General Ulysses S. Grant’s Report on the Battle and Capture of Fort Donelson

From the beginning of the Civil War, both sides recognized the importance of controlling the major rivers in the western theatre of operations. The Ohio, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Cumberland rivers, and others, were vital transportation routes into the interior of the Confederacy. The Confederates built Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland in Tennessee near the Kentucky border, about a dozen miles apart, to keep Union forces out of Tennessee and points south.

In February 1862, Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant and Flag Officer Andrew Foote of the U.S Navy, began a combined Army-Navy operation to capture both Forts Henry and Donelson. On February 6th, Union gunboats attacked Fort Henry, while Grant landed his troops onshore a few miles away. Fort Henry was in a poorly selected low lying site that was prone to flooding. The Fort Henry defenders exchanged artillery fire with the gunboats, which quickly turned into a delaying action so the Confederate troops could escape overland to Fort Donelson. This was successful, and after about two hours, Fort Henry surrendered.

Grant now focused on the capture of Fort Donelson. Fort Henry had been captured almost entirely by the Navy, but that would not be the case for the larger, more heavily defended and better situated Fort Donelson. Grant wanted to be at Fort Donelson by February 8th, but muddy roads and logistics slowed that ambitious timetable. The first U.S. troops arrived near the fort on February 12th, and some initial skirmishing and probing actions took place on the 12th and 13th. On the 14th, Foote’s gunboats attacked the Confederate river batteries at close range. The attack was repulsed, several gunboats were damaged, and the fleet was forced to withdraw. Flag Officer Foote was wounded in the attack.

Interior of Lower Water Battery at Fort Donelson from Harper’s Weekly

Despite this success, the Confederate commanders concluded that their position at Fort Donelson was untenable. The U.S. troops outnumbered them, and Grant was getting reinforcements. The Rebels were surrounded on all sides. They decided to attempt to break out of the fort to save the army for another day.

The Confederate attack on the morning of the 15th achieved some early success, and briefly opened an escape route. But in the confusion of the battle, the Confederate troops were ordered back to their entrenchments, and Grant launched a successful counterattack that kept them there.

Battle of Fort Donelson by Kurz & Allison

Early in the morning of February 16th, the Confederate commanders—Brigadier Generals John B. Floyd, Gideon Pillow, and Simon Buckner—concluded that the best course of action was to surrender. Floyd, who had been U.S. Secretary of War under President James Buchanan, feared reprisals if he fell into the hands of Federal authorities, turned command over to Pillow, who then turned command over to Buckner. Floyd, along with four Virginia regiments he had originally commanded, escaped in a pair of steamboats to Nashville, while Pillow was rowed across the Cumberland and made his way to Nashville on foot. Lieutenant Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest had discovered an unguarded way out and was granted permission to escape with his cavalrymen, which he did.

That left Buckner to negotiate the terms of surrender. He sent this note to General Grant:


Gen. Simon B. Buckner, CSA

Fort Donelson, February 16, 1862.

Sir: In consideration of all the circumstances governing the present situation of affairs at this station I propose to the commanding officers of the Federal forces the appointment of commissioners to agree upon terms of capitulation of the forces and post under my command, and in that view suggest an armistice until 12 o’clock to-day.
I am, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

Brigadier- General, C. S. Army.

Brig. Gen. U. S. Grant,
Commanding U.S. Forces near Fort Donelson.

Grant responded:

Headquarters Army in the Field,
Camp near Fort Donelson, February 16, 1862.

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

I am, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

Brigadier- General, Commanding.

General S. B. Buckner,
Confederate Army.

Buckner, who had been friends with Grant in the pre war army, was taken aback by his demand for unconditional surrender. But the Union general had his troops in place for a general assault, and Buckner had little choice in the matter.

Dover, Tenn., February 16, 1862.

Sir: 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.

I am, sir, your very obedient servant,

Brigadier- General, C. S. Army.

Brig. Gen. U. S. Grant, U. S. A.

Grant then went to the hotel in the small town of Dover, Buckner’s headquarters, to accept the surrender of the Confederates. He recalled that his conversation with Buckner “was very friendly”, with the Confederate general having had time to get over the shock of the unconditional surrender demand.

Grant filed this report on the Battle of Fort Donelson:

Fort Donelson, February 16, 1862.

General: I am pleased to announce to you the unconditional surrender this morning of Fort Donelson, with 12,000 to 15,000 prisoners, at least forty pieces of artillery, and a large amount of stores, horses, mules, and other public property.

