Pillow Determined to Fight Till the Death for Fort Donelson

February 11, 1862 (Tuesday)

As Confederate General Simon Bolivar Buckner explained his plan to General Gideon Pillow, the latter must have thought that he had heard of it before. General Buckner and his division arrived at Fort Donelson, along the Cumberland River in Tennessee, on this date, to a cold reception from Pillow. The plan, as Buckner and Floyd had conceived it, saw Fort Donelson as a trap; it was a fort that could not be held. Since it would certainly fall, they wanted to concentrate their forces at nearby Cumberland City, a railroad and river town, fifteen miles upstream.

Pillow, believing this sounded like General Lloyd Tilghman’s “plan” at Fort Henry, refused Buckner’s ideas. Before arriving at Fort Donelson, Pillow had made speeches denouncing Tilghman’s conduct at Henry. He vowed that there would be no surrender; the watchword was “Liberty or Death!”

Not only did Pillow refuse to follow the order to leave Fort Donelson, he forbade General Buckner to remove any of his division from the fort’s garrison.1 Pillow also wanted to talk to Floyd in person, and decided to leave the next morning. It was clear that neither Pillow nor Floyd expected Union General Grant to make any sudden movements towards Fort Donelson. When last they heard, he was still at Fort Henry, twelve miles to the west. Making the trek across those twelve miles between the two forts was, thought Pillow (according to Buckner, anyway), “impracticable.”2

Impracticable or not, that is exactly what Grant was about to do. Since the fall of Fort Henry, Grant had added an entire division to his numbers. This allowed him to immediately throw two divisions, those of Generals McClernand and C.F. Smith, at Fort Donelson.

Two roads led from Fort Henry to Fort Donelson. The northerly Telegraph Road was a more direct path, while the southerly Ridge Road took a slightly more scenic route. Grant ordered McClernand’s division to take both roads, while Smith’s took the Telegraph Road. The third division, under General Lew Wallace, much to his complete dismay, was to remain behind at Fort Henry.

Meanwhile, Commodore Andrew Foote, who commanded the Union Naval fleet that took Fort Henry, was in Cairo, Illinois, preparing his ships to move up the Cumberland River to support Grant’s attack.3

Though Grant’s order stated that the two divisions would move out “tomorrow,” General McClernand moved his division several miles out both roads to encamp for the night.4


Sibley’s Army of New Mexico Moves North

Since the middle of December, General Henry Hopkins Sibley had been organizing his small Army of New Mexico at Fort Thorn, an adobe garrison in the Confederate Territory of Arizona [modern-day Hatch, New Mexico]. Since the early days of the war, when this area was fought over by Col. John Baylor, the Rebels had advanced about forty miles north of Fort Fillmore at Mesilla.

Opposing Sibley’s 2,500 man Army of New Mexico was Col. Edward Canby and roughly 3,800 Federal soldiers. Of these, 1,200 were trained, professional Regulars. While Canby’s force was behind the walls of Fort Craig, eighty miles up the Rio Grande from Fort Thorn, Sibley’s men were mounted. This would allow the Rebels to attack wagon trains and engage in night raids.

With his entire force at Fort Thorn, General Sibley mused upon his plan. Taking Fort Craig was just the beginning. After it fell, he would move against Albuquerque and Sante Fe. And once New Mexico was in his grasp, he could move on Colorado or even California. He had already dispatched sixty men to take Tuscon, hoping to somehow open up a port on the Pacific.

On February 7, Sibley began his campaign up the Rio Grande. Not long after they stepped off, he took sick, with a reoccurrence of his kidney disease. Whiskey was the only thing that dulled the pain, but it also played hell on his kidneys.

Ahead of the main body was the 5th Texas Mounted Volunteers. By this date, they had entered a rugged and rocky country twenty-five or so miles south of Fort Craig. For the past couple of days, they had expected an attack.5

Before Sibley even left Fort Thorn, Canby’s spies reported back that the Rebels were on their way. The Governor of New Mexico, Henry Connelly, was visiting Fort Craig when the news was received. Putting pen to paper, he wrote Secretary of State William Seward on the 6th and on this date. Connelly predicted that a battle would take place ten miles below the fort and that the Union would be victorious.6

Meanwhile, the 5th Texas established a fortified camp atop a hill in a two-rank battle formation, complete with cannons commanding the ground before them. Still, they couldn’t have slept easily on this cold desert night.7

  1. The Life and Wars of Gideon J. Pillow by Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p329. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p604-606. []
  4. Forts Henry and Donelson by Benjamin Franklin Cooling. []
  5. Sibley’s New Mexico Campaign by Martin Hardwick Hall. Also, Blood & Treasure; Confederate Empire in the Southwest by Donald S. Frazier. []
  6. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9, p643-645. []
  7. Sibley’s New Mexico Campaign by Martin Hardwick Hall. []
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Pillow Determined to Fight Till the Death for Fort Donelson by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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One thought on “Pillow Determined to Fight Till the Death for Fort Donelson

  1. When I was living in Tucson I heard that Sherod Hunter and his Confederates printed money during the brief period that the Stars and Bars flew over Tucson. Local lore says this is the rarest issue of Confederate currency since few notes were printed and they didn’t circulate for long. I haven’t been able to find any reference to Arizona Territory Confederate currency in the (few) sources I’ve checked. Does anyone know anything about this?

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