Cauldron

Battle of Fort Donelson - U.S. Civil War - Feb 11, 1862 – Feb 16, 1862

Episode Summary

"In every battle, there comes a time when both sides consider themselves beaten, then he who continues the attack wins." - Grant's statement is not just a bit of battlefield wisdom. He could just as readily have been describing North and South in the lead up to the American Civil War. Or throughout the War itself. Or any of the thousands of battles that took place during the War. Lincoln, self admittedly no military man, understood the dogged nature needed to win the drag em out drop em down type contest that this War was going to become. "Our success or failure at Donelson is vastly important, and I beg you to put your soul in the effort," he wrote to his Western commander. Finding the type of man that would attack even after he thought he'd already lost proved difficult, but not impossible. It was on the rivers of the Western theater that the War would shift for good. Where the man and the mind Lincoln and the Union most needed would mature into a singular force. Let's go back to February 1862, to the winding calm of the Cumberland River. New bizarrely beetle-like and inky black but deadly ironclad beasts are chugging upstream to pound two forts into submission. One will fall quickly, and with little fight, the other will take days and see savage combat. Where a determined Brig General is preparing to show his family, his country, and himself that he's no failure, he can, in fact, succeed, maybe even excel. Where a group of cold but confident confederate soldiers is readying to defend their new country no matter the cost. Let's go back to the battle of Fort Donelson

Episode Notes

A civil war cracked off in the New World that would last four years and rip the Republic asunder. For more than 1400 days, brother fought brother, father killed son, friend cut down friend. Not for a minute did the suffering stop, whether for the soldiers or the noncombatants. Disease, privation, hunger, petty violence, rape, and pillage roamed the land from the swamps of S.C. to the P.A. forests. From the Mississippi to the Mountains of Appalachia, 10k and more battles were fought of every size, from glorified bar brawls to clashes of cataclysmic scale. By its end, over a million lives had been snuffed out and millions more ruined. The butcher's bill on both sides included lowly privates and brilliant generals, statesmen and lawmakers, farmers, women, shopkeepers, teachers, children, slaves, a president, and everyone in between.

 

"In every battle, there comes a time when both sides consider themselves beaten, then he who continues the attack wins." - Grant's statement is not just a bit of battlefield wisdom. He could just as readily have been describing North and South in the lead up to the American Civil War. Or throughout the War itself. Or any of the thousands of battles that took place during the War. Lincoln, self admittedly no military man, understood the dogged nature needed to win the drag em out drop em down type contest that this War was going to become. "Our success or failure at Donelson is vastly important and I beg you to put your soul in the effort" he wrote to his Western commander. Finding the type of man that would attack even after he thought he'd already lost proved difficult, but not impossible. It was on the rivers of the Western theater that the War would shift for good. Where the man and the mind Lincoln and the Union most needed would mature into a singular force. Let's go back to February 1862, to the winding calm of the Cumberland River. New bizarrely beetle-like and inky black but deadly ironclad beasts are chugging upstream to pound two forts into submission. One will fall quickly, and with little fight, the other will take days and see savage combat. Where a determined Brig General is preparing to show his family, his country, and himself that he's no failure, he can, in fact, succeed, maybe even excel. Where a group of cold but confident confederate soldiers is readying to defend their new country no matter the cost. Let's go back to the battle of Fort Donelson.

 

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Sources - Grant by Ron Chernow and The Civil War: A Narrative. Vol 1: Fort Sumter to Perryville  by Shelby Foote and The American Civil War: A Military History by John Keegan

Music:

Battle Hymn of the Republic by The U.S. Army Band

When Johnny Comes Marching Home by Air Force Band of Liberty

Americana - Aspiring by Kevin MacLeod is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

Source: http://incompetech.com/music/royalty-free/index.html?isrc=USUAN1200092

Artist: http://incompetech.com/

Art - Melhak @ Fiverr

Episode Transcription

The issue of slavery and the Civil War itself were baked into the Constitution the very day it was signed and ratified. When the framers and founding fathers decided to kick the can down the road and not deal with slavery from the start, the split was only a matter of time. The Southern states could not have cut the cancer of chattel slavery out of their society if they had wanted to, it was too deeply embedded. And in this case, for the most part, they did not want to. As the young United States grew and expanded, so to did the South. Instead of shedding the horror of slavery, they wished to extend the national sin to fresh territories. Appalled but afraid to act too assertively, the Northern states rallied and tried, like little Hans Brinker, to put their proverbial finger in the dam. Compromises, deals, and acts were created, and both sides tried their hardest to make nice. But there could never have been any other outcome, as the saying goes, "A house divided against itself cannot stand."

