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The Union Finds a Hero: Ulysses S. Grant and the Capture of Fort Donelson


The dawning of the year 1862 found President Abraham Lincoln and the Northern people in a state of grave despondency. Since suffering a painful defeat in the first major battle of the Civil War at Manassas, Virginia earlier that summer, Southern arms had continued to maintain an edge of superiority over their Federal adversaries. To make matters worse, the leading Union commanders seemed frozen in inaction, displaying a lack of urgency in marching out to meet the enemy on the battlefield. “The bottom is out of the tub,” despaired Lincoln. With a defeatist mentality beginning to take hold over the Northern public, President Lincoln and the Union needed a military champion who was bold enough to tackle the rebels head-on and skilled enough to win victories. Right when it truly mattered most, that hero was found in Ulysses S. Grant.

An 1843 graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, Grant had performed extremely well during the Mexican-American War from 1846-1848, displaying great courage under fire and a sharp mind in the chaos of battle. After the war with Mexico, life in the peacetime Army took a heavy toll on Grant. Bouncing from one remote military post to another, he grew very lonely. Desperately missing his family, he struggled with his drinking and ultimately resigned from the Army in 1854. Over the next seven years, Grant toiled tirelessly to support his beloved wife Julia and their four children. At one point, he was reduced to selling firewood on the streets of St. Louis in his quest to solve “the problem of poverty.” Grant was still down on his luck when the Civil War broke out in April 1861, but when the call for volunteers to defend the Union came, he eagerly set out to do his duty. Despite his experience as a soldier, however, the rumors of Grant's drinking haunted him and he initially struggled to obtain a command. After proving himself as he drilled and mustered in new recruits, though, his fortunes changed and he earned his opportunity to lead.

Grant was appointed colonel of the Twenty-First Illinois Infantry in June 1861. In his first assignment with that outfit, he was ordered to lead his men in an attack against a rebel encampment in Missouri. On the march to the enemy position, Grant recalled, “I would have given anything then to have been back in Illinois, but I had not the moral courage to halt and consider what to do; I kept right on.” When Grant and his troops reached their destination, they found that the enemy had taken flight. “It occurred to me at once,” wrote Grant, that the opposing commander “had been as much afraid of me as I had been of him. This was a view of the question I had never taken before; but it was one I never forgot afterwards.”

Ulysses S. Grant as a brigadier general in 1861. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

One month after his appointment as colonel of the Twenty-First Illinois, Grant was promoted to brigadier general. On November 7, 1861, he led a full army in combat for the first time at the Battle of Belmont in Missouri. His inexperienced soldiers initially routed the enemy, but the momentum of the fight soon changed after they lost their discipline and began to plunder the Confederate camp. The rebels counterattacked and surrounded the Federals, leading some of Grant’s officers to panic and advise surrender. Their commander, however, was not fazed, telling them that “we had cut our way in and could cut our way out just as well.” Thanks to Grant’s steady leadership, the Union troops did indeed cut their way out and escaped aboard their transports.

Grant learned a great deal from these early command experiences in the war and aggressively sought out more opportunities to strike the enemy. In January 1862, he urged the commander of the Department of Missouri, Major General Henry W. Halleck, to allow him to take his troops and Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote’s new ironclad gunboats up the Tennessee River to capture Confederate Fort Henry. Like most Union commanders frustrating President Lincoln at this time, Halleck seemed hesitant to fight and initially refused Grant permission. Unwilling to sit still and do nothing, Grant and Foote redoubled their efforts and proposed the operation again to Halleck, which he finally endorsed on January 30, 1862.

With around 15,000 troops and seven gunboats under Foote behind him, Grant set out to seize Fort Henry on the morning of February 3. After landing his men below the fort, Grant planned to launch an infantry attack on Henry from the rear while the Navy shelled it from the river. Because of heavy rains, though, roads turned into quagmires and prevented Grant’s infantry from moving into position on time. Despite the delay, Foote’s gunboats managed to handle business all on their own. In little more than an hour on February 6, the punishing fire from Foote’s fleet compelled Confederate Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman to raise a white flag and surrender Fort Henry.

