operations everywhere in 1861 got off to a slow start; don't forget that 1 st Bull Run was not until half way through the year on 21 st July. In the West Price and McCulloch killed Nathaniel Lyon and dispersed his little army at Wilson's Creek on Missouri on the 10th of August. Price is then free to pretty much run riot in southern Missouri.

 

On 6th September Polk blinks first and occupies and fortifies Columbus in the Kentucky bank of the Mississippi. Actually Pillow had entered it just beforehand incurring the ire of Jefferson Davis who nevertheless realised that what had been done could not be undone. Kentucky is now open to all comers. Grant, a Brigadier General of just over two months standing, now appears on the scene and in a characteristically direct move occupies Paducah also in Kentucky effectively checkmating Polk's move.

 

On 9th November Halleck is appointed commander of the Department of Missouri replacing the corrupt and ineffective Fremont. To the east of Halleck's Department, Don Carlos Buell commands the Department of the Ohio, relieving Sherman who has had a nervous breakdown. The two Department Commanders were given broadly similar missions by Washington. They are both to hold US territory and also to consider advancing into the Confederacy. Halleck is invited to think about the Mississippi, and Buell to consider Eastern Tennessee with its US sympathisers. At first Halleck has his hands full sorting out Fremont's mess, additionally he is nervous of Grant who just a couple of days before Halleck assumed command, had made a river borne raid South from Cairo to Belmont in the Missouri bank of the Mississippi opposite Columbus. The strategic aim of the raid was just, only just credible, but according to many accounts of the action in Northern newspapers Grant had been defeated. Halleck knew of Grant's old army reputation and privately decided to try to have him removed from front line duty.

 

Halleck's opponent was AS Johnson who had arrived in Richmond after crossing the continent from the Pacific Coast. ASJ as we shall call him was highly regarded. He had had a varied career culminating in successfully command of US forces during the Mormon troubles in the late 50s. He had been a Brevet Brigadier General USA and Jefferson Davis welcomed him with open arms. He was appointed to command everything west of the Appalachians, and arrives in Nashville in early September. Unfortunately he was very short of resources. He had about 50,000 men to defend a frontier of around 500 miles. His defensive line, designed to protect Confederate territory, stretched from the Cumberland Gap in the East, through Bowling Green, Kentucky. North West of Nashville the line continued through a couple of embryonic forts designed to guard against US river born attacks, Donelson on the Cumberland and Henry on the Tennessee, and on to Columbus on the Mississippi. West of the Mississippi things were fluid with Price's Missouri State Guards pretty much in control of the Southern portion of the state. ASJ also had to protect his main logistics base at Nashville, uncomfortably close to his frontier.

 

We might pause here and just acknowledge the vast superiority enjoyed by the US in river gunboats. The Confederacy, despite belated attempts to construct craft which could operate in conjunction with their forts, had nothing effective. The US on the other hand had a total of seven ironclad gunboats being built by a civilian entrepreneur named James Eads. They were roughly 170x50 feet with a draught of 7 feet. Armament was a mixture of rifled and smooth bore guns, four each side, three in the bow and two in the stern. The first was launched on 12th October, the names of the entire class were the Carondelet, Mound City, Cincinnati, St Louis, Louisville, Pittsburg and the Cairo. Anyone who has been to Vicksburg and has seen the Cairo will know exactly what these boats were like.

 

To back up the ironclads there were three craft known as "timberclads" which is exactly what they were. The Lexington, Tyler and the Conestoga were about the same size as the ironclads but had fewer guns and obviously were less well protected. Additionally there were various rather home made conversions such as the "ironclad" Essex which we shall meet later. Finally there were ordinary commercial river craft available as transports. Commanding the US gunboat force was a Commodore Foote, a fifty six year old teetotal, die hard abolitionist, religious zealot! However, he accepted the need to co operate with the army and got on well with Grant commanding at Cairo. Foote actually harboured the desire to take the lead in offensive operations and claim the credit for his service!

 

1862 - Introduction to the campaign

 

By January 1862 ASJ was becoming increasingly worried about his situation, he was well aware of US threats from both the North West - Halleck's Department, and from Buell's command in the North East. Whereas US numbers were growing, his were not. His deliberate "spinning" of his strength and preparedness in order to maintain local Confederate civilian morale and at the same time to deter US action was being believed by the Confederate authorities in Richmond and elsewhere and so whatever fresh troops which were available being sent elsewhere.

 

While we should not forget ASJ's flanks, we must now concentrate on his center where Forts Henry and Donelson were supposed to prevent US advances up the two rivers. It is interesting that whereas Halleck was still mainly thinking of the Mississippi, ASJ was very well aware of the threat which the Cumberland and the Tennessee posed to his command. As far back as October 1861 Polk was ordered to expedite construction of the forts, and early November we read of ASJ's growing concern about uncompleted work. A report dated 21 November makes reassuring noises about progress at Donelson - work on water batteries, ridge line rifle pits and abatis are all nearly complete - however Henry is not going so well and there is talk of it being poorly sited.

