|The fall of Forts Henry & Donelson in February 1862
launched U.S. Grant's Mississippi campaign culminating in the capture of Vicksburg. The
forts were located near Dover, TN in what is now called "The Land Between the
Lakes" -- which was actually the land between the rivers -- about an hour's drive
northwest of Nashville.
The 536-acre national
battlefield includes the visitor center, the Dover Hotel (Surrender House), and Fort
Donelson with associated earthen rifle pits and river cannon batteries. Approximately 20%
of the core battlefield is within the park. There is also Fort Donelson National Cemetery
(established in 1867).
While critically important, these battlefields aren't really
close to anything. Clarksville is the nearest location with fast food and related services
for the military folks at nearby Fort Campbell, KY. The town of Dover itself is actually a
part of the battlefield, e.g., the fortified lines extended into town, and the surrender
was signed at the hotel.
There are two possibilities. The first and easiest is to make
Henry & Donelson a day trip out of Nashville. The other option is to leave Dover and
pick up the Western Tennessee stops at New Johnsonville, Parker's Crossroads, and Jackson
on the way to Shiloh.
In looking at the pre-battle chatter, it seems that no one
really understood the importance of Forts Henry & Donelson. The beloved Albert Sidney
Johnston had a 500-mile front to defend -- from Island No. 10 north of Memphis to the
Cumberland Gap. For him, everything was strategic since any loss would open up an invasion
On the Union side, the Henry & Donelson issue was more
happenstance than anything else. Lew Wallace writes post-war that the origins of the idea
are obscure, but we are sure that Grant pushed the plan on his boss Halleck. However,
Grant was more interested in alleviating his boredom than any brilliant strategic move.
Halleck was the true bureaucrat: avoid blame no matter what. He put off Grant until it
looked like he would be upstaged by Buell after Mill Springs.
What they all missed were the Cumberland and Tennessee
Rivers. Losing the Cumberland Gap left a Union army to forage in Eastern Tennessee. After
Island No. 10 were Memphis and Vicksburg -- major defensive points. When Henry &
Donelson fell the next stop was Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
To illustrate, note that after Grant passed Henry &
Donelson his next fight was at Pittsburg Landing just north of Corinth, MS. Nashville and
Clarksville, with its important ironworks, were exposed to Foote's gunboats and quickly
surrendered. Memphis and Vicksburg now had to look to an attack from the east as well at
upriver. It was an accidentally brilliant strategic move, devastating to the Confederacy.
Fort Henry fell quickly to the gunboats, so the main battle
interest is at Fort Donelson. The winter march was something of a novelty in 1862. It
shows how the military thinking was stuck in the Napoleonic Era when the wet weather would
foul the gunpowder used to prime the pan.
Fort Henry was clearly untenable, in a low area on the east
side of the Tennessee. A. S. Johnston had repeatedly ordered that the high ground on the
west side of the River be fortified. There was a Fort Heiman already in place on the west
side, but it was in "neutral" Kentucky. No other action was taken. By February
1862, Fort Henry was partially inundated and the river threatened to flood the rest. It
was a typical earthen fort with outdated guns and a smallish garrison.
On February 4-5, Grant landed his divisions after
reconnoitering at two locations, one on the east bank of the Tennessee River to prevent
the garrisons escape and the other to occupy the high ground on the west side which
would insure the forts fall. The only tactical obstacle on the east side was a small
stream, but to land the forces any closer would have put them in gun range from the fort.
Flag-Officer Andrew H. Footes seven gunboats closed within 400 yards and began
bombarding the fort.
Lloyd Tilghman, commander of the forts garrison,
realized that it was only a matter of time before Fort Henry fell. While leaving artillery
in the fort to hold off the Union fleet, he escorted the rest of his force out of the area
and sent them safely off on the route to Fort Donelson, 10 miles east. Tilghman then
returned to the fort and surrendered to the fleet. Fort Henrys also let Grant send
the gunboats upriver to destroy some critical railroad bridges.
From February 6 to 16, the missing man in the equation was
Albert Sidney Johnston, Confederate commander in the west. On February 7, the day after
Fort Henry fell, he held a staff meeting at his headquarters in Bowling Green where he
decided to split his forces, sending 12,000 reinforcements to Fort Donelson and falling
back from Bowling Green to Nashville with the remainder.