Flag Officer Foote's gunboats taking on Fort Henry on February 6, 1862. (Photo Credit: Library of Congress)

Although Tilghman had evacuated most of his garrison cross-country to Fort Donelson, which sat roughly twelve miles away on the Cumberland River, the news of Fort Henry’s capture provided a desperately needed morale boost to President Lincoln and the Northern public. “The flag of the Union is re-established on the soil of Tennessee,” wrote Halleck. “It will never be removed.” While the North celebrated, General Grant was not content to rest on his laurels. With momentum on his side, he quickly set out to strike another blow.

After informing Halleck that Fort Henry was in Union hands, Grant reported his intention to “take and destroy Fort Donelson on the 8th.” Although his troops only had to traverse twelve overland miles to reach Donelson, heavy rains struck again, churning roads into mud and delaying the advance. Foote’s sailors also needed time to make repairs to their gunboats and to navigate a circuitous 150-mile water route to reach the fort. Rather than await reinforcements and delay further, Grant decided to go ahead with 15,000 troops. Once the weather improved, he began the march to Fort Donelson under a bright warm sun on February 12.

General Albert Sidney Johnston commanded the Western Military Department of the Confederacy. The fall of Fort Henry was a major blow to his long defensive line that stretched from Missouri to Bowling Green, Kentucky, to the Cumberland Gap. Although Johnston now thought Fort Donelson was “not long tenable” and considered withdrawing his troops, he ultimately decided to oppose Grant’s advance. The man who Confederate President Jefferson Davis considered the greatest soldier in the Southern service thus sent 12,000 men to reinforce Donelson and retreated with the remainder of his troops to Nashville, Tennessee.

Part of Fort Donelson's defenses overlooking the Cumberland River. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

“Fort Donelson is a very strong point naturally and an immense deal of labor has been added to strengthen it,” reported Grant to his brother Orvil. Whereas Fort Henry had been on low, dry ground, Donelson was the exact opposite and towered more than a hundred feet above the Cumberland River at certain points. With roughly 17,000 rebel troops manning three semicircular miles of trenches to defend the fort by land and twelve heavy guns staring out at the water to oppose Union gunboats, Grant knew that Donelson would not fall easily.

Union probing attacks were launched against the fort on February 13 to test Donelson’s defenses. They were repulsed, confirming to Grant that it was going to take a real fight to topple the rebel stronghold. The following day, around 10,000 Union reinforcements and six of Foote’s gunboats arrived, giving Grant added strength that was sorely needed. In order to finish the job, he planned to use the Navy to shell the fort from the river while his infantry surrounded the target by land, cutting off the Confederates from escape.

On the afternoon of February 14, Foote and his fleet commenced their attack. Unlike the easy success they had found against Fort Henry nine days earlier, however, the Union gunboats were badly battered in the attempt and were forced to pull away after ninety minutes of fiery battle. Every craft in Foote’s fleet suffered forty or more hits from the heavy rebel guns and approximately 54 sailors were killed or wounded. On the Confederate side, no guns or men were lost in the attack. Heartened by this victory, the defenders cheered wildly. As they would soon learn, though, the fight for Fort Donelson was far from over.

Rebel gunners battling Flag Officer Foote's gunboats on February 14, 1862. (Photo Credit: National Park Service)

Despite turning back Foote’s gunboats, the Confederates were still on the verge of being strangled to death. With Grant’s infantry surrounding the fort by three sides on land and the Union Navy still in control of the Cumberland River, the situation could only worsen for the rebels as the Federals perfected their stranglehold. Knowing something had to be done, Confederate Generals John B. Floyd, Gideon J. Pillow, and Simon B. Buckner met on the night of the 14th. As the three main commanders in charge of the fort, they decided to launch a surprise attack against the right flank of the Union line the following morning. If their troops could punch their way through and establish an opening in the Federal line, they hoped the garrison could escape to safety in Nashville.

