Our Country's Fiery Ordeal

A blog about the American Civil War, written and maintained by historian Daniel J. Vermilya, author of The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (History Press, 2014) and James Garfield and the Civil War (History Press, 2015)

Dedicated to my great-great-great grandfather, Private Ellwood Rodebaugh, Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, killed at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.

"And may an Overuling Providence continue to cause good to come out of evil, justice to be done to all men where injustice has long prevailed, and finally, peace, quiet, and harmony to come out of this terrible confrontation and our country's fiery ordeal." -- Albert Champlin, 105th Ohio, Diary entry of June 19, 1864 (Western Reserve Historical Society)

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Fort Donelson and the Rise of Ulysses S. Grant: 150 Years Ago

150 years ago today, Ulysses S. Grant was a Brigadier General on the cusp of either victory or defeat. On the afternoon of February 15, 1862, he found himself galloping over icy roads to salvage his army and his chances of capturing the Confederate forces at Fort Donelson. After three days sitting outside of Fort Donelson along the Cumberland River in northern Tennessee, the moment of crisis had arrived—a moment that would determine not only the course of the war in the West, but would also launch Grant on to a career of unsurpassed fame.

Ulysses S. Grant (www.generalandbrevets.com)

On the afternoon of February 6th, just hours after Fort Henry had surrendered to Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote’s Western Gunboat Flotilla on the Tennessee River, Ulysses Simpson Grant—born Hiram Ulysses Grant, and changed thanks to a clerical error during his acceptance to West Point—immediately seized upon his next move. He wired Major General Henry Halleck in St. Louis, informing him that by February 8th, Grant and his force of infantry and navy gunboats would move on and take Fort Donelson on the Cumberland, 12 miles to the east of Fort Henry. While his goals were ambitious, necessities slowed his advance. Foote’s gunboats were forced to retire to Cairo, Illinois, for repairs before making another attack on a river fortress, such as the one they had undertaken on the 6th at Fort Henry. By February 12th, after days of reconnoitering Confederate lines, Grant was finally ready to move in concert with his gunboats. That morning, Grant set out on the 12 mile march east to Donelson. Arriving late in the day, he began making his troop dispositions so as to close off escape routes for Donelson’s defenders. Grant positioned the division of Brigadier General C.F. Smith, his former Commandant of Cadets at West Point, on the Union left, with John McClernand stretching his division to cover the Union right, forming from the area around Indian Creek to the town of Dover and Lick Creek near the Cumberland. On the 13th, there was skirmishing along the lines, but not much more. The major action was being held off for the 14th.

(Map of Fort Donelson from Grant's Memoirs)

Following a failed Confederate advance around noon on the 14th, the action shifted to the choppy brown waters of the Cumberland. There, Flag Officer Andrew Hull Foote, aboard the USS St. Louis, began his second assault of the campaign against a river fortress. While at Fort Henry, Foote had the advantage of moving against a fortress with low lying guns, 50% of which were under flooding river waters, the guns of Fort Donelson sat atop 100 foot high bluffs, greatly compromising the accuracy and abilities of the Federal gunboats. With the USS St. Louis, USS Pittsburg, USS Carondelet, and USS Louisville leading the way, Foote began his attack at 3:00 p.m. Steaming upriver against the swift currents of the Cumberland, Foote battled both Confederate gunners and the river itself. He was seen from the St. Louis with a bull horn directing the assault of the gunboats so that they would advance in concert. Yet, despite his best efforts, events went terribly awry for Andrew Foote. The guns of Fort Donelson were simply too much for his gunboats to bear. As Commander Henry Walke of the USS Carondelet later recalled:

Soon a 128 pounder struck our anchor, smashed it into flying bolts, and bounded over the vessel, taking away a part of our smoke stack; then another cut away the iron boat [crane]s as if they were pipe-stems, whereupon the boat dropped into the water. Another ripped up the iron plating and glanced over; another went through the plating…another struck the pilot house, knocked the plating to pieces, and sent fragments of iron and splinters into the pilots, one of whom fell mortally wounded, and was taken below… and still they came, harder and faster, taking flag-staffs and smokestacks and tearing off the side armor as one tears the bark from a tree.

