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Doc. 118.-attack on Fort Donelson, Tenn.

Colonel Harding's letter.

Fort Donelson, February 4, 1863.
dear sir: On the third, while sitting down to dinner, messengers reported that Major-General Wheeler, Brig.-General Wharton, Col. Forrest, and five thousand or six thousand men, with ten or twelve cannon, were only two miles away, and marching on Donelson. I telegraphed Colonel Lowe, who replied, inquiring for further and more definite information, and that he would get ready to relieve us. Two steamers were lying at the landing, but no gunboats. We had but six hundred men fit for duty of the Eighty-third Illinois. Our battery of four guns in hands of the Lieutenant, Capt. Woodbury being absent. Capt. Hamrick and his fine company were gone to guard a boat to Nashville. Our cavalry had been sent, four hours before, to reconnoitre, but had not returned. They were captured, except four, who returned after the fight. I despatched to Colonel Lowe, but the operator replied: “Line has gone up.” Sent three mounted men, with each a message, to make wide detour and reach Fort Henry. Ordered steamboats to take on the women and leave--one of them, the Wild Cat, to hasten down the river and hurry up a gunboat, to leave her barges, etc. Sent Capt. McClanahan up the river to skirmish with the approaching enemy.

They deployed, and but half a mile out met the enemy. They continued to fire on the enemy, and slowly fell inward. Company <*>, Captain Reed, with same orders, upon the road leading south. Placed our guns, with infantry supports, and fixed my line of battle at the right place, as the result proved. I had no sooner decided upon my plan of fight than a large white flag was seen on the enemy's left wing up the river. I sent orders not to allow it to come within our lines, but their message was brought me. My reply was in writing, that I declined to surrender, and accepted the consequences, with compliments, etc. In the mean time, as they continued to move up their right wing, that part of our line being protected by two guns and two companies, one of which was company C of our infantry, I sent Lieut.-Col. Smith there — the point is at the graveyard — to maintain that position. He commenced firing; the foe then halted in that direction, and we waited for them to get our answer. There they opened at first with six guns, and then with two more. We replied with our thirty-two-pound gun and four brass guns, bearing upon the points of the enemy's line. I called in my skirmishers and put them on our line of defence, which was in the form of a crescent, one flank on the river and the other held by company A, Captain Reed, at the brick building near his intrenchments.

I began, hoping to give you a full account, but have, to this time, stopped and recommenced eight or ten times, and so I think I will say that the enemy were stronger than we at first supposed; that they fought us from noon until half-past 7 o'clock P. M., and then sent in another flag of truce, which verbally demanded a surrender; that they had not brought into action half their force, and that we had done more already than brave men were required to do. I thanked Major Buford, who brought the message, and told him I declined to accede to his courteous demand; that I entertained no idea of yielding; that my force was not exhausted, and that I had not, by three fourths, the strength I had ready to meet them yet engaged, (I referred to the gunboats, which I had looked for every moment of the preceding two hours, and to troops from Col. Lowe.) This ended the parley.

The enemy, although it was an hour and a half after sundown, began to re-form their army for another struggle. I put my men in a square within some low rifle-pits, and with fixed bayonets and cool determination, and in ominous quiet, awaited their approach. A distant gun, far down the river, gave hopes of our gunboats, and anon, in the rear of our position, stalked black and grave-looking Lexington. Up went the cheers of the Eighty-third and of our brave battery boys, whose guns were silenced two hours before and one captured by the enemy. Quickly I ordered Lieut.-Col. [417] Col. Smith on board to point out the foe to our naval friend, and very soon had the grim satisfaction of witnessing the facts that make our gunboats terrible. To me I never heard sweeter music. Although her sheels were thrown over us to the foe, yet were we quiet as children in the cradle, confident that our kind nurse would not harm us. Her guns roared like thunder, and the shells fell like rain into the frightened and fleeing masses in the ravines and valleys before us. The Post rocked almost from the concussion, when five of her gloomy brothers arrived and chimed in.

