THE FALL OF FORT DONELSON: The Battle That Sealed the Confederacy’s Fate

Grant early in the War.
Grant early in the War.

February 16, 1862 was perhaps the most important date in the Civil War, the day the Confederate Army besieged at Fort Donelson fell to the Union forces led by General Ulysses S. Grant.

Why was it the most important date, you may ask?  Because, although both sides did not realize it, that was the day that the Union began to win the war.  In one blow, the Ohio River Valley was secured for the North and the system of forts guarding the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers fell irrevocably into Federal hands, opening the way into the Confederate Heartland.  Within weeks, the Rebel state capital of Nashville had fallen and with it all internal lines of communication west of the Appalachians, as well as substantial industrial resources.

Looking for Union wounded by torchlight in Winter weather.  The bitter cold at Fort Donelson killed many battlefield casualties.
Looking for Union wounded by torchlight in Winter weather. The bitter cold at Fort Donelson killed many battlefield casualties.

Had Generals Grant and Halleck not bungled the advance on Corinth, Mississippi at Shiloh on April 6, by the end of the Spring, Mississippi and much of the deep South would also have fallen to the Federals. The Confederate government would have been in the position it found itself in the spring of 1865: confined to a three state rump on the east coast, blockaded by sea and with no escape.  The intervening period between the fall of Donelson and the capture of Savannah was really just one of redeeming the mistakes made at Shiloh and Corinth.  In a sense, the spectacular success of Grant’s forces in February of 1862 were to blame for not finishing the job; Grant, thinking the Confederates had no fight left in them, grew careless at Pittsburg Landing while awaiting Buell’s reinforcements and was grossly negligent by not constructing defenses around his bivouacs, as well as not being vigilant in patrolling his positions to warn of enemy advances. His boss, General Halleck deserves some blame as well, sending raw recruits to Grant who had not even undergone basic training.  In truth, had Grant not been so careless, he would have had ample warning of the enemy’s moves and could easily have caught them in line of march as they advanced towards Shiloh and decimated the last organized Rebel forces between the mountains and the Mississippi.

But the blunders by both sides at Shiloh are best left for another time.  Let us focus on the victory at Donelson.  Originally, General Don Carlos Buell had urged his fellow department commander, General Halleck, to mount a joint operation against the Rebel forts holding the strategic junction called “The Land Between the Rivers”—that area where the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers are only a few miles apart and where both empty into the Ohio.  Here the Rebels concentrated most of the western forces to bar Union troops from invading the Confederate heartland.

Storming Fort Donelson by Union troops.  In truth, Grant began the siege without enough troops to take the fort by storm.
Storming Fort Donelson by Union troops. In truth, Grant began the siege without enough troops to take the fort by storm.

Halleck, however, spurned Buell’s plan of action, but no sooner had he done so than he authorized his subordinate, Brigadier General Grant, to lead of expedition to undertake the very same operation that he had rejected.  Grant to that date had not achieved any notable success as a field commander and “Old Brains” Halleck thought Grant too reckless.  But with a powerful flotilla to blast the river forts, Halleck thought Grant up to the task of at least establishing a foothold—after which Halleck himself would come up with more troops and finish the task.

As it turned out, Fort Henry easily fell to the Union fleet’s bombardment—largely due to its riverside “water battery” being nearly submerged by winter rains.  Another Rebel fort on the Ohio also fell with little fanfare.  Grant landed his troops at Fort Henry and then, instead of waiting on the methodical but slow Halleck, marched his small force overland to Fort Donelson, which protected the Cumberland River.  It was a risky move, since Grant had fewer troops than the force holed up at Donelson.  Fortunately, the Rebels had put all their heavy guns facing riverward, thinking the Yankees would only attack from than quarter.  Even so, it was a very near thing for Grant as both Halleck and Buell scrambled to send him reinforcements and the Confederates made attempts to break the siege.

At one point, the Confederate counterattack was on the verge of succeeding; but due to the courage and leadership of the two Generals Wallace: William L. Wallace and Lew Wallace, the Rebel assault faltered and was driven back.

General William Hervey Lamme Wallace leading his men to battle, after Ottawa mural by G. Byron Peck
General William H L Wallace leading his men to battle, after Ottawa mural by G. Byron Peck
General Lewis Wallace, the savior of Grant at both Ft. Donelson and Shiloh and author of Ben Hur
General Lewis Wallace, the savior of Grant at both Ft. Donelson and Shiloh and author of Ben Hur

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inside Fort Donelson, despite their strength in numbers, the Confederates were in dire straits.  The Rebel troops had not been properly equipped, nor were their clothes suited for the bitter winter weather they endured.  Worse still, the Rebel force was led by officers who were better politicians than soldiers and when Grant proved too tenacious for them, asked for terms of surrender.

The Confederate surrender of Fort Donelson was due to a bluff on U. S. Grant's part.
The Confederate surrender of Fort Donelson was due to a bluff on U. S. Grant’s part.

