Encouraged with the success of Fort Henry, Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant spared little time to advance on Fort Donelson. Once again, Grant proposed another joint effort with Flag Officer Andrew Foote’s river fleet to take the fort. From his success at Fort Donelson, Grant became an instant celebrity for the Union cause.
Grant realized that his army was vulnerable to a Confederate counterattack from Fort Donelson. The best action to remove this threat was to take Fort Donelson. Before Grant could advance on Fort Donelson, he had to wait for Foote’s river fleet to travel down the Tennessee River to the Ohio River before turning south on the Cumberland River. While Grant waited for Foote to make his journey, he received news that 10,000 reinforcements were heading his way.
General Albert Sidney Johnston knew his Confederate defensive line was in shambles. The Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers were like roadways slashing through Tennessee. Johnston waited for the next domino to fall, wiring Richmond, “I think the gunboats of the enemy will probably take Fort Donelson without the necessity of employing their land force in cooperation.”
Johnston had a force of 45,000 ill-armed soldiers spread across two states while the Union army had double that number. At that moment, Grant had 17,000 men marching east from Fort Henry. Johnston had 5,000 men currently at Fort Donelson busy entrenching in preparation for Grant’s attack. Instead of abandoning a fort he didn’t think his men could hold, Johnston committed another 12,000 soldiers to defend Donelson.
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To make matters worse, Fort Donelson was commanded by a triumvirate of brigadier generals, John Floyd, Gideon Pillow and Simon Buckner. Of those three, Buckner was the most competent but he was out-ranked by Floyd and Pillow. Floyd was a former Secretary of War for the Buchanan administration. He was a political general and knew nothing about military strategy and combat. Pillow was just incompetent.
On Feb. 14, 1862, Foote’s flotilla along with 10,000 reinforcements arrived three miles below Fort Donelson. After a short meeting, Grant convinced Foote to attack immediately. Foote reluctantly agreed to do so with disastrous consequences.
The gun crews at Fort Donelson held their fire, drawing the gunboats closer to their position. When the gunboats were 1,000 yards away, the Confederate guns opened fire. Still, Foote moved closer, moving within 400 yards of the fort. Using solid shot, the Confederates pummeled the Union ironclads. The sound of iron hitting iron echoed across the river.
The gunboats were damaged with some floating listlessly on the river. With their spirit buoyed by their apparent success, the Confederate gunners continued their barrage. Aboard the St. Louis, Foote was wounded. The Louisville drifted downstream and the Pittsburg was in danger of sinking. Meanwhile, there were no casualties among the Confederates. Cheers of celebration were heard in Fort Donelson as the damaged fleet drifted out of range.
Realizing that Fort Donelson would be more difficult to take than Fort Henry, Grant began to make plans for a siege. Even with their victory, Floyd, Pillow and Buckner concluded they were trapped by Grant. The Union reinforcements allowed the Federals to almost encircle their position.
A plan was devised for a Confederate attack in order to break out of the Federal trap and escape south. Pillow’s force would attack Brigadier General John McClernand at dawn. Buckner would move to the center, leaving only one regiment to face Brigadier General Charles Smith’s division.
Once Pillow hit McClernand’s line, Buckner’s men would move forward, achieving a breakout. The Confederates would force their way south with Buckner fighting a rear guard action.
McClernand’s right flank collapsed under the Confederate attack. Brigadier General Lew Wallace, who later wrote the novel Ben Hur, had just arrived with reinforcements and sent two brigades to save McClernand.
Grant, who had been conversing with Foote on his boat in the Cumberland River, saw a full-blown disaster upon reaching the shore. With his generals speaking of a tragic defeat, Grant surmised a different set of circumstances and a just response.
Ordering the right to be retaken, Grant surmised the Confederates were attempting a breakout. In order to have hit the Union right so hard, Grant realized the Confederates had to pull troops from his left. Grant ordered McClernand and Wallace to retake lost ground, asked Foote’s damaged vessels to demonstrate against the fort and ordered Smith to attack Fort Donelson from the left.
With the Confederates so close to victory, Pillow hesitated, ordering his troops back into Fort Donelson instead of continuing south. Buckner held the road that led to Nashville but was ordered to fall back. After initially refusing those orders, Buckner returned to the entrenchments. The Confederates were hopelessly trapped.
That evening, Pillow, Floyd and Buckner talked of surrendering Fort Donelson. Upon hearing this news, little known Lt. Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest vowed not to surrender. Instead, Forrest would lead a daring escape of some of the Confederate soldiers from Fort Donelson.
Pillow and Floyd both looked to escape for different reasons. Pillow thought his loss would hurt the Confederacy immensely. Floyd feared he would be tried on old charges against him before the war. Buckner stated he would surrender if placed in command. Floyd placed Buckner in command while he and Pillow escaped by their own means.
Buckner sent a flag of truce to Grant’s headquarters. Before the war, Buckner had been a friend of Grant’s, lending him money when he was destitute. Upon reading, Buckner’s surrender request, Grant asked Smith for his input. Smith replied, “No terms with traitors, by God!”
With that, Grant sent a message to Buckner, stating “No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.” After receiving Grant’s reply, Buckner, who was now without Floyd, Pillow, Forrest and roughly 4,000 Confederates, knew he had no choice. He accepted Grant’s “ungenerous and unchivalrous terms.”
Fort Donelson was in Union hands. News of the victory caused celebrations throughout the North. Grant became an instant hero. Some newspapers changed U. S. Grant’s name from “Ulysses Simpson” to “Unconditional Surrender.”