Skip to main content

In 1861, when the south seceded from the Union, Kentucky, although a slave state, did not have sufficient secessionist sentiment to join the Confederacy.  Instead Kentucky declared itself to be "neutral", a legal position which no one took seriously on either side.  Confederate forces had occupied the area around Bowling Green.  A weakness in the Confederate position in Kentucky however was the riverine geography of the area, combined with the extensive use of the rivers by the Union forces using steamboats.  

View of Fort Henry
        Fort Henry on the Cumberland River.
Near the town of Cairo Illinois, the Ohio river joined the Mississippi, and just upstream, the Tennessee and then the Cumberland rivers flowed into the Ohio a short distance apart.  Steamboat traffic could proceed down the Tennessee river as far as Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and, on the Cumberland, as far as Nashville, then as now the capital of Tennessee.

All of this was obvious then as now to anyone who could read a map or a steamboat timetable.  Better yet, travel on a river could not be blocked by cavalry raids, destruction of bridges, etc., and, so long as it was not frozen or choked with ice, the river itself made for a splendid supply line

    Fort Henry/Donelson campaign.
     Map by Hal Jespersen,
The Confederate line of defense
The only way to block river travel was to build forts along side the river and equip them with cannon to use against hostile vessels.  Following this strategy, the Confederacy built forts on the Mississippi,  and near the mouths of the Tennessee and the Cumberland rivers.  On the east bank of the Tennessee, there was Fort Henry, and on the west bank of the Cumberland was Fort Donelson, named after the Confederate officer who selected the sites for the forts, Daniel S. Donelson (1801-1863), who had graduated from West Point in 1825, but who had spent most of his life as a planter and in politics.  In 1861, Donelson was the Speaker in the Tennessee House of Representatives.

      A 10-inch columbiad installed in an earthwork battery.
Overland Fort Henry was about 12 mlles west of Fort Donelson.  The Confederate idea was that the relatively close distance between the forts would allow troops to transfer between them should one or the other be threatened.  From November until early February, the garrisons of both forts had been commanded by Lloyd Tilghman (1816-1863), a railroad engineer and another West Point graduate (1836, near the bottom of his class) whose not particularly great military skills were taxed by his additional duties of recruiting and training troops for the Confederacy.

Speaker Donelson had picked a very poor location for Fort Henry.  It was far too near to the river, and vulnerable to flooding.  Nobody seems to have wanted to cross the wily politician however by challenging his decision.  So, when it fell to Tilghman to actually construct the fort, he ignored the defect even though it was pointed out to him by others, and, as a railway engineer, he should have spotted the problem himself.  (Local residents pointed this out, and high water marks on nearby trees also indicate that the highest point on the fort quite likely would end up 2 feet under water when the river was in flood.)

Sure enough, by early February, the water in the Tennessee river had risen and had submerged the Fort Henry's central area, including the ammunition storage depot.  The Confederates had managed to mount about a dozen cannon in Fort Henry, the heaviest of which was called a columbiad, a huge cannon with a ten-inch wide muzzle, typically used in coast defense installations.  Properly used, Fort Henry's columbiad should have been sufficient to destroy any riverine vessel coming into range, even the new Union ironclads.  However, the garrison found that firing the columbiad generated such a huge and frightening recoil that they could not rely on it remaining on its mountings.

      An Eads ironclad, USS Carondelet
A new weapon: riverine ironclad warships
The Union had converted a number of river steamboats to ironclad warships.  At that time this was an entirely new type of warship. (These were called "Eads" or "City class" ironclads).  No real training or manuals existed for how these vessels might be operated under combat conditions. In early February, 1862, a flotilla of these warships moved upon Fort Henry, under the command of Flag Officer Foote. Behind them followed ordinary steamboats carrying the Union army of 18,000 men and all their equipment and mounts.

There was a short but intense exchange of cannon fire between the fort and the ironclads.  One shot caused a burst steampipe in one of the vessels, and a number of men were scalded to death.  But the ships moved in to close range and pounded the fort, eventually putting out of action most of its guns. All this while, the fort itself continued to fill with water from the rising river.  Tilghman then surrendered the fort, but the great majority of the garrison of 2,500 men escaped to Fort Donelson.