During the battle I felt no fears, but was conscious of great danger; was frequently urged to stay out of harm's way, etc. I took my chances, and in the last charge upon the enemy's right wing, which had passed our left and threatened the rear of our right, I, with the brave Capt. Gibson, led the charge, with wearied and some reluctant soldiers, to victory. Here we took forty-two prisoners, and routed many more.

Captain Gibson was shot in both hands. One only of our boys was killed, but many wounded.

Our losses are sixteen killed and sixty wounded. The rebel killed is full one hundred and fifty, and their wounded four hundred. We took one hundred and fifty prisoners, and lost about fifty.

I can't tell you all, but must say that Quartermaster Bissell, Colton's successor, acting as my aid, lost his arm and shoulder by my side, and died soon after. The brave old hero, Capt. McClanahan, fell at the same moment.

A. C. Harding, Colonel Commanding.

Colonel Lowe's order.

headquarters U. S. Forces, Forts Henry, Hieman, and Donelson, February 9, 1863.
Colonel: I desire to express to you, and through you to the officers and soldiers of your command, the warmest thanks for gallant behavior during the action of the third instant. Attacked by a determined enemy, outnumbering your own little band of heroes as seven to one, nothing short of the most determined bravery on the part of every officer and soldier could have saved you from utter annihilation. As it is, your victory is complete, and this, too, with such fearful odds against you, that I consider the case without a parallel in the record of the rebellion. Your troops were mostly new and untried, some of them never before having been under fire. You numbered less than eight hundred--the enemy counted their force by thousands, and they were reckoned veterans unaccustomed to defeat. Their loss was so great that every individual soldier of your command may safely claim to have made “his mark.” Where all did their whole duty, fearlessly and nobly, to mention names might be to do injustice, but I feel assured that no one will feel his services the less appreciated if I mention, for conspicuous bravery, such names as Lieutenant-Col. Smith, Major Brott, and Adjutant Casey, of the Eighty-third, and Lieutenants Moore and McIntyre, of Flood's battery. In truth, all are alike entitled to share in the laurels of this most brilliant achievement. By it, another bright page has been added to the honorable war record of Illinois.

I am, Colonel, your obedient servant,

Lieutenant Commander Fitch's report.

The Navy Department has received the following:

