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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

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