Rebels Nearly Attack, Union Flotilla Destroyed at Fort Donelson

February 14, 1862 (Thursday – St. Valentine’s Day)

General John B. Floyd's got a valentine card for you in his inside pocket.
For the Rebel commanders at Fort Donelson, the day began early, just as the previous day was ending. To Generals Floyd, Pillow and Buckner, it was clear that Grant was about to launch a full scale attack; that the sharp skirmishes of the day before were the opening chords and soon his entire force would assail the fort.

Union reinforcements were arriving via the Cumberland River. Reports cautioned that 20,000 fresh troops had disembarked from transports north of the fort. If true, it meant that Grant had arrayed 40,000 at Donelson. In reality, only 6,000 additional Federals came on the transports.

Along with the transports came the Union flotilla, six gunboats, veterans of the taking of Fort Henry. They were ready to add a second fort to their claims. Union General Grant rode out to meet them, arriving at the landing, four miles north of the fort, at 9am. He met with Commodore Andrew Foote, commander of the flotilla, convincing him to make an attack.

Foote was less than enthusiastic about his orders. Fort Donelson, sitting on a bluff, was much more imposing than the sunken Fort Henry. Also, he had less firepower here than he did there. He now longed for the mortar boats he was before convinced would be useless. He ordered his fleet to ready themselves for mid-afternoon action.1

Grant’s plan “was for the [infantry] troops to hold the enemy within his lines, while the gunboats should attack the water batteries at close quarters and silence his guns if possible.”2

General Lew Wallace has got one too.
General Lew Wallace, later of Ben-Hur fame, arrived with two regiments and a battery around 11am. He found Grant at his headquarters, described by Wallace as a “poor, little, unpainted, clap-boarded affair of the ‘white trash’ variety, of logs, and a story and a half, with a lean-to on the side of our approach, half-room and half-porch.” Here, Wallace was stripped of his two regiments. But before he could rankle, he was placed in command of the troops fresh off the transports. He then became Grant’s third division commander.3

Wallace’s Division was placed in the center of his line, enabling his flanks to tighten their strangle upon the Rebel fortifications. With Grant at full strength, his numbers swelled to 25,000.

Thinking that they had actually swollen to 40,000, Floyd, Pillow and Buckner decided that it was hopeless to save the fort. They would break out and retire to Nashville. General Pillow commanded the Confederate left, facing south, opposite Union General McClernand’s Division. Buckner held the right, opposite Union General C.F. Smith. The plan was for Pillow to mass his troops and smash through McClernand, while Buckner’s Division followed, acting as a rear guard.4

Timing was essential. They wanted to attack before Grant placed Wallace’s new Division. Throughout the morning and early afternoon, Pillow took a long time getting ready and placing his troops for the assault. The bitter cold, no doubt, played a factor. Around noon, Pillow himself rode to the head of the column. The time was now. A quiet had befallen the battlefield and the Federals suspected not a thing.

Except for one sharpshooter, it seems, the entire Union command knew nothing of Pillow’s planned assault. This sharpshooter spied General Pillow, decked out in garish attire, and took aim. He fired, and maybe it was the cold, his shivering, that made him miss his mark. The ball skipped Pillow and smashed into a nearby infantryman. “Our movement is discovered!” Pillow quickly realized. He sent word to General Floyd, who flew into a fit of rage.5

The opportunity was gone. And if anyone in the earthen fort looked north around 2:30pm, they would have seen Union Commodore Foote’s six gunboats fighting their way upstream, soon ready to reduce Fort Donelson.

In no more than thirty minutes, the firing became thick. At first, with a mile separating them, the fort and the leading ironclad exchanged fire. This was little more than experimentation, trying to find the range as Foote steamed ever closer. But as the flotilla edged closer to the fort, their fire became wild, overshooting the works completely.6

An hour into the fight, Foote was still too close. He made quite a racket, however, and caused General Floyd to wire General Albert Sidney Johnston, department commander, that the fort could not hold out much longer.7 But the seven Rebel guns of Fort Donelson made their mark. One by one, the Union ships were crippled.

The St. Louis, Foote’s flagship, was hit fifty-nine times, with one in the pilothouse, disabling her. The Louisville‘s tiller ropes were shot away. Both ships drifted back downstream, out of the fight. The Pittsburg had been hit hard and was in danger of sinking.8

Of the ironclads, this left only the Carondelet. One of her rifled guns had burst, leaving her with only two pieces. She was hit by thirty-five of the enemy’s shot and one from a Union vessel. The 8-inch shell burst astern and sent shrapnel into the casemate.

It was all ended for her when a Rebel shot lodged in her wheelhouse, jamming the wheel. As an added insult, as the Carondelet drifted downstream, she was struck by the Pittsburg, which took out her starboard rudder iron. She then joined the other ships of the flotilla, coasting back downstream.9

Dusk was turning to dark as Confederate Generals Floyd and Pillow rode towards the batteries to offer their thanks and congratulations. The Rebels lost only one man during Foote’s barrage. Foote, on the other hand, had lost dearly.

All four of his ironclads were disabled. Eleven sailors had been killed, and forty wounded, including Foote himself. Grant now realized that taking Fort Donelson was not the same as taking Fort Henry. To his wife, he confided that the work before him “bids fair to be a long job.”

For Confederate Generals Floyd, Pillow and Buckner, the breakout attack, which failed on this day, was planned for the next. At 5am, Pillow would again line up his men and make an assault, rolling up Grant’s right flank, as Buckner continued the move, pinning the Federals north of Donelson, against the river. What wasn’t decided, however, was what to do after the breakthrough. Were they to move to Nashville immediately? Return to their trenches? It was as if they expected the plan to fail and just didn’t bother finalizing an endgame. With only the very immediate future in their thoughts, the three generals went about the work of preparing an army for a dawn attack.10



  1. Forts Henry and Donelson by Benjamin Franklin Cooling. []
  2. Personal Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant. []
  3. An Autobiography by Lew Wallace, 1906. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p330. Buckner’s Report. []
  5. Where the South Lost the War by Kendall D. Gott. I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about this book. The title is a bit far-fetched and the notation is sometimes questionable and sparse. []
  6. Forts Henry and Donelson by Benjamin Franklin Cooling. []
  7. Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 22, p611-612. []
  8. Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 22, p584-585. []
  9. Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol 22, p590-591. Walke’s Report. []
  10. Forts Henry and Donelson by Benjamin Franklin Cooling. []
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Rebels Nearly Attack, Union Flotilla Destroyed at Fort Donelson by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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