Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Forts Henry and Donaldson

Dates: February 4-16, 1862


Union: Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant and Flag Officer Andrew Foote.

Confederate: Brigadier General Lloyd Tlighman commanding at Fort Henry.
Brigadier General John Floyd commanding at Fort Donaldson.

Prelude: As part of President Lincoln’s order for a general advance on all fronts, the Union commander in the West, Major General Henry Halleck, wanted to push the Confederates out of Kentucky altogether and gain a foothold in Tennessee. A key to future operation was control of the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. The Confederates knew this as well and had placed forts along those rivers to either stall or stop and Federal advance. Fort Henry was placed along the Tennessee River just inside the border from Kentucky. Across the river, on the Kentucky side, was Fort Heiman. These forts created a chokepoint in the Tennessee. About 10 miles to the east was Fort Donaldson, covering a bend in the Cumberland. If the Union was going to gain a foothold in Tennessee, these forts had to go.

February 4, 1862: During the night, the Federal flotilla arrived at Bailey’s Ford, about three miles up river from Fort Henry. The division of Brigadier General John McClernand was placed on the east bank.

February 5, 1862: The division of Brigadier General Charles Smith was placed on the west bank so that they can advance on Fort Heiman.

February 6, 1862: At 11:00 a.m. McClernand begins marching his troops towards Fort Henry.

Smith begins marching his troops towards Fort Heiman. They reach it and found out that the fort was evacuated.

Foote sails his gunboats to Fort Henry and proceeds to shell it. The Federals notice that the fort was built on swampy ground which was prone to flooding. It was flooding. At a pause in the bombardment, the fort surrendered and its garrison was evacuated to Fort Donaldson. That night Grant and his command occupy Fort Henry.

Meanwhile, the Confederate Commander in the West, General Albert Johnston sent 15,000 men under Floyd to Fort Donaldson to assist in the defense. Because of his seniority, Floyd becomes the fort’s commander.

February 11, 1862: Grant formulates a plan to take Fort Donaldson. He sends some of Foote’s flotilla to raid along the Tennessee while the rest of the gunboats went back to Cairo, IL to pick up the division of Brigadier General Lew Wallace and take them down the Cumberland to assist in the assault. Meanwhile Grant sends both Smith and McClernand on parallel roads towards the fort.

February 12, 1862: Both Smith’s and McClernand’s divisions reach the outer defenses of Fort Donaldson as Wallace’s division is landed up river and Foote’s gunboats shell the fort.

February 13, 1862: Federal forces try to assault the Fort Donaldson defenses but a blizzard has put a damper on things.

February 14, 1862: Foot’s gunboats shell the fort but return fire damages some of them. This as Wallace’s division arrives, giving the Federals an advantage.

February 15: 1862: Dawn: Floyd and Brigadier General Simon Buckner launch an attack on the Federal line, momentarily opening an escape route. At the moment of success, Floyd orders hit forces back into their trenches.

1:00 p.m. Grant arrives on the scene and orders a general attack on the entire line. The initial attack regains the ground lost that morning. In the mid-afternoon, Smith’s division seized a line of Confederate trenches. Fighting stops at that point.

That night, Floyd gives his command to Brigadier General Gideon Pillow, who passes the buck to Buckner. Floyd was the Secretary of War in the Buchanan Administration and had sent arms south as the southern states were seceding and he thought that he would be hung as a traitor. Floyd and Pillow escape with 2500 men. Another commander, Brigadier General Nathan Forrest wanted no part of a surrender and took his command out as well.

February 16, 1862: Dawn breaks to find Buckner and the remaining force surrounded by Federals. He sends a letter to Grant:

Headquarters, Fort Donaldson
February 16, 1862

Sir—In consideration of all the circumstances governing the present situation of affairs at this station, I propose to the Commanding Officer of the Federal forces the appointment of Commissioners to agree upon terms of capitulation of the forces and fort under my command and in that view suggest an armistice until 12 o’clock to-day.

I am, sir, very respectfully
Your ob’t se’v’t
S. B. Buckner
Brig Gen C.S.A.

Grant replies:

General S. B. Buckner
Confederate Army

Sir—Yours of this date, proposing armistice and appointment of Commissioners to settle terms of capitulation, is just received. No terms except an unconditional an immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.

I am, sir, very respectfully
Your ob’t se’v’t
U. S. Grant
Brig Gen

The answer came back:

Headquarters, Dover, Tennessee
February 16, 1862

To Brig Gen U. S. Grant
U. S. Army

Sir—The distribution of the forces under my command, incident to an unexpected change of commanders, and the overwhelming force under your command, compel me, not withstanding the brilliant success of the Confederate arms yesterday, to accept the ungenerous and unchivalrous terms which you propose.

I am, sir,
Your ob’t se’v’t
S. B. Buckner
Brig Gen C.S.A.

Buckner remembered loaning Grant some money several years back and thought he could be let down easy. Instead, Grant showed the style that would lead to the surrender of two more Confederate armies during the remainder of the war. When the news reached the north, newspapers nicknamed him “Unconditional Surrender” Grant. The greatest effect of this Union victory was that the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers could be used to make an advance into Tennessee and the Deep South.

What do you think the original letter between S B Buckner and U S Grant proposing armistice would be worth - my grandfather left it to me in a frame that he had since I was born that I know of - please let me know - Stacia tattooangelwi@yahoo.com
I'm not an expert on determining the value of such a relic, but my guess would be $3000 to $5000. The National Park Service, who maintains the battlefield park, would be interested.
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