Union advance on Fort Donelson
The union commander, the then little known, U.S. Grant then determined to move overland to lay siege to Fort Donelson.  Dilly-dallying by Grant's superior, Henry W. Halleck (1815-1872), caused some critical delay.  Known, and not affectionately, as "Old Brains", Halleck was primarily a lawyer who was the master of clerical work and blame shifting memoranda.  Halleck had gotten fabulous rich (approximately the equivalent of a modern billionaire) in the 1850s in California in part by using his political connections in the early post-Mexican government.  The union forces left the Fort Henry area on February 10, with the cavalry screening forces arriving the next day in front of Fort Donelson and the main force the next day, February 12.

Fort Donelson itself was a earthwork on which construction had begun in mid-November, 1861.  It was on a hill and commanded a view of the Cumberland river from a height of about 100 feet above the water.  The Confederacy had been able to round up 13 cannon to mount in the fort, including another columbiad.  The construction of the fort was supervised by Confederate general Bushrod Johnson (1817-1880), a military engineer.  

Confederate command problems
In early February the Confederates began a process of sending substantial reinforcements to Fort Donelson, where  Bushrod Johnson remained in command of the fort until February 9, 1861, when a senior officer arrived on the scene, Gideon J. Pillow (1806-1878), one of the sleaziest politicians of the 1840s and 1850s, was simultaneously dishonest, extremely rich (he owned hundreds of slaves), energetic, and militarily incompetent -- a very bad combination.

Pillow hated his immediate subordinate, the highly competent Simon Bolivar Buckner, whose force of Kentucky troops had been sent to Fort Donelson.  Buckner actually got along much better with the opposing command, Grant, with whom he'd had a long personal friendship.  (Many years later, Buckner was to be a pallbearer at Grant's funeral.)  Grant in turn knew what a dunderhead Pillow was, and as a result took greater chances than he otherwise would have in arraying his troops around the outer line of entrenchments.  

Gen. John B. Floyd, C.S.A.
      John B. Floyd, the Sir Robin of the
As if having Pillow in charge was not enough, on February 13, 1862, the Union cause was aided still further by the arrival in the fort of a new Confederate commander, John B. Floyd.  This made the third shift in Confederate commanders in a span of five days

Floyd, like Pillow, was one of the 1% of the day.  Floyd had been governor of Virginia, as had his father before him.  An accomplished politician, Floyd had finagled his way into having himself made Secretary of War under Lincoln's immediate predecessor, James Buchanan.  As Secretary of War, Floyd proved to be incompetent at best and possibly corrupt at worst.  Although opposed to secession, he nevertheless left the U.S. cabinet in December 1860, amid charges of malfeasance in office.  Despite absolute lack of either military experience or aptitude, Floyd, a lawyer, managed to have himself made a senior general in the Confederate service, where he initially distinguished himself by losing a battle in West Virginia and then blaming other people for the defeat.

Breakout attempt by the garrison
So, with Floyd in command, on the evening of February 13, the Confederate officers in Donelson called a counsel of war, and decided that the place could not be held, probably a fair assessment of the situation.  A bit of hope loomed for the Confederacy on February 14, 1861, when the federal gunboats which had recently overwhelmed Fort Henry were driven off with heavy losses and damage by the guns that Bushrod Johnson had mounted overlooking the Cumberland.  

The Confederate plan was for a a portion of the confederate garrison under Pillow to launch an attack on the morning of February 15, 1861, to clear a route to evacuate the fort.  Pillow's attack succeed well at first, and some local panic broke out among the federal troops in the area of the attack.  At this point it appeared that the Confederates might be trying to roll up the Union lines by attacking from the east to the west.

Grant however noticed that captured Confederates had three days rations in their packs, which indicated that a breakout was contemplated, rather than a general counterattack.  He ordered that the lost area be recaptured, which was aided by the arrival, by steamboat, of substantial reinforcements.  Grant, figuring that west side of the fort's perimeter had been stripped of troops, ordered an attack in this area to support the effort to retake the area on the east captured in the morning attack.  This attack was successfully made.

At just about the same time, Pillow lost his nerve when one of his aides was killed by a federal sniper.  He ordered a withdrawal from the recently seized escape route.  The landing of federal reinforcements, left the garrison surrounded by numerically superior federal forces on the evening of February 15.