The fight was especially harrowing for the men inside the Carondelet, as one of the 12 artillery pieces exploded inside the ship, killing and wounding almost 2 dozen men. As the fighting intensified, the deck of the USS Carondelet became so slick with the blood of its crewmen that sand was laid down to soak up the heavy price being exacted by the Confederate guns of Fort Donelson.

(Gunboat's firing on Fort Donelson, Battles and Leaders)

Confederate soldiers and gunners alike watched with anticipation as their shells clanked off of the Union gunboats, wreaking great havoc. One member of the 49th Tennessee later remembered the scene vividly:
The bumbs, shells ware burstings in the air with loud and wild confusion threatening sudden death and distrucktion and stil th[ey] came onn while our [biggest guns] we[re] threatening them with sudden distrucktion and also while [the shorter range] 32 pounders we[re] hailing down on them with a vengeance.

After an hour and a half of such brutal fighting, Foote’s flag ship, the St. Louis, was hit directly in the pilot house, wounding Foote, demolishing the steering wheel, and causing the ship to lose control, drifting wildly downstream with the currents of the Cumberland. With the damage to the St. Louis, the Union flotilla retired downriver, abandoning their fight against Fort Donelson.

That evening, as Confederate soldiers felt secure in having driven back the Union flotilla, Confederate generals John Floyd, Gideon Pillow, and Simon Bolivar Buckner were less sure of their success. Despite having wired Confederate officials of a great victory, these men still realized that they were essentially pinned down by Grant. Thus, the following morning, February 15, 1862, a breakout attack was to be launched at dawn. Gideon Pillow was to lead the attack against the Federal right, prying open the Forge Road leading to Nashville and safety. Buckner was to follow with the troops from the Confederate right, providing a wedge to keep the escape road open for Pillow’s men to leave the fort. Floyd, Pillow, and Buckner hoped the plan would give them enough time to escape the approaching jaws of defeat and surrender awaiting them just outside their defensive works.

On the morning of the 15th, as the Confederates inside the fort were preparing their breakout attempt, Ulysses Grant was riding north to meet Foote aboard the St. Louis. Grant did not anticipate an attack while he was gone, and thus had ordered his commanders not to make any offensive movements. As Grant met with Foote several miles away, too far to hear the action at Donelson, the Confederate counter attack began at dawn with great success. By mid-morning, the Federal lines were being torn apart by Pillow’s attack, and by noon, the Confederate attack had opened their escape route. John McClernand, desperate for help, sent word to recently christened division commander Brigadier General Lew Wallace to his left, begging for reinforcements. Despite having been ordered by Grant not to make any offensive movements, Wallace acted on his own and send one of his two brigades to the aid of McClernand. By the time that the Confederate attack had reached its zenith, Wallace had moved his other brigade, commanded by John Thayer, closer to McClernand’s lines so as to further reinforce the Federal right.

As McClernand and Wallace were struggling to stop the Confederate onslaught, confusion began to flow through the Confederate ranks. Just as Buckner’s men were preparing to do leave their lines so as to strengthen the Confederate breakthrough, inexplicably, Pillow ordered a halt to his attack and sent his men back into the Fort Donelson works to retrieve their supplies and artillery pieces which he felt necessary for the move to Nashville. The evening before had clearly left holes in the Confederate plan, as it was not articulated well nor fully understood by each of the Confederate leaders that day. Gideon Pillow believed his men needed to retire back to their earlier lines before moving on to Nashville; Buckner strongly disagreed, believing such a move would abandon the initiative that just been seized. Upon Pillow and Buckner taking their case to John Floyd, the commanding officer sided with Pillow, thus rebuffing Buckner’s pleas to maintain the offensive. This decision would prove to be quite costly for the Confederates at Donelson. While the Confederates delayed and argued, the seemingly defeated Federals found an opportunity.

