previous next

Chapter 5:

The fall of Fort Donelson which occurred on February 16, 1862, was a far-reaching disaster, which opened up to the occupation by the enemy not only all of Kentucky, but all of Tennessee west of the Cumberland mountains. As the details of the battle belong properly to the history of the Confederate operations in Tennessee, only such reference to them will be made as is necessary to show the part taken by the Kentucky troops. General Pillow being in command at Fort Donelson, and an attack being imminent, the commands of Generals Buckner and Floyd, which had for several days been at Clarksville, were moved by boat, and the last of them arrived with General Floyd on the night of the 12th. General Buckner, in his report (Rebellion Records, Vol. VII, page 329), says: ‘The defenses were in a very imperfect condition. The space to be defended by the army was quadrangular in shape, being limited on [58] the north by the Cumberland river, on the east and west by small streams now converted into deep sloughs by the high water, and on the south by our line of defense. The river line exceeded a mile in length. The line of defense was about two miles and a half long, and its distance from the river varied from one-fourth to three-fourths of a mile. The line of intrenchments consisted of a few logs rolled together and but slightly covered with earth, forming an insufficient protection even against field artillery. Not more than one-third of the line was completed on the morning of the 12th. * * * Work on my lines was prosecuted with energy and was urged forward as rapidly as the limited number of tools would permit, so that by the morning of the 13th my position was in a respectable state of defense.’

General Buckner was placed in command of the right wing, and Gen. Bushrod R. Johnson of the left. The only Kentucky troops present were the Second regiment under Col. Roger W. Hanson, Graves' battery, and the Eighth Kentucky regiment, Lieut.-Col. H. B. Lyon. The first two were on the extreme right of General Buckner's like, while the last was near the left of General Johnson's line, attached to the brigade of Col. John M. Simonton, of Mississippi.

General Grant, who had with his army ascended the Tennessee river and landed at Fort Henry, ten miles westward, on the morning of the 12th, marched with 15,000 men, comprising the divisions of Generals John A. McClernand and C. F. Smith, and at noon arrived within two miles of Fort Donelson and drove in the Confederate pickets. Had he moved on the works at once with this large force, their capture would have been comparatively easy, as many of Floyd's command had not arrived, and the Confederates were ill prepared for an attack. He had, however, sent six regiments from Fort Henry around by water convoyed by a gunboat, and, awaiting their arrival, his plan was not to make a general [59] attack but to invest the works as closely as he could with safety. (See his report on page 159 of the volume quoted above, in which the reports of officers of both armies will be found.) ‘About ten o'clock on the morning of the 13th,’ General Buckner says, ‘the enemy made a vigorous attack on Hanson's position, but was repelled with heavy loss. The attack was subsequently renewed by three heavy regiments, but was again repulsed by the Second Kentucky regiment, aided by a part of the Eighteenth Tennessee, Col. J. B. Palmer.’ The Confederate troops remained in their trenches and their loss was small, although throughout the day the fire along the line was incessant and kept up through the night.

On the 14th, the gunboats having arrived the night before, there was no land attack; but at two o'clock a heavy bombardment was begun by six gunboats under Admiral Foote and continued two hours when, having been disabled by the Confederate water batteries, they withdrew without having inflicted any damage to the batteries or killed a man. It was then General Grant's purpose to repair the gunboats before assaulting the Confederate lines, which were now completely invested, his force having been augmented by the arrival of Gen. Lew Wallace's division, about 7,000 strong, from Fort Henry. The disposition of his army was as follows: Mc-Clernand's division on the right, Wallace's in the center and Smith's on the left. Meantime the weather had, on the 13th, turned very cold, with snow and rain which bore heavily upon the Confederate troops exposed in the trenches and already worn down by incessant duty for three days and nights.

It became evident to the Confederate commanders that to remain inactive rendered capture a question of but a short time, as retreat was cut off by the extension of both the enemy's wings to the river. A council being held on the night of the 14th, it was decided that the [60] only alternative was to drive back the enemy's right wing by an early attack in the morning, and having cleared the way, to retreat in the direction of Nashville by the way of Charlotte. Accordingly, on the morning of Saturday, the 15th, at five o'clock, the attack was made on General Grant's right, and the enemy being pressed back after a time in disorder, General Buckner also advanced and the movement was kept up until victory seemed complete, the Federal right having been driven several miles, while General Buckner had driven his left so far as to uncover the proposed route of retreat, and the object of the battle seemed safely accomplished. At this juncture, when General Buckner was two miles from his works and expecting the retreat to begin, he received orders from General Pillow to return to the intrenchments.