U. S. Gunboat Fairplay, off Dover, Tennessee, February 4, 1862.
sir: I have the honor to report that on the third instant I left Smithland, Kentucky, and with a fleet of transports, and the gunboats Lexington, Fairplay, St. Clair, Brilliant, Robb, and Silver Lake, as a convoy up the Cumberland River. When about twenty-four miles below I met the Steamer Wild Cat with a message from Col. Harding, commander of the post at Dover, informing me that his pickets had been driven in, and he was attacked in force. I immediately left the transports and made a signal to the gunboats to follow on up as fast as possible. A short distance below the town I met another steamer, bringing the intelligence that the place was entirely surrounded. Pushing on up with all possible speed, I arrived here about eight P. M., and found Colonel Harding's force out of ammunition, and entirely surrounded by rebels in over-whelming numbers, but still holding them in check. The enemy, not expecting the gunboats, had unwisely posted the main body of his army in line of battle in the graveyard at the west end of the town, with his left wing resting in a ravine that led down to the river, giving us a chance to throw a raking fire along his line. Simultaneously the gunboats opened fire up this ravine, into the graveyard, and over into the valley beyond, where the enemy had horses hitched and most probably kept his reserve. The rebels were taken so much by surprise that they did not even fire a shot, but immediately commenced retreating. So well directed was our fire on them that they could not even carry off a caisson that they had captured from our forces, but were compelled to abandon it after two fruitless attempts to destroy it by fire. After having disposed of the main body of the enemy, I stationed the Robb and Silver Lake below the town to throw shell up the ravine and prevent the rebels from returning to carry off the wounded, while the Lexington, Fairplay, St. Clair, and Brilliant went above and shelled the roads leading out to the eastward, supposing the retreating forces would follow the river for a short distance. i sent the Lexington and St. Clair on up to shell the woods and harass and annoy the enemy as much as possible, while this boat and the Brilliant lay opposite the upper ravine and threw shells up the roads. About ten P. M. we ceased firing, with the exception of now and then a random shell up the roads. At eleven P. M., learning from Col. Harding that the enemy had entirely disappeared, we ceased firing and took a position [418] to guard the roads approaching the town. Although much of our firing was at random, we have the gratification of knowing that scarcely a projectile went amiss, and that, out of the one hundred and forty buried to-day, the gunboats can claim their share. Even when the Lexington and St. Clair went above, many of their shells fell in the midst of the retreating rebels, killing and wounding many. It is reported that the attacking force numbered some four thousand five hundred, with eight pieces of artillery, under the command of Major-Gen. Wheeler and Brigadier-Generals Forrest and Wharton. It is certainly very gratifying for us to know that this entire force was cut up, routed, and despoiled of its prey, by the timely arrival of the gunboats, and that Colonel Harding and his gallant little band were spared to wear the honor they had so fairly won. At first I regretted I was not here sooner with the gunboats, but, upon reflection, I do not think I could better have arranged the time had it been in my power. Had we been here before General Wheeler, he would not have made the attack, but most probably would have marched on Fort Henry. Had we arrived during the day, he would have seen our strength, and would have retreated but with little loss. Arriving as we did, after dark, and when he least expected us, and was so sanguine of success, we caught his forces arranged in the most favorable position to receive a raking fire from our guns. The officers and men were very glad to have a shot at these river infesters, and only regret that they did not remain within the reach of our guns a little longer. As it is, they claim the honor of dispersing them and saving Fort Donelson.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

Leroy Fitch, Lieutenant Commanding. To Captain A. M. Pennock, U. S. A., Commandant Naval Station, Cairo, Ill.

A National account.

Fort Donelson, February 5, 1863.
One of the most gallant fights of this or any other war has just occurred at this post. Our forces consisted of nine companies of the Eighty-third Illinois, Col. Harding, two sections of Flood's (Illinois) battery, under Lieut. Moore, and part of one company of the Fifth Iowa cavalry, in all, six hundred effective men. The attacking force was four thousand five hundred strong — some rebel prisoners estimate it as high as eight thousand--under Wheeler and Forrest; the former said to have lately been made a Major-General. Col. Harding, who was in command of the post, had one siege-gun, a thirty-two-pounder in position. Fort Donelson proper has never been occupied by our forces. It has no advantages as a position, save to command the river below. The old village of Dover, nearly a mile farther up the river, has been partially fortified and occupied by our forces. It is surrounded on all sides by high ridges, frequently broken by ravines, and partially covered with underbrush and timber. The attack, though anticipated for a week, was not known to be imminent until noon on Tuesday, the third. At three P. M. a battery of rebel artillery took position on the ridge to the west, at the distance of three fourths of a mile, and opened fire upon the town with shell. Soon their artillery was playing upon our forces from three or four directions, and their forces completely encompassed the town in a semi-circle of perhaps three miles in extent, from river to river. After thus formidably displaying the strength of his forces, the rebel General sent a flag of truce to Colonel Harding, demanding an unconditional surrender of the place. It was promptly refused, the Colonel declaring he would fight as long as he had a man left. The attack was renewed with great vigor, charge after charge was made by the rebels, who were all mounted, but the Springfield rifles of the Eighty-third were unerring, and each charge resulted in repulse and a score of emptied saddles. A body of rebels, dismounting and leaving their horses, forced their way into the town, fired on our men from such houses as they could secure, till they were driven out at the point of the bayonet or captured. At about five P. M. the rebel Adjutant-General approached our lines waving a white handkerchief.

