February 12, 1862 (Wednesday)
As night became morning, General Grant’s army trudged its way east toward Confederate Fort Donelson, along the Cumberland River at the Kentucky/Tennessee border. General Gideon Pillow, the fort’s commander, rode to meet with General Floyd. Pillow had seemingly no idea that the Federals were on the move, let alone a mere ten miles away. He had no idea that Union gunboats were steaming towards Fort Donelson. The only thing he was sure of was that he wanted to defend the fort or die trying.
Prior to leaving Donelson, he sent Col. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry to scout Grant’s position, presumably nearer to Fort Henry than not, and handed the reigns of the post to General Simon Buckner. Pillow had been ordered by General Floyd to basically abandon the fort and to concentrate his troops at Cumberland City, fifteen miles upriver. Thinking that a terrible idea, he hoped to convince Floyd, whom he believed was in Cumberland City, to change his ways.1
But when Pillow arrived, he found that Floyd had gone to Clarksville, another twenty miles upstream. Maybe he contemplated chasing after Floyd, but before he had the chance to, he heard the thunder of cannons bearing the message that Fort Donelson was under attack by Union gunboats. Before he beat a hasty return, Pillow realized a silver lining and suspended Floyd’s order for Buckner’s division to fall back to Cumberland City.2
When he arrived back at Fort Donelson, he simultaneously found what he wanted and what he feared most. Fort Donelson would have to be defended – there was no getting around that now – but Grant’s army wasn’t back at Fort Henry, it was before him, at Fort Donelson.
Around noon, the two advancing Union columns met near Donelson and began to deploy. As they went about their work, a regiment of Illinois cavalry met stiff resistance from Col. Forrest’s Rebel cavalry, hoping to stave off the Federal advance. The Rebels formed a line of battle along a ridge that crossed the road. The Union charged several times, but could not break them until General McClernand’s infantry arrived. Though they were eventually dealt with, Forrest’s men succeeded in delaying the Federals for several hours.3
Through the mid-afternoon, Grant’s two divisions formed line of battle and advanced closer to Fort Donelson’s outer defenses, quite a way from the fort itself. Still, General Pillow seemed to know the score when, as night fell, he wired General Floyd and department commander General Albert Sidney Johnston:
We shall have a battle in the morning, I think certainly, and an attack by gun-boats. The enemy are all around my position and within distance to close in with me in ten minutes’ march. One gun-boat came today and fired fifteen or twenty shells and retired. We gave no reply. I have sent up to Cumberland City for Baldwin’s two regiments. Feel sanguine of victory, though I am not fully ready. I have done all that it was possible to do, and think I will drive back the enemy.4
It appeared that General Pillow was about to get his way, like it or not.
Farther west, in Springfield, Missouri, Rebel General Sterling Price began to realize that he was being hunted. His attempts to recruit more men into his Missouri State Guards had been more or less halted, but those who were there were slowly being filtered into the Confederate Army of the West. Still, this only gave him around 7,000 troops. From all reports, General Samuel Curtis’ Union Army of the Southwest numbered 12,000.
Not particularly excited about making a stand in Springfield, Price opted to retreat. While he would begin the march south after nightfall, he wanted to delay the Union advance as much as possible. To cover his retreat, he sent the 1st Missouri Cavalry towards the Union lines. About a mile and a half in front of the main camp, they ran into the picket post of the 3rd Illinois Cavalry.5
The firing was heard by General Curtis, who rushed forward, ordering two cannons to fire into the muzzle flashes of the enemy. The Rebels were quickly dispersed and probably became the rear guard of Price’s withdraw.6
While Price abandoned Springfield that night, Curtis would not realize this until the next day when he occupied Springfield.
- Forts Henry and Donelson by Benjamin Franklin Cooling. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 51 (Part 2), p271. [↩]
- Where the South Lost the War; An analysis of the Fort Henry-Fort Donelson Campaign, February 1862 by Kendall D. Gott. Perhaps the title, and presumably the thesis, of this book is a bit far fetched, but the writing and much of the research is alright. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 51, Part 2, p271. [↩]
- Pea Ridge by William L. Shea & Earl H. Hess. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 8, p554. [↩]