 

An indication of ASJ's concern is that he sends his chief engineer Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman to carry out an inspection. Tilghman is not impressed, and is especially critical of Fort Henry and - could he not have seen this coming - in early December ASJ appoints him commander of both forts - talk about a "hospital pass"! However it is one thing to be critical, it is another to be able to fix things, and Tilghman seems to have been unable to make up his mind whether to relocate Fort Henry to drier, higher ground, or to build a supporting fort on the heights on the opposite bank. He eventually decides on the latter course and work starts on what was to become known as Fort Heiman, but progress is slow.

 

ASJ sends more troops and by mid January 1862 Tilghman has 3,400 at Henry and 2,300 at Donelson. The two brigades at Henry/Heiman are commanded by Colonels Heiman and Drake - guess whose brigade is working on Fort Heiman? In a 25th January report Tilghman seems happier, and on 30 January ASJ's new Chief Engineer, Lt Col Gilmer reports that Donelson is almost complete - no mention of Henry. ASJ moves additional brigades under Brigadier Generals Pillow, Floyd and Buckner to the Clarksville area in case they are needed. Significantly ASJ never visits himself.

 

Turning now to the dark blue, there has been a disagreement between Buell and McClellan, the new Commanding General in Washington. Buell does not like the prospect of advancing into Eastern Tennessee and instead suggested he advance South West aiming at Nashville in conjunction with a move up the Cumberland by Halleck. Although Halleck immediately declared such a move impossible, he privately was beginning to see the attraction of using the two rivers to get into Confederate territory.

 

The campaign develops

 

Brigadier General CF Smith, junior to Grant but older and more experienced, had been operating in the North West corner of Kentucky in conjunction with some of Foote's gunboats and suggested to Grant that Fort Henry could be taken. Grant, restless and frustrated, is convinced and makes a trip to Halleck's HQ in St Louis to seek authorisation for an expedition. Grant's presentation goes badly, Halleck is uninterested and Grant is more or less thrown out! Grant is of course unaware of Halleck's hostility. A word here about Henry Halleck. A West Pointer, he left the army and made a fortune in various business activities on the West Coast. He is educated, clever and intensely ambitions. He is doing well putting the affairs of his Department on order, BUT he is also militarily timid, terrified of failure and jealous of others' success - a dangerous superior - particularly when he doesn't like you!

 

Grant was not unduly put off by his rebuff and returning to Cairo he agrees with Foote that they should prepare a two pronged approach to Halleck pressing the case for an amphibious attack on Fort Henry. Meanwhile back in St Louis Halleck, just recovering from measles, receives a bombshell in the shape of news that his rival Department Commander, Buell, had had a victory. On 19th January at Mill Springs, Kentucky, one of Buell's subordinates, George Thomas - of future Chickamauga fame had defeated and dispersed a Confederate under Felix Zollicoffer, (what a name!) who was killed in the process!

 

Halleck is absolutely stricken. Buell has achieved what he has not, Buell might gain promotion, Buell might even get the unified command of the West - which Halleck had been lobbying for! Something must be done! Just then things for Halleck got even worse, he receives a report that Beauregard, still with an aura of victory about him from Sumter and 1 st Bull Run, was on his way West with fifteen infantry regiments from Virginia! Something must be done - and fast! In fact Beauregard was coming west but with no reinforcements - there were none available, but that was not known to Halleck.

 

While Halleck was agonising about what to do, on 28th January Grant and Foote launched their two pronged approach in the form of simultaneous telegrams stating that they think that Fort Henry can be taken. On the 29th January Grant follows up with a full written proposal. These approaches from Grant and Foote must have seemed to Halleck like the answer to a maiden's prayer, and accordingly on 30th January, Halleck replies "make you preparations to take and hold Fort Henry. I will send you

written instructions by mail". The written instructions were fairly straightforward and concluded with the words "you will move with the least delay possible".

 

While this exchange of messages was going on,Grant and Foote have already moved to Paducah where the Tennessee flowed into the Ohio, and Grant's response, sent from there during daylight on the 3rd of February was characteristically brief - "will be off up the Tennessee at 6pm, command 23 regiments in all"! At the risk of being melodramatic Grant was on his way to Appomattox Court House and the White House! But there will be obstacles on the way, and we should remember that although Halleck had sanctioned the expedition, and hoped to bask in its success, he was terrified of disaster, and would take great care that there were sufficient °firewalls" between himself in St Louis and the Grant/Foote campaign to ensure his survival.

