Lieutenant Colonel James B. McPherson’s Report on the Battle of Fort Donelson
Before he was a corps commander in the Union Army, James B. McPherson served as chief engineer and aide de camp on the staff of General Ulysses S. Grant during that general’s 1862 campaigns, including the battles at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson in Tennessee. After capturing Fort Henry on the Tennessee River on February 6th of that year, Grant moved on Fort Donelson, located on the Cumberland River about 12 miles from Fort Henry.
The heavy guns of the Union river gunboat fleet had essentially pounded Fort Henry into surrendering, and Grant hoped the same scenario would play out at Fort Donelson. But Fort Donelson was a much larger and formidable garrison, with effective artillery. On February 14th, the Federal fleet of four ironclad and two timberclad gunboats under Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote attacked and exchanged cannon fire with the 11 heavy guns the Confederates had covering the Cumberland. After an hour and a half of fighting, the fleet withdrew with several ships damaged; among the casualties was Foote, who was wounded.
Since the fort could not be reduced by naval bombardment alone, Grant surrounded it with his 25,000 troops and prepared to attack. The Confederates
launched a surprise attack on the Union right on the morning of the15th, hoping to open up a possible escape route. At first, the Federals were pushed back but Grant ordered a counterattack in the afternoon, and retook the lost ground. The Confederate commanders concluded that the garrison would not survive a sustained Union assault, especially with more Federal reinforcements on the way. General Simon B. Buckner, who assumed command after Generals John B. Floyd and Gideon Pillow escaped (both feared Federal prosecution) asked Grant for terms of surrender on February 16th. Grant’s reply was that he would accept only unconditional surrender. Wanting to avoid heavy loss of life, Buckner reluctantly accepted Grant’s terms. On the 16th, Grant arrived at Buckner’s headquarters at the Dover Hotel on the Cumberland River and accepted the surrender of Fort Donelson and 13,000 Confederate troops.
McPherson, the aide de camp and chief engineer to Grant, filed this detailed report on the Battle of Fort Donelson:
SAINT LOUIS, Mo., February 25, 1862
I have the honor to make the following report of operations relating to the capture of Fort Donelson:
From the capture of Fort Henry, on the 6th instant, until the 12th, the time was chiefly occupied in making reconnaissances up the Tennessee River to a short distance above Danville and of the roads leading to Fort Donelson, getting our forces in condition to march against the latter place and awaiting the co-operation of the gunboats. The reconnaissance toward Fort Donelson made known the fact that there were two very good roads connecting the two forts, one the direct road, distance about 12 miles, and the other bearing off to the southeast for some distance, soon after leaving Fort Henry, and then continuing essentially parallel to the former, distance about 14 miles. The heaviest part of the whole route was from the Tennessee River at Fort Henry back 2 miles to the high ground. To overcome this and have the forces in good condition to march against Fort Donelson the artillery and a great portion of the infantry were moved back to the high ground on the 11th instant.
The country between the two forts is very rolling, thickly covered with timber, and sparsely populated; the soil, as a general thing, being poor. The roads had not been obstructed in any manner by the rebels, from the fact that after the fall of Fort Henry our cavalry scoured the country so continually and effectively that they did not venture to send out men for the purpose.
On the morning of the 12th, at an early hour, the troops were put in motion in two divisions, one taking the left-hand road and the other the right, the two divisions coming together about 2 ½ miles from Fort Donelson. From this point our forces moved forward in line of battle, cautiously examining the ground in advance and on the flanks, which was very hilly and densely wooded, until we came in sight of the enemy’s works. These were reconnoitered as thoroughly as possible under the circumstances, and our forces assigned to their respective positions, General McClernand’s division on the right and General C. F. Smith’s division on the left. Some slight skirmishing ensued and a few prisoners were taken, who informed us that the rebel forces consisted of from 20,000 to 25,000 men, commanded by Generals Floyd, Pillow, Buckner, and Johnson.
Our forces sent around by water, preceded by the gunboat Carondelet, not having arrived, a messenger was dispatched to Fort Henry for General Wallace to bring over a portion of his division, which was promptly done, and it was assigned a position in the center. Wednesday night the gunboat Carondelet arrived, and on Thursday moved up and bombarded the enemy, doing considerable damage and silencing one of his 32-pounder guns. Our lines were at the same time drawn closer, and our batteries placed in position where they could play upon the enemy to the best effect, though great difficulty was experienced in finding good positions, on account of the heavy timber, which prevented us from getting an uninterrupted view. There was a good deal of cannonading and skirmishing the whole day, and a most gallant charge was made upon the rebel intrenchments by a portion of General McClernand’s division, which promised to be successful, when the colonel commanding fell, severely wounded, while bravely leading his men forward; which, with other casualties, forced our troops to retire.
After the arrival of General Wallace’s division General McClernand extended his still farther to the right, the object being, if possible, to get some of our guns to bear upon the river above the town of Dover, but the advance in that direction had to be made with the utmost caution, as the ground was very much broken, without roads, and covered with an almost impenetrable growth of small oak. Our reconnaissance had developed the fact that the rebels were strongly posted on a range of hills varying from 50 to 80 feet in height, with batteries placed on the commanding points, their lines extending back from the river some 2½ miles, in advance of which they had felled immense quantities of timber, chopping down the smaller trees about breast-high, and leaving them attached to the stumps, thus making a rude sort of an abatis, but at the same time a most difficult obstacle to get over, while on the north and west they were protected from attack by a creek, which, owing to the backwater from the Cumberland River, was impassable except on bridges or rafts. This, although to their advantage in one sense, was also very much to ours. It enabled us to move our troops and supplies up from the landing place with perfect security, prevented the enemy from escaping in that direction, and only required our lines to be about half as long as they otherwise would have been in order to invest the works.
