“I am pleased to announce the un-conditional surrender this morning of Fort Donelson”
US Grant – Brigadier General USA
February 16, 1862
When these words reached Washington back in 1862 they were welcome words indeed. The Union was reeling after several defeats at Manassas and the Commander in Chief … Abraham Lincoln was looking for a General who was a fighter. The Union victory at Fort Donelson certainly put Grant on Lincoln's radar. The battle kicked off on the 13th with several unsuccessful assaults on the defensive works of Fort Donelson. On the 14th of February 1862 the Union fleet edited “Iron Valentines” with the shore batteries when Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote sailed his Union gunboats up the Cumberland River to attack the Confederate stronghold at Fort Donelson.
Foote had some interesting ships under his command called “Ironclads”. These boats had 3 cannon on the front, 4 cannon on each side and 2 cannon in the rear. The boats had sloped sides, front and back leading up to a flatter top somewhat resembling a rectangular tent on a flat board. The sides of the ships were covered in 2. 5 inches of steel armor. The problem with these boats was that they still had wooden decks which made them very susceptible to damage. When Foote engaged the Confederate gun batteries of Fort Donelson, the Confederates pounded these ironclads with incredible accuracy scoring 59 hits on the St. Louis. Louis – Foote's flag alone. The battle between the shore guns and the ironclads raged for 90 minutes when Foote assessed his ships as being “All cut Up” and he broke out the attack and retreated back down the Cumberland.
As the Ironclads retreated it is said that cheers of the Confederate soldiers emanated loudly up and down the river. The celebration was short lived however as Grant and his army had all but surrounded Fort Donelson. The Confederates realized that Grant was being re enforced very and with every hour, Grants army grew stronger. Thereafter the Confederates massed their troops and attempted to break out of the box that Grant had put them in. A furious battle ensued between ground forces on the 15th of February 1862 and hundreds of men were killed on both sides.
For a moment, the Confederates actually pushed the Union forces back and had the upper hand but at the critical moment, they for some reason halted their attack and allowed the Union forces under Grant to regroup and launch a smashing counter attack. The Confederate Commanders John B. Floyd and General Pillow realized that it was only a matter of time until Fort Donelson fell and that it would be impossible for the entire force of 14,000 Confederate troops to escape so they decided to escape with about 2,000 men in the dead of night. Brigadier General Simon B. Buckner took command of the remaining Confederate forces and was disgusted with his superiors stating that he would face the same fate as his troops.
Rather than watch his men get slaughtered by the more than 25,000 men Grant now had available to him, General Buckner sent a messenger to Grant to discuss terms of surrender. It is interesting to note that Buckner and Grant were good friends before the war and they had served at West Point together. Buckner fully expected Grant to be decent and generous in the terms of surrender to his old friend. However, Grant astonished Buckner when his reply was “Sir, Yours of this date proposal Armistice, and appointment of Commissioners, to settle terms of Capitulation is just received. on your work. “Buckner was amazed and astonished but as he was in no position to further oppose Grant and his superior numbers … Buckner sent back this reply:” The distribution of the forces under my command, incident to an unexpected change of commanders, and the over-whelming force under your command, compel me, notwithstanding the brilliant success of the Confederate arms yesterday, to accept the ungenerous and unchivalrous terms which you propose. ” An entire army of 14,000 Confederates surrendered to Grant that day in 1862. All in all, 500 Union soldiers were killed and 2,334 were wounded or missing. The Confederate combat losses were 257 killed and 1,230 wounded or missing.
This victory by Grant and his forces was the news the North needed to bolster their spirits. It allowed the Union to penetrate the south through the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. It led to the eventual evacuation and fall of Nashville which was an important shipping terminal by waterway and by rail. This battle won Grant the nickname US Grant “Unconditional Surrender Grant”.
I found the battlefield at Fort Donelson to very interesting. I made a cursory inspection of the redoubts and breastworks and then made my way down to the Cumberland river to look upon the scene of where the battle between Flag Officer Foote's Ironclads and the Confederate shore batteries took place.