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NPS History E-Library

Civil War Series

The Campaign for Fort Donelson



The young soldiers on both sides had now seen the elephant. They had gained their first real taste of war. Many, like Grant's personal servant, a broken-English-speaking immigrant named "French John," muttered that he now had "no more curiosity; it is satisfied; it is all gone." The dead, the dying, the cheerless living huddled together through yet another blustery night beside the Cumberland. Nothing much had changed about the battle lines. They were where they had been in the morning, except for Smith's lodgment. More important, the escape routes on the opposite end of the battlefield remained wide open to the Confederates although they did not know it.

Indeed, those gray-clad warriors felt betrayed by the sudden change in fortune. Why had they returned to the entrenchments? Victory had been theirs, escape so close, so sure. They had not been bested in battle, merely shuffling back for the night, content that their leaders would order them out again the next day and complete the job they had begun. Indeed, Floyd telegraphed Albert Sidney Johnston about the day's success and issued orders to begin evacuation at 4:00 A.M. It seemed that at last, someone among the Confederate generals had given a simple, direct order with a set time for escape. Floyd also sent scouts to ascertain the exact Federal positions, and then he called yet another war council.


Then, conflicting rumors and reports of renewed enemy activity out on the perimeter began to filter into Floyd's headquarters. The weary generals descended into gloom and confusion. Pillow counseled renewed fighting and holding their position. He did not want to yield a foot of Tennessee soil. But an increasingly despondent Buckner told of Smith's breakthrough and an enemy massed to crush his wing of the army on the morrow. Scouts arrived with word that "the enemy's campfires could be seen at the same places in front of our left that they had occupied Friday." Forrest, for one, doubted such reports because his own patrols earlier had found only stragglers and wounded grouped around those rekindled fires out on the Forge Road. Yet, other information suggested that the flooded backwaters of creeks and sloughs would prevent passage of some escape routes for the army. Floyd's medical director estimated that only about 25 percent would reach Nashville alive. Frostbite and pneumonia would claim the rest!



Because there were not enough river boats or other craft to ferry the besieged army across the Cumberland (the only two boats available had earlier carried wounded upriver to Clarksville, returning with a raw Mississippi regiment as reinforcement), and with all the roads seemingly blocked or impassable, the situation was grim. The full weakness of a divided Confederate command surfaced. The scene in the war council now approached bittersweet comedy, even opéra bouffe. Buckner, stripped of his usual aggressiveness, perhaps because of fatigue, felt that further fighting would only waste lives. Floyd agreed with Bruckner, both generals rationalizing that the army had fulfilled its mission to buy time for Johnston. Pillow bowed to the pressure, declaring that "there is only one alternative, that is capitulation," but vowing not to be party to it, since he believed that no two individuals in the Confederacy were more sought by the United States government for punishment than he and Floyd. True, Floyd was under indictment for his prewar actions as secretary of war but Pillow's situation remains unclear. At any rate, Buckner chose to play the martyr's role, stating it was his duty to remain with his men and share their fate. Nobody consulted the fourth brigadier, Bushrod Johnson, who was somewhere out on the defense line, preparing for eventual evacuation. Nathan Bedford Forrest became so disgusted with the discussion that he stamped out into the night, proclaiming loudly that he would take his cavalry out of the trap or die in the attempt!


Floyd, Pillow, and Buckner wasted more time trying to decide on wording for their official reports that might improve their image. Having satisfied themselves that no moral issues attended their actions, the generals rapidly passed command from Floyd to Pillow to Buckner. The Kentuckian granted permission to anyone who wanted to leave the garrison as long as they did so before he began negotiations with Grant. He then called for pen, paper, and bugler. Rumors were already spreading among the soldiers preparing for the evacuation, and the sight of a courier carrying a white flag headed for Federal lines "caused us to think all was not well," according to one man in the 3d Tennessee. Lieutenant Colonel Randall McGavock of the 10th Tennessee was more blunt. Impatient about events, he "began to smell a rat." So men singly and in pairs began passing off up the riverbank on their own, trying to escape.

The appearance of other white flags all along the trenches at dawn caught everyone off guard. Asked by Captain R. L. McClung of the 15th Arkansas what this meant, one artilleryman shot back: "We are all surrendered G—d d—m you, that's what it means." Still others raved and cursed, according to Virginia battery commander John Henry Guy, while soldiers from the 1st Mississippi openly wept and officers broke their swords and tossed them away. The majority just stood around in silent shock. When Major Nathaniel Cheairs (who was to lead the party to find Grant) questioned the proper bugle call for parley, a thoroughly irritated Colonel John C. Brown turned to the regimental band bugler of the 3d Tennessee and told him to blow every bugle call he knew. "And, if that wouldn't do—to blow his d—n brains out," he added.