 

Before watching the joint plan unfold it might be worth while having a brief look at the objective, the Heiman/Henry defended locality. Heiman on the West bank of the Tennessee is easy, it is "completely unfinished"! It is well located and earthworks had been started, there was some sort of a garrison but there were no guns mounted. Therefore it was not an obstacle to US warships ascending the river - furthermore if it fell, and guns could be mounted there, it could dominate Henry on the other bank! Fort Henry on the other hand at least had guns which should prove a problem for attacking craft; however it was so poorly located that some of it was under water as a result of seasonably high river levels! The actual fort has earth walls and was about 250 yards across. There are two long range guns, a 6 inch 24 pound rifle and a 10 inch 128 pound smooth bore Columbiad. There are a further 15 smooth bores, mostly 32 pounders, but included in the total are a couple of 42 pounders for which there was no ammunition! Most of the guns are located so as to point downstream as one would expect, but some of them were under water! Outside there are quite extensive rifle pits and huts for the garrison. Two rudimentary roads lead eastwards to Fort Donelson about twelve miles away.

 

The Joint Plan

 

Grant and Foote decided that Foote would lead the way up the Tennessee with a "ironclad division" comprising three of the "Eads" boats, the Cincinnati (Flag), St Louis and Carondelet, along with the homemade ironclad Essex. Grant would follow with half his force in transports, McClernand's two brigade division, some artillery and part of a cavalry regiment The three "timberclads" the Lexington, Tyler and Conestoga would bring up the rear. Due to a shortage of transports a second lift would be needed to bring Grant's second division of three brigades, commanded by CF Smith.

 

The initial requirement was to find a suitable landing site, on the same bank as Henry and as near to as it as possible - but out of range of its guns. Landing would be complicated by the fact that the high water levels meant that much of the banks of the river and tributary streams were soggy if not actually under water.

 

Shipping built up on the 4th North of Panther Creek and some troops including the cavalry actually landed, but to get at Fort Donelson they will have to cross Panther Creek - a time consuming operation. Grant decides to have a closer look at the fort and at the same time to look for a suitable, safe, landing site South of Panther Creek so he embarks in the Essex and proceeds upriver. The Essex passes the mouth of Panther Creek and is engaged from Fort Henry but all shots fall short. Grant is reassured but just as he decides to land the rest of his force South of the Creek the 6 inch rifle from Henry fires and although it missed its mark, the shot falls into the river well past the Essex ! The second shot from the rifle scores a hit and Grant not surprisingly decides that he will have to land North of the Creek after all. Significantly there is no fire coming from Heiman.

 

Having landed the rest of McClemand's division the transports return to Paducah to pick up Smith, some reports speak of Grant returning with them in order to hurry things along. I think he was travelling in a small headquarters boat and I suppose could have gone only part of the way, but it does seem odd that he would leave his expedition, more or less in contact with the enemy, in order to do the job of a staff officer.

 

The build up continues but by nightfall on the 5th his force of five brigades, part of a cavalry regiment and seven batteries of artillery was still not concentrated. Some of the uncertainty about Grant's whereabouts is perhaps cleared up by the story that sometime during daylight on the 5th on board the flagship in company with Foote, Smith and McClernand, an attempt to dismantle a torpedo (mine) which had been fished out of the river prompted an undignified scramble for cover by the senior commanders; I deduce, therefore, that at some time on the 5th there was a further gathering of commanders. This makes sense for we read that in the evening Grant decides to launch his attack at 1100 hours the next day, the 6th.

 

Field order number one

 

Although the preceding few months had seen Grant commanding various groupings of units and formations, but his only real experience of command in action was at Belmont. He has still a lot to learn, and in many ways his Field Order Number One was a good example of how not to do it! Having had his conference, he set his "H hour" at 11:00 hours thus straight away relinquishing the best part of half the day's worth of daylight. Later he was criticised for this late °H hour" but excused himself by saying that he knew that his troops would not be able to be ready before then - possibly a reflection of his view of the state of training and reliability of his volunteer soldiers? The plan was for Foote to advance up river, engage, and subdue the forts' guns, then possibly to continue a little farther up river in order to guard against any, unspecified Confederate gunboat threat. Meanwhile the land forces would advance along both banks of the river, CF Smith's division on the West bank to capture Fort Heiman, and McClernand, reinforced by one of Smith's brigades, will form the main thrust up the East bank. McClernand was to isolate Fort Henry from any reinforcement from Donelson, and to, in due course, occupy the works which it was to be hoped would have been well knocked about by the gunboats. There is some doubt in the various accounts as to whether Smith took one or two brigades on his West Bank expedition, for what it is worth I think he took two.

 

As this plan was evolving, Grant completely ignored Foote's reservation about time and distance. Basically Foote's point was that if both land advances and the gunboats all started at 11:00 hours, Foote would be in range and engaged with the forts long before the troops had really got properly started! So Grant's grasp of time and distance was faulty. Remember, however, that although he joked with Grant about getting ahead of the army, privately Foote was deadly serious in his hope to be able to subdue the forts on his own so perhaps he did not press his point too hard?

