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NPS History E-Library

Civil War Series

The Campaign for Fort Donelson



McClernand's cold and sleepy soldiers stumbled out of their makeshift bivouacs as the first warning shots and sounds of the famous "Rebel Yell" broke the cold morning air.

Just as Foote's appearance had disrupted Confederate plans that afternoon, the unexpected victory at the water batteries confused the Southern generals as to the urgency of leaving or fighting on. At any rate, the troops gathered for the massive Confederate assault scheduled for daybreak on Saturday, February 15, lumbered into position during the winter night. Snow and wind muffled sounds of the movement. None of the enemy detected the shifting columns. Buckner's men withdrew from their entrenchments leaving only a single regiment of 450 men, armed with shotguns, to face Smith's whole division. Delays proved inevitable, however, as weary soldiers navigated slick roads. Buckner's force was still not in position when Pillow and Johnson started their assault at 6:00 A.M. McClernand's cold and sleepy soldiers stumbled out of their makeshift bivouacs as the first warning shots and sounds of the famous "Rebel Yell" broke the cold morning air. The big push to flee starvation, Yankee prison camps, and the stigma of surrender had begun. Gideon Pillow would style it "the battle of Dover."


The snow, underbrush, and tactical inexperience further delayed any quick resolution. The fighting turned into a slugfest between the Confederates' heavy attack columns and McClernand's thin line of defenders in the vicinity of the Forge and Wynn's Ferry Roads. By 8:00 A.M. however, the Federals were in trouble as fighting enveloped the country lanes and ravines and blood-stained snow marked points of contact between the two battle lines. Forrest's troopers dislodged a stubborn Union field battery and the Confederate infantry slowly bent McClernand's division back under heavy pressure. As the young Union soldiers expended their ammunition they simply dropped out of line, holding their empty cartridge boxes aloft, and began a slow withdrawal, As one of their brigade commanders groused, "The enemy skulked behind every hiding place, and sought refuge in the oak leaves, between which and their uniforms there was so strong a resemblance" that his men could not distinguish the two.

McClernand sent couriers to Lew Wallace's command post for help. But the Hoosier general hesitated to act without Grant's instructions. Somehow, the army commander had disappeared. Early that morning, Grant had ridden once more to consult with the injured and humbled Foote aboard his gunboat. Headquarters aides did not know what to do in their leader's absence, and intervening woods hid the sounds of the unfolding battle from the command conferees at the river. Thus, by noon, Pillow and Johnson had carried Confederate fortunes to the brink of success. "Our success against the right wing was complete," claimed one Confederate observer. Avowedly, Federal defeat was caused mostly by fatigue, supply shortages, and inept defensive moves, not by any lack of pluck or valor. Nonetheless, McClernand's division had been beaten back from its position.

The attackers were unable to finish their task. By early afternoon, the relentless drive of Pillow and Johnson, now supported by Buckner, had gained the objective. The Federals had been driven back from the Forge Road and westward along Wynn's Ferry Road toward Fort Henry. Two of McClernand's three front-line brigades had been crumpled, the third forced into precipitous retreat. Still another brigade was crushed as it rushed from reserve. At that hour, the way out of the Fort Donelson trap was open to the Confederates, stretched along a mile-long battle line. The soldiers were ready; their leaders were not. During the subsequent two hours, the Confederate generals yielded the initiative back to the enemy.

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By February 14, Grant had his army in place and was waiting for the gunboats to attack Fort Donelson, Flag Officer Foote brought his ironclads to within 400 yards of the fort before they were forced to withdraw. This surprised many people on both sides as some thought the ironclads were unbeatable. This action is shown on the top of the map. On the night of February 14, the Confederate generals decided to open an escape route by turning and pushing the Union right flank back along the Wynns Ferry Road. To accomplish this Confederates massed and launched an attack east of Dover along the Charlotte Road and south of Dover near the Forge Road. Shortly after day-break, Pillow initiated the attack against the Union right flank, followed by Buckner's attack. Although they offered stiff resistance, the Union right flank was pushed back along the Wynns Ferry Road. This map shows troop positions as they were at approximately 1:00 P.M. February 15.

A combination of circumstances snatched defeat from victory. Wallace had finally taken the initiative and moved to a blocking position astride the Wynn's Ferry Road, where he stymied the Confederate attack. The attackers ran out of momentum and Pillow, according to his interpretation, of the original plan, now ordered everyone back to the trenches preparatory to evacuation. He also noticed signs of a Federal attack on Buckner's weakly held position in the distance. Buckner, however, raised strong objection and questioned Pillow's authority to change the plan. The two generals haggled while their soldiers milled around awaiting further orders. At that point, Floyd appeared, waffled between his two subordinates, and then finally ordered all the troops back inside the defense perimeter.

