Grant and Fort Donelson

U.S. Grant and staff

Grant and his staff later in the war

General Simon Bolivar Buckner was in command at Fort Donelson when Union forces were moving by land in conjunction with a flotilla of gunboats to besiege the Confederate stronghold. They had known each other at West Point, classes of 1844 (Buckner) and 1843 (Grant), and remained friends after the war.

General Gideon Pillow had been in charge of the Confederates who pushed Grant back to the river at Belmont the previous November.  The Tennessean had his men hold off the approaching Union forces but did not take advantage of a break in their lines.  He retired to the fort and took command at Fort Donelson when General John B. Floyd decided to make a hasty departure.

Floyd was the senior Confederate commander.  As U.S. Secretary of State before secession, he had been under indictment in Washington for the questionable transfer of military stores to southern states before the hostilities broke out.  He desperately wanted to avoid capture by the Federals for fear of charges for treason.  Before this could happen, he loaded his two Virginia regiments and some artillery onto a steamboat and “skedaddled” upriver (to the southeast) to Nashville.  He turned over command to Pillow who had once echoed Patrick Henry’s statement about a preference for death over loss of liberty.  When the situation looked grim at Donelson, Pillow had a change of heart and sought “liberty” in a rowboat across the Cumberland river under cover of night. General Grant had a terse assessment of him as an adversary: Pillow “was no soldier, and possibly, did not possess the elements of one.”

On February 13, the Union continued to move into position and surround the fort. Both division commanders ordered attacks against the Confederate works without success. This gave the Confederates precious time to reinforce the garrison, increasing the ranks to about 15,000 to 17,000. They now had a force nearly equal or slightly larger than the attackers. Grant sent word to Fort Henry ordering W.H.L. Wallace to bring his brigade to Donelson. That night the wind shifted and the temperature began to drop. A heavy rain that soaked both armies, changed to sleet then freezing rain and finally a snowstorm that lasted all night. By morning, there were several inches of snow on the ground and the temperatures remained well below freezing.

There are reports that many of the soldiers who had marched in the balmy weather discarded their overcoats and blankets.  They were unused to such mild days in February and enjoyed the false dose of spring that was concealing a wintry blast.  They regretted their hasted the following day when they were exposed to the snow and unprotected from the icy winds.

In the Podcast, we discuss the terms of surrender, Grant’s relationship with Buckner and how the Northern press picked up on the new moniker. Civl War Trust has an informative feature on Fort Donelson including statistics and an overview at CWT.com.