 

What were the Confederates doing at this time?

 

The strength of Heiman's and Drake's brigades varies between 3,400 and 2,610 depending on which account is consulted, perhaps the answer is somewhere in the middle? - say 3.000? We already know of the poor state of Fort Heiman, additionally we hear that the troops in both brigades were raw and armed with a mixture if shotguns, hunting rifles and flintlocks. Tilghman was based at Fort Donelson where the garrison seems to have been of similar quality. However the fortifications there were immeasurably better with two high sited water batteries designed to control the Cumberland River.

 

During the night of 3rd February a Confederate outpost in the area of Bailey's Ferry downstream from Henry become sufficiently alarmed by US river traffic that signal rockets are fired and soon a rider is on his way from Henry to Donelson to tell Tilghman. As a result on the 4th, probably fairly early in the morning, Tilghman goes to Henry from where he can see masses of funnel smoke, evidence of the US build up. In a pretty futile gesture he telegraphs Polk at Columbus for reinforcements. He also witnesses the engagement, and apparent repulse of Grant's recce in the Essex and seems to initially have been optimistic about his chances of repulsing any further river assault. However as the build up continues, the river continues to rise and Tilghman begins to loose heart. There was more intermittent gunboat fire on the 5th and by late on the 5th Tilghman decides that his only course of action is to withdraw to Fort Donelson. This was a very serious move and although we must salute his wish to save his troops, he was proposing to abandon the one, however flawed, site which could stand a chance of preventing a US advance up the Tennessee as far as the Muscle Shoals - the limit of navigation. He was proposing to open a massive hole in the center of ASJ's defensive line.

 

That night he ordered that the two brigades would withdraw to Fort Donelson the following morning. To cover the withdrawal, Tilghman with a small force of Tennessee artillerymen would continue to man those guns which could still bear on the river and would attempt to hold the US forces at bay in order to buy time, an hour he thought, for the infantry to make a clean break. So on the 6th, an hour before Grant's "H hour" Tilghman started his infantry in its way, he accompanied them some little way out of the defended perimeter, and then returned to the guns. His stay behind force numbered two officers and fifty four men of Tennessee artillery and in addition there were about forty sick.

 

Grant's H Hour - 1100 on the 6th

 

At the appointed time Smith's two brigades, the lead one commended by Lew Wallace, stepped off on their soggy five or six mile march towards Fort Heiman. We know little of how they gc on except that when they got there they found the fort abandoned.

 

On the opposite bank McClernand with his three brigades, cavalry and artiller began struggling through the wet countryside, and across Panther Creek. I do not know where Grant was, but presume he was with McClernand. After the action McClernand came in for an amount of criticism for his slow progress, in particular for his failure cut off the two withdrawing brigades. However, I am inclined to take a realistic view, for all he knew he could have been about to encounter reinforcing forces coming from Donelson, and at the time he had no clear knowledge of how the navy were getting on.

 

Well how were the navy getting on? One story has it that Foote was so concerned at the timings mismatch that he delayed his start until nearer noon, but whenever he actually started, he was constrained by the river configuration. Due to the proven effectiveness of the fort's rifle, he choose to approach using the shelter afforded by the narrow channel between Panther Creek Island and the East Bank of the Tennessee. The rest of the story of the capture of Fort Henry belongs to the USN and we will have to leave Grants troops as they slowly close up to the forts.

 

Whenever Foote actually set out, his operation was constrained by the narrow channel and in order to get his four ironclads in line abreast he had to have the two center craft, the Carondelet and the St Louis lashed together. Half a mile in rear the three timberclads under Lt Phelps followed. Some reports say that the ironclads were clear of the South end of Panther Creek Island at 11:35, but it might have been later if one belongs to the "Foote started late" school of thought. Predictably there was no sign of the army and so he continued upstream until, at a range of about 1700 yards the flagship gave the signal to open fire. The four ironclads could of course only use their bow guns, whilst the timberclads lurked in the rear trying to lob shells over the ironclads into the fort.

 

Tilghman did not immediately reply, perhaps hoping to lure Foote closer within range of his smoothbores. Foote took the bait and continued to close the range firing effectively as he advanced until around midday at the earliest Fort Henry responded. Both sides scored hits but it was an unequal contest and despite the Essex drifting, out of control downstream and out of the fight with a burst boiler, the guns in the fort were being demolished. Foote closed to 600 yards. Tilghman's 6 inch rifle blew up with fatal results for the crew, and then the Columbiad was accidentally spiked when a vent pick became jammed in the touch hole. Two of the few remaining 32 pounders which could still be brought to bear were disabled and Tilghman was forced to conclude that resistance was beginning to be a bit futile. Still, on one hand, he had bought time for his infantry to escape, but on the other he was about to surrender whatever vestige of control the Confederacy had of navigation on the Tennessee. At around 2pm Tilghman struck his colours we read of Foote's cutter actually entering the fort through the flooded sally port to take the surrender.

