This Day in History: The fall of Fort Donelson
On this day in 1862, the New York Times reports on an early Civil War battle. “This city is wild with excitement and rejoicing,” the paper reported. “The news is just made public that the American flag waves over Fort Donelson.”
The victory provided a huge boost for the reputation of then-Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant, who led the Union effort.
The Confederacy had established three forts near the Kentucky-Tennessee border. These forts were intended to protect several nearby rivers from being used by Union forces. The Union Army wanted to take these forts, of course. Grant proposed an attack on the area and was put in charge of the effort. He wanted to act quickly, before the forts could be completed and fully manned.
The first of these, Forts Henry and Heiman, fell relatively easily on February 6.
The third fort, Fort Donelson, was already protected by about 5,000 men, and it was a tougher prospect. Nevertheless, Grant declared that Donelson would be his by February 8.
Perhaps he was a bit too optimistic?
Harsh weather set in and an attack was delayed, ultimately giving both sides time to obtain more reinforcements: 12,000 new Confederate forces were dispatched to Fort Donelson. In the meantime, Grant’s ranks would swell to 25,000 Union soldiers. By February 14, he had also received reinforcements in the form of four Union ironclads and two wooden gunboats.
These vessels clashed with Confederate water batteries on February 14. Despite their disadvantage, the Confederate forces were doing well. The ironclads had moved in too close and the Confederate batteries took advantage of the mistake. Ultimately, the Union boats were crippled and forced back. They still blocked the river, but the damage they could have inflicted had been minimized.
It was a huge blow to Union morale. Grant dug in for a siege, little knowing what Confederate commanders were planning next.
Indeed, the Confederate forces took advantage of nightfall to make a risky move. They got ready for an early morning assault, using the winter weather to hide their preparations. The plan was to attack the Union right at dawn, hoping to break through and make their escape.
It worked! Or, at least, it should have worked.
Confederate forces broke through the Union line, but then (oddly) they were ordered back to the fort. Grant saw an opportunity, and he took it. His men retook the ground that had just been abandoned by Confederate forces. By the morning of the 16th, some Confederates had escaped, but those who remained behind knew that surrender was the only option.
Simon Buckner had been left in command of the remaining Confederate forces. He and Grant were old friends from West Point, and he’d even helped Grant out of a financial scrape in 1854. He had to have been completely unprepared for Grant’s “ungenerous and unchivalrous” response when he indicated his willingness to discuss surrender terms.
The Union commander’s statement was simple—and harsh: “No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately on your works.”
The demand for unconditional surrender surely set a new tone for the remaining years of the Civil War.
Primary Sources & Further Reading:
Fort Donelson (American Battlefield Trust website)
James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom (2003)
The Fort Donelson Battle: Reports of Three Days' Desperate Fighting (NY Times; Feb. 17, 1862)
Three Years with Wallace's Zouaves: The Civil War Memoirs of Thomas Wise Durham (Jeffrey L. Patrick ed. 2003)