Grant, who was not only fond of hard drink, but also something of a poker player, responded to the overtures of surrender with the reply that made him famous: “no terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.”  Grant then drove home his demand by adding: “I propose to move immediately upon your works.”  Ulysses Grant may never have made much money playing poker with his cronies before the war, but his great bluff worked on this occasion.

General Nathan Bedford Forrest refused to surrender at Fort Donelson and broke through the Union siege lines.
General Nathan Bedford Forrest refused to surrender at Fort Donelson and broke through the Union siege lines.

The Rebel commanders at Donelson succeeded one another trying avoiding responsibility for the surrender but in short order capitulated to the Yankees.  That Confederate commanders may have just as easily broken out of Grant’s weak siege is demonstrated by the fact the Nathan Bedford Forrest, who refused surrender without a fight, broke out along with some 1500 men.

Grant was most successful as a field commander when conducting sieges: Vicksburg and Petersburg come to mind and perhaps are more famous than this siege; but the investment of Fort Donelson, begun on an impulse, was far and away his most spectacular victory and cost the least in blood.  Even more importantly,  this was the event that set in motion the inexorable road to Union victory.

ambrose-bierce-and-the-period-of-honorable-strife-cover
Ambrose Bierce, famed American author, best known for his macabre fiction and cynical humor, served as a soldier in the front lines throughout the Civil War. Bierce’s wartime experiences were the transformative events of the young author’s life. Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife for the first time chronicles this pivotal period of Bierce’s life.

For more on the Civil War, read The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln and The Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War.

The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (Schiffer)
The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (Schiffer)
Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War (HarperCollins). True uncanny tales of the Civil War.
Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War (HarperCollins). True uncanny tales of the Civil War.
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The Long, Long, Road to Secession: Part II New England

 

Hartford Convention
The Hartford Convention was the Northeast’s early move towards seceding from the Union. Fortunately the War of 1812 before Secessionist sentiment grew any stronger.

As noted in our previous essay, the notion that slavery “caused” the Civil War seems to be in vogue again these days as a matter of political dogma, although any serious historian of the era would, or should, know better.  Journalist Ta-Nihisi Coates, influential editor at The Atlantic, in particular has pushed this as the sole cause of the Civil War.  No one can deny that slavery was an underlying cause or that many leaders of the Secession movement cited its preservation as a motive for dragging the country into war.  But that is a far cry from saying that it was THE cause.

In the previous installment I argued, rather, that it was the economic system of the South—the Plantation Economy—that was the root cause, of which the enslavement of Negroes was but a means to an end.  If good ole’ Artistotle were analyzing this, I’ll wager he would identify Negro slavery as a “formal cause” not as the material cause, the efficient cause and especially not the final cause.  An economic oligarchy—at base a very small number of tremendously wealthy planters—had control of the South’s political and economic life and managed to impose their self interest over the greater good of the majority of its inhabitants and the good of the country.

But even the economics of the Southern plantation system was not the sole cause of the Civil War.  The road to Secession was a long and convoluted process, much of it irrational and based on perceptions rather than facts.  As I noted in the previous essay, Great Britain too had a substantial economic investment in Negro slavery, especially in the West Indies; yet when it finally abolished slavery, there was no rebellion by the sugar plantation owners in the Indies, no assertions of independence, no bloodshed.

In truth, the ideology of Secessionism in the US is far older than the debate over slavery and in this and following essays we will take a brief look at previous secession movements in the United States, most of which had nothing to do with slavery.

A Boxing Match
“John Bull” gets the worst of it from “Brother Jonathan” in the Boxing Match in this rather optimistic view of the War of 1812.

The War of 1812 has sometimes been described as the “Second American Revolution” as it was perceived by many as an effort to throw off the yoke of British dominion that many still perceived the country to be under.  The western states were hot for war, looking towards expansion to the west and northwest and to many leaders in the burgeoning west the British to blame for much of their troubles with the Indians, both to the South and to the North along the western frontier.

Indeed, in the northwest the British had encouraged Tecumseh and his followers and even appointed the Shawnee leader a “brigadier” giving him a shiny gorget and a redcoat officer’s uniform, complete with epaulettes.

3-tecumseh-1768-1813-granger
The Shawnee leader Tecumseh, adorned in his British general’s uniform and medal.

 

There was also the issue of the impressments of American sailors by the British Navy.  Employment by American merchant fleets was better paying and the treatment of sailors far better than in His Majesty’s Navy, where commoners were treated as less than dirt by the officers, who were often as sadistic as they were incompetent.  To make up for the lack of willing recruits, the Royal Navy often resorted to stopping ships on the high seas and stealing as many sailors as they needed to make up a full ship’s complement.  The British government justified this by arguing that they were merely drafting English citizens into military service.  Since most Americans had been citizens of the British Empire before the Revolution, there was an element of truth in this argument, although the US disputed the claim.