 

Not much is made of the arrival of the army, but Grant apparently got to the fort around 3pm to find that the USN was firmly in control! Foote had done it!

 

We have to assume that the rest of the day was spent sorting things out, seeing to the POWs, listing captured equipment and checking the gunboats for damage. As I mentioned earlier McClemand, and therefore Grant were criticised for failing to bag the garrison but I am prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt. They did the best they could, and had the fort put up a stronger and more protracted resistance the army would eventually have been well placed to assist. Grant, in his moment of triumph did, however, make one serious mistake. In his telegram to Halleck saying that he had Fort Henry , he added, °I shall take and destroy Fort Donelson on the 8th and then return to Fort Henry" Perhaps he ought to have had a pause for thought beforehand?

 

The Phelps Raid

 

Shortage of space rules out a detailed account of this interesting event. In short, following the surrender Foote decided to leave the Carondelet as guardship at Henry while he returned downriver to Cairo his other three ironclads for repairs. Before leaving he ordered the three timberclads under Lt Phelps to make a raid upriver with the aim of destroying the bridge over the Tennessee at Danville which carried the Memphis - Ohio railroad, one of ASJ's important East - West links. This was done and in addition Phelps played havoc with various Confederate installations and river craft all the way to the Muscle Shoals before getting safely back to Henry on the 10th having demonstrated convincingly that ASJ's no longer controlled navigation on the Tennessee. Grant in his memoirs incorrectly says that the task was done by a Cdr Phelps on the Carondelet - actually the CO of the Carondelet was a Cdr Walke - which all goes to prove that you cannot get everything right all of the time even if you are US Grant! Anyway, someone please research the Phelps raid.

 

US Reaction

 

The Foote/Grant success threw Halleck into a quandary. On one hand he did his level best to claim the success as his own and to bask in it, using it as justification for a renewed plea for command of a unified Western Theatre. He also made genuine efforts to reinforce success by sending more troops, stores and advice up the Tennessee to Henry. But on the other hand he was terrified that Grant's concentration of forces at Henry would prompt a Confederate counter move, if not a direct counter attack from say Donelson, then perhaps a move by Polk from Columbus aimed at a thinly garrisoned Cairo. He continued to be worried at what he saw as Grant's wilfulness, and went so far as to send his Chief of Staff, one Brigadier General Collum to Henry to "help", but of course his real mission was to find out what Grant was up to. Throughout all this Halleck maintained his secretive efforts to have Grant replaced, and as a replacement he had in mind an retired old crony called Hitchcock.

 

CS Reaction.

 

ASJ's reaction to the loss of Fort Henry was much more significant and far reaching. He quickly realised that in the face of the proven USN strength Fort Donelson could not hold out indefinitely. All his PR campaigning of the previous autumn about how strong he was now coming back to haunt him. His Eastern flank was crumbling after Mill Springs. His center was giving way with one fort gone and Donelson's days numbered he would have not only to pull back his West flank from Columbus, but he would have to evacuate the hugely important logistics base of Nashville. And there were no more troops to help him - all he had in the way of reinforcements was Beauregard with a small personal staff.

 

As a sort of stop gap solution ASJ ordered additional troops, basically the brigades of Floyd, Pillow and Buckner to strengthen Fort Donelson in order to buy time for the stores and installations at Nashville to be moved. But, and it is a huge but, he did not go there himself. Of more immediate help to the Donelson garrison were of course the two refugee brigades from Henry who straggled in late in the afternoon of

the 6th.

 

Friday 7th February

 

On the 7th the weather deteriorated, rain and low temperatures made living in the open difficult, and movement was well nigh impossible. Grant along with his staff and the cavalry set out on a recce of the ground between Henry and Donelson He identified the two roads, or tracks leaving Henry, the Northern one leading directly to Donelson, and the Southern one on a ridge leading to Dover. Grant says he met no opposition although Bedford Forrest supporters declared that he, a Colonel at the time was active in disputing the move. Whatever the truth Grant says that he was able to get right up to the outer defences without any trouble. In his memoirs he rather disparages messrs Pillow and Floyd for their inaction during his recce, but in truth they were not yet in the fort, another case of the faulty memory of a dying man.

 

Anyway, we may as well just give a bird's eye of the fort, what Grant perhaps would have seen had he had a balloon. The inner fort occupied about 100 acres and was 100 feet above the river level. There were two "water batteries" above the river level dominating the Cumberland, and the outer line of rifle pits and abatis was quite well sited mostly on ridges. Hickman Creek in the North, and Lick Creek in the South, flooded and marshy, protected the flanks, and valley of Indian Creek in the center was difficult ground. The garrison, including those ex Henry was around 6,000, but as we have already said, more were on their way.