It is useless to prolong the painful narrative. The whole army returned to their cheerless trenches worn down with fatigue and depressed with the failure to be extricated from the hopeless position which their intelligence told them they now occupied. Added to this, the enemy being further reinforced, and learning of the withdrawal of the Confederates within their lines, followed them up vigorously and before dark had resumed the investment and also effected a lodgment at the extreme right of our line. The rest is known, how at a council of war, the desperate condition having been recognized, a surrender was deemed the only course left; how the senior commanders in turn declined to carry out the decision and, turning the command over to General Buckner, left him to share the fate of his men, while they effected their escape by boat with a small force, before negotiations set in; and how at daylight a bugler and a flag terminated further contest. Let us draw the curtain on the sad event, the intelligence of which carried such woe to the whole South and to their friends in Kentucky who shared all their joys and sorrows, and [61] who in their own good time testified their admiration of true heroism by electing as governor, with the hearty concurrence of many of the Federal soldiers, the gallant Buckner, who was the chief prisoner of this surrender. Far be it from the purpose of the writer to reflect upon the courage or patriotism of Generals Floyd and Pillow. It was a question for each to decide for himself, and if they erred in judgment, most grievous must have been their suffering.

General Buckner in his report speaks in terms of the highest praise of Colonel Hanson and his regiment, and of Graves' battery. Speaking of one point in the action of the 15th, an advance upon the right ordered by him at a critical time, he says: ‘In this latter movement a section of Graves' battery participated, playing with destructive effect upon the enemy's left, while about the same time the Second Kentucky, under Colonel Hanson, charged in quick time as if upon parade, through an open field and under a destructive fire, without firing a gun, upon a superior force of the enemy, who broke and fled in all directions. A large portion of the enemy's right dispersed through the woods and made their way, as was afterward learned, to Fort Henry.’

Colonel Hanson, in referring to the same incident in his report, says: ‘In front of us was an open space which had formerly been occupied as a camp. This space was about two hundred yards in width. Beyond the space in the timber and thick undergrowth the enemy were posted. I directed the regiment, when the command was given, to march at quick time across the space and not to fire a gun until they reached the woods in which the enemy were posted. The order was admirably executed, and although we lost 50 men in killed and wounded in crossing the space, not a gun was fired until the woods were reached. The enemy stood their ground until we were within 40 yards of them, when they fled in great confusion under a most destructive fire. This was not strictly [62] speaking a “charge bayonets,” but it would have been if the enemy had not fled.’

The staff of General Buckner shared his fortunes. In his report he says: ‘Maj. Geo. B. Cosby, my chief of staff, deserves the highest commendation for the gallant and intelligent discharge of his duties, and the other members of my staff are entitled to my thanks for their gallantry and the efficient discharge of their appropriate duties. Lieutenants Charles F. Johnson, aide-de-camp, and T. J. Clay, acting aide; Majs. Alexander Casseday, acting inspector-general and S. K. Hays, quartermaster; Capt. R. C. Wintersmith, commissary of subsistence; Major Davidson, chief of artillery; Messrs. J. N. Galleher [afterward Bishop of Louisiana], acting aide; Moore, acting topographical officer; J. Walker Taylor, commanding a detachment of guides, and D. P. Buckner, volunteer aide.’ Major Casseday died at Camp Chase not long afterward from the effects of exposure at Fort Donelson.

The Eighth Kentucky regiment did not come under General Buckner's observation, but both General Bushrod Johnson, division commander, and Colonel Simonton, brigade commander, refer to its gallant action, while Colonel Lyon says that ‘no officers or men could have acted more gallantly than did those of the Eighth Kentucky at all times during the three days fight.’ Out of 312 men, his loss was 17 killed and 46 wounded, while the Second Kentucky lost 80 killed and wounded out of five or six hundred. [63]

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
14th (2)
13th (2)
February 16th, 1862 AD (1)
15th (1)
12th (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: