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Road trip: Fort Donelson August 29, 2011

Posted by Jenny in Civil War, history, travel.
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Dover Hotel, where Buckner surrendered to Grant

For an account of the battle overall, go to a post I authored a couple of years ago titled “The battles of water, ice, and steam.” There you will find a brief  introduction to the incredible follies of two Confederate generals: John B. Floyd and Gideon J. Pillow. The first was a “political general” and the second had a somewhat dubious record of service in the Mexican-American War. The exploits of these two gentlemen are described in more detail below.

After visiting Dolly Sods Wilderness, I spent the night in Charleston, WV, and drove across Kentucky to the Land Between the Lakes. This is the narrow strip of land that lies between the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers shortly upstream of where they merge into the Ohio. The pattern of water flow has changed with the building of the Kentucky Dam, and the rivers are now called Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley. They are not really lakes, though—they are flooded rivers.

I thought it would be interesting to drive the length of the Land Between the Lakes. I turned out to be wrong. I spent 45 minutes or so passing through a rather humdrum oak forest—as I should have realized, the whole point of going there is to make a turnoff to one of the lakes for boating or swimming. As I drove, I never saw the great bodies of water that lay just a short distance to either side. I discovered just one interesting feature: a couple of herds of bison. I don’t know how they came to be there, and since I have seen great herds of bison out West (and I wanted to get to the battlefield), I didn’t stop to investigate.

The battles of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, fought in February 1862, were Grant’s first important victories. Fort Henry is now submerged in Kentucky Lake. As it happened, it had been constructed on low-lying land in the first place and was partially flooded when Grant’s gunboats arrived, which is part of the reason he achieved an easy victory there. The gunboats had already pummeled the fort into submission by the time the Federals marched in. Most of the Confederates escaped overland to Fort Donelson, where they had a much better defensive position.

River battery at Fort Donelson

I described in my earlier post how on February 14 the Confederate river batteries pounded the gunboats, this time inflicting much damage. However, with Union reinforcements coming in, the Southerners were in imminent danger of being surrounded. On February 15, the Confederates battled furiously in a breakout attempt. But just as they succeeded in cutting through the Union encirclement, General Floyd and General Pillow inexplicably ordered them back to their entrenchments. No one has ever been able to fully explain this decision. My personal theory is that Pillow, a man who invariably favored appearance over reality, felt that a victory had been achieved and that everyone would now take a polite pause while he and Floyd telegraphed the news of their glorious triumph to General Albert Sidney Johnston. Grant did not in fact pause; he promptly retook the lost ground and even gained new positions.

Many Confederate soldiers occupied these windowless log huts

Interior of hut

As night fell, it became clear that the Rebels were nearly trapped. At 1:00 a.m., Floyd called a conference of senior officers. Over the next hours, they heard dire reports from scouts (some of which turned out to be erroneous—a line of fencing at a distance had been mistaken for a line of Union infantry). The most competent man present, Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest, determined that he would take his cavalry out via Smith’s Ford, which he had learned was not more than “saddleskirt deep” despite warnings of flooded conditions. Meanwhile, the others dithered.

An informative and entertaining pamphlet by Edwin Bearss* details the story of Floyd’s and Pillow’s discussions with the third in command, Simon Bolivar Buckner. It is quite clear from the start that Floyd and Pillow had already determined to make their personal escape—regardless of whether any troops could accompany them—and were attempting to burden Buckner with the chore of actually surrendering.

Bearss recounts the conversation in the small hours of the morning.

Pillow stated, “Gentlemen, if we cannot cut our way out nor fight on there is no alternative left us but capitulation, and I am determined that I will never surrender the command nor will I ever surrender myself a prisoner. I will die first.” [He doesn’t actually mean that he will fight to the death. What he means is, he doesn’t care for the idea of being a prisoner.]

Gideon J. Pillow

Floyd chimed in, “Nor will I: I cannot and will not surrender, but I must confess personal reasons control me.” [The personal reasons are that he is afraid he will be charged with treason if captured, because he had transferred arms to southern arsenals while Secretary of War under Buchanan.]

John B. Floyd

General Buckner replied, “But such considerations should not control a general’s actions.”

Floyd acknowledged that personal considerations influenced his decision, “but nevertheless such was his determination.”

General Pillow spoke up, informing the officers that “he thought there were no two persons in the Confederacy whom the Yankees would prefer to capture than himself and General Floyd.” [In fact, Grant was later to say facetiously that Pillow need not have been so anxious to escape. “If I had captured him,” Grant said, “I would have turned him loose. I would rather have him in command of you fellows than as a prisoner.”]

Pillow then asked Floyd’s opinion as to the propriety of his accompanying him. To this inquiry, Floyd replied, “that it was a question for every man to decide for himself.” Next, Pillow addressed the same question to Buckner [who actually had a sense of responsibility]. The Kentuckian remarked he “could only reply as General Floyd had done, that it was a question for each officer to decide for himself, and that in his own case he regarded it as his duty to remain with his men and share their fate, whatever it might be.”

Simon Bolivar Buckner

[After a few more rounds of posturing, Floyd then says to Buckner] “General Buckner, I place you in command; will you permit me to draw out my brigade?” “Yes, provided you do so before the enemy act upon my communication,” Buckner remarked.

Floyd, facing Pillow, stated, “General Pillow, I turn over my command.”

Pillow exclaimed, “I pass it.”

General Buckner said, “I assume it; bring on a bugler, pen, ink, and paper.” The general then sat down at the table and began to draft a message addressed to General Grant.

Floyd made his escape by commandeering a steamboat and ordering the raw Confederate troops it carried to go ashore, quite bewildering them. He then forced his way aboard with a brigade of fellow Virginians, unsheathing his saber to clear the way. Meanwhile, Pillow obtained access to a small flatboat and escaped across the river with a small contingent of his staff. He met up with Floyd’s group, and the two journeyed to Nashville together.

Buckner’s message to Grant read, “Sir: In consideration of all the circumstances governing the present situation of affairs at this station I propose to the commanding officers of the Federal forces the appointment of commissioners to agree upon terms of capitulation of the forces and post under my command, and in that view suggest an armistice until 12 o’clock today.”

Grant’s immediate response was: “No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.”

He was known thereafter as “Unconditional Surrender Grant.”

* Edwin C. Bearss, “Unconditional Surrender: The Fall of Fort Donelson.” Reprinted from the Tennessee Historical Quarterly, vol. XXI, March, June, 1962, nos. 1 and 2. Reprinted 1995, 2000, 2004 by Eastern National.

To see all of the posts about my August 2011 road trip, type road trip: (with the colon after “trip”) in the search box at right and scroll down.

Confederate Memorial at Fort Donelson