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Civil War Series

The Campaign for Fort Donelson

   

GUNBOAT DEFEAT ON VALENTINE'S DAY

Both sides expected to see the gun boats attack the fort for Grant had great faith that his friend Foote could win another striking victory as at Fort Henry. Nevertheless, the naval officer was hesitant as a result of the punishment his flotilla had suffered in the earlier battle. So Grant ordered Wallace to bring reinforcements overland from the Tennessee post and formed them into a third division, positioned between Smith and McClernand to cover the Indian Creek valley sector. Grant's command now approached 21,000 men surrounding Dover as he waited impatiently for the gunboats to do something.

Temperatures plummeted to 12 degrees Fahrenheit overnight, and cold winds whipped snow, sleet, and freezing rain against the soldiers huddled on both sides of the lines. Fires were forbidden for fear they would disclose positions to the enemy. Many young Union volunteers wished they had not so quickly discarded blankets and overcoats on the march from Fort Henry. Few units in either army were as blessed as Colonel Roger Hanson's 2d Kentucky of Buckner's command with their hooded parkas. Many of their Southern comrades had to wrap themselves in old quilts and blankets and even cut up pieces of carpet to guard against the weather, It was a night of "great suffering and hardship," recalled one Union brigade commander. Neither army was especially ready to fight when a cold dawn came on the February 14. But Grant was up early and looking for action. He and his staff rode to the river about 9:00 A.M. to consult with Foote aboard his flagship.

ANDREW HULL FOOTE (USAMHI)

A FLEET OF FEDERAL IRONCLADS AND "TINCLADS" PHOTOGRAPHED NEAR CAIRO, ILLINOIS. (USAMHI)

Grant directed the newly arrived troops aboard the transports to leave their comfortable quarters and join the shivering soldiers surrounding Fort Donelson. Then he turned to Foote and persuaded him that the gunboats might simply run by the water batteries and enfilade the Rebel positions, thus forcing surrender. Foote wanted to await the arrival of flatboats carrying heavy mortars to subdue the fort. Grant said no, declaring that the army needed support and that it was time to finish their work. The grumbling flag officer called his boat captains together, gave them instructions about preparing for combat, and then turned to his battle plan. They would proceed as they had done at Fort Henry.

The Confederate gunners, meanwhile, had remained at their guns all that frigid night, anticipating an advance by the gun boats under cover of stormy darkness. Occasionally they fired a shot downriver just to annoy Foote's flotilla and the transports. Early on Saint Valentine's Day, Captain Reuben Ross in the upper battery spotted a large plume of smoke indicating something afoot. He sent word to Floyd's headquarters, but the Confederate generals were busy with other matters. As Floyd indicated in a telegram to Johnston claiming he now faced 40,000 Yankees, "I will fight them this evening." Indeed, Floyd, Pillow, and Buckner intended a surprise foray to break the land siege. The details were as unclear then as now—but it took time to muster the troops in position and, at the pivotal moment for the breakout attempt, the gunboats hove into view.

Foote's flotilla came around a bend in the river about 2:00 P.M. Steaming against a floodtide of the muddy river, it took a half hour to close with the batteries. The City Series ironclads St. Louis, Louisville, Pittsburg, and Carondelet, led the van steaming abreast as at Fort Henry. Then came the timberclads Tyler and Conestoga about one-quarter mile in the rear. Meanwhile, Ross sent some shots toward the Union transports, scattering them after they had landed their human cargoes. He then turned on the gunboats, which had opened fire about one and one-half miles from the batteries. As the craft moved to point-blank range, they suffered cruel punishment from Ross and his heavy guns. The Rebel gunners had carefully plotted ranges by markings on trees along the riverbanks, and they had devised special sighting devices on their cannon. Flood-waters had already swept away a barricade of floating trees some 900 yards from the batteries. It was up to the water batteries to save the day on their own.


Before long, all but this gunboat were drifting back downstream in defeat. Foote had been wounded, his flagship St. Louis reduced to shambles. Shivering Confederates all over the Fort Donelson perimeter took up cries of victory.

The naval action at Fort Donelson assumed a different cast from that at Fort Henry as Foote closed to within 450 yards of the batteries shortly after midafternoon. These batteries were more elevated above the water than Fort Henry's row of guns, and the plunging fire from the two water batteries at Fort Donelson soon found the gunboats' vulnerability. They raked the craft fore and aft causing the Carondelet's commander to comment later: "Before the decks were well sanded, there was so much blood on them that our men could not work the guns without slipping." Before long, all but this gunboat were drifting back downstream in defeat, Foote had been wounded, his flagship St. Louis reduced to shambles. Shivering Confederates all over the Fort Donelson perimeter took up cries of victory. They had not expected to beat the gunboats as, at one point, an excited Nathan Bedford Forrest shouted to an aide: "Parson, for God's sake, pray; nothing but God Almighty can save that fort!"

The inexperienced Confederate gunners had achieved an astonishing 50 percent hit record on the gunboats. Ross claimed that "our work grew very warm yet the men became cooler, in proportion." And it showed. The humiliated naval officer counted fifty-four dead or dying among his severely battered craft. One water battery lieutenant put it bluntly: "Flushed with his victory at Fort Henry, his success there paved the way for his defeat at Donelson." As another harsh winter night settled over the gloomy Union besiegers, they listened to the celebrations across in Confederate lines. It was the Confederacy's greatest triumph at Fort Donelson, and Grant was anything but sanguine now about prospects for quick victory. He would let the navy make its own excuses for defeat. But he wrote his wife, Julia, that night that the taking of Fort Donelson "bids fair to be a long job."

UNION TROOPS ATTACK ON LAND AS GUNBOATS FIRE ON FORT DONELSON. (BL)

A GUN EXPLODES ON THE CARONDELET DURING THE ATTACK ON FORT DONELSON. (BL)

The moment of decision had arrived for the Confederacy in the West. Announcement of the Confederate triumph flashed over telegraph wires to Johnston, countering earlier predictions of dire defeat at the hands of the dreaded gunboats. Johnston wired back to Floyd: "If you lose the fort, bring your troops to Nashville if possible." But with victory seemingly in their grasp, the brigadiers hesitated about their next step. Floyd convened a council of war at which the participants determined whether to continue the battle or fight their way out of the trap. Pillow wanted to remain; Floyd and Buckner preferred to get out under cover of a surprise attack the next morning. Details of the scheme were murky. Pillow understood that when the avenue of escape opened, the troops would return to their rifle pits to secure baggage, artillery, rations, the water battery gunners, and other troops. Buckner, on the other hand, thought that the attackers would keep going once they had breached Union lines. There would be no turning back; gunners, supplies, and excess personnel would be left to their fate. With nothing truly resolved except that they would attack in the morning, Bushrod Johnson, for one, departed the meeting gloomier and more anxious than before.

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