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NPS History E-Library

Civil War Series

The Campaign for Fort Donelson



News of Fort Donelson's fall soon echoed across the Union and the Confederacy. Northern newsmen and artists had joined the expeditionary force, and they lost no time in interviewing and sketching participants, impressions of battle, and events attending the surrender that could be transmitted back home. Women nurses such as "Mother" Bickerdyke and Mary Newcomb soon arrived with representatives from aid societies to care for the injured. War trophies were everywhere, many finding their way into homeward-bound mail pouches. Northern victory bells pealed and bonfires blazed in recognition of the glorious victory while to Southerners, the news sent shock waves of dismay and disbelief. Jefferson Davis admitted: "Events have cast on our arms and hopes the gloomiest of shadows." Scores of households everywhere mourned the loss of loved ones who would not return to fill "the vacant chair."

Truly, the meaning of Fort Donelson could not be measured by heavy casualty figures as would many subsequent battles. Perhaps 27,000 Federals ultimately faced 21,000 Confederates. Possibly 2,600 of the former were killed or wounded compared with an estimated 2,000 of the latter. Approximately, 14,000 to 15,000 Southerners were sent north by steamboat and train to hastily established prison compounds at Alton and Camp Douglas, Illinois, Camp Morton at Indianapolis, Indiana, and Camp Chase, Ohio. Johnson's Island, Ohio, and Fort Warren, Massachusetts, received the officers. The surrender also yielded an estimated 400,000 rations of rice, 300,000 rations of beef, and 150,000 rations of pork, as well as 400 barrels of new molasses and 20 hogsheads of sugar. Counting cannon captured at Fort Henry and, after Fort Donelson, upriver at Clarksville, upward of seventy-five pieces of artillery fell into Federal hands on the twin rivers. All such war booty took time to inventory, and Grant's troops spent the next few weeks securing the material, recovering from the battles, and getting organized for the next move. Most important of all, a corps-size element of the western Confederate army had been swept from the chessboard because of the two surrenders.



The fruits of victory became obvious within two weeks of the surrender at Fort Donelson, Foote soon ventured upstream to take possession of Clarksville, Tennessee, and together with Grant visited Nashville, vacated by Johnston and occupied by Buell's slowly advancing army by February 25. Along the twin rivers, Federal forces liberated the first slaves and destroyed the first civilian property—iron works and rolling mills—both labeled "contraband of war" because of their role in the Confederate war effort. Ironically, the facilities belonged to John Bell, one of the candidates for president of the United States in the 1860 election. Because of this train of events, the Confederate theater commander declared the loss of Forts Henry and Donelson as irretrievable. All he could do at that point was retire with Hardee's bedraggled force to regroup in northern Mississippi, where they were eventually joined by the Columbus garrison, evacuated on March 2.


The one bright spot to emerge from the disasters at Forts Henry and Donelson for the Confederacy was Colonel (later Lieutenant General) Nathan Bedford Forrest. Escaping with some 1,000 of his own men as well as others from the doomed garrison on the Cumberland, Forrest first made his way to Nashville, where he helped restore order in that panic-stricken city and then joined General Albert Sidney Johnston's retreating army to Alabama. He subsequently became perhaps the most famous cavalryman in the western theater and achieved independent command of the West Tennessee and northern Mississippi theater of operations late in the war. An untutored genius at war, Forrest was not a West Pointer but a citizen-soldier like most of the participants on both sides of the struggle.

Forrest had to overcome countless challenges not only during the Civil War but over his whole lifetime. Rough-hewn in manner, ferocious in combat, Forrest spawned many controversies. Yet they reflected this independent warrior's rise to prominence during the most turbulent period in our nation's history. From the very beginning, he represented the arduous life of the Southern backcountry. Born in Chapel Hill, Tennessee, on July 13, 1821, he was the son of a backwoods blacksmith living on the edge of poverty. Forrest's boyhood was hard with barely six months' formal education. He was thrust into responsibility for his family at age sixteen when his father died. Variously engaged with an uncle in business at Hernando, Mississippi, and later, on his own as a prosperous slave trader in Memphis, Tennessee, Forrest eventually acquired a plantation in Coahoma County, Mississippi, and assumed public positions as constable, coroner, militia officer, and Memphis alderman. Still, when Tennessee seceded from the Union, he chose to enlist as a private in the ranks, principally to defend his homeland.

