by Andy Turner
In February 1862 the Union desperately needed a hero. The war, which everyone figured to be short, was not going as planned. The loss of Fort Sumter and Confederate victory at the First Battle of Manassas were unexpected. In the west, however, a general was about to rise to prominence, a rise that would eventually lead to the White House.
On February 6, Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, assisted by gunboats commanded by Flag Officer Andrew Foote, captured Fort Henry on the Tennessee River in western Tennessee. Twelve miles away, on the Cumberland River, was Fort Donelson. Most of the Confederate troops had fled Fort Henry, retreating to Fort Donelson. Not knowing if he would be able to hold Fort Henry with Donelson so close and wanting to act before the South could reinforce the fort, Grant decided to push on and capture Donelson as well.
The assault on Donelson was put on hold for a few days as Grant was waiting on 10,000 reinforcements being sent by Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck. This would also give Foote time to take his ships down the Tennessee River to the Ohio, make repairs at Cairo, Illinois, and steam up the Cumberland to Fort Donelson.
Fort Donelson was commanded by a trio of Confederate generals. In overall command was Brig. Gen. John B. Floyd, who was U.S. Secretary of War until he resigned on December 29, 1860. Below Floyd was Brig. Gen. Gideon J. Pillow, who in the Mexican War once had his men build breastworks on the wrong side of their defensive trench, leaving them exposed to the enemy. The third in command was the most able, Brig. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner.
Once Grant moved on Fort Donelson and began to surround the fort, the Confederate generals decided holding the fort was not a viable option. They decided to attempt a breakout and march to Nashville. The movement was planned for early on the 15th. The night of the 14th they were able to move into position for the morning attack without notice as a winter storm hit, accompanied by a howling wind.
While the storm aided in covering their movements the night before, it also kept the Union soldiers from sleeping and lessened the surprise when the attack began. The Confederates attacked south of the fort, hitting the Union line where it was the thinnest. The Southerners pushed back the Yankees, aided by dismounted cavalrymen led by an, at that time, unknown Tennessee planter named Nathan Bedford Forrest.
By early afternoon, the Confederates had opened a door to escape. After long hours of fighting, even the victorious Rebels were disorganized as they fought amongst the dense woods and rough ground. Everything ground to a halt as both sides rested and regrouped. Grant, sensing that the first side to attack after the lull would win, ordered a counterattack. Pillow, the door open ahead of him, extraordinarily ordered the men to fall back to the defenses of the fort to regroup. Buckner, having just secured a road leading to Nashville, refused. General Floyd arrived and agreed with Buckner to breakout. Then, after talking to Pillow, changed his mind and agreed to withdraw to the fort, stating that the plan all along was to attempt to leave that night under cover of darkness. The troops were withdrawn into the fort.
Once back inside, reports came in that the Union troops had retaken their original positions and the opening was now blocked. The three generals agreed that their men were too exhausted to attempt another attack. They were out of options. Summoning Forrest to tell him of their decision, the cavalryman was appalled. He sent scouts who found a way still open along the river, the only obstacle being a hundred yard section of the road under three feet of floodwater. Not believing the men could survive wading in the cold weather, the generals turned down Forrest’s option.
Although they had determined to surrender their men, neither Floyd nor Pillow wanted to share that fate. Floyd was concerned he would be tried by the government for having shifted large numbers of Federal weapons to Southern arsenals during the year before the war. Pillow thought his loss would be a crushing blow to the Confederacy. Buckner agreed to take command of the fort and surrender, while his two superiors made their escape with as many men as they could take with them.
Forrest would not accept surrender. Gathering his officers, he told them he would break out or die trying and anyone who wished to do the same could come along. His men all agreed. That night, the two generals and Forrest and his men made their escape. In the morning, on the 16th, Buckner sent a messenger to Grant proposing to discuss surrender terms. Grant replied, stating that “No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.”
Buckner, having lost Forrest and his cavalry as well as his two superiors and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of infantry that had also escaped, had no choice but to accept Grant’s terms.
There was jubilation throughout the North. U.S. Grant quickly became known as Unconditional Surrender Grant. The victory gave the North a hero as well as a secure foothold in the western Confederacy. With control of the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, Union boats could take men and supplies deep into the South.
For Grant personally, the victory came with a promotion to major general and was a stepping stone to more success to come.