The Strange and Unconditional Surrender of Fort Donelson

February 16, 1862 (Sunday)

After the fighting of the 15th fell silent around Fort Donelson, and after the sun was well hidden by the horizon, Confederate Generals Floyd, Pillow and Buckner met to discuss the fate of their command. They had won the fight, opened the road to Nashville and secured their escape, but a misunderstanding ground them to a halt. Buckner wanted to escape immediately, while Pillow convinced Floyd (the commanding General) to wait until the next day.

Because there was little sleeping, it was the next day when they met. Floyd called all of his colonels and generals to Pillow’s headquarters in Dover, full in the believe that the road to Nashville was still wide open. There, he ordered a general withdraw from Fort Donelson to start in three hours.

But then word came from the pickets. The Union line that Pillow smashed to pieces the previous day, the line that had blocked the road to Nashville, had retaken their position. Their plan to escape was obvious and the road was retaken.

Floyd asked both Pillow and Buckner what was to be done. Pillow wanted the army to cut its way out of the jam yet again, while Buckner insisted that the men were too haggard to make the fight. General Floyd agreed. Pillow then suggested that they fight them for another day in the trenches around the fort and then escape across the Cumberland River in boats. Buckner replied that the men couldn’t even hold the trenches for half an hour. Floyd again agreed.

They would have to immediately move the men they could, and surrender those they couldn’t. Floyd figured that he could move two divisions by a couple of boats that were to be at the fort at dawn. Though Pillow was opposed to the surrender, he saw an opportunity to save himself. He boasted to Floyd that they were both highly sought after men, and the Union would love to lock them up, or worse. Therefore, urged Pillow, they should make their escape as well. And while Buckner thought it his duty to remain and surrender with his men, Pillow and Floyd were not so gallant.1

“General Buckner,” said the more and more nervous General Floyd, “if I place you in command, will you allow me to get out as much of my brigade as I can?”

“I will,” replied Buckner, “provided you do so before the enemy receives my proposition for capitulation.”

Due to military protocol, Floyd couldn’t just turn over the fort to Buckner. He had to first give it to Pillow, his second in command. Motioning to Pillow, he said, “I turn the command over, sir.”

“I pass it,” Pillow quickly replied.

“I assume it,” said Buckner, picking up the hot potato. “Give me pen, ink, and paper, and send for a bugler.”2

Neither wanting to surrender nor to sneak away, Col. Nathan Bedford Forrest, also attending the meeting, spoke up. He had not come out to hand over his command. He turned and asked General Pillow what he should do. “Cut your way out,” he replied. Forrest wasted little time gathering his and another regiment.3

While Pillow and Floyd prepared to duck out, and Forrest made good his escape, Buckner penned a letter to Union General Grant:

Headquarters, Fort Donelson, February 16, 1862. Sir: In consideration of all the circumstances governing the present situation of affairs at this station I propose to the commanding officers of the Federal forces the appointment of commissioners to agree upon terms of capitulation of the forces and post under my command, and in that view suggest an armistice until 12 o’clock to-day. I am, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

S. B. BUCKNER, Brigadier-General, C.S. Army.4

As the letter made its way to Grant’s headquarters, Pillow and Floyd made their way across the Cumberland. Pillow took a small craft, as Floyd, shoved off in a larger steamboat that also carried his Virginia troops, but no one else. Word spread quickly among the troops that they were to be surrendered.5

Grant received the letter before dawn and replied at once, informing Buckner that “No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.” To make sure he was understood, Grant added, “I propose to move immediately upon your works.”6

Grant was prepared to back up his words, as he had already put his division commanders on stand by.

When Buckner received the reply, he must have been furious. He and Grant had been friends at West Point, had served together in the old army, and Buckner had even loaned him money when he was down and out. All of this mattered not at all now.7 In his reply to Grant, he was compelled to “accept the ungenerous and unchivalrous terms.”8

As the two old comrades met to discuss the details of the surrender, the mood softened. They talked of old times and paid each other compliment after compliment. When they finally got around to the matter at hand, Buckner was unsure just how many men he had. Perhaps 12,000 to 15,000. Some of the larger number were, no doubt, lying dead and frozen on the ground. Grant allowed for burial details to pass through Union lines. He also secured Union rations for the hungry Rebels, all 14,623 of them.9

In a meeting held later in the day to pound out the minute details, Buckner asked that his men be allowed to write home and to be put aboard transport vessels post-haste, as the cold weather would be sure to take many lives. Grant wasn’t sure what he could do about that, as the task of accepting the surrender of 15,000 men had never been done before on this continent. He would, of course, do what he could.

As the meeting drew to a close, Grant pulled Buckner aside and offered his purse to repay the loan. Buckner demurred, but was touched by the friendly gesture.10

To end the day, Grant sent two brigades under General Lew Wallace back to Fort Henry, just in case the Rebels at Columbus got any funny ideas. He also ordered his men into Fort Donelson, warning against looting and pillaging, though his words were blatantly ignored.

Along with the Rebel prisoners, Grant had accepted the surrender of 20,000 stand of arms, forty-eight pieces of field artillery, seventeen heavy guns, several thousand horses and various other supplies. It all came with a high price, however.11 Of his 27,000, Grant lost 507 killed, 1,976 wounded and 208 missing. The Rebels lost 327 killed and 1,127 wounded.12

The fall of Forts Henry and Donelson meant more to the Confederacy than the loss of two river outposts. The center of the line that stretched from Cumberland Gap in the east to the Mississippi River in the west was broken. The Rebels had already abandoned Bowling Green, falling back to Nashville. General Floyd’s command, as well as Forrest’s, would soon join them. From there, General Albert Sidney Johnston would have to decide where his Army of Mississippi would make their stand.

  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7. p333-335. Buckner’s Report. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p297. Major Gus A. Henry Jr.’s statement concerning the council of war. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p 295. Forrest’s statement concerning the council of war. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p160. []
  5. Forts Henry and Donelson by Benjamin Franklin Cooling. []
  6. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p161. []
  7. Forts Henry and Donelson by Benjamin Franklin Cooling. []
  8. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p161. []
  9. Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant. []
  10. Forts Henry and Donelson by Benjamin Franklin Cooling. []
  11. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p625. Grant to Halleck. []
  12. Where the South Lost the War by Kendall D. Gott. []
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One thought on “The Strange and Unconditional Surrender of Fort Donelson

  1. Excellent work here — very impressive!

    My great great grandfather fought his first big battle here at Ft. Donelson (Samuel France, Co. E, 31st Indiana). Cheers ~~

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