Governor Isham G. Harris soon authorized Forrest to recruit what became the 3d Tennessee Cavalry, and in early actions in Kentucky in late 1861, he displayed the qualities that would mark his military career—tenacious in fighting with the enemy and rapid employment of envelopment tactics. His reputation for hard combat blossomed at Fort Donelson and later at Shiloh, where he suffered a severe wound during the closing phase of that battle. When he returned to the army and command of what would be simply styled Forrest's cavalry brigade, he staged a daring raid on the Union garrison at Murfreesboro, Tennessee, on July 13, 1862, winning promotion to brigadier general for his success. Indeed, together with another intrepid Confederate cavalryman, John Hunt Morgan (later joined by Joseph Wheeler as the triad of mounted knights leading the resurgence of Southern fortunes in the western theater), Forrest became renowned for daring mounted raids against scattered Union detachments guarding lines of communication and strategic hamlets in the region.

Forrest crossed the Tennessee River into West Tennessee in December 1862. For two and one-half weeks, he crippled Major General Ulysses S. Grant's supply lines and stymied the initial campaign against Vicksburg, Mississippi. Combining bluster and bluff with tough fighting, Forrest's cavalry wrecked bridges and depots, ripped up miles of railroad track, burned supplies, and captured hundreds of hapless Federals unable to cope with his whirlwind assaults. Moreover, Forrest and his men eluded pursuers until brought to bay at Parker's Crossroads on December 31. Remarkably, he snatched victory from defeat by escaping with the majority of his command. The toll on his troops' endurance and resources perhaps crippled Forrest's efforts to collaborate effectively with Wheeler in a winter raid on the line of the Cumberland River, however. This endeavor ended disastrously for their combined efforts with the serious rebuff at Dover, near the old Fort Donelson, on February 3, 1863.

Nevertheless, Forrest's recovery came quickly with Middle Tennessee victories at Thompson Station and Brentwood as well as his successful capture of Union colonel Abel Straight's force across northern Alabama and into northwest Georgia in April and May. Here, Forrest displayed his trademarks of rapid movement, ruse, and deception to persuade a numerically superior force to surrender. Couriers from non-existent units and brisk display of forces before Straight's very eyes inflated the enemy's sense of entrapment. They suggested Forrest's ability to control a situation completely and to break the fighting will of his opponent. Here, Forrest was in his element. When subsequently required to operate more directly with General Braxton Bragg's Army of Tennessee, the "wizard of the saddle" performed less enthusiastically. Although he contributed to Bragg's singular success over William S. Rosecrans at Chickamauga on September 19-20, 1863, Forrest's failure to convince Bragg that rapid pursuit of the defeated foe would annihilate him produced a bitter altercation between the two men. Forrest's denunciation of Bragg led to his exile under the guise of transfer to independent command in Mississippi.

Forrest was called upon once more literally to raise a command as he constructed his famed cavalry corps of new recruits and conscripts around a nucleus of veterans. Now a major general, dating from December 4, 1863, he led raids against Federal communications and supply lines in Tennessee and Alabama and stopped various Union raids into Mississippi for much of the following year. One raid in April 1864 resulted in the infamous capture of Fort Pillow north of Memphis and subsequent slaughter of both white Tennessee Unionist soldiers and their African American comrades. Modern interpretation generally agrees that Forrest lost control of his troops in this situation. The internecine hatred of Confederate for Unionist Tennesseans was matched in tragedy by white Southerners conviction that blacks under arms (whether in uniform or not) constituted slave rebellion, punishable under antebellum law and culture by death. In any event, Fort Pillow would forever be a blot on Forrest's escutcheon. In June 1864, Forrest routed a superior force of infantry and cavalry under Brigadier General Samuel Sturgis at Brice's Cross Roads, Mississippi. The next month he thwarted another invasion column under Major General Andrew J. Smith at Tupelo, or Harrisburg, Mississippi, where Forrest suffered another wound. The intent of these Federal operations was to prevent Forrest from raiding the Tennessee supply lines of William T. Sherman, then actively campaigning to capture the strategic Confederate rail and supply center at Atlanta, Georgia. Forrest was kept busy and away from Sherman's rear. Only in the autumn could he return to attacking railroads in northern Alabama and Middle Tennessee, climaxing such activity with the capture of the Union supply base at Johnsonville, Tennessee (upriver from old Forts Henry and Heiman), on November 3, 1863.


