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Fight between the batteries and gunboats at Fort Donelson.

By H. L. Bedford.
[The following paper was read before the Confederate Relief and Historical Association at Memphis, and was kindly sent us for publication:]

In compliance with your request to furnish your Society with incidents connected with the battle between the batteries and the gunboats at Fort Donelson, I respectfully offer this paper:

The reports of Colonel James E. Bailey, commander of the garrison proper, and of Captain Jacob Culbertson, commander of the water batteries, are correct, and, as official documents, I suppose are complete; but they do not convey to the reader the disadvantages under which the batteries labored in this contest. The operations of the army at this place having proved disastrous to the Confederate cause, it has been condemned as a strategic point, and no one seems particularly anxious to acknowledge the responsibility of its selection. It was the general impression at the Fort that its location had been ordered by the Tennessee authorities as being the most eligible point on the Cumberland River, in close proximity to Fort Henry, on the Tennessee. The original intention evidently was the obstruction of the Cumberland. The engineer in charge, Lieutenant Dixon, while tracing the outlines of the earthworks, never dreamed that a persistent stand against an invading army would ever be attempted, and I feel warranted in suggesting that General A. S. Johnston regarded it simply as a protection to his rear.

When I received orders in October, 1861, to report there as Instructor of Artillery, Colonel E. W. Munford, aide to General Johnston, informed me that he was instructed by his chief to impress upon me [166] that the Cumberland river cut his rear, and the occupation of Bowling Green was dependent upon the proper guarding of that stream. If, then, Fort Donelson was intended to prevent the passage of gunboats, its location was an admirable one; it accomplished its mission, and its founder need feel no hesitation in claiming its paternity. Nor does the final result of the operations of the land forces necessarily convict General Johnston of a mistake in the reinforcement of Donelson. At that time he was believed to possess that ability as a general which events soon verified, and his condemnation will have to rest on surer proofs than the charges of flippant writers. To the average mind the whole matter resolves itself into the simple question: Whether General Johnston sufficiently reinforced Fort Donelson to successfully resist the forces that invaded the State of Tennessee under General Grant by way of Fort Henry; and, if so, is he fairly chargeable with the blunders of his generals, in allowing themselves to be cooped in temporary trenches until reinforcements to the enemy could come up the Cumberland? Any close student of the ‘Operations at Fort Donelson,’ embraced in series No. 1, Vol. 7, of the ‘Records of the Rebellion,’ will probably detect by whom the mistakes were made. It is doubtless there recorded when and where the opportunity of withdrawing the Confederate forces was disregarded; that General Johnston was unfortunate in the selection, or rather the grouping of his lieutenants, on this occasion, is beyond controversy. His army consisted of raw recruits; his generals were ready made for him; their commissions were presumptions of merit; there had been no opportunity for development, and he had no alternative but to accept the patents of ability issued to them by the War Department. The senior general arrived at the eleventh hour, and seems to have been lacking in disposition or in power to hold his second in due subjection. The latter had been on the ground for about a week; he was full of energy and physical activity, and possessed rare executive ability, He was restless under restraint, probably prone to insubordination, and it was almost impossible for him to yield his sceptre to a new comer. He gave orders affecting the whole army without any known rebuke or remonstrance from his chief. The performances of these two chieftains afford an apt illustration of a very homely old saying that will readily recur to most of you. This rule of duality of commanders, according to some of the official reports, seems to have obtained in the heavy batteries, but as it was not then known or recognized, it did not create any confusion. When I reported there for duty very little [167] in the way of defence had been accomplished. Two 32-pounder carronades had been mounted on the river, and three 32-pounders were temporarily mounted on the crest of the bluff. The carronades were utterly useless, except against wooden boats at close quarters, while the three guns on the hill, on account of position, could not be made effectual against ironclads. The garrison, in command of Lieutenant-Colonel Randle McGavock, consisted of a part of Colonel Heiman's Tenth Tennessee regiment, the nucleus of Colonel Sugg's Fiftieth Tennessee (then called Stacker's regiment), and Captain Frank Maney's light battery.

