Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Capture of Fort Donelson, 13-16 February 1862

Battle of the Week 2011-07

It's fashionable across the south to talk about the first half of the American Civil War as a gallant struggle against overwhelming odds, a valiant defense of the Confederacy in which the brilliant Robert E. Lee, outnumbered and undersupplied, held off the inevitable for years by defeating army after army hurled against him by incompetent Federal generals. It's a romantic picture, and it puts the undeniable courage and devotion of the southern soldier in its best possible light, but it tells half the story at best. Because as brilliant as Lee was, as brave as his soldiers were, by the time he won his greatest victories at Fredericksburg in December 1862 and Chancellorsville in May 1863, victory was probably already inevitable for the Union.

That Union victory started in the west, with the armies that pushed south from Kentucky into Tennessee in January and February 1862 under Don Carlos Buell and Henry W. Halleck. Opposing them was Albert Sidney Johnston, another brilliant southern general outnumbered and undersupplied; but where Lee's task was to defend Richmond and threaten Washington, Johnston's was to keep the Yankees out of Tennessee and Mississippi and protect all of the Deep South. Such an ambitious mission left Johnston spread impossibly thin.

The plan was straightforward: in order to invade Tennessee, the Union first had to secure lines of communication--roads, rivers, and railroads--that would make it easier for them to move large bodies of men and supplies and concentrate them where needed. The first step of that plan was to secure the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers. The Tennessee would allow the Federals to travel north to south easily through Tennessee, while the Cumberland would give them access to Nashville and the eastern half of the state. Fort Henry controlled the Tennessee; Fort Donelson, just eleven miles away, controlled the Cumberland. No gunboats or transports or supply ships could travel up or down either river until the forts, and their big guns, were in Union hands.

Halleck gave U.S. Grant the task of taking the forts, and Grant moved against Fort Henry, the weaker of the two, first; it fell easily on the 6th of February, 1862, most of its garrison evacuating to Fort Donelson. There the Confederates, under the combined leadership of Generals John B. Floyd, Simon B. Buckner, and Gideon J. Pillow, began feverishly strengthening their defenses, but made no attempt to move against Grant at Fort Henry before he could move against them.

Grant would have preferred to march on Fort Donelson immediately, but the weather was so bad his troops could not be resupplied for the new attack. He finally made his move on the 12th of February, marching from Fort Henry while a fleet of gunboats under Andrew H. Foote attacked the fort's batteries of heavy guns from the Cumberland river. But Foote launched his attack too close to the fort, and the big guns punished his fleet severely, knocked two of his gunboats out of action, and forced him to withdraw. Grant would have to make his attack without Foote's naval support.

The rule of thumb for a force attacking a fortified position is to launch the attack with a three-to-one numerical superiority over the defender; an even better advantage is five to one. But Grant understood that audacity--doing vigorously what your enemy least expects you to do--and initiative--following up one success with another as quickly as possible, leaving the enemy no time to adjust his plan or take action against you--often count for more than numbers. On the night of the 14th and 15th of February, he blocked the landward approaches to the fort with 25,000 men, against some 21,000 Confederates inside.

But the Confederates within Fort Donelson had been far from idle since Fort Henry had fallen. Rather than wait within their fort, they had built lines of entrenchments that gave them a measure of defense in depth--only after the Union forces had breached the outer defenses could they approach the fort itself. After some initial probing by sharpshooters and skirmishers on the 14th, followed by an unsuccessful attack, Grant decided to settle in and lay siege.

An aggressive attack from the fort by well-led and spirited troops might have broken Grant's lines and forced him to abandon his plan, but none of the Confederate commanders, Floyd or Buckner or Pillow, was aggressive or spirited or a talented leader. Instead of resolving to hold the fort, they decided on a breakout; they would attack Grant's right where it lay exposed some distance from the river, push him back far enough to open the Charlotte Road toward Nashville, and abandon the fort with as many men as could escape.

The Confederates launched their attack at dawn on the 15th. It worked beautifully; by noon, the Union right had been broken and pushed south past the Charlotte Road, leaving the way open for the bulk of the Confederate forces to escape. But there Floyd lost his nerve, ordering his men back to their entrenchments for fear of a Union counterattack instead of ordering the evacuation. He was too late. Grant, guessing correctly that the Confederates had weakened their own right in order to attack with their left, ordered his division on that side to attack. As night fell, both sides had resumed the positions they had held the night before--except that Grant's right no longer blocked the Charlotte road, and Union troops now occupied the formerly Confederate trenches on the Union left.

That broke Floyd's nerve completely, and he and Pillow decided to escape in the night and leave Buckner to surrender the fort. They used boats to escape across and upriver on the night of the 15th and 16th while Nathan Bedford Forrest and a brigade of cavalry escaped down the Charlotte Road. Buckner, now with some 11,500 men against Grant's 23,000 remaining, sent a messenger to Grant asking for terms of surrender on the morning of the 16th.

Grant's reply was brief and pointed, and gave him the nickname he carries to this day:

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

Translation: surrender now, with no conditions or agreements, or I attack. Buckner surrendered immediately without condition, and "Unconditional Surrender" Grant was born.

The taking of Fort Donelson opened the way into middle Tennessee and closed the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers to the Confederates. This allowed the Federal armies to start pushing south, both through Tennessee and down the Mississippi; in April, Grant and Johnston met at Shiloh near Memphis, and Johnston never left the field of battle. By Independence Day, 1863, the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi, Vicksburg, had surrendered, leaving the Union in complete control of the largest waterway in North America. From there the Union troops turned east, pushing through Tennessee and Georgia to attack what was left of Lee's army from the south. Donelson was far from the end of the Civil War--but its capture set the conditions for ultimate Union victory.

Go get your nerd on!

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