In many ways, Johnsonville was Forrest's pièce de resistance. Once more bluff and clever employment of his forces, including use of captured Federal river craft, secured a brilliant Confederate victory. This so-called Johnsonville raid netted 4 gunboats, 14 steamboats, 33 artillery pieces, 150 prisoners, and over 75,000 tons of supplies. Total damages to the supply depot itself approximated $6.7 million. In one historian's opinion, this event showed Forrest's ingenuity and strength of purpose while strengthening his reputation as one of the Civil War's top field commanders. Then Forrest had to cut short his Johnsonville foray to join John Bell Hood's disastrous Tennessee campaign that foundered before the state capital in mid-December. Somewhat questionably employed for an independent thrust to capture nearby Murfreesboro while the main army idly awaited George H. Thomas' powerful and decisive battle of annihilation, Forrest nevertheless returned to conduct a brilliant rear guard operation that ensured escape for a remnant of the Army of Tennessee back to Alabama. Thereafter, Forrest reorganized his cavalry to defend Mississippi as the war reached its final stages. He was promoted to lieutenant general to date from February 28, 1865, but his enfeebled command could not stop Brigadier General James Harrison Wilson's cavalry raid, which moved across Alabama (in the image of Forrest's own style) to destroy Selma, another Confederate logistical center, in March and April. Forrest recovered in time to surrender his survivors at Gainesville, Alabama, in May.

After the war, Forrest sought to recover his fortune and life during Reconstruction, engaging in various business ventures and promoting the Selma, Marion, and Memphis Railroad as its president.

Ever active and controversial, he became the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and campaigned to restore white Conservative Democratic power in the South. He died in Memphis on October 29, 1877. There an equestrian statute erected in his memory continues to arouse strong feelings in the community because of its symbolic presence. He was an outspoken advocate of speed and ferocity in warfare—the phrase "war means fighting and fighting means killing" attributed to him captures well the spirit and appeal of this intrepid raider. Truly a "wizard of the saddle," Forrest may well have advocated "getting their first with the most" as a simple but effective maxim of war. Harsh, even brutal, Forrest was known to respond personally to any affront to his honor. He bragged of personally killing thirty enemy soldiers. This Confederate hero of Fort Donelson inspired his men by personal valor, ability with hand-to-hand combat, and determination to win victory. Nathan Bedford Forrest personified speed, daring, and independence of action as a Confederate cavalry leader. Yet his sinister side at Fort Pillow and with the postwar Ku Klux Klan also suggested the complexities of a turbulent man in a turbulent era when politics and race combined with war to create a dark and bloody ground in the Southern heartland.

Certainly in one brilliant stroke, Union forces had rolled back Confederate territory hundreds of miles. All of Kentucky and most of Tennessee were clear of Confederate defenders.

Certainly, in one brilliant stroke, Union forces had rolled back Confederate territory hundreds of miles. All of Kentucky and most of Tennessee were clear of Confederate defenders. Gone were the rich granaries, the railroad lines, and many industrial facilities. Nashville became the first Confederate state capital to fall, reputedly costing the Confederacy $5,000,000 in lost assets. Such losses sapped the willpower and loyalty of many residents to the Southern cause. Beauregard told a congressional friend that "we must defeat the enemy somewhere to give confidence to our friends." The Confederate commissioner in Paris, John Slidell, wrote home in March: "I need not say how unfavorable an influence these defeats, following in quick succession, have produced on public sentiment" in Europe. If not soon counterbalanced by some decisive victory, he warned, the Confederacy could forget any early international recognition.

