Union Generals Disobey Grant’s Orders and Attack at Fort Donelson

February 13, 1862 (Thursday)

Possibly the most inaccurate rendering of General Grant ever.
General Grant had high hopes as he prepared his men to attack Fort Donelson, along the Cumberland River, in Tennessee. The previous day, his two divisions under Generals McClernand and C.F. Smith had almost entirely surrounded the Rebels, leaving only land to the north and the river to the east open. Grant managed to get a message to the USS Carondelet, the gunboat that fired twenty or so rounds at Donelson as it arrived on the scene nearly twenty-four hours ago.

He asked the Carondelet‘s Captain Henry Walke to create a diversion with his gunboats at 10am in order for the infantry to advance upon the fort.1 What Grant didn’t know, however, was that the Carondelet was the only gunboat at Fort Donelson. Though alone, Captain Walke moved into position to bombard the fort and began to lob what would be 139 shells into Fort Donelson. The Rebels replied almost immediately.2

Before the bombardment began, Confederate General John B. Floyd arrived and took command of the entire Confederate force, bringing with him the rest of his brigade, and bringing his army to a figure that nearly equaled Grant’s 15,000. As the shells from the Carondelet began to fall, Floyd heard musket fire from the trenches surrounding the fort.3

Grant, no doubt, also heard the firing, but probably understood that it was frivolous skirmish fire, as he had ordered both McClernand and Smith not to bring on a general engagement.

General C.F. Smith was the first to ignore the order, deciding, after a hearty breakfast, to silence the Rebel artillery to his front. He ordered two brigades to attack General Buckner’s lines on the Confederate right. It was the terrain, the thick underbrush and the enemy’s abatis that stalled the attack.

While the brigade on the right was tangled, the brigade on the left crested a hill before Buckner’s lines, fixed bayonets and attempted to charge. Before long, both brigades had to untangle their way back to their lines while dodging Rebel balls.4

Along General McClernand’s line, the Rebels shot first. Artillery fire preceded an hour and a half long sharpshooter attack, both of which McClernand tolerated without returning a shot. Eventually, McClernand replied with his own artillery, which made quick work of the Rebel guns, before turning on the enemy’s infantry. When the Union guns pulled out, the Rebel artillery began again.

Seeing the Confederate line to his front in a bit of confusion, and hoping to silence the enemy guns for good, McClernand tossed Grant’s orders to the wind and prepared to attack. He assembled a makeshift brigade by pulling regiments from two nearby brigades. With skirmishers thrown to the front, McClernand’s men advanced towards the Rebel battery.

As soon as they stepped out into a relative clearing, they were caught in an artillery crossfire that they had no choice but to tolerate. McClernand fed in another regiment and the assault was again attempted. Like Smith’s, however, it was quickly over and gained nothing for the Union.5

In his report, Grant said little of the two repulsed attacks, dismissing them as “skirmishing all day.” He had expected more gunboats and more reinforcements via the Cumberland River. Neither arrived in time.6

Meanwhile, in St. Louis, Grant’s superior, General Henry Halleck, had received rumors that the Rebels under General Leonidus Polk in Columbus were making plans to recapture Fort Henry, held by a scant force under General Lew Wallace. Halleck again asked General Don Carlos Buell, commander of the Department of the Cumberland, to create a diversion at Bowling Green, hoping to keep the Rebels there from reinforcing their friends at Donelson. It was too late, however, as most of Bowling Green was already inside Fort Donelson.

As the attacks faltered and both sides settled into their respective lines, a cold, biting rain fell. As the temperatures dropped, it turned to sleet and then snow. While some of the Rebels had the relative warmth of their fires and overcoats, the Union soldiers had neither. Fires would only draw shots from enemy sharpshooters, and, following Grant’s order, they had left their blankets and overcoats back at Fort Henry. It would be a long, long night.7


Union Victory Narrowly Averted in New Mexico

The cold in Tennessee was felt also in New Mexico, where Confederate General Henry Sibley was pushing north towards Union Col. Edward Canby at Fort Craig. Before the Rebels even started their advance from Fort Thorn, eighty miles down the Rio Grande from Craig, Canby knew of their coming. Throughout the week, he had ordered detachments to scout Sibley’s Confederates as they moved north.

On this date, he sent a company each of Regulars and Colorado Volunteers to reconnoiter south along the Rio Grande. After marching two hours, they stumbled upon some Texans.

Ahead of Sibley’s column were the 5th Texas Mounted Volunteers, who had picked their way to within ten or so miles of Fort Craig, where they made camp for the evening. About an hour had passed before Confederate pickets burst into camp to inform their comrades that Union troops were moving on their position.

The Texans quickly mounted up and rode north to meet them. Four miles north of their camp, they found the Regulars and Colorado troops drawn up for battle. The Rebels soon did the same. As both sides stared at each other across a short ravine, the Union troops sent a messenger back to Col. Canby at Fort Craig.

Canby immediately snapped into action, calling his entire force of 3,000 to arms, ready to march them south to whip the Texans. This call to arms apparently drew the Regulars and Colorado troops back to the fort as well. The Rebels held their ground as the Federals before them fell back, and as the Federals in the fort prepared for battle.

Figuring that no attack was to be made, the Rebels returned to their camp. Oddly enough, with the Texans gone, Canby assumed that they were about to attack him. He quickly recalled his column descending upon the Rebel position. By 11pm, they returned to Fort Craig, a battle, and nearly certain Union victory, narrowly averted.8

  1. Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 22, p594. []
  2. Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 22, p588. Walke’s Report. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p267. Floyd’s Report. []
  4. Forts Henry and Donelson by Benjamin Franklin Cooling. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p172-173. McClernand’s Report. []
  6. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p159. Grant’s Report. []
  7. Grant Rises in the West by Kenneth P. Williams. []
  8. Bloody Valverde by John Taylor provided the Union account, while Sibley’s New Mexico Campaign by Martin Hardwick Hall provided the Confederate. []
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Union Generals Disobey Grant’s Orders and Attack at Fort Donelson by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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