The man that succinctly described the countries festering, maybe mortal wound, and predicted the truth to come, that it would not stay divided long, it would become whole one way or whole the other way was Abraham Lincoln. His election to the presidency made it clear to the leading men in the South that appeasement, concessions, and land haggling was no longer on the table. Believing in their cause and with a certain kind of courage and bravery, the southern states began to secede from the still infant Union. The men from Montgomery and Memphis and Mobile and Mount Pleasant believed in the sovereignty of their individual states. They also thought that it was their right, their god-given, and founding father approved right to secede whenever they wanted. The country they all loved had begun as a gang of desperate colonies rebelling against an oppressive government. What difference was it then for states to peacefully withdraw from a government they deemed was not looking out for their best interest? That seemingly wanted to harm them? And isn't it just? Wouldn't Jefferson, Adams, and Washington approve, that when pushed, these seceding states picked up arms and forced a separation? Forced their independence?

The Civil Wars causes, of course, varied - territorial concerns, states rights, sectionalism, protectionism, honor, pride, hate, fear. But it always comes back to two things; slavery and the election of Lincoln. After the newly minted president was inaugurated into office, things got hot quick. States seceded one after the other; South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, Texas, and soon others followed. A provisional government was set up complete with a president, congress, and its own currency. It was hoped the War would be avoided, but preparations for the inevitable went ahead on both sides of the Mason Dixon Line. In the harbor of Charleston SC, a poorly provisioned federal garrison was in the crosshairs of confederate cannon, and the eyes of the nation and the world looked on. April 12-13, 1861, started one of the worst kinds of wars if there can be a worse or better kind of War. A civil war cracked off in the New World that would last four years and rip the Republic asunder. For more than 1400 days, brother fought brother, father killed son, friend cut down friend. Not for a minute did the suffering stop, whether for the soldiers or the noncombatants. Disease, privation, hunger, petty violence, rape, and pillage roamed the land from the swamps of S.C. to the P.A. forests. From the Mississippi to the Mountains of Appalachia, 10k and more battles were fought of every size, from glorified bar brawls to clashes of cataclysmic scale. By its end, over a million lives had been snuffed out and millions more ruined. The butcher's bill on both sides included lowly privates and brilliant generals, statesmen and lawmakers, farmers, women, shopkeepers, teachers, children, slaves, a president, and everyone in between. 

In the beginning, though, none of that was known. The scale and toll of the national troubles were yet to be calculated. The whole country, both Federal and Confederate, walked into the thick, disorienting fog of War, not knowing what the incredible cost would be. Early on in the War, the South was confident. It's skilled hunters, frontiersmen, and hearty farmers seemed more than capable of handling the soft city-dwellers of the North. If the South could string together some early success, they might force negotiations. If they were to avoid the eventual crushing weight of the North's superior numbers, technology, and economy, the South had to win quick. First Manassas was a Union whipping at Washington D.C.'s doorstep. Lincoln facing the greatest crisis the country had ever and has ever known, could not find a man that would fight or more importantly fight well. He needed the greatest military man of that generation, and it seemed he had nothing but hacks and has-beens at hand. That would change not in the East where it was assumed the War would be fought and won but in the West a few hundred miles distant but a world away. 

"In every battle, there comes a time when both sides consider themselves beaten, then he who continues the attack wins." - Grant's statement is not just a bit of battlefield wisdom. He could just as readily have been describing North and South in the lead up to the American Civil War. Or throughout the War itself. Or any of the thousands of battles that took place during the War. Lincoln, self admittedly no military man, understood the dogged nature needed to win the drag em out drop em down type contest that this War was going to become. "Our success or failure at Donelson is vastly important and I beg you to put your soul in the effort" he wrote to his Western commander. Finding the type of man that would attack even after he thought he'd already lost proved difficult, but not impossible. It was on the rivers of the Western theater that the War would shift for good. Where the man and the mind Lincoln and the Union most needed would mature into a singular force. Let's go back to February 1862, to the winding calm of the Cumberland River. New bizarrely beetle-like and inky black but deadly ironclad beasts are chugging upstream to pound two forts into submission. One will fall quickly, and with little fight, the other will take days and see savage combat. Where a determined Brig General is preparing to show his family, his country, and himself that he's no failure, he can, in fact, succeed, maybe even excel. Where a group of cold but confident confederate soldiers is readying to defend their new country no matter the cost. Let's go back to the battle of Fort Donelson.

