U.S. Grant Goes On The Offensive: The Fall Of Forts Henry And Donelson


War brought out the bulldog in U.S. Grant.  A decent man but a failure in civilian life, he was good at one thing, and one thing only:  war.  His method was to hone in on his enemy, get in close, and figuratively grab him by the belt to keep him close.  So positioned, he would then hammer away at his opponent relentlessly.  He may not have had the panache and elan of some of his more exalted (or overrated) contemporaries, but he did have a quick mind that could grasp the military essentials of situations in ways that very few others could.

The seeds of the Confederacy’s downfall were sown in the Western theater.  Victory in the West was what enabled the Union armies to penetrate deeply into the Southern states.  While the Confederates were able to get the better of Union forces in the East in the first years of the war, steady gains were made by the federal armies in the West that culminated in the seizure of Vicksburg.  With the fall of Vicksburg, the Mississippi River was firmly in Union hands, and the Confederacy split in two.  This strategic setback was something that the South was never able fully to recover from.

It was U.S. Grant’s seizure of two Tennessee forts–Fort Henry and Donelson–that started the chain reaction that would finally end in the destruction of the Confederacy’s western flank.  The fall of these two forts therefore must be seen as one of the crucial engagements of the war.

It was Grant’s idea to go after the two forts.  He understood that, in order to end the war, nothing mattered more than winning victories in the field.  He sold the idea to his scheming superior, Gen. Henry Halleck, a man Lincoln once called “little more than a competent clerk.”  The Western theater was unusual in it was the junior commanders who had to goad their superiors into action.

When he was ready, Grant made his move first against Fort Henry.  By February 6, 1862 he was within gunfire range of the fort.  Grant would be greatly aided in his campaign by the incompetence and–it must be said–cowardice of several Confederate generals, as we will see.

Grant brought in naval officer Andrew H. Foote to shell the fort, and it was soon in Union hands.  The fort was undermanned and positioned low on the water; these factors aided the attackers.  A short bombardment was all that was needed to reduce the fort to a ruin.  Once the fort was occupied, the Tennessee River could now be used as an instrument to penetrate northern Alabama.

Grant now boldly cabled Halleck:  “I shall take and destroy Fort Donelson on the 8th and return to Fort Henry.”  It was a bold statement, but Grant’s blood was up now, and he was firmly in his element.  His 27,000-man force marched towards Fort Donelson in good weather; so good, in fact, that many of his men abandoned their warm-weather gear.  When temperatures plunged, they endured continuous misery.

Fort Donelson

The garrison at Donelson contained about 15,000 men.  The problem that the Confederates had was one of leadership, pure and simple.  For some reason there were three brigadier generals on the scene, and the one in charge (John B. Floyd) was the least capable.  Floyd had been a political appointee to his generalship; he also had once been Secretary of War under President James Buchanan.

The two other rebel generals at Donelson were Gideon Pillow and Simon Bolivar Buckner.  Pillow was little more than a mediocrity.  Buckner was the best of the lot, but he was the last in line after the other two.

Grant’s plan to pound Fort Donelson with gunfire was not successful.  Donelson was located on good, high ground, and brought devastating return fire on Grant’s men and Foote’s gunboats.  His initial plan frustrated, Grant ringed the fort with troops and settled into a siege, but even that was difficult.  The Confederates attacked his entrenched positions on February 15, but for some reason Gen. Pillow called a halt to the attack just when it appeared to be showing progress.  Pillow had simply lacked the requisite aggressiveness to follow through.

Grant took advantage of this stumble by counter-attacking immediately.  By the end of the day, the fort’s outer defenses had been penetrated, and it was only a matter of time before it would be in Union hands.

And here is where we see on of those revealing leadership moments.  Gen. Floyd, terrified of being made Grant’s prisoner of war, dumped the command on the shoulders of Pillow and promptly fled.  Pillow, not wanting to be the man to surrender the fort, quickly did the very same thing to Buckner.  Neither of these senior generals had the moral courage to take responsibility for the defeat, and instead passed the buck to Buckner.  It was a disgraceful and inexcusable performance.

Pillow made his escape by crossing the river in a small boat, abandoning both the fort and his men.  Floyd scuttled away on a steamboat.  The disaster was complete.  When Buckner asked Grant for his terms, Grant’s reply was “No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.  I propose to move immediately upon your works.”  The South lost between twelve and fifteen thousand men.

The South’s defensive line in the West was now shattered.  Kentucky was now firmly in the Union orbit. Confederate general Albert Johnston would later write, “The blow was disastrous and almost without remedy.”  The fall of the two forts had opened up the Confederacy’s entire western flank to penetration by river and land.

When Confederate President Jefferson Davis was made aware of the magnitude of the defeat, he was furious, and had both Floyd and Pillow cashiered.  They should have been court-martialed.  Their culpability went beyond simple battlefield errors:  they were guilty of pure cowardice and shirking of responsibility.

The reasons for the victory are clear.  Grant took bold, aggressive action and was not deterred by setbacks.  He capitalized on his opponents’ mistakes at every opportunity.  On the Confederate side, the principle of unity of command had been violated by the presence of three generals in the same fort.  Even worse, none of these generals showed any imagination or tenacity in defending the position.

The result was a terrible defeat, one that would pave the way for the splitting of the entire Confederacy in two.