Battle of Fort Donelson
February 11-16, 1862
Steward County, Tennessee
Seen from a Confederate artillery position at Fort Donelson.
Although slavery was legal in Kentucky, the state remained politically neutral at the onset of the Civil War. Its slave population was heavily concentrated in the northeastern Bluegrass Region, a fertile center of tobacco and horse farms. Outside of that area, Kentucky’s citizens were deeply torn in their allegiances and guerrilla warfare, pitting neighbor against neighbor, was not uncommon.
In September 1861, Lt. General Leonidas Polk attempted to take Kentucky for the Confederacy by force, but only succeeded in pushing the state's legislature to align with the Union and ask for assistance. By the end of the year the Federals had solid military control of the state, and the Confederacy was vulnerable to Union forces using the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers as approach avenues to the south. Forts Henry, Heiman, and Donelson were quickly established along the Kentucky-Tennessee border to defend against the threat.
In the winter of 1862, Brig. General Ulysses S. Grant marched his Army of Tennessee south to attack the forts from land, while gunboats from Flag Officer Andrew Hull Foote's Western Flotilla moved into position to support Grant's men from the river. In a swift, violent exchange of gunfire, Forts Heiman and Henry, on the Tennessee River, quickly fell to the Union boats on February 6th. Grant moved his army 12 miles overland to Fort Donelson and after several small probing attacks, surrounded the fort for a siege. On February 14th, Foote's gunboats attempted to destroy the fort from the Cumberland, but were forced to withdraw after sustaining heavy damage from artillery fire.
The following day, the Confederates, commanded by Brig. General John Buchanan Floyd, launched a surprise breakout attack against Grant's army with the hope of opening an escape route to Nashville. Grant, who was away from the battlefield at the start of the attack, arrived to rally his men and counterattack. Despite achieving partial success and opening the way for a retreat, Floyd lost his nerve and ordered his men back to the fort.
Upon discussing their options, and despite many disagreements, the Confederate officers at Donelson determined that surrender of the fort was the only viable plan of action. Floyd, along with a small group of supporting officers and soldiers, abandoned the fort and crossed the river to safety, leaving Brig. General Simon Bolivar Buckner in command. Lt. Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest, disgusted with the Confederate decision to surrender, took his cavalrymen and escaped across land. More than 13,000 Confederate soldiers remained at Donelson.
Poised to strike, the Federal soldiers were surprised to see white flags flying above the Confederate earthworks on February 16th. Buckner corresponded with Grant to determine the terms of surrender. Hoping for generosity from his old West Point friend, he was disappointed in Grant’s reply:
‘No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.’