Just then, Grant returned to the field. Finally found by anxious couriers, he had ridden hard over icy roads to reach the scene of catastrophe brewing on his right flank. Conferring with McClernand and Wallace, Grant sensed that the crisis in the battle, perhaps his own career, had been reached. He saw McClernand's men "standing in knots" talking excitedly with no officers giving any directions. He also noted in his postwar memoirs that the soldiers had their muskets but no ammunition although "there were tons of it close at hand." Calling out to an aide to ride along the line with him, he shouted at the stunned troops: "Fill your cartridge-boxes quick, and get into line; the enemy is trying to escape and he must not be permitted to do so."



This worked like a charm. Grant also discerned from prisoners what was happening on the Confederate line and that the victorious enemy might be just as demoralized as his own men. Whoever seized the initiative at this point would achieve victory. Chomping down hard on an unlit cigar, he ordered McClernand and Wallace simply: "Gentlemen, the position on the right must be retaken." He also sent word to Foote requesting a show of force from the gunboats. "It may secure us a Victory," he noted, adding that "I must order a charge to save appearances." Grant had grasped a key point. His battered battalions only wanted "some one to give them a command." Some might be demoralized and routed, but the majority remained ready to stand and fight.

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The way of escape was open, but the Confederate generals began to argue and debate their next move. While they debated, Union general Grant arrived. He found that his right flank had been pushed off the battlefield. Grant correctly assessed the situation. He concluded that it was an escape attempt. He therefore ordered the lost ground to be retaken. He further decided that the Confederates must have massed most of their army in an attempt to break out. Grant thought the area opposite his left flank must be poorly defended. He ordered General Smith to attack. By day's end, the Confederates had been pushed back into their defenses and their right flank was in the hands of the Union division under General Smith. Unconditional surrender was not long in coming.

Grant also recognized the weakness of Buckner's trench line as he rode over to C. F. Smith's position. He found his old friend passively whittling on a stick beneath a tree as if nothing unusual was taking place. Grant informed him that prisoners and the full complement of equipment found on Rebel dead indicated a breakout attempt but that the enemy had thrown all of their strength against McClernand. If Smith could now assault the trenches before him, he would find little opposition. "All has failed on the right, you must take Fort Donelson," Grant told Smith. Jumping to his feet, the other brigadier responded: "I will do it!" and moved quickly to organize the assault. As the sounds of renewed battle indicated a counterattack by Wallace and McClernand, Smith personally led his division up the steep slope leading to Buckner's trenches near the Eddyville Road. With battle flags fluttering in the February breeze, the long lines of blue ascended slowly but steadily, whipped on by Smith's bellows: "Damn you, gentlemen, I see skulkers!" One young participant declared later that he was nearly scared to death, "but I saw the Old Man's white mustache over his shoulder and went on." Neither logs and brush clogging the hillside nor the Tennesseans behind the entrenchments could cool the ardor of these men.



Smith's attackers smashed through the small Confederate holding force from the 30th Tennessee as Corporal Voltaire P. Twombley of the 2d Iowa led them over the works. He "took the colors after three of the color guard had fallen . . . and although almost instantly knocked down by a spent ball, immediately rose and bore the colors to the end of the engagement." Thirty-three years later, the aging Hawkeye veteran would be awarded a Medal of Honor for this deed. In a flash, the vaunted Confederate outer defense line was breached and Smith stood on the verge of taking the fort itself. Then, just in time, Buckner's tired attackers returned to their sector to confront the threat. They formed a second line of defense on an adjacent ridge, containing Smith's drive. But they lacked the strength to retake their old trenches. Nor could they retrieve equipment and begin evacuation. So Buckner and Smith settled down to firing at each other across a deep ravine. By nightfall, the fight had gone out of both sides.

Meanwhile, the battle on the Union right also stabilized. Lew Wallace led the counterattack, in this case in loose or "zouave" order. But Bushrod Johnson's men had spent their energy of the morning, conducting a fighting withdrawal but incapable of throwing back the Union attackers. Once back in their lines, they massed infantry and artillery fire to check Wallace's drive by dusk. Therefore, the Federals could accomplish little more than to reoccupy the ground lost during the day's action. Caring for the casualties and reorganizing units occupied both sides that evening. Out on the bitterly cold field, wounded like Lieutenant James O. Churchill of the 11th Illinois could only lie incapacitated, waiting for rescue or death. Churchill recalled that he passed the night reciting Thomas Campbell's poem about the cold December battle of Hohenlinden and reviewing Napoleon's return from Moscow. He survived, but countless others did not, freezing to death through no fault of their own. Pillow's so-called battle of Dover had claimed 3,000 casualties for the two sides without having accomplished much of anything as a result.

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