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Civil War Series

The Campaign for Fort Donelson

   

THE MEANING OF FORTS HENRY AND DONELSON

Grant may have been too optimistic when he felt that the rebellion was about played out in Tennessee after Fort Donelson. He was similarly naive in telling his political patron Illinois congressman Elihu B. Washburn that "a powerful change" was taking place in the minds of people throughout the state that early spring. Nonetheless, this was a season of missed opportunities all around. Johnston and Beauregard could not make the necessary countermove to annihilate Grant's very isolated expeditionary force on the twin rivers in late February and early March. But northern generals Halleck and Buell were just as incapable of exploiting Grant's breakthrough. Halleck thought that working together, he and Buell could end the war in the West in less than a month. Then the two fell prey to fears about Grant's exposed position as well as to which of them should have supreme command in the West. Differing agendas among the generals, logistical difficulties with supply and movement, communication problems and uncertain enemy intentions as well as distance from the nerve centers of war control in Washington and Richmond stymied both sides after Forts Henry and Donelson. The expedition that broke open the stalemate in the Mississippi valley languished for a time. The month following his victories passed in deep frustration and mounting problems for Grant's army. No Napoleonic-like "battle for the West" occurred. A Union army-navy team continued to chip away at Confederate control of the Mississippi River, but it was beyond the power of either side to effect a quick decision at this stage of the conflict.


THE BATTLE OF DOVER—FEBRUARY 3, 1863

Federal forces never relinquished control of the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers after the capture of Forts Henry and Donelson. They established garrisons not only to protect those rivers as valuable communication and supply arteries but also to control the region and its inhabitants as part of a slow process of reconstructing the nation even before the war ended. Their Confederate opponents, however, made several attempts to recover such control, always failing in the effort. Partisan and guerrilla bands harassed Federal garrisons at Dover, Forts Henry and Heiman, and a new Fort Donelson. A thirty-minute attack by Colonel Tom Woodward and his partisans on August 25, 1862, did more damage to the town of Dover in thirty minutes than the previous February's major battle. In the fall of 1864, Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest led a raid to the Tennessee River and successfully captured and destroyed the Union supply base at Johnsonville, upriver from Forts Henry and Heiman. But raiders came to conquer, destroy, and disappear quickly rather than reoccupy territory for a prolonged period. The most serious threat to Federal supremacy on the twin rivers took place almost a year after the Confederate surrender at Fort Donelson. This occurred during the so-called battle of Dover, February 9, 1863.

BRIGADIER GENERAL JOSEPH WHEELER (LC)

Following the bloody battle of Stones River, or Murfreesboro, on December 31, 1862, and January 2, 1863, Confederate cavalry resumed the task of protecting the flanks of General Braxton Bragg's Army of Tennessee. They also engaged in raiding Union supply routes and outposts. Chief of cavalry Brigadier General Joseph Wheeler especially harassed Union river traffic on the Cumberland and received the thanks of the Confederate Congress and a promotion. Toward the end of January, Bragg directed that he take a force, to include the brigades of fellow generals Forrest and John Wharton, to shut down river navigation at some specific point on the Cumberland. Forrest had just returned from his own highly successful West Tennessee raid in December, and his command needed rest and reoutfitting. Forrest did not personally want to be subordinated to Wheeler's direction. In fact, misfortune shadowed this expedition from the beginning.

The Union high command suspended shipping altogether on the river even before Wheeler's arrival at the Palmyra, Tennessee, landing. Wheeler was chagrined about the apparent failure of his mission and, to avoid returning to base without some action, decided to move twenty miles further downstream to attack the Federal garrison at Dover. The wisdom of this move was questionable despite success the previous fall with cowing reluctant enemy garrisons into surrender. Still, success promised only a handful of prisoners, temporary occupation of the fortified county seat, and questionable retaliation for the catastrophic defeat suffered a year earlier at nearby Fort Donelson. Heavy casualties might ensue, and even remaining at Palmyra offered a better blocking position on the river. Moreover, inspection of the command revealed glaring shortages of ammunition and rations. Forrest's men carried perhaps fifteen rounds of small arms ammunition and a total of forty-five rounds for their four cannon. Wharton was only slightly better endowed on this count.

