Confederates Attack at Fort Donelson

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A Brief History

On February 15, 1862, Confederate States of America army forces under the command of Brigadier General John B. Floyd launched a surprise attack from the besieged Fort Donelson in Western Tennessee in an effort to break out from the Union encirclement of the fort.  The besieging force, the US Army of the Tennessee under the command of Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant, prevented the Confederate attempt to break out their besieged forces and in turn forced a surrender of the fort, taking over 12,000 Rebels prisoner.  With the War going badly for the Union, President Lincoln and his government were desperate for victories, and US Grant was the man that supplied those Union triumphs when they were so badly needed. The victory at Fort Donelson was the first major victory of the Civil War for the Union, marking Grant as a commander to be reckoned with.

Digging Deeper

On February 6, 1862, Grant had led another Union victory in Tennessee, this time the taking of Fort Henry before besieging Fort Donelson starting on February 11, 1862.  Grant was on his way to wresting control of the Western Theater of the American Civil War from the Confederacy, a major factor in controlling the Mississippi River which was the lifeblood of the American and Confederate Western transportation and supply routes.  After his resounding victory at Fort Donelson, Grant went on to win further Union victories in the West at Shiloh and Vicksburg.  Shiloh was the bloodiest battle of the US Civil War up to that point (1862), costing about 13,000+ Union casualties and over 10,000 Confederate casualties.  Vicksburg, the key to controlling the Mississippi, was a more rousing Union success, with 10,000+ Union casualties and over 38,000 Confederate casualties, losses the Confederacy could ill afford.

Despite sometimes being criticized as a “butcher” because of high casualty counts, Grant was recognized by President Lincoln as a fighting general that produced victories, compared to numerous other Union generals that suffered from being overly cautious and hesitant in action.  In 1863, Grant led Union forces to victory at Chattanooga, his first major engagement at his new rank of Major General.  In March of 1864, Lincoln promoted Grant to Lieutenant General and gave him command of the entire US Army.  Grant had been the first officer promoted to the three-star Lieutenant General rank since George Washington.

Moving from the Mississippi and Tennessee theater to Virginia to conduct war against the heart of the Confederacy and General Robert E. Lee directly, Grant went on to secure the final victory for the Union when Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865.  Other Confederate forces surrendered piecemeal over the following weeks.  Still in charge of the US Army after the end of the Civil War, Grant was promoted to a newly created rank of General of the Army of the United States, a rank signified by four stars, though more along the lines of the later five-star rank introduced during World War II.

The American Civil War cost the country somewhere between 616,000 and a million deaths, many from disease and malnourishment, and including about 80,000 African American slaves.  (Battle deaths were 200,000+.)  Tens of thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers died in captivity as prisoners of war, and many thousands were left with crippling injuries and amputations.  Ulysses S. Grant provided the victory at Fort Donelson so sorely needed by the Union to provide the morale boost and political gravitas to continue the war to save the Union.  Along with President Lincoln, Grant is probably the most important person since the Founding Fathers in making the United States what it is today and preserving this country for posterity.  Grant was elected President of the United States in 1868 and reelected in 1872, though his presidency if often overshadowed by his military accomplishments.

Question for students (and subscribers): Have you previously been familiar with the Battle of Fort Donelson?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Gott, Kendall. Where the South Lost the War: An Analysis of the Fort Henry-Fort Donelson Campaign, February 1862. Stackpole Books, 2011.

Smith, Timothy. Grant Invades Tennessee: The 1862 Battles for Forts Henry and Donelson.  University Press of Kansas, 2016.

The featured image in this article, one of a series of 4 maps of the Battle of Fort Donelson of the American Civil War drawn in Adobe Illustrator CC by Hal Jespersen, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.


About Author

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.