 

There is no doubt that Grant was impatient to make progress, and in an ideal world one could imagine him returning from his recce, issuing orders and setting off to assault Fort Donelson the next day, but it did not happen. In this context it is interesting that Halleck does not acknowledge Grant's imprudent remark about talking Donelson on the 8th, he prefers to "hear no evil - see no evil" - in the event of a disaster he can always declare that Grant's move was unauthorised.

 

Saturday 8th February

 

The rain continues and the roads are impassable. Also Grant realises that he will have to wait for the navy who have to descend the Tennessee, come up the Ohio, then join the Cumberland and come up that river - to say nothing of conducting repairs as necessary! Perhaps the timings mismatch at Henry had taught him something?

 

Bushrod Johnson, who might have had a brigade or who might simply arrived as an individual assumes command of Fort Donelson. There is a suggestion that the Confederates had their priorities a bit wrong and were working away at the defences of the forts, when they ought to have been out harassing Grant's mud bound troops?

 

Sunday 9th February

 

The rain continues. Gideon Pillow and his Virginia brigade arrive at Donelson. He takes over command form Bushrod Johnson. No reports of contact between the two sides.

 

Monday 10th February

 

So far as I can determine nothing significant happened on this day - this is a terrible thing to say for it opens the floodgates for all sorts of zealots to contradict me - but there it is!

 

Tuesday 11 th February

 

The weather must be showing signs of moderating. Grant has a slightly odd conference aboard his headquarters boat - improbably named the New Uncle Sam! Apparently no orders were issued, but it was sort of assumed that a move was imminent. Perhaps Grant was just assessing the state of mind of his commanders? Anyway later that day the move starts with elements of McClemand's division clearing a mile or two out of the Henry area to free up roads for the next morning. Smith is ordered to leave one brigade to garrison Henry and nominates that of Lew Wallace, his senior brigadier.

 

In Donelson, Simon Bolivar Buckner arrives with his brigade.

 

Wednesday 12th February

 

The weather has turned warm and sunny. Grant telegrams Halleck "we start this morning in heavy force". A reinforcement brigade under a Colonel Thayer arrives at Henry in transports and is spun right round and told to go up the Cumberland and join the USN force already downstream of Donelson. We have to presume that Grant had had information as to how Foote was getting on.

 

The main land move starts fairly early and the lead elements are in front to the outer defences of Donelson by lunchtime. As was becoming the norm there seems to have been no opposition to the moving troops, but again, as is the norm, Bedford Forrest enthusiasts would have us believe that he opposed them every step of the way. We all know of the well documented matter of the undisciplined volunteers discarding their blankets and overcoats - it is worth remarking here that the fault lay not so much with the undisciplined troops as with the ignorant and slack NCOs and officers.

 

Grant establishes his headquarters in the Widow Crisp's cabin on the Northern approach road to Donelson, and the rest of the day is devoted to reconnaissance and deployment of his 15,000 men and eight batteries.

 

The Carondolet, which can't have spent very long being as guardship at Henry, is the first of Foote's ironclads to arrive below the fort, towed up against the current by the steamer Alps. Later in the day, at Grant's request she indulges in some long range harassing fire at the water batteries, there is no reply - one report has it that the Confederate gun crews are still under training!

 

Thursday 13th February

 

Grant's troops continue to deploy with Smith on the left and McClernand on the right. They are spread pretty thin and especially on the far right the investment of the fort is incomplete. Contrary to Grant's orders McClernand contrives to initiate a futile, and costly attempt to capture a portion of the Confederate line including Maney's battery-this is an interesting precursor to McClernand's behaviour before Vicksburg. The US forces were not really entrenched but are sheltering behind the many steep little wooded ridges in the area - it strikes me that the ground around Donelson is a bit similar to the wooded country North of Aldershot! During the latter part of the day the winter weather returns and predictably Grant's troops feel the want of their discarded kit.

 

The Carondolet again indulges in some long range fire at the water batteries, this time the fire is returned, not very accurately it seems, however the ironclad was struck by a 128 pound solid from a Columbiad which, as they say, got the wax out of their ears!!

 

Sometime during the day Foote arrives with three more ironclads. He is flying his flag in the St Louis, a veteran of Henry and has two fresh craft, the Louisville and the Pittsburg. Later in the evening two of the timberclads, the Tyler and the Conestoga turn up convoying a group of transports. The shipping moors downstream of the fort and out of range of its guns.