Grant’s troops might have marched to Fort Donelson under a bright warm sun, but the bitter chill of winter quickly returned once operations against the enemy began. As the Confederates spent the night of the 14th preparing to strike, their movements were hidden by snow and howling winds. Shortly after dawn the following morning, the rebels poured out of Donelson and hit hard against the unsuspecting troops on the Union right under General John A. McClernand. After several hours of hard fighting, McClernand’s men had been driven back nearly a mile.

When the Confederate attack began that morning, General Grant was downstream visiting with Flag Officer Foote, who had been injured during the attack against Donelson on February 14. Because of a strong north wind, Grant was unable to hear the rumbles of the battle raging five miles to the south. Couriers were sent to inform the commanding general of what had happened and he instantly sprang to action upon learning the news. After mounting his horse, Grant galloped several miles over icy terrain to reach the battlefield.

General Grant on horseback in mid foreground, surveying the battlefield on February 15, 1862. (Photo Credit: Chicago History Museum)

Despite the setback that morning, Grant was not fazed and went to work preparing his men to battle back. On the Confederate side, General Pillow did not possess a steady nerve like Grant did. Although his troops had driven the Federals back, they paid a heavy price in casualties for their gains. Believing the men too exhausted and disorganized to carry on with the breakout attempt, Pillow and General Floyd, despite Buckner’s strenuous objections, agreed to give up the offensive and ordered their troops to pull back to their defenses. It was a fatal mistake that Grant quickly seized upon.

“The position on the right must be retaken,” said Grant to his officers. “Some of our men are pretty badly demoralized, but the enemy must be more so, for he has attempted to force his way out, but has fallen back: the one who attacks first will now be victorious and the enemy will have to be in a hurry if he gets ahead of me.” Following Grant’s lead, Union officers rallied their men and successfully counterattacked, winning back the ground that had been lost in the morning.

After a hard day of fighting, nearly 1,000 Union and Confederate dead littered the ground and some three thousand wounded soldiers were left writhing in agony. Grant’s forces now blocked any escape route to Nashville, leaving the rebels with few choices. General Pillow wanted the garrison to fight its way out again, but Buckner considered that a reckless idea that would lead to the death of perhaps three-quarters of their men. The thought of surrender was not easy to entertain, but Buckner knew it was the only alternative. That night, Floyd and Pillow transferred command over to Buckner and escaped across the Cumberland River under the cover of darkness. Unlike those two men, Buckner refused to abandon his soldiers and stayed behind to conduct the surrender.

General Simon Bolivar Buckner. After Grant's resignation from the regular Army in 1854, he was in a very rough state and lacked the means to return to his family. Buckner lent Grant money to help him get home. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

On the morning of Sunday, February 16, 1862, General Grant received a letter from his old friend and former West Point classmate, Simon B. Buckner. Buckner requested a formal armistice to discuss surrender terms, but for Grant, there was no room for discussion. The Union commander famously replied, “No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.” Buckner considered Grant’s terms “ungenerous and unchivalrous,” but with such superior numbers arrayed against him, he reluctantly accepted and surrendered Fort Donelson.

By taking Fort Donelson, Grant captured an army of nearly 13,000 men, which was a record on the North American continent. His victory ensured that the vital border state of Kentucky would stay in the Union and paved the way for further Federal advances into Tennessee and along the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers. A major blow had been inflicted on the Confederacy.

Church bells in the North produly rang once news of Grant’s victory at Fort Donelson arrived. It was the triumph that President Lincoln and the faithful supporters of the Union had long been waiting for. As General William Tecumseh Sherman later reflected, "I think of [General Grant] as the man who, when the country was in the hour of its peril, restored its hopes when he marched triumphant into Fort Donelson. After that none of us felt the least doubt as to the future of our country . . . ." President Lincoln proceeded to reward Grant with a promotion to major general and the public anointed the victorious commander with the nickname, “Unconditional Surrender” Grant. The Union had found its hero. Ulysses S. Grant was here to fight and win.


American Battlefield Trust: Battle of Fort Donelson.

Grant by Ron Chernow.

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