Forrest therefore protested vehemently about assaulting Dover's garrison. The cold weather, low ammunition, and possible losses argued against the assault. Moreover, a rumored Federal pursuit column from Franklin to cut off the expeditions, retreat back to Columbia, Tennessee, further suggested the inadvisability of the move. The adamant Wheeler, spoiling for a fight, rejected Forrest's protests, however. The Tennessean was so nonplussed that he called aside an aide and told him bluntly: "If I am killed in this fight, will you see that justice is done by officially stating that I protested against the attack, and that I am not willing to be held responsible for any disaster that may result." This request came on the morning of February 3, and even then his cavalry with the rest of Wheeler's column was pounding down the Dover road, eager for action.

The expedition soon got it. The Union garrison at Dover was commanded by feisty Colonel Albert Clark Harding of the 83d Illinois infantry. He was hardly caught off guard by the Confederate move because an outpost, about eight miles from Dover, was overrun by Wheeler and company but survivors were able to spread the alarm. Harding, caught at his midday meal, immediately telegraphed his superior at Fort Henry, Colonel William Lowe of the 5th Iowa cavalry, requesting help. He then prepared his defense at Dover. Bolstering Harding's 600 infantrymen were two sections of rifled 12-pounder cannon and a 32-pounder heavy gun that had been removed from the old Confederate water batteries at Fort Donelson. This force occupied a long rifle pit extending from the riverbank upstream or east of Dover around the town to the south, and ending in an old graveyard on the northwestern edge of the village. Harding positioned the 32-pounder on a swivel mount in a redoubt at the town square, several hundred yards behind the rifle pit. Two of the field guns supported this position. The other pair, likewise manned by Captain James H. Flood's battery, 2d Illinois Light Artillery, with additional numbers of Harding's infantrymen (under direction of Lieutenant Colonel A. A. Smith) defended at the graveyard. The Union position commanded various ravines surrounding the town. But as a final precaution, Harding herded all women and children at the post aboard two steamboats and sent them downriver with one, the Wildcat, ordered to find any Union gunboats and speed them to the garrison's relief.


(click on image for a PDF version)
THE BATTLE OF DOVER
This map depicts the positions of the Union garrison under Colonel Harding and the attacking Confederate forces under General Wheeler. The attack took place on the afternoon of February 3, 1863.

Wheeler, Forrest, and Wharton appeared in the outskirts of Dover about 1:00 P.M. with some 3,000 Confederates. Skirmishing became brisk immediately as Forrest was ordered to attack from the east (almost a reverse of his escape route the previous year), while Wharton's brigade would simultaneously assault Smith's position. The famous 8th Texas Cavalry (Terry's Texas Rangers) was sent to guard the Fort Henry road. Then Wheeler dispatched the customary surrender ultimatum to Harding. What had worked elsewhere with frightened Union garrisons did not work at Dover; here the garrison was not intimidated by threats of superior force even though the note contained the veiled threat: "If you surrender, you will be treated as prisoners of war; if not, you must abide the consequences." Harding, a banker by profession and untested in combat, shot back the terse reply: "I decline to surrender the forces under my command or the post, without an effort to defend them." Such a slap in the faces of the Confederate generals immediately elicited a response. Although their plan called for a coordinated and synchronized assault, Forrest interpreted a sudden shift in enemy lines to be an escape attempt. He launched a reckless mounted charge that was literally blown apart by the Union artillery.

Unable to dislodge the defenders, Forrest's battered men retired to the crescent shaped ridge running parallel to the Union position east of town. They dismounted and regrouped and prepared for another attack. Now supported by their own artillery, Forrest and his men anticipated greater success. Yet it was not forthcoming for while the Confederate guns drove Harding's men back to the protection of the redoubt at the square, the 32-pounder quickly riddled Forrest's dismounted attackers and the "wizard of the saddle" had a second horse shot from beneath him that afternoon. Even Wharton fared no better although by midafternoon he finally succeeded in pushing Smith out of the graveyard, capturing one of the Federal guns and its caisson. Then, just as his advance moved into the immediate environs of Dover, Wharton's men ran out of ammunition. He pulled back, harassed by terrific Union counterfire.

Dusk settled over the battlefield with the Union position intact and a bright winter moon illuminating the scene. After surveying the situation, the Confederate generals concluded that Harding's position was too strong. Ammunition shortages were acute, and several enemy relief columns could be seen approaching Dover. In view of such developments, Wheeler, Forrest, and Wharton decided to break off the fighting. In doing so, they barely escaped arrival of Lyon from Fort Henry with portions of the 13th Wisconsin, 71st Ohio, and 5th Iowa cavalry, which pushed through the Texans' roadblock about five miles west of Dover. The arrival of Lieutenant Leroy Fitch's gunboat flotilla was equally crucial.