As there were no heavy artillerists, Captain Beaumont's company of Fiftieth Tennessee had been detailed for that duty. At the time of my arrival, there was considerable excitement at the Fort. Smoke was seen rising a few miles down the river, the long-roll was being beat, and there was hurrying to and fro; companies were getting under arms and into line with the rapidity of zealots, though wanting in the precision of veterans. The excitement subsided as the smoke disappeared. In a short while the companies were dismissed, and the men resumed their wonted avocations. The local engineer was also in charge of the works at Fort Henry, and was, necessarily, often absent. His duties were onerous and manifold; I, therefore, volunteered to remount the three 32-pounders and place them in the permanent battery; and as the completion of the defence was considered of more importance than the drilling of artillery, I was kept constantly on engineering duty until after the investment. General Tilghman arrived about the middle of December, and took command. He manifested a good deal of interest in forwarding the work. The Fiftieth Tennessee regiment (Colonel Suggs) was organized; the Thirtieth Tennessee (Colonel Head), and the Forty-ninth Tennessee (Colonel Bailey), reported, and these, with Maney's light battery, constituted the garrison, Lieutenant-Colonel McGavock having rejoined Colonel Hieman at Fort Henry.

The work for the completion of the defences and for the comfort of the soldiers, was pushed on as rapidly as the means at hand would permit. There was no lagging, nor lukewarmness, nor shirking of duty. As one of the many evidences of the zeal manifested by the garrison, I would state that whenever a detail for work of any magnitude was made from any of the regiments, a field officer usually accompanied it, in order to secure promptness and concert of action. This, I believe, was the invariable rule with the Forty-ninth Tennessee. At the time of the arrival of reinforcements, the water batteries [168] were not in that state of incompleteness and disorder which the report of a general officer charges, nor was there any gloom or despondency hanging over the garrison. It is true there was some delay in getting the 10-inch Columbiad in working condition, but no one connected with the Fort was responsible for it. The gun was mounted in ample time, but upon being tested it came very nearly being dismounted by the running back of the carriage against the hurters. It was necessary to increase the inclination of the chassis, which was accomplished by obtaining larger rear traverse wheels from the iron works just above Dover. It was still found, even with a reduced charge of powder, that the recoil of the carriage against the counter-hurters was of sufficient force to cut the ropes tied there as bumpers. There was no alternative but to dismount the piece and lower the front half of the traverse circle; by this means the inclination of the chassis was made so steep that the piece was in danger of getting away from the gunners when being run into battery, and of toppling off in front.

Any paper upon the subject of Fort Donelson would be incomplete without the mention of Lieutenant-Colonel Wilton A. Haynes, of the Tennessee artillery. He was, in the nomenclature of the volunteers, a ‘West Pointer,’ and was an accomplished artillerist. He came to Fort Donelson about the middle of January, and found the ‘Instructor of Artillery’ engaged in engineering duty, and nothing being done in familiarizing the companies detailed for artillery service with their pieces. He organized an artillery battalion, and made a requisition on General Polk, at Columbus, for two drill officers, and whatever of proficiency these companies attained as artillerists is due to him. He was physically unable to participate in the engagements and this may account for the failure of recognition in the official reports.

The artillery battalion as organized by Colonel Haynes was fully competent to serve the guns with success, but General Pillow deemed otherwise and proceeded to the mistake of assigning Lieutenant Dixon to the command of the heavy batteries, instead of attaching him to his personal staff, and availing himself of that officer's familiarity as an engineer with the topography of the battleground and of the surrounding country. The assignment was particularly unfortunate, inasmuch as Dixon was killed before the main fight and the batteries were not only deprived of his services for that occasion, but the Confederate army lost an able engineer. It must be remembered, however, that the great fear was of the gunboats. [169] It was apprehended that their recent achievements at Fort Henry would be repeated at Donelson, and it was natural that the commanding general should make every other interest subservient to the efficiency of the heavy batteries. The river defenses consisted of two batteries. The upper one was on the river bank immediately abreast of the earthworks; It was crescent shaped, and contained one 32-pound calibre rifle gun and two 32-pounder carronades. The other battery was some hundred and fifty yards lower down and consisted of eight 32-pounders and one 10-inch Columbiad. This lower battery, although essentially a straight line, ran en echelon to the left over the point of a hill that made down obliquely from the earthworks to the river, with the right piece resting on the brink of the river bank, and the Columbiad over in the valley of a stream, emptying into the river, some hundred and fifty yards lower down. The back water in this stream protected the batteries from a direct assault. About nine hundred yards below the lower battery, a floating abattis was placed in the river for the purpose of preventing the passage of boats. This was done by anchoring full length trees by the roots and allowing the tops to float. In ordinary stages of water this might have offered some impediment, but at the time of the attack the river was very high and the boats passed over without the least halt or break in their line of approach.

