February 15, 1862 (Saturday)
The scream that cut through the cold, half light of dawn was horrifying and almost phantasmal. Confederate General John Floyd, commanding the troops at Fort Donelson, Tennessee, had decided to mass his troops and break General Grant’s siege of the fort. First, the dismounted Rebel cavalry, under Col. Nathan Bedford Forrest, exchanged shots with stiff pickets on the Confederate right, as the first Rebel brigades under General Pillow did their best to form into line.
It was hoped that a pre-dawn attack would catch the Union troops by surprise, rousing them out of their tents. But they had no tents and the gnawing cold of February kept them awake, some even in line of battle. The heavy skirmish fire, however, alerted the Union that something more than skirmishing was about to begin.
It wasn’t until 7am, nearly two hours after whatever passed for dawn on this gloomy, opaque morning, that the Rebels finally pushed forward in a heavy sweep, artillery exploding across the frozen, rough terrain. But when they came, they came with a shriek, a howling, growling wail that chilled spines, even through the rawness of winter.
Brigade after Rebel brigade hit the Union right, commanded by General McClernand. They attacked all along the Wynn’s Ferry Road, the road that would take the Rebels, free of Grant’s siege, all the way to Nashville. Though it wasn’t exactly a last minute surprise, they were hardly ready for what seemed like the entire Confederate army. McClernand’s division, outnumbered and outflanked, began to melt away.
As he saw this happening, McClernand sent a messenger to Grant and General Lew Wallace, holding a newly-formed division in the center of the Union line. Grant, however, had gone to confer with Commodore Foote of the Navy, at a landing on the Cumberland River, seven miles away. General Wallace had heard the firing, but figured that McClernand was disobeying orders again and starting up a bit of a scrap with the Rebels.
When Wallace received the messenger, he first sent word to Grant’s headquarters and then decided to send a brigade to McClernand, hoping to halt the Confederate escape attempt. When the reinforcements arrived, however, McClernand chose not to use them, placing the new arrivals in reserve. When he finally fed them in, it was too late. His line was flanked and they too fell back with it.
Holding the Confederate right and center was General Buckner’s division. He was to make his attack after Pillow’s succeeded. As Pillow’s assault had more than carried the Union position, Buckner advanced, though very slowly. Buckner’s delay began the end of the Confederate attack.
All was not, however, well, from either the Union or Confederate perspective. Pillow’s assault had shattered the Union right, opening an escape route all the way to Nashville. Many of the Federal troops were out of ammunition and reinforcements seemed slow in coming. Though things might have looked brighter from the Rebel side of the trench, the attack which started as a single, mass movement, had devolved into brigade and regiment level fights. The battle was actually many large and bloody battles wrapped up in one.
The silver lining, however, was clad in blue. This delay gave General McClernand time to shift troops to meet Buckner’s slugging attack. The reinforcements came from General Wallis’ Division. They stopped dead Buckner’s men, who had, until now, picked up their pace. Wallace fired into the Rebel throng as it tried to form some vague line of battle. After a half hour of all the Union lead they could stomach, the Rebels on Wallace’s front fell back, but still held tight to Wynn’s Ferry Road.
Buckner’s advance was merely an action meant to hold the Union left in place while Pillow’s men broke through. And while Pillow’s men broke through and Buckner’s men held the Union left in place, something wasn’t quite right. In their planning for this attack, the Confederate officers never agreed upon what to do once the Union line was broken. Were they to pull out of Donelson right away, or were they to go back to the trenches and leave a bit later?
Feeling that the day was won, Pillow ordered a general withdraw to the trenches. It was his opinion that they were to break the Union line, return to the fortifications, resupply and then head to Nashville. Buckner was livid and when he saw General Floyd, overall commander, he let him know. Floyd wanted to hold Buckner on Wynn’s Ferry Road for the rest of the day and through the night, as his Rebel army made good their flight.
Floyd rode off to find Pillow to see what was going on. When he was found, Floyd chewed into him, demanding to know why he was giving up Wynn’s Ferry Road. Somehow or another, the old politician, Gideon Pillow, convinced a fellow politician, John B. Floyd, that the army needed to return to its trenches, regroup, resupply and … then what? Retreat? Fight again? Had Pillow’s hubris been so infectious that Floyd now believed they could beat Grant, or at least hold him off until reinforcements arrived?
As the lull dragged on and as the Rebels across the line began to withdraw to their trenches, General Grant returned to the field. Taking in the situation, he could see that the Rebel wave had crested and that Floyd had ordered a withdraw. Probably Grant believed that they were about to escape. He first ordered Generals Wallace and McClernand to retake their former positions on the Wynn’s Ferry Road. Then, riding west, he ordered General C.F. Smith, “All has failed on our right—you must take Fort Donelson.”
While Wallace and McClernand hemmed and hawed, Smith got right to work with his fresh troops in the waning light of day. He made quick work of the trenches to his front, left empty, but for a few battalions of Rebels armed with double-barrel shotguns. As they moved on, the Rebels were just returning to their trenches. While they could hold their ground, Smith’s brigade could not move forward. The returning Confederates counterattacked several times, but could not dislodge them.
On the right, General Wallace took command of three brigades and pushed forward, retaking most of the ground lost in the morning, littered with the dead and the dying. Wallace, however, could go no farther. As Smith advanced nearer to the fort itself, Wallace and the Union right would have to be content in simply retaking their position.
Across the trenches, Confederate Generals Floyd, Pillow and Buckner were again meeting to decide the fate of their army.1
- Though I don’t like to do it this way, this post used several sources, mostly secondary. Forts Henry and Donelson by Benjamin Franklin Cooling was used mostly, with Where the South Lost the War by Kendall D. Gott, used as well. Grant Rises in the West by Kenneth P. Williams provided a great overview of things happening with McClellan, Buell and Halleck, but I left no time to write about any of that. I hope you enjoyed the story of the battle anyway. [↩]