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Fort Henry and Fort Donelson
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Shortly after the surrender of Fort Sumter, Confederates built two forts just south of the border of Tennessee and Kentucky. Deeply divided, Kentucky had declared its neutrality in the war. In September 1861 Leonidas Polk [CS] ordered Gideon Pillow [CS] to seize Columbus and the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River. The excellent tactical position was quickly upstaged by Ulysses S. Grant [US], who seized Paducah (at the confluence of the Tennessee and Ohio Rivers), a more strategic position.
Albert Sidney Johnston's assumption of command in the West, also in September, 1861, altered the Union's plans. Winfield Scott's divide and conquer strategy was put on the back burner as the Union tried to keep western Kentucky in its fold. At the time Confederates controlled almost a third of the state as well as a major railroad and the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, giving the Rebels the ability to move troops rapidly throughout the region from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River.
Johnston garrisoned a significant force at Columbus, perhaps 25,000 effectives, dangerously close the Illinois border. Further south, Fort Henry guarded the Tennessee River while Fort Donelson guarded the Cumberland. General George Thomas [US] set the stage for the capture of the forts with a minor victory over General George Crittenden [CS] at the Battle of Mill Springs two weeks earlier. The key to rolling up the Confederate defense of the Mississippi River was the capture of Fort Henry and Donelson. That job fell to General Ulysses S. Grant and Commodore Andrew Foote [US].
Fort Henry was easy prey for the Union gunboats, backed by two divisions of infantry under Grant. Confederate engineers had placed the fort within the floodplain of the Tennessee River and early rains submerge a significant portion of the redoubt. After the gunboats opened fire the 2,600 men in the fort withdrew to Fort Donalson, a scant 10 miles away.
When Fort Henry surrendered, Grant turned his attention to Fort Donalson. Johnston realized that with the loss of Ft. Henry the center of his line was in danger, so he withdrew 15,000 men from Bowling Green and used them to reinforce Donelson. With more than 21,000 men in the vicinity of Fort Donelson, the Rebels easily outnumbered the federal force of 15,000 men.
Following the defeat of Fort Henry, the Union gunboats sailed down the Cumberland River and up the Tennessee to Fort Donelson. As Union troops arrived at Donelson on February 13, General John A. McClernand made a unsupported, premature assault testing the Confederates in the Donelson lines. It was this kind of action that gave Grant reason to worry about McClernand's ability to make command decisions.
Grant ordered the men he left at Fort Henry to advance. With these men, combined with additional troops coming off the Union gunboats, the Union Army ranks swelled to 27,000 men. The following morning (February 14) the gunboats moved into place, then Commodore Foote began shelling the fort. On the Cumberland River side of Fort Donelson, skilled Confederate artillerists drew a bead on Foote's fleet, quickly ranging their target and forcing a retreat of the Union gunships. Foote was injured by the Rebel fire.
Visiting Foote early on February 15 to plan his next assault, Grant was surprised when a messenger told him of a Confederate attack - he had not heard the sound of battle, probably because of a strong wind. Simon Bolivar Buckner, attacking the Union left, ran up against stiff opposition and was forced to withdraw. Meanwhile, Gideon Pillow launched an assault against the Union right (McClernand), demolished 5 brigades in the federal line, forcing them into full retreat and grabbed a road that led to Nashville. Pillow had a number of good choices he could have made: turn left or right to battle the exposed flanks of Grant's army, or use the road he had captured to evacuate to Nashville. Pillow, generally regarded as the worst general on either side during the Civil War, decided to withdraw back into the fort because his men seemed exhausted.
Grant returned to his troops and inspected the line. He concluded that the Confederate attack was an attempt to break out of the fort and ordered his men to regroup and advance. Coming up against the weakened Rebel line Grant's men pushed past the entrenchments, gaining a foothold inside the Rebel fortifications and threatening the fort. That evening, Floyd, Pillow and Buckner considered surrender. Buckner, lowest ranking of the three generals, was the one left to do the task. Floyd and Pillow slipped out by boat and Nathan Bedford Forrest, his cavalry and a few foot soldiers found a partially flooded land route out minutes before it was closed off by Union infantry.
The following morning, as Union troops prepared for an all-out assault against Fort Donelson, Simon Buckner asked his old friend Ulysses S. Grant for terms; Grant issued his now famous response: No terms except an immediate and unconditional surrender can be accepted. Buckner had no choice but to accept. The battle of Fort Donelson was over, there were few Confederate troops between the Union Army and Nashville and Grant had delivered something the United States desperately needed: its first major victory of the Civil War.
Some list the start of the battle as February 14. There was significant action on the lines on February 13.
Simon Buckner and Ulysses Grant were at West Point together for 3 years. During the Mexican-American War they served in the same division.
According to General Grant's memoirs, one of Grant’s first questions to Buckner was: "Where is Pillow? Why didn’t he stay to surrender his command?"
Buckner: "He thought you were too anxious to capture him personally."
Grant: "Why if I had captured him I would have turned him loose. I would rather have him in command of you fellows than as a prisoner."
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Albert Sidney Johnston
Fort Henry and Fort Donelson was last changed on - February 6, 2007
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