“What in----do you want now, with that white rag?” sung out Capt. Bond of the Eighty-third. “Do you cowardly villains out there want to surrender?”

“I wish to see your commanding officer,” was the reply.

Capt. Bond.--“I shall have to blindfold you,” fumbling for his handkerchief.

“ I give you my word of honor that I will report nothing that I see,” said the General.

Captain Bond could not find his handkerchief. “Come on,” said he; “--------you, we can whip you any how, I don't care what you see!”

His Generalship was conducted to Col. Harding, when the following parley ensued:

Colonel, you have made a gallant defence — more could not be expected of you; but we do not wish to shed blood needlessly. I have come to demand again an unconditional surrender.

“General, I have had no orders to surrender. Really, I could not think of it.”

“But it is folly for you to hold out longer. We have shown you but one half of our force. You must surrender or take the consequences!”

“ Well, sir, I have shown you but about one fifth of my force. You may return and tell your men to pitch in — I'll take the consequences!”

So the fight began again. Every man fought where he thought himself most needed, took deliberate aim, and made his shots tell whenever a butternut showed himself within rifle-range. Such fighting, against such odds, has not yet been recorded in the history of this rebellion. By eight P. M. Flood's battery had lost forty-eight out of sixty-four horses, had fired its last cartridge, and lost one piece. But the rebels too were out of ammunition, and actually began to retire before the stubborn bravery of the “noble six hundred.” At this juncture a gunboat reached the scene of action from below, and did [419] splendid execution by shelling the retreating rebels so long as they were within range.

Reenforcements were promptly sent from Fort Henry by Col. Lowe, as soon as the approach of the rebels was telegraphed him, but they arrived at three o'clock next morning, too late to participate in the glory, as well as loss, of the gallant Eighty-third.

Forrest admits a loss of two hundred killed, including one Alabama colonel, left where he fell (on the very steps of Col. Harding's headquarters) while boldly leading a charge, besides several other officers; his wounded must exceed that number. Of the latter, we have in our hands over sixty, including three captains and several lieutenants. Forrest's son is reported dangerously wounded. Woodward is also said to be wounded. Gen. Wheeler was at first reported killed, but the body proved to be that of Colonel McNary, above mentioned. Our loss is comparatively small, but includes some of the finest officers in the Eighty-third. Capt. P. E. Reed, of company A, and Quartermaster Bissell are killed. Capts. McClanahan, of company B, and Gillson, of company E, are wounded. Lieuts. Moore, of the battery, and Sykes, of company I, Eighty-third, are wounded. Fourteen of our men are killed and fifty-one wounded--a few fatally. Two officers and twenty-seven men of the Fifth Iowa cavalry, with several of the Eighty-third, and a number of Captain Flood's men were captured. The men were paroled and have returned, and the officers — with whom paroling is “played out,” as you are aware — managed to escape. One of them, Lieut. Lene, spiked one of their guns before leaving, and made his escape on one of their best horses. He reports them in a sorry condition, destitute of ammunition and of food, save what they could glean from inhabitants along the line of their retreat. One of our men, paroled, reports that they gave him nothing to eat, and gave as a reason that they had nothing — the men having fasted since the morning before the battle--thirty-six hours. They left one hundred and fifty of their dead for our men to bury. Among them were many mere boys. I saw one, with his brains oozing from a ragged hole in his narrow forehead, who could not have been more than fourteen; but, except that of Col. McNary, I sought in vain for a physiognomy indicating any thing but brutality and a total lack of ordinary intelligence. I was particularly struck with the strange and vivid contrast between rebel common soldiers and our own, as illustrated by these. I would not have admitted it except on the testimony of my own senses.

Although I think this is the last attempt Forrest or Wheeler will make in this vicinity, it is to be regretted that we have not cavalry enough to follow up this brilliant repulse by the capture or destruction of the whole force, any thing short of which is not complete victory.