In all the accounts that I have seen from the Federal side, the armament of the water batteries is over-estimated. Flag-Officer Foot reports that there must have been about twenty heavy guns, and General Lew Wallace places it at seventeen. Admiral Walke, while correctly stating the number in the lower battery, is in error in claiming that the upper was about the same in strength.

On the morning of the 12th of February the finishing touches were put to the Columbiad, and the batteries were pronounced ready for gunboats, whereupon Lieutenant Dixon proceeded to the assignment of the guns. Captain R. R. Ross, of the Maury Company Light Artillery, whose company had been ordered to heavy batteries by General Pillow, was placed in command of the rifle gun and the two carronades. Captain Beaumont's company, A, Fiftieth Tennessee, and Captain Bidwell's company, Thirtieth Tennessee, worked the 32-pounders, and the Columbiad was turned over to my command, with a detachment of twenty men under Lieutenant Sparkman, from Captain Ross's company, to work it. I received private instructions to continue the firing with blank cartridges, in the event the gun should dismount itself in action. The drill officers, Lieutenants Mc- [170] Daniel and Martin, were assigned to the 32-pounders, while Captains Culbertson and Shaster had special assignments or instructions, the nature of which I never knew.

As the artillerists, who were to serve the rifle and Columbiad, had no experience with heavy guns, most of them probably never having seen a heavy battery until that morning, it was important that they should be instructed in the manual of their pieces. Drilling, therefore, began immediately, but had continued for a short time only when it was most effectually interrupted by the appearance of a gunboat down the river, which subsequently was ascertained to be the Carondelet. She fired about a dozen shots with remarkable precision, and retired without any response from the batteries.

On the morning of the 13th drilling was again interrupted by the firing of this boat, and the same thing happened in the afternoon. It really appeared as if the boat was diabolically inspired, and knew the most opportune times to annoy us. Sometime during the day, probably about noon, she delivered her fire with such accuracy that forbearance was no longer endurable, and Lieutenant Dixon ordered the Columbiad and rifle to respond. The first shot from the Columbiad passed immediately over the boat, the second fell short, but the third was distinctly heard to strike. A cheer of course followed, and Lieutenant Dixon, in the enthusiasm of the moment, ordered the 32-pounders to open fire, although the enemy was clearly beyond their range. The Carondelet, nothing daunted, continued the action, and soon one of her shells cut away the right cheek of one of Captain Bidwell's guns, and a flying nut passed through Lieutenant Dixon's head, killing him instantly. In this engagement the flange of one of the front traverse wheels of the Columbiad was crushed, and a segment of the front half of the traverse circle was cupped, both of which proved serious embarrassments in the action next day.