 

As a note of caution, however, I should point out that historians still haggle over the causes of the War of 1812 just as they do over the Civil War and there were a number of motives at work in the period leading up to the war as well.   But our present interest is not so much in the causes of this war as one of the consequences.

Not everyone in the US was eager for war with Britain, no matter the provocations.  In particular, the New England merchants were less than pleased with the disruption the war was causing their trade with England.  New England may have led the movement towards independence in 1776, but once independence was achieved, the thrifty Puritan merchants of the northeast were quite happy to trade with the London merchants and visa versa.  The wealthy merchant traders of New York and New England may have resented the impressments of sailors as high handed, but they resented the embargos Presidents Jefferson and Madison had placed on trade far more and then, when the US declared war in 1812, the British blockaded American ports, which hit them in a very sensitive spot—their pocket books.

Leap or no Leap color
“Leap or No Leap” criticizing the Hartford Convention’s disloyalty and implying that they were actually in league with the British king.

As the war dragged on and their profits diminished, the New England shippers and merchants became quite vocal in their opposition to a war which not only benefited them nothing, but which the US seemed to be losing.

The Democratic-Republicans (today just the Democratic Party) had been the party of laissez faire economics and small government—except that no sooner was Jefferson elected President than he started wielding Federal power like a club.

The Federalist Party, in contrast, had originally been the party which had advocated a strong Federal government and policies that involved government intervention in the private sector.  But in the face of Jefferson and Madison’s adverse trade policies and then the declaration of war, the Federalists of the northeast became more and more opposed to Federal policies.  New England governors even refused to supply militia regiments to fight the war with the British.  Things came to a head in 1814, when delegates from New England attended the Hartford Convention.

As early as 1804, some New England Federalists had discussed secession from the Union if the national government became too oppressive.  By 1814, many in New England and not few in New York came to regard the “small governent” Democratic-Republican Party as oppressive and that the Northeast’s best solution was secession from a Union dominated by the South and the West. The New England governors and legislatures called for a regional convention, ostensibly to propose constitutional amendments to protect their region’s interests and to make arrangements for their own military defense against the enemy.  In theory the “enemy” was the British, but implicitly many New Englanders were viewing the Federal government as more an enemy than the British.

DetailHartfordConvetionLeap2
Detail of “Leap or No Leap” making clear the New Englander’s economic motives for seceding from the Union.

 

The amendments that were proposed by the Hartford Convention seemed more aimed at galling the opposing party than ensuring any basic liberties.  For one thing, they wished to abolish the “3/5th Compromise”  which gave the Southern states a disproportionate share of representatives in the House of Representatives.  In terms of the original Constitution, the Southern states were fine with regarding Negro slaves as people (or at least 3/5 of a person) so long as it gave them political clout.  Another amendment would have prohibited not only a person serving more than one term as President, but also prohibiting someone from the same state succeeding him—clearly aimed at Virginia, from whence most of the Presidents had come up to that point.  Other amendments would have restricted the Federal government’s ability to declare war and impose embargoes.

The delegates met in secret from December 14, 1814 to January 5; no notes were kept and even the votes were not recorded.  It is believed that secession was actively discussed in these meetings, even if their official proposals made no mention of it.  Much of what went on during these sessions was very hush-hush and even to some fellow New Englanders their activities were regarded as treasonous.  In the end their activities came to naught: by the time three commissioners from Massachusetts reached Washington, news of Andrew Jackson’s famous victory at New Orleans and the peace treaty—The Treaty of Ghent—had both reached Washington.

 

Battle of New Orleans
The Battle of New Orleans made Jackson the hero of the war, even though it was fought after the Treaty of Ghent had been signed.

 

In the celebrations over Andrew Jackson’s famous victory, most people in the country forgot the string of defeats the US had suffered—Generals Hull’s and Winchester’s humiliating defeats in the Northwest territories and General Wilkinson’s bungled Canadian invasion.  Even though Jackson fought his battle after the peace was signed, in the public mind he “won” the war.

Raison River Massacre
“Remember the Raison” was the war cry after General Winchester surrendered his army and the wounded prisoners were murdered in cold blood.  Today nobody remembers this and the other defeats American troops suffered during the war.

 

With the return of peace, trade between America and Great Britain was restored, the Napoleonic Wars were over and the British no longer needed to impress seamen, and the Federalist Party, its reputation now blackened by accusations of disloyalty, extremism and advocacy of Secessionism, had been discredited.

But had the war not ended when it did and the Madison administration summarily rejected the convention’s proposals (which they were fully expected to do), who knows what would have happened next?

 

Much of New England and perhaps even the state of New York might have lined up against the South and West in a bitter sectional conflict—a conflict which had nothing to do with slavery, but everything to do with economics.

Secret_Journal_of_the_Hartford_Convention
“Secret Journal of the Hartford Convention.”

 

 

For more about lesser known aspects of the Civil War, see Ghosts and Haunts of The Civil War and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.

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