Top: Battle of Fort Donelson.
Bottom: Battle of Fort Henry.
In the Antebellum days, rivers were a vital part of transportation in the United States, so much so that they would almost become a living, breathing character in Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Now, in the great American Civil War, these avenues of invasion had strategic importance, since they were the key to Union victory. Among the Union Generals that recognized this fact was Ulysses S. Grant.
Grant asked his superior, General Henry W. Halleck, if he could take some men and gunboats- which were commanded by Flag-Officer Andrew H. Foote, a deeply religious abolitionist from Connecticut- and capture Fort Henry along the Tennessee. Halleck initially refused; but he changed his mind and let Grant loose in late January of 1862.
On February 5, Grant's forces reached Fort Henry, and, after it was evident that Foote's boats had them outgunned, the Confederate Garrison evacuated to Fort Donelson on the Cumberland, leaving behind only a single artillery company to delay the Yankee's advance. After the fleet and the rebel guns exchanged some fire, the Confederates capitulated. On February 6, the day of the fort's capture, Grant conveyed this message to Halleck: "Fort Henry is ours. I shall take and destroy Fort Donelson in the morning."
Mother Nature begged to differ. The deplorable weather impelled Grant and Foote to postpone the move and allowed the rebels some breathing space. Also, Albert Sidney Johnston and the recently arrived Pierre Gustave Beauregard, the Confederate commanders opposing them, discussed what would be the next best course of action for their men. Beauregard wanted to lick both Grant and General Don Carlos Buell, who was in charge of the Army of the Ohio; Johnston wanted to simply let the Yankees have Donelson so he could save the majority of his forces for a concentrated counterstroke against the invaders in the future, a brilliant plan that Johnston would eventually scratch, deciding instead to stand his ground there. The move was pure folly.
Actually, as James McPherson notes in Battle Cry of Freedom, " 'Fort' Donelson was not really a fort; rather, it was a stockade enclosing fifteen acres of soldiers' huts and camp equipment." Heavy guns watched the Cumberland for any of the enemy's naval attack like an eagle looking over the landscape, and there were three trenches, shaped like a semicircle, to deal with any threat posed by the Union Army. This is what Grant's men saw when they first caught sight of Donelson on February 12.
It was a hard fight. The rebel artillery exacted a heavy toll on Foote's ships, but the fact remained: the Confederates were surrounded on every side, three of them by enemy troops, the fourth by a navy that, although given a good beating, had the Cumberland River. However, this does not mean that the rebels fought defensively for the entire battle. Indeed, they tried to slash their way out of the encirclement. Covered by heavy winds and snow, the Confederates assailed General John A. McClerland's division on February 15, driving it back; but the Yankees inflicted a considerable amount of punishment on the attackers. His men having lost their cohesion and exhausted, General John Floyd, the garrison commander who had been secretary of war in the Buchanan Administration, ordered them to withdraw.
Grant reacted to this development in characteristic fashion: he did not panic, telling his officers, "The position on the right must be retaken. 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 now will be victorious and the enemy will have to be in a hurry if he gets ahead of me." Grant's demand was fullfilled; the ground lost was retaken later that day.
The next morning, General Simon Bolivar Buckner, the new garrison commander (Floyd had departed before sunrise earlier that morning), asked if terms of surrender could be discussed. "What answer shall I send to this?" Grant asked Charles F. Smith, who had been a commandant at West Point when Grant was a cadet there, upon receiving the message. "No terms with traitors, by God!" was the reply. Taking this advice, Grant responded with the following: "No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately on your works." Buckner, while miffed at these "ungenerous and unchivalrous" words, complied.
"The strategic consequences of this campaign were the most important of the war so far," asserts McPherson. With Buell's Army of the Ohio threatening Nashville and John Pope's Army of the Mississippi appearing as if it was marching on Columbus, the Confederates were compelled to abandon both of these cities, conceding to the Yankees all of Kentucky and the majority of Tennessee. Also, the capture of both forts brought renewed confidence to North, albeit temporary. As the New York Tribune promulgated even before Donelson's fall, "The cause of the Union now marches on in every section of the country. Every blow tells fearfully against the rebellion. The rebels themselves are panic-stricken, or despondent. It now requires no very far-reaching prophet to predict the end of the struggle."
Although the Confederacy did suffer from deep despair, it was nevertheless defiant. "It was," Jefferson Davis said of these reversals in his inaugural address, "perhaps, in the ordination of Providence that we were taught the value of our liberties by the price we pay for them." The Richmond Examiner agreed: "Days of adversity prove the worth of men and of nations... We must go to the work with greater earnestness than we have yet shown."