Richmond Whig account.

front of Fort Donelson, February 3.
The booming of the cannon has scarcely ceased as I snatch a moment to inform you of one of the most hotly contested fights of the war. And desperate as the fighting was, strange to say the loss on either side was insignificant. The enemy was protected by his breastworks, and our troops by the excitement and wide firing of the foe. About the last of January, Gen. Wheeler, fresh from the Cumberland, and fatigued with a difficult campaign, started out in his ambulance one night, and, travelling constantly, arrived the next evening in Franklin, where he had ordered Gen. Forrest, Wharton, and Major Hodgson (commanding part of the First brigade) to rendezvous. Taking up the line of march thence to Dover, the command traversed nearly a hundred miles over miserable roads, in weather severely cold. The progress of the artillery being arduous, the march was necessarily slow. At two o'clock, February third, our troops came into possession before the outworks in front of Dover, the pickets and skirmishers of the enemy being driven in--(Old Donelson, you remember, is dismantled.) A flag of truce was sent to Col. Hardin, of the Eighty-third Illinois regiment, demanding the surrender of the Fort. He refused, and, as we afterward understood, took occasion then to harangue his troops, informing them that if captured, they would all be slaughtered.

Our batteries were now in position to command the outworks. The Fort is constructed in the centre of the town, around the court-house — the outworks and rifle-pits surround the town in a semi-circle, one end resting upon the river. The rear of the town is unfortified and unprotected beyond the guns of the inner Fort, which sweep the streets in that direction. Hardly had the flag reached our lines before the artillery of the enemy opened upon us. Gen. Wharton, with his men dismounted, had gained the rear of the town, while Gen. Forrest, with his brigade mounted, and in line of battle, stood under the brow of a hill in front; Wheeler, on a hill that commanded a view of the whole scene, had charge of the battle. He despatches two aids to order the charge. The guns of our batteries belch forth their hurtling iron, and their sound is not echoed back before they again sweep the outworks. Forrest turns in his saddle, tells his troopers that “they must plant their banners upon the inner works before Wharton comes up on the other side,” and orders the charge. The bugle sounds. His brigade in line, more than a mile long, at first walks off. Forrest is seen in its front. It gains the eminence. A shower of bullets greet it. As if disdainful of the enemy, the horsemen now strike a trot, until they have descended to the bottom of the hill. The fire of the enemy is now furious. On the next hill are the rifle-pits and ditches. The bugle sounds again, but now its notes are more thrilling and rapid. The general of an hundred battles rises in his stirrups and waves his sword. The men dash forward at full speed. The earth fairly trembles beneath their tread. Woe to those poor fellows! What a storm of lead is thinning their ranks. They will be repulsed. No! Hurrah! The enemy leaves his [420] rifle-pits. On go the horsemen at full charge. Now they are among the rifle-pits. Now they jump the ditch. Now they pursue the fugitives into the town. Now they are up to the main Fort itself. We expected every moment to see the confederate flag on the parapet. The enemy has taken refuge in the houses. The Yankees fire both from them and the Fort. Our brave boys can go no further. They are falling every moment. They must retire. Slowly they fall back, dismount, and charge again. Again they gain the town. Again the fire from a hidden foe drives them back. The ammunition is spent, night is coming on, and the command is at last ordered from the field.

Just at this crisis two gunboats come into action, and we retire beyond their range.

While Forrest was charging so gallantly, Wharton, in the rear, was slowly driving them back. He holds every inch of ground he gains. He captures a battery after driving the gunners from it, with his own artillery. Such was the precision of his firing that all the guns but one were dismounted. This one he brings off. At nightfall he also is forced to retire.

Many instances of individual gallantry were displayed in this action, and the desperation with which our men generally fought has never been surpassed. We mourn the loss of several officers killed and wounded. Strange to say, our whole loss will hardly amount to one hundred in all. The loss of the enemy is less.

Unable to close this note until the ninth, I will add that the enemy sent out Jeff. C. Davis's division from Nashville to intercept us. Suffice it to say, they didn't get us. It is now at Franklin.


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