       Before he was a cavalry commander at Fort Donelson,
      Nathan Bedford Forrest got rich off his "negro mart"
     in Memphis TN.
The Big Skedaddle
After surveying the situation, Floyd and the other generals decided there was no way to break out without great loss of life, and at the same time, it appeared the fort was no longer capable of defended and would soon fall, maybe even the next day.  Consequently, Floyd decided to surrender the fort, but not himself.  No high-ranking Confederates had yet been captured in the war, and there was some apprehension on Floyd's part, ex-Secretary of War that he was, that he might be stood up against a wall and shot as a traitor.  So Floyd resigned the command, with the intent of getting out of there pronto, with the justfication that his services were too valuable to be lost to the Confederacy.  Pillow was next in command, and like Floyd, concerned that his neck might be stretched on a traitor's rope.  He too resigned, leaving Buckner the task of surrendering the army, and, as it turned out, going into a prisoner of war camp.

Floyd the Virginian politician commandeered the only river-borne steam transport available for himself and for a number of Virginia troops from his own brigade, leaving his Mississippi regiment behind.  He is recorded as pathetically waving his sword while safely on the Nashville-bound steamer urging his favored Virginians to get on board.  Meanwhile Pillow, whom nobody seems to have liked, had procured a rowing skiff and thereby absquatulated to safety across the Cumberland river.  

One confederate who did break out was Nathan Bedford Forrest, a man who had amassed huge wealth as a slave dealer and who later was to go on to found the Klu Klux Klan.

The Confederate generals report
Floyd turned in a report to the Confederate War Department on February 27, 1862, which can be read here.  Regarding the surrender and his steam powered departure immediately prior thereto, Floyd stated (blather omitted):

. . .  I felt that in this contingency, while it might be questioned whether I should, as commander of the army, lead it to certain destruction in an unavailing fight, I had a right individually to determine that I would not survive a surrender there ... and to make an effort for my own extrication by any and every means that might present themselves to me.

Ah, what magnificent courage from the General in command!  Pillow was not much better, his whiny correspondence with the Confederate War Department can be read here.

Consequences and observations
With the Donelson campaign, one sees the full use of technology, both in weapons (large cannon, riverine mines, armor plate), and communication (telegraph) and transport (steam-powered locomotives and riverboats).  Also, the increased literacy of the population allowed a greater scope for news reports and propaganda much as in modern times.

Casualties were high.  The federals placed 26,531 men into the field, and suffered 507 killed, 1976 wounded, and 208 captured or missing, for a total of 2,691.  The Confederates lost 327 killed, 1,127 wounded, and the astounding number of 12,392 captured or missing, the largest surrender ever to occur on the North American continent.  The percentage of killed and wounded was high, and to be wounded in those days and conditions was quite likely to lead to loss of a limb.  Of course all the painstakingly-assembled equipment of the Confederate army was also lost.

Loss of Henry and Donelson meant the Confederacy could no longer block Union use of the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, requiring evacuation of all Confederate forces from Kentucky and much of Tennessee.  Nashville fell without resistance to Union forces moving south from Kentucky.  Over on the Tennessee, Union wooden steamboats raided as far south as northern Alabama.  With these areas open to federal military action, the war would be brought home to the very heart of the south in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi.  And after Donelson, the south was always in a position of trying, unsuccessfully to regain what was lost, and bar, again unsuccessfully, the routes into the deep South.  Thus, one can say that Fort Donelson, although overshadowed nowadays by larger battles, was in fact the battle that won the war.  

The aftermath of Fort Donelson would have been an excellent time for the South to make peace.  With armies still in the field, and control of a huge part of the continent, the south could have had any terms it wanted in early 1862; a guaranty of continued slavery in the states where it already existed would have been readily given by the North, which at that time was definitely not abolitionist.  But as the war went on, and larger battles cost enormous numbers of lives, the North began to perceive, by the end of 1862, that the destruction of slavery was essential to victory.  Just three short years earlier this would have been impossible.

Originally posted to Plan 9 from Oregon on Fri Feb 10, 2012 at 07:49 PM PST.

Also republished by Three Star Kossacks and DAILY KOS UNIVERSITY.


Which do you consider more important in shaping the modern USA?

13%18 votes
64%85 votes
21%28 votes

| 131 votes | Vote | Results

Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags


More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site