In the late morning hours, upon leaving the St. Louis, Grant was met by an aide, white faced with fear. Quickly learning of what had occurred, Grant mounted his horse and sped his way to his lines to reclaim some sense of order. On this fateful ride, Grant was riding to the salvation of his army, riding against all odds to pull victory from the jaws of defeat. Grant was a man much accustomed to finding success out of failure; after all, he had done it with his own personal life. In the 1850s, after resigning from the army due to charges of alcoholism, personal loneliness, and depression, Grant fell into very difficult times. At one point, he borrowed money from friend and former West Point classmate Simon Bolivar Buckner, the man against whom he was now battling. In 1857, Grant pawned off a gold watch for the price of $22 to provide for his family. Now, five years later, a Brigadier General in the Union army, Grant was riding to the rescue not only of his forces outside of Fort Donelson; he was riding to the rescue of his military career and to the rescue of his country in its greatest hour of peril.

Arriving on the scene, Grant surveyed the situation and took stock of what needed to be done. He spoke first with C.F. Smith on the Federal left, then rode on to meet Wallace and McClernand on the chaotic Federal right. In his article on Fort Donelson in the Battles and Leaders series on the Civil War, Brigadier General Lew Wallace recalled the scene:
“In every great man’s career there is a crisis exactly similar to that which now overtook General Grant, and it cannot be better described that as a crucial test of his nature. A mediocre person would have accepted the news as an argument for persistence in his resolution to enter upon a siege. Had General Grant done so, it is very probably his history would have been then and there concluded. His admirers and detractors are alike invited to study him at this precise juncture. It cannot be doubted that he saw with painful distinctiveness the effect of the disaster to his right wing. His face flushed slightly. With a sudden grip he crushed the papers in his hand. But in an instant these signs of disappointment or hesitation—as the reader pleases—cleared away. In his ordinary quiet voice he said, addressing himself to both officers, “Gentlemen, the position on the right must be retaken.” With that he turned and galloped off.” (Battles and Leaders, Volume 1, 422).
As Grant left Wallace and McClernand, he rode back to his old mentor C.F. Smith on the Union left. Correctly assuming that the Confederate counterattack against McClernand had weakened the Confederate forces facing the Union left, Grant ordered Smith to make a full assault on the Confederate works. Smith quickly went to work gathering his forces, and by 2 p.m., he was ready to advance. Riding out front of his lines on a magnificent white horse, Smith placed his hat on the tip of his sword and ordered his men to fix their bayonets and to not cap their guns, thus assuring the men would not stop to fire during their charge against the Confederate works. Smith exhorted the men to give their all to the Union cause, proclaiming, “Come on, you volunteers, come on. This is your chance. You volunteered to be killed for love of your country and now you can be!” Shortly after 2 p.m., Smith began his advance, and what was up to that time the greatest Federal feat of arms in the West had begun.

As the gallant Smith rode into battle, directly behind him followed the 2nd Iowa. Being one of the lead regiments, the 2nd Iowa suffered particularly great casualties, especially among the flag bearers. Seeing the regimental standard fall time and time again, a series of brave souls stepped to the forefront to hold their nation’s symbol aloft. In the midst of the counterattack, Color Sergeant Harry Doolittle, wounded four times that day, noted that the flag took on a transcendent meaning to it:

It was no longer a combination of stripes and stars in silken texture, but the vital personification of human liberty battling for its own life, and its downfall, though but temporary, seemed like the triumph of wrong, injustice, and oppression.

The fourth and final man to pick up the flag that day was 19 year old Corporal Voltaire P. Twombley. Racing behind Smith, Twombley led the Federal rise up the Fort Donelson works. Standing atop the parapet, Twombley waved the Union flag high as his brothers in blue descended into the outer works of Fort Donelson, cheering, yelling, running, and driving back the remaining Confederate defenders. Firmly planting the Federal colors atop Fort Donelson’s outer works, that day Corporal Twombley earned himself the Congressional Medal of Honor.

(Capture of Fort Donelson, Harper's Weekly)

That evening, as the sun set on the blood covered fields around Fort Donelson, Grant’s counterattack had worked. Smith had taken the outer defenses of Donelson and could now fire into the fort with artillery. On the Federal right, Wallace and McClernand had retaken significant amounts of the ground lost that morning. Inside the Confederate fort, the Confederate high command saw the writing on the wall. John Floyd, the commanding officer, passed command off to Gideon Pillow and set off for Nashville to avoid capture and the likely event of being tried for treason for his pro-Southern activities as Secretary of War from 1857 to 1860. Pillow likewise passed off the command, setting out across the Cumberland in a small skiff barely big enough for he and his chief of staff. Thus, Simon Bolivar Buckner, the man who had once loaned Ulysses S. Grant money, was now left to send Grant a message of a very different nature.

