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  • James Houser

February 16, 1862 - General Grant captures Fort Donelson

Updated: Jun 1, 2021

February 16, 1862. Confederate General Simon Buckner has been left holding the bag after both his superiors flee the scene, leaving him no choice but surrender. If that wasn't bad enough, the man he has to surrender to is his old battle buddy - a former Army Captain named Ulysses S. Grant.

The American Civil War had just begun in 1861, and the Confederacy had a heck of a problem in 1862. Both sides had spent the first months of the war gearing up for a long conflict, and North and South had been recruiting large armies to contest the critical Western front of the war - Kentucky, Tennessee, and the Deep South. The problem was that the South, well, just didn't have enough people. Stretched out across central Kentucky in four armies, each Confederate army was too small to handle the Northern force opposing it.

Enter Sam Grant. The young Grant had been a brave Lieutenant in the Mexican War before developing an alcohol problem on occupation duty in California. Resigning his commission before he could be court-martialed, Ulysses went home to Illinois where he worked a series of menial jobs until the Civil War broke out. When he was approached by a local congressman and asked if he wanted to become a general, he was - no shit - working retail as a store clerk.

By default, Grant soon found himself in charge of a growing Union army at Cairo, Illinois - the very southern tip of the state. He was looking south. The Mississippi River bisected the Confederacy. The Ohio formed the northern border of Kentucky. The Tennessee and Cumberland rivers flowed into the Ohio from the south, where they penetrated deep into plantation country and the state of Tennessee. The Ohio and Mississippi met at Cairo. Sam Grant, store clerk and former Army Captain, realized that he controlled the most important position on the American continent. From here, he could split the Rebels in half.

The Fort Henry/Fort Donelson Campaign, 1862

With the Confederates stretched out like they were, Grant realized that one hard tap on their perimeter could break them. The Cumberland and Tennessee flowed almost parallel through Kentucky, and the Southerners had secured them near the Kentucky-Tennessee border with two major posts: Fort Henry and Fort Donelson. (Modern Fort Campbell, Kentucky, home of the 101st Airborne, is a stone's throw from these sites.) Grant saw that taking these two forts would let Union gunboats and troop transports push down the rivers and make Tennessee virtually indefensible. Gaining authorization for his expedition, he set out in February 1862 to seize these forts, break the Confederate defensive line, and open up the routes that would let him strike into the heart of the Secessionist Uprising.

Marching his troops overland, Grant let his fleet under Commodore Andrew Foote strike first. Foote's heavy gunboats steamed up the Tennessee River to Fort Henry, a low-lying fortification that the Confederates had stocked with heavy guns. The fort had been poorly made, though, and Foote's ships were able to pound it into submission. Grant arrived with ground forces to occupy the site, then started another march through wintry Tennessee forests to Fort Donelson.

Fort Donelson would be a tougher nut to crack. There were almost 16,000 soldiers there to his 24,000, and they would be fighting from a much better fort. The Confederate commander on the scene was John B. Floyd, former Governor of Virginia. His second was Gideon Pillow, a Mexican War veteran and prominent politician. Their third - the only professional soldier -was Simon Buckner, Grant's old war friend. When Grant had been nearly broke in the prewar years, Buckner had slipped him money, no questions asked. Now, Grant was on his way with an army.

Fort Donelson - 1887, Currier & Ives

Grant surrounded Fort Donelson, and Foote's gunboats tried to attack it. The fort's heavy guns and dense earthworks drove off the ships, and Grant realized he had a battle on his hands. On the evening of February 14, while Grant was away at a commander's update brief, the Confederates tried to break out of the encirclement. Even though they met early success, Grant was on the scene quickly and patched the line back together, pushing the Rebels back into their fort. Out of food and running short on ammunition, the Confederates realized they would have to surrender.

Floyd, a sneaky and conniving politician with no military experience, decided that he was too important to be captured, and abandoned his men, fleeing across the river. Pillow, a noted coward even in his Mexican War days, followed him. This left Buckner, supposedly third-in-command, with no option but to send Grant a white flag of truce and ask for terms.

Grant still had a soft spot for his old friend, but this was war. He sent a message back the next morning, February 16, that "No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted." Essentially - "this is not a negotiation, we have you, give up now."

Buckner was almost offended by the "ungentlemanly" nature of the reply, but he was surrounded and without hope of escape, so he had no other option. On February 16, Buckner surrendered Fort Donelson. As almost 15,000 Confederates marched into captivity, Grant pulled his old friend aside and offered to pay for anything he needed in the prison camp - for old times' sake.

The Surrender at Fort Donelson

This seemingly small affair had tremendous consequences. Grant had ruptured the center of the Confederate line they were trying to set up to defend the South. The capture of Fort Donelson forced not only the loss of Kentucky, but most of Tennessee as well; Union troops would be in Nashville within the month. The Confederate disaster in the Midwest would never be fully repaired, and with brief interruptions, the war in the Mississippi River valley and the Deep South would be the slow wound that bled the Confederacy dry.

Striking many of these blows was Grant, the hero of the hour. An unknown to most of the North, and only known to his fellow generals for his former drinking habits, Grant showed strategic abilities and common-sense determination that no other leader in the North possessed except Abraham Lincoln. This quiet, unassuming man, possibly the greatest general in American history, began his string of victories at Fort Donelson. In a little over three years, he would receive Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox, having finally brought the South to its knees.

As for politician John Floyd, he was never given another major command. He tried to get a post in Lee's army, but Lee refused to work with him and Floyd died in disgrace. Gideon Pillow found his way back into a command but was caught hiding behind a tree at his next battle and kicked out of the Army altogether.

I've had bosses that sucked, but they've never left me to surrender an entire fort to my old friend, so I guess they weren't that bad.

For my money, the best Grant biography out lately is Ron Chernow's Grant (New York: Penguin, 2017), a truly towering work from one of the best biographers working today.

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