Battle of Fort Donelson

From Academic Kids


The Battle of Fort Donelson was fought February 1216, 1862 in the American Civil War. It elevated Union general Ulysses S. Grant from a largely unproven leader with a reputation for drunkenness to the rank of major general and the nickname "Unconditional Surrender" Grant.



The battle of Fort Donelson took place 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 Albert Sidney 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 Don Carlos 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 retake 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.

Albert Sidney Johnston gave Confederate General John B. Floyd command at Donelson. Floyd arrived after losing western Virginia to Union general George B. McClellan. Floyd was a wanted man in the North, for graft and secessionist activities as Secretary of War under the administration of President James Buchanan. Johnston gave him an additional 12,000 men and withdrew the rest of his force to Nashville to stop an expected Union attack there.

General Grant and U.S. Navy Flag Officer 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 (30 m) 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 February 14, another 10,000 Union reinforcements arrived, with 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 damaged, they still controlled the Cumberland river.

On the morning of February 15, the Confederates launched an counterattack from their 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, Grant did not panic at the Confederate assault. He ordered a counterattack the next day; the lost ground was soon retaken. By morning, Union artillery was scowling down on the Confederate fort. Nearly 1,000 soldiers on both sides had been killed with about 3,000 wounded still on the field; some 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 Bolivar 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.

On the morning of February 16, Buckner sent a note to Grant requesting terms of surrender. Buckner had expectations that Grant would offer generous terms because of their previous relationship. In 1854 Grant had lost a command in California in part due a drinking problem, and then-U.S. Army officer Buckner had loaned him money to get home after his resignation. But Grant showed he had no mercy towards men who had rebelled against the Union. His 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 12–13,000 troops, the first of three Confederate armies that Grant would capture during the war (the second was at the Battle of Vicksburg, the third was Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia).


Cannons were fired and church bells rung throughout the North at the news. Grant was promoted to major general, second in command only to Henry W. Halleck in the West. Close to a third of all Albert Sidney 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 control, 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 River was in Union hands.



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