 

Grant had a meeting with Foote during the evening in order to discuss plans. Grant wants Foote to destroy the water batteries while the army confines the Confederate garrison. Foote is then to go upstream to prevent Confederate escape while Grant mops up the garrison. There is some evidence that Foote has been a trifle shocked by the effect of the incoming fire on his gunboats at Henry. We must not forget that although he was a very experienced naval officer, he was an old man and he had probably never been under such fire before in his life. Additionally before the meeting with Grant, Foote had had a visit by Cdr Walke, the CO of the Carondolet who had been shaken up by the earlier Columbiad strike. All in all I have a feeling that Grant would have had to use all his powers to stiffen Foote's spine because he wanted action the next day!

 

Oh, and I almost forgot, in Donelson John B Floyd, the former US Secretary of War turns up and becomes the fort's fourth commander in a week!

 

Friday 14th February

 

During the first half of the day Grant receives reinforcements in the shape of Colonel Thayer's brigade which has come round by the rivers route, and Lew Wallace's brigade from Henry. Grant decides to form a third division using Thayer's brigade and some other unspecified troops and puts Lew Wallace in command. The new third division is positioned in the center of Grant's line and thus both Smith on the left and McClernand on the right are able to put some depth into their now slightly shorter lines.

 

At about three in the afternoon, with Grant an interested spectator from a vantage point on shore, Foote launches the main gunboat attack on the water batteries. Initially the water batteries seem overawed and in the face of weak return fire Foote is enticed to close the range. As at Henry the Confederates have really only two long range guns, a rifle and the 128 pounder Columbiad which gave the Carondolet such a shock the day before. But they have plenty of short range 32 pounders and as Foote foolishly closes to an idiotically short range of 400 yards his ironclads get a real hammering. As the range shortens they are having trouble elevating sufficiently to engage the high sited Confederate guns. The flagship is hit 60 times and Foote in among the wounded. Three out of the four ironclads are disabled and drift away downstream out of harm's way. The Carondolet is last to go firing her stern guns wildly in an effort to make smoke to cover her withdrawal. The two timberclads do not help, by dropping their shells short and endangering their ironclad colleagues.

 

As at Henry the Confederates suffer technical misfortune. Their rifle becomes jammed, possibly the projectile could not be rammed properly due to fouling, or perhaps there was a failure of drill among the green gun crew, maybe someone loaded and rammed the projectile before the propellant charge! Also we read that the Columbiad suffered the same fate as the one at Henry, a vent pick gets jammed in the touch hole - this vent pick story is so similar that I sometimes wonder if somewhere the story has been uncritically repeated, and never checked?

 

The whole action lasts for only about 40 minutes, and at the end of it things look good for Floyd and his defenders. Grant is somewhat despondent and telegrams to Halleck that it looks as if he will have to settle down to a regular siege.

 

However, despite the repulse of the gunboats, the Confederates are inert, and absolutely no attempt is made to take advantage of the situation. Pillow is suffering from mood swings and cannot make up his mind whether or not to recommend an offensive to Floyd. But note here we are talking about an offensive aimed to clear the way for a break out, not an offensive aimed at defeating Grant's force! Eventually the combined Confederate command structure - and I use this term very loosely - persuades themselves that it is too late in the day to do anything - but they do decide to attempt a break out early next morning. Exactly as at Henry the Confederates seem to have completely lost sight of why the fort and its garrison are there in the first place. As soon as the USA taps at their door they are proposing to give up control of navigation on the Cumberland! Oh, Albert Sidney Johnson where are you!

 

Saturday 15th February

 

Before dawn, while the Confederates prepare for their break out attempt, Grant is on his way to meet with the wounded Foote on board the flagship. It is a seven mile ride on frozen rutted tracks. Before departing the Widow Crisp's cottage, Grant leaves instructions with Colonel Webster, his Adjutant General that commanders are not to start anything until he gets back. Grant seemed to have given no consideration as to what the Confederates might be up to, nor had he appointed anyone to command in his place.

 

Grant is disappointed to find that Foote, in pain and somewhat demoralised, wants to take his damaged gunboats back to Cairo for repairs. He advises Grant to entrench and promises to be back in ten days, bringing with him some mortar boats which he suggests will turn the tide. I imagine that Grant was not happy, a siege is the last thing he wants, and we have to presume that Foote is counselled not to act too hastily. When Grant lands from the St Louis he is met by Captain Hillier of his staff with the bad news that there is a major Confederate offensive on Grant's right and McClernand is being driven back on the center. Grant sets out back to his lines as fast as he can go. It seems that an acoustic shadow has been the reason why no one in the vicinity of the gunboats has heard the gunfire. I think we must assume that the news of the attack was also passed to Foote.

 

The Confederate attack which got started about six am completely surprised McClemand's men and he had been forced to give ground. After initial hesitation on account of Grant's ill thought out order for no one to start anything in his absence, Wallace sends a brigade to McClemand's assistance and between them they manage to limit the Confederate advance and to an extent stabilise the line. On the Confederate side there was the predictable command muddle, Pillow who has commanded the initial assault wants to change the aim and instead of opening the way for a break out, now wants to continue to attack with the aim of defeating Grant. Buckner joins in, thinning out his lines confronting Smith to adds weight to the Confederate thrust. Some reports speak of an absurd imbroglio when Confederate commanders argue as to whether they should break off the attack and go back to their original positions to collect kit and artillery prior to escaping!