Obviously, tempers were short in Confederate lines that morning. Once Cheairs's party reached Federal lines, they found the besiegers preparing for a renewed assault on the works. This was C. F. Smith's sector, and he vowed to the major that he would make no terms with Rebels with arms in their hands. His own personal taste was for unconditional and immediate surrender, suggested Smith. He conveyed both the Rebels and that sentiment to Grant at the Crisp house headquarters. Grant, in turn, was somewhat surprised by the sudden turn of events as well as the snappish rejoinder from his old mentor. But taking the refrain first used by Foote at Fort Henry and now Smith before Fort Donelson, Grant formally wrote Bruckner: "Yours of this date proposing Armistice and appointment of Commissioners to settle terms of Capitulation is just received. No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works."

Bucknner had held back from destroying stores and munitions, thinking that he might at least secure a parole for his half-frozen army. Now he had no choice. His men were becoming unruly.

The Union general wanted to end the affair quickly. But Buckner was deeply offended when he received Grant's uncharitable terms. This wasn't like his friend from old army days, a man whom he had helped in deep financial distress at one point. Buckner had held back from destroying stores and munitions, thinking that he might at least secure a parole for his half-frozen army. Now he had no choice. His men were becoming unruly with every passing rumor as "sorrow, humiliation, and anger" threatened to change a disciplined army into an uncontrollable mob. The Kentuckian could not delay the inevitable. So he replied somewhat petulantly that the disposition of the forces under his command resulting from the change of commanders and Grant's overwhelming superiority of numbers, "notwithstanding the brilliant success of the Confederate arms yesterday," dictated that he accept "the ungenerorus and unchivalrous terms" proposed by the Federal commander.

All the while, those Confederates seeking to escape were doing so. Forrest rode off with nearly 1,000 cavalry and infantry, successfully negotiated the reputedly impassable waters of Lick Creek, and eventually reached Nashville unscathed. Pillow and his personal staff found a skiff on the riverbank and rowed across the Cumberland and went overland to Clarksville. Arrival of that Mississippi regiment aboard the steamboat gave Floyd and most of his Virginia brigade the opportunity to get out after the unsuspecting newcomers were unceremoniously dumped ashore to join the rest of Fort Donelson's ill-fated defenders. They would go into captivity without having so much as fired a volley at the enemy! Others would escape over the next several days, including Bushrod Johnson, who slipped past Federal patrols and faded into the woods after the surrender. Some Confederates were actually carried as prisoners to St. Louis before they jumped ship and, posing as civilians, mingled with Federal reinforcements coming back upriver. It has never been determined exactly how many Confederates ultimately escaped the disaster. But in all, it was a rather tawdry affair.




Cheairs led Grant and his staff into Dover through lines of sullen, threatening Confederates. The atmosphere was so tense that Grant's personal cavalry escort rode with drawn pistols. The party went to the large double-chimneyed, two-story frame building known locally as the Dover Hotel at the upper steamboat landing. Here they found Lew Wallace already present and enjoying a breakfast of cornbread and coffee with his old friend Buckner. Commander Benjamin F. Dove of the navy had already been there before being shooed by the army brigadier. Honors this time would be taken by the army! Grant joined the gathering, bantering with Buckner about the course of the battle and finding that the Kentuckian showed little of his pique at the surrender terms. Buckner apparently chided that had he been in command, Grant would never have surrounded the fort. Grant chuckled and replied that if Bruckner had been in command, "I should not have tried in the same way that I did." The meeting between Grant and Bruckner was brief.

Eventually, the two generals discussed terms and arrangements affecting prisoner transfer and tabulation of captured stores. When queried about numbers of Confederates to be surrendered, Buckner guessed at 12,000 to 15,000 men. The prisoners were to be disarmed and collected near the upper steamboat landing. They would receive two days' rations and could keep clothing, blankets, and personal possessions while the officers could even retain their side arms. As Buckner rose to leave, Grant told his erstwhile opponent, Buckner, you are, "I know, separated from your people, and perhaps you need funds; my purse is at your disposal." The proud Confederate, unvanquished even at this moment, stiffly declined the offer. Still, it was a clear indication that the Union general remembered a similar gesture on Buckner's part from before the war. It remained a war between gentlemen in February 1862. There was not even the slightest hint of capital punishment for treason!


Thus, on that fateful Sunday morning, Grant could telegraph Halleck at St. Louis: "We have taken Fort Donelson and from 12,000 to 15,000 prisoners including Generals Buckner and Bushrod Johnson, also about 20,000 stand of arms, 48 pieces of artillery, 17 heavy guns, from 2,000 to 4,000 horses, and large quantities of commissary stores. Hearing cheering break out among his army, Grant forbade wild celebration. Still, before long, advancing columns of jubilant Federals moved into the Rebel works. The dejected Confederates stood around, liberally imbibing from whiskey and other stores. Then the two sides began a brisk trade—tobacco, bowie knives and trinkets of the new prisoners being exchanged for Yankee beef and biscuits. In the end, Mississippian Selden Spencer penned the appropriate epitaph for the affair. After four days' hard fighting without rest and exposure to severe weather and having defeated the enemy in every engagement and signally on Saturday, he noted in his journal, "with no hope of relief, exhausted, surrounded by four times our number, cut off from succor, we yielded to fate and were Prisoners of War."

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