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NPS History E-Library

Civil War Series

The Campaign for Fort Donelson



Two sharp infantry attacks and a naval bombardment marked the first day's battle at Fort Donelson. This was seen as a test of Confederate strength and defenses but not a pitched battle.

Two sharp infantry attacks and a naval bombardment marked the first day's battle at Fort Donelson. This was seen as a test of Confederate strength and defenses but not a pitched battle. All three of the actions began in the morning and continued into the afternoon, set against a back drop of continuous and crackling sharpshooter fire and occasional artillery bursts. Smith and McClernand were to demonstrate but not attack the enemy. They almost immediately disregarded these orders from Grant. The army commander also instructed Commander Henry Walke and the Carondelet to make a diversionary bombardment of the fort to enable the land forces to complete their encirclement. Walke drew heavy fire from Haynes's water battery gunners without accomplishing much, but as the soldier's slang of the day would have it, "the ball was opened." As it turned out, the main land fights were of greatest interest since they indicated that Fort Donelson's investment might be more difficult than anticipated.

The initial fight began on C. F. Smith's front as his division tried to move closer to Buckner's position in the Eddyville Road sector. No one had decent maps, and to uncover Confederate battery positions, Smith directed a Missouri artillery unit to shell the defenses. Then, after a hearty breakfast, the white-haired brigadier ordered a simultaneous advance of Jacob Lauman's and John Cook's brigades. Out marched the enthusiastic Northerners in battle array, a clear violation of Grant's instructions not to bring on a major battle. A mere reconnaissance had become a seemingly full-blown assault. Soon, the underbrush and Confederate abatis of entwined tree branches stymied the advance. A hot fire from the defenders in the entrenchments also disorganized Smith's movement. By late afternoon, Lauman and Cook had successfully extricated their men from a nasty firefight, leaving nearly a hundred dead comrades on the hillside before Buckner's works.

The thrill of first battle was muted for both sides by sights and sounds of the first casualties. Even Walke's Carondelet and the water batteries suffered losses as a prominent Confederate gun captain was cut down by a screw-tap loosened by the explosion of a Union shell and one 128-pound Confederate projectile knifed through the gunboat's side, skipping about like a wild animal, wounding several seamen with wood splinters and bursting a steam heater before dropping, still hissing, over the side and into the water. Young gunboat crewmen learned quickly that the ironclads offered no haven from danger. Out in the woods, the redoubtable Bedford Forrest—just beginning to earn fame as one of the finest and toughest soldiers of the war—drew blood. Annoyed by one pesky marksman from the famed Birge's Western Sharpshooters, he borrowed a Maynard rifle from one of his command and shot the offender out of a tree. Hunter's garb, gray-coated camouflage uniform, and woods savvy were not enough to save this Yankee sharpshooter, it seemed.


Artillery fire also sounded that morning in McClernand's sector as his men undertook to march around Dover via the Wynn's Ferry and Pinery Roads. Illinois cavalrymen first caught sight of the Cumberland as they mounted Dudley's Hill, and they quickly drew fire from the Confederate entrenchments and artillery positions in that sector. One especially nettlesome battery—that of Captain Frank Maney's Humphrey County Tennesseans—peppered McClernand's marching Federals with long-range fire. McClernand determined to put an end to this impertinence. In defiance of Grant's instructions once again, he sent a brigade crashing through debris-clogged ravines against the main Confederate position in an attempt to silence the offending guns. Colonel William R. Morrison's Illinoisans made the assault under the personal leadership of Colonel Isham N. Haynie, sweeping down from the Wynn's Ferry Road into Erin Hollow in parade-ground formation.



The fight ended in fifteen minutes. As with Smith's "reconnaissance in force," abatis, accurate enemy fire, poorly disciplined attackers, and unfavorable terrain cut the Haynie-Morrison attack to ribbons. Another 150 Federal dead littered the hillside near the offending battery's position. But here, dry leaves caught fire during the fighting and threatened a cruel death to the wounded attackers. When the shooting ceased, humane Confederates leaped from behind their works and rushed out into no-man's-land to rescue their erstwhile enemies. It was a strange war between fellow Americans, for minutes later the two sides were back shooting at each other. That evening, a disgruntled Grant encountered two slightly wounded Illinois boys making their way to the rear. "You look disfigured," he accused them, "been hunting bear?" Yes, replied one of the men, muttering that they had the critter "treed" and would bring him down the next day. Grant chuckled at such midwestern pluck and grunted that he hoped that they had not hurt anybody. The other soldier smiled, adding that he reckoned he had just scared them into a dead faint!

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