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NPS History E-Library

Civil War Series

The Campaign for Fort Donelson



Albert Sidney Johnston was shocked by the sudden turn of events. He realized that Fort Donelson would be the next Union objective. Moreover, Grant's victory at Fort Henry collapsed the Confederate forward defense in Kentucky. Polk's position at Columbus and isolated detachments at Russellville, Kentucky, and Clarksville, Tennessee, as well as the larger Central Army of Kentucky at Bowling Green, were each threatened with separate defeat by being outflanked by the wedge of Grant's victory. Nashville's survival depended on Fort Donelson, since town officials and wealthy landowners of the vicinity had done nothing to prepare rear area defenses. Johnston's own engineer, Major (later Major General) Jeremy Gilmer, had wasted precious time surveying but not actually constructing any earthworks of substance, and the planters claimed other uses for their slaves in harvest time. Like everywhere in the region, such efforts for further protecting the state capital had languished. Now, in February, it was too late.


Johnston called a war council at the Covington House in Bowling Green on February 7. Beauregard had now arrived—but with only his personal staff, not the fifteen regiments of reinforcements. He joined Johnston and other leaders in discussing whether the strategic battle for the West should take place on the Cumberland. The Creole general thought it should. Johnston and others argued that their only recourse was withdrawal from Kentucky, abandonment of Nashville, and reconcentration far to the south where the east-west Memphis and Charleston Railroad made possible a concentration of forces and mobilization of new resources from all over the theater. Then they would undertake some grand counteroffensive against the invaders. What resulted from this pivotal conference was a decision to buy time for Hardee's Central Army of Kentucky to retreat through Nashville to north Alabama. Beauregard, suffering from a severe throat ailment and hardly up for any major activity, would coordinate a similar withdrawal from Columbus and reconcentration in northern Mississippi. Meanwhile, Johnston directed four subordinates and their commands to cover these movements by going to the Cumberland and blocking Grant.

Johnston once again chose not to go in person to the threatened area. He sent others to contain the Union thrust. Brigadier General John B. Floyd, with his veteran Virginia brigade, and Kentucky brigadier and West Point graduate Simon Bolivar Buckner's units from Russellville were to join whatever contingents were already concentrated at Fort Donelson in the wake of the Fort Henry disaster. Here, Tennessee brigadier Gideon J. Pillow and troops from Hopkinsville and Clarksville were already attempting to bring order from chaos. A fourth one-star general, the little-known Bushrod Johnson (who had been the scapegoat for Fort Henry's poor positioning), also moved forward from Nashville to join the others at Dover near the fort. Floyd became the senior commander, with Pillow next in rank, and such divided command promised difficulties once the battle was joined. Each general had a different idea of what Johnston wanted done, and the theater commander was by no means clear in his directives. Yet everyone knew at least that upward of 17,000 to 18,000 Confederates were being concentrated to face Grant's army.



Pillow and Johnson undertook to construct a line of outer trenches to defend the land approach to Fort Donelson. This was a new dimension since before the main focus had been the river approach.

Both generals were determined to yield no additional Tennessee soil to their opponents. Pillow, a politician in uniform with low repute for his Mexican War service was nonetheless an inspirational organizer. He quickly got the dispirited garrison working day and night fortifying a series of ridges lying behind the main works on the river, even to the point of encompassing Dover itself. Drive back the ruthless invader from our soil and again raise the Confederate flag over Fort Henry, Pillow sternly told the garrison. He expected every man to do his duty and not surrender the fort. "Our battle cry, 'Liberty or death,'" was Pillow's resonant challenge.

Commanding gullies and ravines and flooded backwater creeks, the new land defenses could be formidable when manned by a field army.

Commanding gullies and ravines and flooded backwater creeks, the new land defenses could be formidable when manned by a field army. In fact, with the addition of those sprawling new works, the position quickly became more an armed camp than a true fortress. Fort Donelson itself was an earthen work like Fort Henry and potentially open to siege. True, the upper and lower water batteries could send a plunging cannon fire upon any gunboats advancing up the Cumberland. But absent reinforcement by a major force such as Hardee's or Polk's armies, or resupply via the handful of steamboats left to the Confederates on the Cumberland, it was only a matter of time—stand and fight Grant to effect a delay and then escape; or remain too long and surrender. Herein would lie the seeds of dissension and confusion among the four Confederate brigadiers.


There was no doubt in Pillow's view. He even wired his old friend Governor Harris: "I will never surrender the position, and with God's help I mean to maintain it." But Floyd and Buckner had already discussed their interpretation of Johnston's instructions before leaving Russellville. They wanted to concentrate the defenders not at Fort Donelson but upriver at Cumberland City, where the Memphis railroad branch afforded more accessible means of retreat or reinforcement. A token garrison at the fort could occupy Grant's attention while the mobile force at Cumberland City could operate against Grant's line of communications stretching back to Fort Henry.

Pillow reacted angrily when he heard of this scheme. He and Buckner detested each other from prewar political squabbles. Floyd proved incapable of resolving the impasse. Then news arrived of Grant's overland advance from Fort Henry. There was no choice but to fight it out at Fort Donelson. Sidney Johnston himself would write President Davis a month later claiming: "I determined to fight for Nashville at Donelson, and gave the best part of my army to do it." But posterity would be baffled as to how Johnston precisely intended to do this as the crucial confrontation unfolded on the banks of the Cumberland. Johnston himself was busy helping Hardee shepherd the major part of his army on its southward retreat. During much of the time he was unreachable by telegraph.

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