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
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 nowbut 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.