The strategic issue here was to prevent Grant and Buell's
army in Kentucky from uniting. Grant was the weaker of the two forces, and his supply line
from Fort Henry traveled back 150 miles to Halleck's command in St. Louis. An immediate
attack against Grant would also have the advantage of the Fort Donelson garrison. From
February 6th to the 16th, Grant was stuck in the mud.
Johnston was able to quickly assemble troops for an attack at
Shiloh, but for some reason he was unwilling to react to the loss of Henry. Even then, it
seems that no one really understood just how far the rivers reached.
After capturing Fort Henry on February 6, Grant advanced
cross-country to invest Fort Donelson. He was opposed by Confederate commander John Floyd,
who made no attempt to oppose Grant's advance. By February 14 Grant had a loose
half-circle around the fort.
On February 14 Foote's gunboats tried another bombardment.
However, the guns at Donelson were newer and better sited, and Foote took serious loses
and retreated downriver. The Union ground forces tested the earthworks, which had been
thrown up mostly after the fall of Henry.
Floyd determined to break out, and his attack on February 15
actually opened up a corridor. Grant launched an inconclusive counterattack which so
unnerved Floyd that he ordered the troops back into the fort and started making plans to
surrender. Nathan Bedford Forrest said that he didn't join the Confederacy to surrender
his command and took his cavalry out across the Cumberland River.
Johnston had designated the forts as "strategic."
Even in Confederate parlance, this meant something more vigorous than a quick surrender.
The fall of the two forts and the loss of 13,000 Southern troops was a major victory for
Grant and a catastrophe for the South. Shortly afterwards Johnston abandoned Nashville,
which was ostensibly the reason why he hadn't attacked Grant in the first place.
The loss ensured that Kentucky would stay in the Union and
opened up Tennessee for an advance along the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. Along with
the fall of New Orleans it also demonstrated that the idea of and "independent
nation" was a sham. The Union army could now go wherever it wanted.
Surrender of Fort Donelson
Confederate scouts searched for avenues of escape that
night. Army doctors counseled that the men could not survive crossing frozen creeks
and the long trek to Nashville. Buckner became gripped by battle fatigue and fears
of Smith's division. Pillow urged continued resistance, Floyd vacillated. Time
was wasted and in a midnight council that has since been defined understanding, a decision
was made to surrender to Grant on the morrow. Forrest stalked angrily into the
night, vowing to escape. Floyd and Pillow, fearing punishment at the hands of Union
authorities, similarly deserted, passing command to Buckner. Floyd's three thousand
man Virginia brigade, Pillows personal staff and uncounted hundreds of others evaded the
Union dragnet over the days after the surrender. But when Buckner sent a flag of
truce to his opponent that night, the Confederate fighting men became enraged and nearly
mutinied at this betrayal by their leaders.
Eventually, Buckner met with his old army friend, Grant in
the hamlet of Dover, within Confederate lines. Grant demanded unconditional
surrender and Buckner, though aghast at such treatment from an old colleague was powerless
to refuse. Grant telegraphed Halleck later that day. "We have taken Fort
Donelson and from 12,000 to 15,000 prisoners including Generals Buckner and Bushrod
Johnson, also about 20,000 stands of arms, 48 pieces of artillery, 17 heavy guns, from
2,000 to 4,000 horses and large quantities of commissary stores."
When this news reached Johnston at Nashville, he was
shocked, since all previous news from the fort indicated victory. Nashvillians
rioted and fled the city in droves with Buell's army eventually occupying the capital on
February 24. Johnston could provide no defense. Aided by Floyd, Pillow and Forrest,
his forces evacuated as much Confederate property as possible but his retreat did not stop
short of Northern Alabama and Mississippi. Union forces stood poised to end the
rebellion all over the upper South. But, as fatigued and battered in victory as the
Confederates were in defeat, Grant's men could not move quickly. Moreover, their
generals fell to bickering and momentum slipped from their grasp. Johnston was able
to regroup to fight another day.
Still, a Confederate field force was swept into Northern
prison camps. Western and much of middle Tennessee as well as all of Kentucky were
reclaimed for the Union. Hopes of early European recognition of the Confederacy were
dashed. Johnston's reputation as the South's greatest warrior was destroyed.
The fall of Forts Henry and Donelson changed the war in the
West overnight. Flagging spirits in the North were revived, and a deep wedge was
driven into the South.
The Southern home front began its wavering trend toward
eventual collapse in a war of attrition.