Courtesy of the Fort Donelson 1995 Tour Guide

"No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted."
U.S. Grant
From Henry to Donelson

Bells rang jubilantly throughout the North at the news, but they were silent in Dixie. The cause: the fall of Fort Donelson in February 1862. It was the North's first major victory of the Civil War, opening the way into the very heart of the Confederacy. Just a month before, the Confederates has seemed invincible. A stalemate had existed since the Southern victories at First Manassas and Wilson's Creek in the summer of 1861. Attempts  to break the Confederate defense line, which in the west extended from southwest Missouri and the Indian Territory to the Appalachian Mountains, had achieved little success. A reconnaissance in January convinced the Union command that the most vulnerable places in the Confederacy's western line were Forts Henry and Donelson, earthen works guarding the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers.

A joint navy/army attack upon fort Henry had been agreed to by Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote and an obscure brigadier general named Ulysses S. Grant. It was to take place in early February, using the Tennessee River for transport and supply. It would be the first test of Foote's ironclad gunboats.

On February 6, 1862, while Grant's men marched overland from their camp downstream, Foote's gunboats slowly approached Fort Henry and opened a hot fire that quickly convinced Lloyd Tilghman, the Confederate commander, that he could not hold out for long. The plan called for the gunboats to engage the fort until the army could surround it. The bombardment raged for more than an hour, with the ironclads taking heavy blows and suffering many casualties. But the fort was no match for the gunboats. To the army's chagrin, the ironclads pounded the fort into submission before the soldiers, plodding over muddy roads, could reach the vicinity. Less than a hundred of the Confederate garrison surrendered, including Tilghman; the rest, almost 2,500 men, escaped to Fort Donelson, Grant's next objective, a dozen miles away on the Cumberland.

At Donelson the Confederates had a far stronger position. Two river batteries, mounting some 12 heavy guns, effectively controlled the Cumberland. An outer defense line, built largely by reinforcements sent in after the fall of Fort Henry, stretched along high ground from Hickman Creek on the right to the little town of Dover. Within the fort Confederate infantry  and artillerymen huddled in log cabins against the winter. Aside from a measles epidemic, they lived "quite comfortably," cooking their own meals, fighting snowball battles, working on the fortifications, drilling, and talking about home--until the grim reality of war descended upon them.

It took Grant longer than expected to start his men toward Donelson. Several days passed before Fort Henry was secure and his troops ready. He finally got underway on February 11, and as his soldiers stepped out briskly over the rolling terrain, the weather had turned unseasonable warm. Believing that the temperature was typical of the South in February, many of the soldiers cast aside their heavy winter gear--an act they would soon regret. By February 13 some 15,000 Union troops nearly encircled the outerworks of Fort Donelson. Sporadic clashes broke out that day without either side gaining ground. Nightfall brought bitter weather--lashing sleet and snow that caused great suffering.

The Battle of Fort Donelson

The morning of February 14 dawned cold and quiet. Early in the afternoon the stillness was broken by a furious roar, and the earth began to shake. The Union gunboats were exchanging "iron valentines" with the 11 big guns in the Southern water batteries. During this one and one-half hour duel the Confederate guns in inflicted such extensive damage upon the gunboats that they were forced to retreat. The hills and hollows echoed with cheers from the Southern soldiers.

The Confederate generals--John Floyd, Gideon Pillow, Simon Buckner, and Bushrod Johnson--also rejoiced; but sober reflection revealed another danger. Grant was receiving reinforcements daily and had extended his right flank almost to Lick Creek to complete the encirclement of the Southerners. If the Confederates did not move quickly, they would be starved into submission. Accordingly, they massed their troops against the Union right, hoping to clear a route to Nashville and safety. The battle on February 15 raged all morning, the Union army grudgingly retreating step by step. Just as it seemed the way was clear, the Southern troops were ordered to return to their entrenchments--a result of confusion and indecision among the Confederate commanders. Grant immediately launched a vigorous counterattack, retaking most of the lost ground and gaining new positions as well. The way of escape was closed once more.

Floyd and Pillow turned over command of Fort Donelson to Buckner and slipped away to Nashville with about 2,000 men. Others followed cavalryman Col. Nathan Bedford Forrest across swollen Lick Creek. That morning, February 16, Buckner asked Grant for terms, Grand answered, "No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted." Buckner surrendered.

With the capture of Fort Donelson and her sister fort, Henry, the North had won its first great victory and gained a new hero--"Unconditional Surrender" Grant. The South was forced to give up southern Kentucky and much of Middle and West Tennessee. The heartland of the Confederacy was open, and the Federals would press on until the "Union" became a fact once more.