Warned of the Dover battle by the captain of the Wildcat, Fitch rushed ahead and reached Dover at 8:00 P.M. He had six so-called tin-clad boats with him, and though their lightly armored sides meant little at this point, they quickly poured a heavy cannon fire on the general area held by the Confederates at the close of the action. The deluge of shot and shell elicited no reply; the dejected Confederates had already departed. They carried Flood's cannon and caisson with them as well as quantities of blankets, most coveted by the shivering Southerners. But they left behind at least seventeen dead and sixty wounded from Wharton's command while Forrest suffered losses approximately one-quarter of his thousand-man command. By contrast, Harding reported thirteen killed, fifty-one wounded and sixteen missing. He had held his post and defeated three of the Confederacy's best generals.

That night, the tired and hungry Confederates bivouacked about four miles from the scene of their afternoon defeat. Their commanders found shelter in a road-side house, and by the light of a roaring fire, Wheeler began to prepare his after-action report. He was musing about the day's events when Forrest brusquely interrupted. Addressing his superior, Forrest told Wheeler, "You know that I was against this attack." "I said all I could and should against it—and now—say what you like, do what you like, nothing'll bring back my brave fellows lying dead or wounded and freezing around that fort tonight," he continued. Disclaiming any disrespect and proclaiming "the personal friendship I feel for you," the rugged Tennessee horseman added: "You've got to put one thing in that report to Bragg: tell him I'll be in my coffin before I'll fight again under your command." Furthermore, "if you want it, you can have my sword."

Cooler heads prevailed. Wheeler declined Forrest's sword and calmly admitted that he willingly assumed blame for the failure to capture Dover. The next day, the weary Confederates once more departed the line of the Cumberland and, avoiding threatened interception by the Federals, gained sanctuary south of the Duck River at Columbia on February 17. As so often in the intervening year, the Confederacy had failed to redeem the stigma of surrender and defeat in the lower Tennessee and Cumberland valleys. But now, the Union victory at Dover contributed another lasting effect on the war in the West. Forrest's determination not to serve again under Wheeler's command led to permanent separation of two of the most successful and brilliant Confederate cavalry chieftains. The two men remained friends until death, but Forrest always managed to be positioned on the opposite flank of the army whenever he and Wheeler found themselves thrown together in a campaign. Later in the year, the two generals were officially separated when two divisions of cavalry were established, one commanded by Wheeler, the other by Major General Earl Van Dorn (into which Forrest, again to his disgust was subordinated.) Eventually, Forrest gained independent command in West Tennessee and northern Mississippi, where he successfully campaigned against several Federal opponents. But he never returned to the scenes of earlier ignominy as Fort Donelson, and Dover remained a synonym for defeat and humiliation throughout the short life of the Confederacy.

Union leaders decided that their victory at Dover suggested that the now thoroughly battle-scarred community afforded little strength for defense of the Cumberland River. So they built a new and improved Fort Donelson of their own. Located on a hill between the village and the old Confederate fortifications, this second fort subsequently guarded the river while providing a rallying point for refugee freedmen and a recruiting depot for enlisting them into the service of the Union. In time, the site of the Union Fort Donelson became the present national cemetery with occupants including not only Civil War dead but the nation's fallen from more recent contests.

THE CEMETERY AT PRESENT DAY FORT DONELSON NATIONAL BATTLEFIELD. (NPS)

They established the pattern of joint army-navy operations that would provide the war-winning team for the Union.