 

This is the situation when Grant arrives at his headquarters. Immediately he sends a note to Foote requesting long range gunfire "otherwise all may be defeated". He then rides his line noting that all is relatively quiet on Smith's front. On reaching the Wallace/McClemand area he grips the ammunition resupply problem caused by inexperienced officers, and on examining the full knapsacks of Confederate prisoners deduces that the attack was in fact a break out attempt. He issues firm orders for the lost ground on the right to be retaken, which it is by a combination of Wallace's and McClemand's men. Whilst this is in train he goes swiftly back to Smith on his left and orders an immediate advance on the Confederate lines which he correctly judges are but thinly held.

 

In a way the rest is history. Smith penetrates the perimeter and although Buckner later in the day succeeds in stopping his advance, Smith cannot be dislodged and he threatens the whole right rear of the Confederate lines and the water batteries. Wallace's new 3rd division retakes most of the lost ground on the right and in the evening more reinforcements arrive by river bringing Grant's strength up to twenty seven thousand. Grant has pulled it off, but it has been a close run thing!

 

That night the disarray in the Confederate camp was total. Defeatism ruled and everybody - with the honourable exception of Bedford Forrest - seemed to have given up. The story of the command passing from Floyd through Pillow to Buckner is well known. Before dawn on the sixteenth Pillow, with most of his brigade commandeered a boat which was actually bringing in reinforcements, crossed the Cumberland and fled to Nashville. Floyd was next, crossing in what is described as a skiff with a few of his staff. Bedford Forrest escapes upriver taking between 600 and 1,000 men wading through floodwater which was in places armpit deep! This leaves Buckner to send a note to Grant asking for terms and the well known Unconditional Surrender story starts.

 

Sunday 16th February

 

During the morning the machinery of surrender gets under way. More or less ever commander meets in the Dover Hotel and some pre-war friendships are renewed. As usual numbers are difficult. Possibly the best estimate of Confederate Prisoners is 15,000, along with 57 guns and other small arms and equipment. Their losses may have been anything between 1,500 and 3,500! On the US side losses were reported as 2,832. It is interesting that, perhaps understandably, Grant had made no real plan to deal with such a mass of POWs and there were a considerable number of "drift aways" who simply filtered off through the wood s and made their escape - how many of them rejoined the Confederate colours is open to conjecture.

 

Afterwards

 

In the aftermath of this stunning victory pretty much everybody on the US side gets promoted and the most unlikely individuals try to jump on to the bandwagon and claim credit for the victory. One exception is Sherman who, recovered from his earlier "wobble", has spent the time at Smithland where the Cumberland joins the Ohio, loyally forwarding reinforcements to Grant and not moving upriver to take command as he could have done as he was the senior man - perhaps this was the cement which bound the two men together in the years to come?

 

Throughout the North the name of US Grant assumes universal prominence, and not surprisingly Lincoln became a major and vital fan and protector during Halleck's continued campaign to remove him in the period between Donelson and Shiloh.

 

The fate of the major subordinate commanders is well documented and space precludes my repeating their stories here. I would just like to mention two little angles which take my fancy. The first highlights some background to a well known event. In late 1864, Grant, burning with impatience at George Thomas' inactivity at Nashville sends "Black Jack" Logan, who was visiting his HO, off to Nashville with a dormant commission to relieve Thomas if he had not attacked Hood. In the event Thomas did attack and Logan who on 15th December had got as far as Louisville, Kentucky had to turn round and thus missed army command for the second time. How was Grant so confident of Logan 's ability and character? Well the answer may be connected with the fact that Logan was the CO of the 31 st Illinois at Belmont , and at Donelson, where he did well and was wounded.

 

The second little item is that a certain Colonel JE Smith who was the CO of the 45th Illinois at the forts was the man who in mid 1861 recommended a certain Captain US Grant to Governor Yates as suitable for regimental command!

 

Conclusion

 

Did he win his spurs? Well of course he did - but he was very lucky. - and perhaps strictly speaking he didn't deserve to? He made a number of mistakes, he failed to take advice from Foote, he made over optimistic predictions as to his progress, he tried to do too much himself, he failed to give clear well thought out orders, and he failed to pay sufficient attention to what his enemy might do. But he pulled it off and I suggest that the main reason for this was his consistent single minded determination to get the job done. But when finally considering how Grant won his spurs at Donelson I would like to pilfer from, and reverse Pickett's remarks after the war when he was asked to account for the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg - I think the hopeless Confederate army command had something to do with it!