On the morning of the 14th, dense volumes of smoke were seen rising from down the river; it was evident that transports were landing troops. Captain Ross became impatient to annoy them, but having no fuse shells to his guns, he came over to the Columbiad and advised the throwing of shells down the river. The commander declined to do so without orders, whereupon Captain Culbertson, who had succeeded Lieutenant Dixon in the command of the batteries, was looked up, but he refused to give the order, upon the ground that it would accomplish no good, and that he did not believe in the useless shedding of blood. Captain Ross, not to be outdone, set himself to the task of procuring the necessary order and returned [171] to the Columbiad about 3 o'clock P. M. with a verbal order from General Floyd to harass the transports. In obedience to this order, we prepared to shell the smoke. A shell was inserted, the gun was given the proper elevation, the lanyard was pulled, and the missile went hissing over the bend of the river, plunged into a bank of smoke, and was lost to view. This was called by an army correspondent, claiming to have been on one of the gunboats, a shot of defiance. Before the piece could be reloaded, the prow of a gunboat made its appearance around the bend, quickly followed by tree others, and arranging themselves in line of battle, steamed up to the attack. When they had arrived within a mile and a half of the batteries, a solid shot having been substituted for a shell, the Columbiad began the engagement with a ricochet shot, the rifle gun a ready second. The gunboats returned the fire, right centre boat opening, the others following in quick succession. After the third discharge the rifle remained silent on account of becoming accidentally spiked. This had a bad effect on the men at the Columbiad, causing them considerable uneasiness for their comrades at the upper battery. The Columbiad continued the action unsupported until the boats came within the range of the 32-pounders, when the engagement became general, with ten guns of the batteries opposed to the twelve bow guns of the ironclads, supplemented by those of the two wooden boats that remained in the rear throwing curvated shells. As the boats drew nearer, the firing on both sides became faster, until it appeared as if the battle had dwindled into a contest of speed in firing. When they arrived within three hundred yards of the lower battery they came to a stand, and then it was that the bombardment was truly terrific. The roar of cannons was continuous and deafening, and commands, if necessary, had to be given by signs. Pandemonium itself would hardly have been more appalling, but neither chaos nor cowardice obtruded themselves, and I must insist that General Wallace and Admiral Walke are mistaken in their assertions that the gunners were seen running from their guns. It is true there was some passing from the batteries to the Fort, but not by the artillerists in action, and as the passage was over an exposed place, in fact across the field of fire of the gunboats, it is a fair presumption that the transit was made as swiftly as possible. Of one thing I am certain, there was no fleeing from the Columbiad, and although her discharges were necessarily very slow, I think every one in hearing that day will testify that her boom was almost as regular as the swinging of a pendulum. If these two [172] Federal officers saw her condition when surrendered, they will admit that if was not likely that panic-stricken cannoniers could have carried her safely through such a furious bombardment, especially to have done the execution with which she is accredited. In his contribution to the Century, of December, 1884, doubtless by the cursory reading of Captain Bidwell's report, General Wallace is lead into the mistake of saying that each gunner selected his boat and stuck to her during the engagement. I am satisfied that the experienced officers who acted as gunners did not observe this rule. The Columbiad was rigidly impartial, and fired on the boats as chance or circumstances dictated, with the exception of the last few shots, which were directed at the Carondelet. This boat was hugging the eastern shore, and was a little in advance of the others. She offered her side to the Columbiad, which was on the left and the most advanced gun of the batteries. Several well-directed shots raked the side and tore away her armor, according to the report of Lieutenant Sparkman, who was on the lookout. Just as the other boats began to drift back, the Carondelet forged ahead for about a half length, as though she intended making the attempt to pass the battery, and it is presumable that she then received the combined fire of all the guns.

It is claimed that — if Hannibal had marched on Rome immediately after the battle of Cannae, he could have taken the city, and by the same retrospective reasoning, it is probable that if Admiral Foote had stood beyond the range of 32-pounders he could have concentrated his fire on two guns. If his boats had fired with the deliberation and accuracy of the Carondelet on the previous day, he could have dismounted those guns, demolished the 32-pounders at his leisure, and shelled the Fort to his heart's content. But flushed with his victory at Fort Henry, his success there paved the way for his defeat at Donelson, a defeat that might have proved more distrastrous could the Columbiad have used a full charge of powder and the rifle gun participated in the fight. After the battle three of the gunboats were seen drifting helplessly down the stream, and a shout of exultation leaped from the lips of every soldier in the fort. It was taken up by the men in the trenches, and for awhile a shout of victory, the sweetest strain to the ears of those who win, reverberated over the hills and hollows around the little village of Dover.

While the cannoniers were yet panting from their exertion, Lieutenant-Colonel Robb, of the Forty-ninth Tennessee, who fell mortally wounded the next day, ever mindful of the comfort of those around him, sent a grateful stimulant along the line of guns. [173] Congratulations were the order of the hour. Generals Floyd and Pillow personally complimented the artillerists. They came to the Columbiad, called for the commander, and after congratulating him upon the performances of that day, promised that if the batteries would continue to keep back the gunboats, the infantry of their command would keep the land forces at a safe distance. That officer, who had been watching the smoke of the transports landing reinforcements, as he stood there before these generals, just thirty-six hours before surrender, receiving their assurances of protection, wondered if they were able to fulfill the promise, or if they were merely indulging an idle habit of braggadocio.

The above and foregoing is a true copy of the original which was read and filed among the archives of said Association, December 9th, 1884.

C. W. Frazer, President.
Attest: R. J. Black, Secretary.

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