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NPS History E-Library

Civil War Series

The Campaign for Fort Donelson



Grant and Foote were unable to move immediately on Fort Donelson by February 8 as they promised Halleck. High water and impassable roads kept Union soldiers seeking higher ground around Fort Henry for their camps and equipment. Then too, Foote took all of his gunboats except the Carondelet back to Cairo for repairs. During this time, Halleck and his departmental officers rushed reinforcements and supplies upriver to the expedition. Veteran units from Missouri as well as recruits hardly finished with basic training hustled aboard steamboats destined for Fort Henry. Halleck was very concerned about Grant's vulnerability to a Confederate counterattack. He requested Buell to begin advancing down the railroad from Louisville to create a diversion. Meanwhile, Grant remained optimistic. "I intend to keep the ball moving as lively as possible," he wrote his sister on February 9, from "away down in Dixie." Pillow commanded at Fort Donelson, he told her, and "I hope to give him a tug before you receive this."



She had no conception of the amount of labor he had to perform, what with "an army of men all helpless, looking to the commanding officer for every supply." Still, "your plain brother has as yet no reason to feel himself unequal to the task," he added, and "fully believes that he will carry on a successful campaign against our rebel enemy." This was not a boast, Grant concluded, but a presentiment.

Nevertheless, the delay became onerous to all concerned. Grant reconnoitered the countryside around Fort Henry and especially the roads to Dover. He also consulted with his subordinates, Smith, McClernand, and Wallace. The troops were restless, Grant was fidgety, and everyone wanted to move on to capture Fort Donelson. McClernand, who coveted Grant's command, maneuvered so as to be seen as the strategist making quick work of the remaining fort. Under such pressure, Grant issued orders to march via the Ridge and Telegraph Roads on February 12. Now, accompanied by mild weather and quickly drying roads, McClernand and Smith set out with their commands, leaving Wallace and 2,500 men to guard the Fort Henry base. The way to Fort Donelson and Dover lay over steep hills and deep ravines. But an air of gaiety pervaded the march as it seemed like a picture-book war in Dixie. Soldiers jettisoned excess overcoats and blankets. Nowhere did the Confederates seriously attempt to impede their passage.

At this same time, Foote and his gun boats were escorting troop transports carrying reinforcements up the Cumberland. The Carondelet preceded the waterborne column with orders to announce its arrival to Grant by throwing a few shells at Fort Donelson. By the evening of February 12, Grant's land force had moved virtually unopposed to the outskirts of the Confederate position surrounding Dover. Then McClernand's cavalry patrols ran into resistance about a mile from the defenses when troopers under the rugged but as yet unsung Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest set up a roadblock. Arrival of Union infantry soon forced the gray-clad horsemen back inside the perimeter. Remembering Pillow's ineptitude during the Mexican War, Grant had boasted that he would march to Fort Donelson unopposed. The Tennessee politician-general was absent at that moment, having gone to Cumberland City to argue with Floyd for standing firm at the fort. But he had left Buckner in charge with orders to avoid pitched battle. The Kentuckian did so, and the Union besiegers arrived without much difficulty.



Slowly, Smith and McClernand took positions to carry out Grant's plan. They would surround the fort and wait for Foote and his gunboats to repeat their easy Fort Henry victory. The navy could batter the Confederates into submission. In Grant's view, this would save time and lives. As the army commander and his staff set up headquarters at the widow Crisp's cabin on a slope along the eastern bank of Hickman Creek behind Smith's line, the rattle of musketry cut through the otherwise calm winter evening to announce the first contact between the two armies. The stage was set when the Carondelet briefly announced the navy's presence. Slowly, Smith's soldiers edged up a high ridge closer to the rifle pits held by Buckner's division closest to the fort. McClernand's people began to march toward their right to reach the river above the town. With night descending, however, and lacking complete information on the situation, Grant's army soon settled down to await daylight when they could complete their encirclement of the Confederate force.

That night, the Federals peered across the intervening ravines at the luminous campfires in the Confederates' armed camp beyond the earthworks. The Southerners were backed up against the river with avenues of escape fast disappearing. But they had come here to fight not to run, and down at the river, Lieutenant Colonel Milton Haynes kept his water battery gunners at work if only to boost morale for facing the dreaded Yankee gun boats the next day. On the river itself, two remaining steamboats left to Confederate service shuttled Floyd's Virginians in from Cumberland City amid flaming torches and cheers from the shoreline. When Floyd arrived in person at dawn on Thursday, February 13, he set up headquarters in a picturesque hotel near the upper steamboat landing and assessed the situation.


John Floyd was an antebellum politician from southwest Virginia and the pre-war United States secretary of war now accused of treason for shipping large quantities of ordnance and supplies to Southern arsenals, where they quickly fell to the insurgents in 1861. He was no soldier. True, he was respected in some political circles and his brigade had been bloodied in fighting the previous autumn in the western part of his home state. But now he faced a difficult mission with a mixed force of veterans and recruits—and at a location he considered "illy chosen, out of position, and entirely indefensible by any re-enforcement." He had bowed to Pillow's pressure to defend Volunteer State soil to the death. And Floyd knew that he must hold out until Johnston sent word that the Bowling Green army had safely evacuated the region and cleared Nashville. But his was a race with time and his inspection of the Confederate position at Fort Donelson and Dover that early February morning quickly became merely cursory as the day ripened with crisp sounds of skirmish fire.

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