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The battles of water, ice, and steam July 25, 2009

Posted by Jenny in Civil War, history, Uncategorized.
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Harpers Fort Henry

This post is one of an occasional series about Ulysses S. Grant—and about Gideon J. Pillow.

The battles of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson were fought in February 1862.  The weather stayed sodden over those weeks, meandering up and down around the freezing mark, and the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers flooded their channels.  Fort Henry was on the Tennessee and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland, in that peculiar place where those two large rivers flowed close to each other but resisted merging before emptying into the Ohio.

By capturing the two forts, the Federals could generally control things upstream.  They could blow up railroad bridges, disrupt river traffic, and occupy towns as far up as Nashville on the Cumberland and Muscle Shoals on the Tennessee.  In the narrow strip between the rivers, the forts were located on broken terrain covered with bare, bleak hardwood forest where the trees threw their long shadows under the feeble winter sun.  Every stream valley was filled with deep, muddy water.

The rainclouds were imitated by the puffs of steam rising from the gunboat smokestacks.  The fleet had evolved halfway from the age of wood to the age of steel—some boats were all wood and some had an exoskeleton of iron—but all of these boats lived in the age of steam.  They had pressure gauges, steam intake valves, boilers that might possibly explode when struck by a shell.  That would of course fill the gunboat with scalding steam, as happened for instance during the assault on Fort Henry.

There was steam and rain and snow and mud.  Fort Henry had been built on low-lying land by a slow-witted engineer, and it literally filled up with water at about the same time that its earthen embankments were made porous by incoming shells from the gunboats.  That surrender came easily, but Fort

Gideon J. Pillow

Gideon J. Pillow

Donelson might have been impossible if General Pillow hadn’t helped out his foes.

The problem for the attackers on Fort Donelson was the cold.  On the eleven-mile march over from Fort Henry, a lot of the Union soldiers had jauntily tossed away their heavy overcoats and blankets because it happened to be sunny and warm that morning.  But by nightfall, as they camped (no tents) around the fort, it started to rain out of the dark purple sky, and then the rain changed over to snow, and the ground changed over from brown to white.  They weren’t allowed to have campfires that would make their positions visible.  Some of the men said later that the cold at Fort Donelson was one of the worst things they ever had to go through in the war.  You might think battle itself would be worse, but that doesn’t seem to be the way things were experienced.  Brute physical discomfort outweighed danger: the clothes that got soaked all the way through to the skin, the fingers too stiff to move.  Bruce Catton wrote in “Grant Moves South”:  Men of the 12th Iowa recalled that they spent most of the night trotting around in circles just to keep from freezing, with regimental officers improvising strange new tactical commands: “By companies, in a circle, double-quick, march!”

Andrew H. Foote

Andrew H. Foote

The next afternoon, navy officer Andrew Foote took three ironclads and two wooden gunboats splashing and puffing upriver to Donelson and attacked the fort.  Foote darted in and out of the flagship’s pilot-house with a megaphone, shouting out echoey commands.  But this time the defenders got the better of them.  The flagship was hit 60 times, one of the shots passing through the pilot-house, killing the pilot and wounding Foote.  Another vessel had its tiller-ropes destroyed.  Those two vessels, both ironclads, drifted helplessly downstream like big dead turtles.  The other boats had their share of damage and retreated with them.

Nathan Bedford Forrest

Nathan Bedford Forrest

General Pillow lost no time in telegraphing Richmond with news of a splendid victory.  But even at the time, he and General John B. Floyd and the junior but much smarter officer Nathan Bedford Forrest realized they were actually in a tight spot.  The Union forces encircled the fort entirely and looked as though they might be settling in for a siege.  The only way out was toward the south by the road that led through the village of Dover.

The weather that night went maliciously colder.  All the ruts in the muddy roads froze solid, all the men spent another night stamping and shivering and marching in little circles to stay warm.  In the morning Grant was several miles away from the lines consulting with Foote when Pillow launched his assault, sending 10,000 men out to attack the Union right, south of the fort and close to the river.  Within a few hours the Federals had fallen back.  As Grant returned from his visit to Foote, he heard the drumming metallic sound of musketry and rode into thick clouds of gray battle smoke.  He found clusters of men standing about, demoralized and lacking ammunition.  The regiments on the right had suffered at least 2,000 casualties—men in blue lay everywhere, bleeding into the snow.

Ulysses S. Grant

Ulysses S. Grant

But ample stores of ammunition lay nearby.  The inexperienced men had been too panicky to pause and refill their cartridge boxes, and their inexperienced officers had not ordered them to do so.  As Grant described it in his memoir: “I directed Colonel Webster to ride with me and call out to the men as we passed: ‘Fill your cartridge-boxes, quick, and get into line; the enemy is trying to escape and he must not be permitted to do so.’  This acted like a charm.  The men only wanted some one to give them a command.”

Grant thought the Confederates must have spread themselves thin on other sides of the fort, having concentrated their forces for the assault.  (So simple, this observation that turned around a dark situation.  So easy for anyone to

Charles F. Smith

Charles F. Smith

see who isn’t surrounded by the battle’s noise and confusion.)  He ordered General C. F. Smith to attack the rebel line on the west side of the fort.  And so Smith did, right away, in a fierce battle up a steep icy ravine.  According to Bruce Catton, Smith yelled at his men, “You volunteered to be killed for love of your country and now you can be.” And his men followed him and they got through the enemy line.

At the same time, General Pillow, having broken through to the south, ordered his men back into the fort.  This decision was a wonderful and mysterious thing.  General Floyd reversed Pillow’s order but, after a discussion with Pillow, reversed the reversal.  It seems that Pillow’s decision must have been caused by his chronic favoring of appearance over reality.  He had achieved “a brilliant and brave assault on the enemy,” and now that act of the play was over and the curtain could come down.  It did not seem to be connected in his thinking with the actual necessity of getting out of the fort, or maybe he thought the Union forces would wait during the intermission until he could raise the curtain on the next act, “the valorous escape of our men in gray against overwhelming odds.”

In the small hours of the night, Floyd and Pillow held a conference with the

Simon Bolivar Buckner

Simon Bolivar Buckner

third in command, General Simon Bolivar Buckner.  Floyd was nervous about being captured, for the straightforward reason that he had taken actions as the former War Secretary that made him subject to charges of treason.  So he decided to escape, and he turned over his command to Pillow.  But Pillow decided that he would prefer to escape as well, so he turned over the command to Buckner, who was a responsible man and accepted it. Floyd and Pillow slunk out of the fort at 2:00 in the morning and got away in boats across the river.  Bedford Forrest escaped with his cavalry through a swamp to the south, undoubtedly cursing Pillow as he went.  Before dawn Buckner sent a message to Grant proposing a cease-fire and discussion of terms of surrender.

Grant’s reply became famous.

SIR:—Yours of this date, proposing armistice and appointment of Commissioners to settle terms of capitulation, is just received.  No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.  I propose to move immediately upon your works.

I am, sir, very respectfully,

Your ob’t servant,

U. S. Grant,

Brig. Gen.

Battle of Fort Donelson

Battle of Fort Donelson