Brig. Gen. U.S. Grant in 1861

I left Fort Henry on the 12th instant with a force of about 15,000 men, divided into two divisions, under the command of Generals McClernand and Smith. Six regiments were sent around by water the day before, convoyed by a gun boat, or rather started one day later than one of the gunboats, and with instructions not to pass it. The troops made the march in good order, the head of the column arriving within 2 miles of the fort at 12 o’clock m. At this point the enemy’s pickets were met and driven in. The fortifications of the enemy were from this point gradually approached and surrounded, with occasional skirmishing on the line. The following day, owing to the non-arrival of the gunboats and re-enforcements sent by water, no attack was made, but the investment was extended on the flanks of the enemy and drawn closer to his works, with skirmishing all day.

The evening of the 13th the gunboats and re-enforcements arrived. On the 14th a gallant attack was made by Flag-Officer Foote upon the enemy’s works with the fleet. The engagement lasted probably an hour and a half, and bid fair to result favorably to the cause of the Union, when two unlucky shots disabled two of the armored boats so that they were carried back by the current. The remaining two were very much disabled, also having received a number of heavy shots about the pilothouses and other parts of the vessels. After these mishaps I concluded to make the investment of Fort Donelson as perfect as possible, and partially fortify and await repairs to the gunboats. This plan was frustrated, however, by the enemy making a most vigorous attack upon our right wing, commanded by General J. A. McCIernand, with a portion of the force under General L. Wallace. The enemy were repelled after a closely-contested battle of several hours, in which our loss was heavy. The officers, and particularly field officers, suffered out of proportion. I have not the means yet of determining our loss even approximately, but it cannot fall far short of 1,200 killed, wounded, and missing. Of the latter I understand through General Buckner about 250 were taken prisoners. I shall retain enough of the enemy to exchange for them, as they were immediately shipped off and not left for recapture.

About the close of this action the ammunition in cartridge-boxes gave out, which, with the loss of many of the field officers, produced great confusion in the ranks, and, seeing that the enemy did not take advantage of it, convinced me that equal confusion and possibly greater demoralization existed with him. Taking advantage of this fact, I ordered a charge upon the left (enemy’s right) with the division under General C. F. Smith, which was most brilliantly executed, and gave to our arms full assurance of victory. The battle lasted until dark, giving us possession of part of the intrenchments. An attack was ordered from the other flank after the charge by General Smith was commenced by the divisions under Generals McClernand and Wallace, which, notwithstanding the hours of exposure to a heavy fire in the forepart of the day, was gallantly made, and the enemy further repulsed. At the points thus gained, night having come on, all the troops encamped for the night, feeling that a complete victory would crown their labors at an early hour in the morning.

This morning at a very early hour a note was received from General S. B. Buckner, under a flag of truce, proposing an armistice, &c. A copy of the correspondence which ensued is herewith accompanying.

I cannot mention individuals who specially distinguished themselves, but leave that to division and brigade commanders, whose reports will be forwarded as soon as received. To division commanders, however, Generals McClernand, Smith, and Wallace, I must do the justice to say that each of them were with their commands in the midst of danger, and were always ready to execute all orders, no matter what the exposure to themselves. At the hour the attack was made on General McClernand’s command I was absent, having received a note from Flag-Officer Foote requesting me to go and see him, he being unable to call, in consequence of a wound received the day before.

My personal staff, Col. J. D. Webster, chief of staff; Col. J. Riggin,jr., volunteer aide; Capt. J. A. Rawlins, assistant adjutant- general; Capts. C. B. Lagow and W. S. Hillyer, aides, and Lieut. Col. J. B. McPherson, chief engineer, all are deserving of personal mention for their gallantry and service.

For full details see reports of engineers, medical directors, and commanders of brigades and divisions, to follow.

I am, general, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

Brigadier- General.

General G. W. Cullum,
Chief of Staff, Department of the Missouri.

The victory at Fort Donelson was the largest one for the U.S. by far up to that time, and Grant earned the nickname “Unconditional Surrender” Grant. He also earned a promotion to Major General of Volunteers.

Lower Water Battery, Fort Donelson National Battlefield


The Battle of Fort Donelson by James R. Knight

The Capture of Fort Donelson by Lew Wallace. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume I, edited by Robert U. Johnson and Clarence C. Buel

Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion Series I, Volume 7

Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant by Ulysses S. Grant

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