Southerners now realized that a long war lay ahead. They sought scapegoats for the recent disasters. Floyd, Pillow, and even Johnston felt the sting of derogatory newspaper editorials, congressional investigations, and other public denunciation. "We are now at the beginning of the 'wild hour coming on,'" wrote one Mississippi planter, admitting that he had pretty much given up since Forts Henry and Donelson were captured. Colonel Roger Hanson had fought under Pillow in Mexico, and he declared from prison that to be under the Tennessean's command once in a lifetime was a misfortune but twice was more than human nature could bear! Floyd and Pillow were chastised for their actions, incurring congressional censure, and banished from future positions of high command. Buckner and Tilghman, by contrast, would emerge from imprisonment with respect and return to field command. Johnston kept silent publicly, permitting his friend the Confederate president to shield him from public ire. His attempted redemption though the counteroffensive in April ended with his tragic death at Shiloh. Thus passed any chance for answering his critics and regaining his lost reputation resulting from the Forts Henry and Donelson campaign.


As for the prisoners of war, their incarceration lasted about six months. While Buckner, Tilghman, and other officers enjoyed liberal, rather easy conditions at Fort Warren, their men endured cramped living quarters, poor prison food, and ill treatment from prison guards. A rather cavalier conduct of prisoner affairs at this point in the war permitted some contact with home. The prisoners were prohibited from discussing political affairs and the war, but they could receive letters, newspapers, clothing, and other personal items, even money. Inside the prison camps, there was much leisure time for reflection, exercise, and games as well as penning prison journals, in order, said Tennessee engineer J. A. Haydon, to prevent "the rust of Prison life" from eating inwardly on the heart and conscience. Captain John H. Guy, the Virginia artillery man imprisoned at Johnson's Island, noted that many of the games there reminded him of his youth but did not tempt him from his studies. A college graduate, Guy ordered reading material sent to his men at Camp Douglas so as to improve their minds during captivity.


Several regimental mascots accompanied prisoners to the camps. A pet rooster and various dogs helped maintain morale and, mostly to a man, the Rebel prisoners remained cocky. One Kentuckian, when questioned about a prewar occupation by the Camp Chase adjutant, replied disdainfully, "Lawyer, hell! I'm a gentleman. Put down my occupation as 'Southern gentleman.'" Still others in a Tennessee regiment refused to march into prison under a carefully hung United States flag, parting instead to pass to the sides and thus avoid any appearance of tribute or allegiance. Tennessee major C. W. Robertson wrote confidently in a colleague's autograph book at Fort Warren that the Southern cause being just, her people brave, "her ultimate triumph is certain, though forty Fort Donelsons shall fall." By autumn, most of these prisoners had been sent down the Mississippi to Vicksburg under prisoner exchange arrangements. Many subsequently reformed their old units and went back into Confederate service. Others, having experienced enough war, returned home quietly to resume civilian lives. Some joined partisan or guerrilla or home guard contingents.


Guerrilla warfare became widespread throughout much of Kentucky and Tennessee as the main battles moved further south. A Union Fort Donelson arose between the old Confederate earthworks and the town of Dover. It was intended to protect the river traffic from enemy cavalry and guerrilla raids. For a time, even Dover itself became an armed camp and the scene in February 1863 of a futile attempt to reestablish Confederate control of the Cumberland. At this time, Confederate cavalry under Joseph Wheeler and Nathan Bedford Forrest suffered a stinging rebuff from an outnumbered Union garrison. The Union accordingly retained possession of the twin rivers area for the remainder of the war. Clarksville, Dover, and Forts Henry, Heiman, and Donelson became positions from which units like the 2d Iowa cavalry and the 83d Indiana policed the area, reestablished law and order, and continued to chase shadowy brigands. Fort Henry provided a coaling station for the navy, charged with patrolling the rivers in light gunboats in an effort to keep supply lines open to Nashville and the armies operating beyond.

The Federal government also set up a refugee camp and enlistment depot for former slaves at Fort Donelson. As early as March 1862, the War Department sought to provide a proper resting place for Union dead from Fort Donelson. Five years later, once the turmoil of war had abated, some 670 remains (512 unknown) were placed in a national cemetery literally on the site of the Federal fort. Needless to say, Forts Henry and Donelson never became household words in the postwar South—except, perhaps, as objects of scorn and derision.

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