Thursday it was decided best to send a detachment from Fort Henry up to the railroad bridge at Danville and destroy one span, which was done, for we were apprehensive, as all the gunboats were required in the Cumberland River, that the enemy might repair the trestle work which had been destroyed, and send over re-enforcements to Donelson, or make a diversion by trying to recapture Fort Henry.
Thursday evening the gunboats and re-enforcements sent by water arrived, and it was arranged that the gunboats should move up about 2 o’clock Friday afternoon, silence the water batteries, take a position opposite and near the town of Dover, and shell the rebels out of their intrenchments near the river, we at the same time sweeping around with our right and taking possession of a portion of their works, cutting them off from the greater part of their supplies, and driving them back upon our center and left, which were strongly posted to prevent their escape. This movement, however, was destined not to be carried into effect, on account of the failure of the gunboats to silence the water batteries, and their being compelled to withdraw after a bombardment of a couple of hours, having experienced considerable damage. After this failure, and on consultation with Flag-Officer Foote, it was thought probable that it might be necessary to partially intrench our position and await re-enforcements which were coming, and repairs to some of the gunboats, and orders were about being given to have all the intrenching tools brought up from the boats Saturday morning, when the enemy, evidently not liking the gradual contracting of our lines, concentrated the greater part of his force against our right, and made a most desperate attempt to cut his way out and effect his escape, in which he was frustrated by the determined bravery of General McClernand’s division, which, though forced to fall back after several hours of the most severe fighting, did it, contesting every foot of ground, and the opportune arrival of a portion of General Wallace’s division, which had been sent to General McClernand’s aid, and which succeeded in checking the advance of the enemy, and finally forcing him to fall back. Word was now sent to General C. F. Smith to carry the works on the enemy’s right by assault, which was most gallantly executed by a portion of his division at the point of the bayonet, and our flag soon waved triumphantly from the rebel intrenchments. This news was borne along our lines, cheering and stimulating the men.
Our right was now re-enforced and ordered to advance and recover the ground which had been lost in the morning. Nobly was the task executed. Not only was the lost ground more than regained, but the battery taken from us in the forenoon was recaptured. While the contest was still at its height on our left General Smith’s aide came galloping down in great haste, stating that the general wanted some more pieces of artillery. I immediately ordered the captain of a battery to take two 10-pounder Parrott guns and report to the general as soon as possible, and then went to join him myself, sending word to you that I had done so, for I thought I could be of more service there than anywhere else at that particular crisis.
Having carried the advance works on the enemy’s right and effected a lodgment in his intrenchments, we had secured a key to his position. We had obtained a point having about as
great an elevation as any portion of his works, and where we could plant our artillery to silence his and enfilade a portion of his defenses, at the same time making use of his rifle pits to cover our men. Our artillery was brought up and placed in position Saturday evening, and a portion of our forces bivouacked in the rebel intrenchments Saturday night, with their supports within convenient distance, prepared to make an assault on their next line at an early hour Sunday morning, everything having been arranged for a combined attack along their whole defenses, when, shortly after daylight, General Buckner, who was left in command (Generals Pillow and Floyd with a part of their forces having made their escape during the night), sent a letter, under cover of a flag of truce, proposing terms of capitulation, which resulted in the immediate surrender of the works and forces under his command.
The map accompanying this report will show the character and strength of the enemy’s works, the details of their construction, and the good judgment displayed in selecting this point for a defensive position. The water batteries, of which there are two, were well constructed, the principal one having nine guns–one 10-inch columbiad and eight 32-pounders. The exterior crest is essentially a straight line, nearly at right angles to the river, and the interior crest a sort of crémaillère line, made necessary on account of one end of the battery being much more elevated than the other, the guns occupying different elevations, with a traverse between each gun to protect them from enfilade fire. The other battery was a small semicircular one in plan, mounting a 6½-inch rifled gun, the exterior form and dimensions being the same as the 10-inch columbiad and two 32-pounder carronades. The guns were all in embrasures arranged with sand bags. These batteries had an elevation of some 32 feet above the water in the river at the time of the attack, which gave them a fine command, and was no doubt the chief reason why they resisted so successfully the gunboat attack.
Sketch A will give an idea of the country between Forts Henry and Donelson and the general direction of the roads connecting the two places.
I cannot close this report without speaking particularly of Lieutenants Jenney and Kossak, my assistant engineers, who rendered good service in reconnoitering, superintending the repairs of roads, making sketches, &c.
JAS. B. McPHERSON,
Lieutenant-Colonel, Aide. de-Camp, and Chief Engineer.
Maj. Gen. U.S. GRANT,
Commanding U. S. Forces Department Western Tennessee.
McPherson was promoted to Brigadier General in August of 1862, and then to Major General in October, when he was given command of a division. Then in January of 1863, McPherson was promoted to command of the 17th Corps, leading it throughout the Vicksburg Campaign. McPherson’s career trajectory continued upward in 1864, when he commanded the Army of the Tennessee in the first months of William T. Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign. A favorite of both Grant and Sherman, McPherson was killed in the Battle of Atlanta on July 22nd, 1864.
Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James M. McPherson
“The Capture of Fort Donelson” by Lew Wallace. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Volume 1, edited by Robert U. Johnson and Clarence C. Buel
Generals in Blue by Ezra J. Warner
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion Series I, Volume 7.