The following morning, a party bearing a flag of truce entered Union lines held by C.F. Smith’s division. Smith escorted the part to Grant’s nearby headquarters, understanding the significance of the occasion. Upon receiving a message from Buckner asking what terms of surrender he might offer, and with the helpful and stern advice of C.F. Smith, Grant replied in the only way he knew how:

Gen. S.B. Buckner, Confederate Army


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

I am, sir, very respectfully,

Your obedient servant,

U.S. Grant Brigadier General

Buckner responded with frustration at Grant’s terms, noting that his position was doomed to fall:

The distribution of the forces under my command, incident to an unexpected change of commanders, and the overwhelming force under your command, compel me, notwithstanding the brilliant success of the Confederate arms yesterday, to accept the ungenerous and unchivalrous terms which you propose.

("Unconditional Surrender Grant," Harper's Weekly)

Thus, on Sunday, February 16, 1862, Ulysses S. Grant completed his ride to save his campaign for Donelson by riding once again. Unlike the day before, his ride this morning was relatively calm. He was making his way to the Dover Hotel to meet his old friend Simon Bolivar Buckner to accept the first of three Confederate surrenders which he would receive during the American Civil War. With his famous message to Buckner, the man born Hiram Ulysses Grant, and who was then known as Ulysses Simpson Grant, would soon be known to millions across the nation as “Unconditional Surrender” Grant. His success at Fort Donelson catapulted Grant to great fame throughout the north: he had busted open the Confederate defensive line in the West, forcing Confederate General Albert Sydney Johnston to retreat to southern Tennessee. The success of Grant and Foote had also opened the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, facilitating Federal movement deep into Tennessee and the subsequent surrender of Nashville. Yet, most importantly, he had given hope for the people of the north that they could indeed win the war because men like “Unconditional Surrender” Grant were willing and able to do what it took to make victory a reality. As the acclaimed Shelby Foote wrote:
To them [the nation] the whole campaign was an absolute marvel of generalship, a superb combination of simplicity and drive, in welcome contrast to all that had gone before in the West and was continuing in the East. They did not dissect it in search of flaws, did not consider that Grant had started behind schedule, that men had frozen to death because of a lax discipline which let them throw away coats and blankets in fair weather, that individual attacks had been launched without coordination and been bloodily repulsed, nor that the commanding general had been absent from his post for better than six critical hours while one of his divisions was being mauled, the other two having been barred by his own orders from lending assistance. They saw rather, the sweep and slambang power of a leader who marched on Wednesday, skirmished on Thursday, imperturbably watched his fleet’s repulse on Friday, fought desperately on Saturday, and received the fort’s unconditional surrender on Sunday. Undeterred by wretched weather, the advice of the tactics manuals, or the reported strength of the enemy position, he had inflicted about 2,00 casualties and suffered about 3,000 himself—which was as it should have been, considering his role as the attacker—and now there was something more than 12,000 rebel soldiers, the cream of Confederate volunteers, on their way to northern prison camps to await exchange for as many Union boys, who otherwise would have languished in southern prisons under the coming summer sun. People saw Grant as the author of this deliverance, the embodiment of the offensive spirit, the man who would strike and keep on striking until this war was won. Fifteen years ago, during a lull in the Mexican War, he had written home to the girl he was to marry: “If we have to fight, I would like to do it all at once and then make friends.” Apparently, he still felt that way about it (Shelby Foote, The Civil War, Volume One, 214-5).

The rise of Ulysses S. Grant from a relatively unknown Brigadier General to a national hero was one of the main storylines of 1862, as it was one which had long lasting implications for the war and the country. A year and a half after his victory at Fort Donelson, Grant was the commander of the Union Division of the Mississippi. Two years after Fort Donelson, Grant was preparing to assume the title of Lieutenant General, a rank previously held only by George Washington. Six years after Fort Donelson, Ulysses S. Grant had been elected the 18th President of the United States. 150 years ago today, on his fateful ride to resurrect his hopes of capturing Fort Donelson, Ulysses S. Grant was riding on to his future fame and destiny as one of the great heroes in all of American history.

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