Battle of Fort Donelson: Details


Union numbers

Supporting the infantry divisions were two regiments of cavalry and eight batteries of artillery, altogether almost 25,000 men, although at the start of the battle, only 15,000 were available.

The Western Flotilla under U.S. Navy (Union) Flag consisted of four ironclad gunboats and three wooden (“timberclad”) gunboats.

Confederate numbers

Floyd’s Confederate force of approximately 17,000 men consisted of three divisions, garrison troops, and attached cavalry.

The Layout

Fort Donelson, a Confederate fort, rose about 100 feet on dry ground above the Cumberland River, which allowed for plunging fire against attacking gunboats. There were three miles (5 km) of trenches in a semicircle around the fort and the small town of Dover.


Preliminary movements and attacks (Feb. 12-13).

On February 12, most of the Union troops departed Fort Henry (a Confederate fort they’d captured days earlier) and proceeded about 5 miles on the two main roads leading between the forts.

SS Carondelet was the first gunboat to arrive up the river, and she fired numerous shells into the fort, testing its defenses, before retiring. Grant arrived on February 12 and established his headquarters near the left side of the front of the line, at the Widow Crisp's house.

On February 13, several smaller probing attacks were carried out against the Confederate defenses, essentially ignoring orders from Grant that no general engagement be provoked.

Some wounded men caught between the lines were burned to death by grass fires ignited by artillery.

Freezing temperatures - a snow storm arrived the night of February 13, with strong winds that brought temperatures down to 10–12°F (-12°C) and deposited 3 inches (8 cm) of snow by morning. Guns and wagons were frozen to the earth. Because of the proximity of the enemy lines and the active sharpshooters, the soldiers could not light campfires for warmth or cooking, and both sides were miserable that night, many having arrived without blankets or overcoats.

Reinforcements and naval battle (February 14)

Six gunboats and another 10,000 Union reinforcements on twelve transport ships arrived.

Confederate gunners waited until the gunboats were within 400 yards, and then pummeled the fleet with artillery. The damage to the Union fleet was terrific.

While the Union boats had been damaged, they still controlled the Cumberland River. Grant realized that any success at Donelson would have to be carried by the army without strong naval support, and he wired Halleck that he might have to resort to a siege.

Breakout attempt February 15

Despite their unexpected naval success, the Confederate generals were still gloomy about their chances in the fort and held another late-night council of war, deciding to retry their aborted escape plan. On the morning of February 15, the Confederates launched a dawn assault on the still unprotected right flank of the Union line. The Union troops were not caught entirely by surprise because they had been unable to sleep in the cold weather.

It was in this attack that Union troops in the West first heard the famous, unnerving rebel yell.

Col. Morgan Lewis Smith (Union) was on horseback immediately behind his lead regiment and a bullet shot off the cigar close to his mouth, but he coolly replaced it with a fresh one.

Surrender February 16

Some wounded froze to death in the snowstorm.

Union reinforcements were arriving.

Floyd (Confederate) came to realize that he was about to be captured and face justice in the North. He turned over his command to General Pillow, who also feared Northern reprisals and gave it in turn to General Buckner, who agreed to remain behind and surrender the army. Pillow escaped by small boat across the Cumberland in the night, Floyd the next morning on a steamer with two regiments of Virginia infantry.

On the morning of February 16, Buckner (Confederate)
sent a note to Grant requesting an armistice and 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 allegedly because of a drinking problem, and 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":

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


Union - Cannons were fired and church bells rung throughout the North at the news. TheChicago Tribune wrote that "Chicago reeled mad with joy."

Grant had captured more soldiers than all previous American generals combined.

Most of Tennessee fell under Union control, as did all of Kentucky, although both were subject to periodic Confederate raiding.

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