Sustained by William T. Sherman's support base at Paducah, Grant's expeditionary force eventually moved upstream and appointments with destiny at other places and in other battles. Grant personally weathered difficulties with Halleck and another near disaster when he was surprised at Shiloh. Most important, however, he and Foote had demonstrated that Federal land and naval forces working together could open control of the water highways into the Confederate heartland. They established the pattern of joint army-navy operations that would provide the war-winning team for the Union. In addition, their victories imparted a new sense of purpose to preserving the Union among the Northern populace. Citizens had discovered a general who fought hard and won, "Unconditional Surrender" Grant was appropriately viewed as a man of the people—a no-nonsense combat general who could seize the initiative and bring success. Despite temporary setbacks, Grant never relinquished that initiative. He won additional victories and went east in the spring of 1864 to command of all the armies of the Union. In one sense, then, the war in the West, which opened with the capture of Forts Henry and Donelson, reached conclusion in Virginia. There, in Wilbur McLean's Appomattox farmhouse on April 9, 1865, the honor of receiving Robert E. Lee's surrender went to the hero of Fort Donelson. What was started in the cold February of 1862 on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers endured. Three additional years of strife had incurred more blood and sacrifice—from Shiloh to Vicksburg, from Stones River, Chickamauga, and Chattanooga to Atlanta and the sea. And this is not to mention all the battles in Virginia and elsewhere before it was over. Even Tennessee and Kentucky could not be counted fully under Union control until the battles of Franklin and Nashville late in 1864 reflected the last surge of Confederate hopes for recapturing the upper South. Despite the aversion of Confederate leaders to prolonged guerrilla warfare, that was precisely what raged across much of the region until well past the final surrender of organized Confederate resistance. Still, Forts Henry and Donelson had been a beginning—for Grant and the Union.

THE BATTLE OF MEMPHIS ON JUNE 6, 1862. (BL)

UNION LOYALISTS IN TENNESSEE MAKE A PLEDGE TO THE FLAG. (HW)

Most of Grant's principal comrades from the earliest campaign were no longer with him by the time of Appomattox. True, his aide John A. Rawlins remained. But Foote, Smith, and James B. McPherson, Grant's engineer at Fort Donelson, had not survived the war. McClernand had outstayed his welcome through too much political intrigue and was eventually thrust aside. Like McClernand, Lew Wallace had suffered through Shiloh with his chieftain but then fell from favor and was relegated to administrative assignments despite memories of his heroic stand, which had saved Grant's army on February 15 at Fort Donelson. Interestingly, the Hoosiers equally meritorious action at the battle of Monocacy in Maryland on July 9, 1864, may have similarly preserved Grant's career. Here, the last Confederate invasion of Union territory in the East threatened the nation's capital on the very eve of pivotal national elections. Grant's focus was on capturing Richmond and Petersburg, and he had neglected Washington's defense. Only at the last moment did Wallace's action at Monocacy allow reinforcements from Grant to reach the forts surrounding Washington and thus save President Lincoln's government. Grant thanked Wallace but did not restore him to a combat command, the Hoosier's most cherished desire.

Equally ironic, Henry Halleck eventually finished the war as Grant's bureaucratic chief of staff in Washington. He had preceded Grant in going east as top Union general, but the fortunes of war eventually dictated the need for someone more dynamic and popular to take charge. Only William T. Sherman, who provided Grant's logistical support from the first campaign, advanced to take his rightful place beside Grant in the Union's pantheon of warrior heroes by the time of Appomattox. It was Sherman, after all, who at one point had persuaded Grant to persevere and stay the course in those early, transitional months of frustration after the twin rivers victories. Vicksburg, Chattanooga, and Appomattox were added to Forts Henry and Donelson as the result.

A RIVER BATTERY AT FORT DONELSON IN SPRING. (PHOTO BY JAMES P. BAGSBY)

The long, hard road to victory began then on those two Tennessee rivers in mid-winter 1862. To the historian Bruce Catton, Forts Henry and Donelson were not just a beginning but also one of the most decisive events of the war from which came "the slow, inexorable progression that led to Appomattox." Little of this was obvious to anyone in February 1862, of course. Events never become so until later generations declare them to be so. Writing perceptively in 1882, a chronicler of the wartime military telegraph operation, William R. Plum, noted about Fort Donelson, "doubtless, if Grant were to fight that battle again, he would do better." So would the Confederates, he reasoned. They would evacuate before they were invested. So, today, we can stand on the riverbanks of the Tennessee and Cumberland and, viewing the now sylvan settings of two Confederate forts, ponder what they mean to us. The facts are inescapable. At Forts Henry and Donelson occurred two surrenders. Those singular events propelled the Southern Confederacy—however noble its fighting spirit, however valorous its fighting men—toward ultimate defeat and demise. The battles enabled the nation's government to commence the passage toward reunion and a new nation. They vaulted an unassuming midwestern brigadier named Ulysses S. Grant toward final victory and, ultimately, the White House. The rest, as they say, is history.

Back cover: Crossing Lick Creek by Gary Lynn Roberts, courtesy of Newmark Publishing, Louisville, Kentucky.
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