Early on in the War, the grizzled old warrior Winfield Scott devised a stratagem that would be known to history as the "Anaconda Plan." It called for a blockade of the Confederate coast and the conquering of the Mississippi. Hemmed in on all fronts and without the lifeline of trade to prop up its economy, the fledgling new state would fail. The topography of the South made invasion difficult from the North but less so from the West. With rivers like the Tennessee, Ohio, and Cumberland, the Union army might be able to drive South and East into the very heart of the Confederacy. And they had to use the rivers because the South had 3 times less mileage in railroads than the North. If the Union wanted to campaign in the South, it would need to come from the West. To do that, it needed to capture the rivers that poured into and then eventually the Mighty Mississippi herself. The commander of the Western Theater Gen Halleck decided to target the feeder rivers first. The Cumberland was a virtual highway for trade and movement to and from the city of Nashville. Nashville was one of the rare rail and manufacturing hubs in the South. To take the city, they would need to secure the river.

Fort Henry on the nearby and connected Tennessee River was never going to hold out for very long. With only 3k to 4k men facing the 15k Union men of the soon to be Army of the Tennessee, the Confederates were vastly outgunned. Added to that, the advancing army was bringing some fancy new toys to the fight. Chugging their way up the Tennessee River was the Western Flotilla commanded by the reliable Flag Officer Andrew Foote. Of his 7 ships, 4 were the newly built city class ironclads. Using the latest in steam power, metallurgy and ship design, these oddly shaped and ungainly looking vessels could take and deliver a beating. With iron or steel covering almost every inch of the ship's surface, only direct fire from heavy guns could harm them. With a full complement of their own giant cannon, seemingly added everywhere with a liberal hand, they could rain down hell on an enemy. The ironclads instantly made wooden warships obsolete, and they gave a general that could see how to use them an immediate force multiplier. Brig Gen US Grant was just such a man.

Grant was a veteran of the Mexican War and had served well. Mishaps had led to him getting cashiered, and he found civilian life less than straightforward. A failure at farming, tanning, shopkeeping, and almost everything he did, Grant was, if not happy about the War, at least grateful to get back to something he knew he could do. The taking of Fort Henry was his first real solo command, and he wanted things to go well. His plan was simple but solid. He would take his much larger army over land and storm the fort while his little fleet blasted away at the forts gun batteries. He believed it would be a quick and easy fight. He was more right than he could have known.

 The Confederate commander Tilghman was in a hell of a position. Fort Henry was poorly placed, too low on the river bank, and most of its 17 gun emplacements were flooded by the time of the battle. Recognizing a losing hand when he had one, Tilghman sent the majority of his army to nearby Fort Donelson. He kept just enough gunners to man the artillery to buy time. When the Western Flotilla arrived at midday on February 6th, the duel began. Tilghman bravely ordered even more men to evacuate while he held on to give them time to escape. After over an hour of withering fire and with the ironclads closing in for the kill, the white flag went up. Tilghman and less than 100 men were taken captive by Foote's fleet. Grant and his army showed up later in the day to a fait accompli. 

The poor location of the fort and the rising river had won the day more than anything else, but for a country starved for good news, the fall of Fort Henry was sustenance. The Chicago Tribune claimed the lopsided battle to be one of the "most complete...in the annals of the world's warfare." Halleck on hearing the news, sent to Washington a dispatch that made it sound like the War was over saying, "Fort Henry is ours. The flag is reestablished on the soil of Tennessee. It will never be removed." The news was, of course, good, but all the hype was misleading. If Grant's army had waited only a couple days, they would have found the whole fort submerged and evacuated. But a win is a win, and for a desperate man like Lincoln, that was all that mattered. Little did he know there was more news coming, and it was only going to get better.

 With the fall of Fort Henry, the Confederate plan to hold Tennessee and the West suffered a considerable blow. The two main Southern armies in the theater, 22k men at Bowling Green Ky and 12k men at Columbus KY, were now divided, and the Tennessee river was taken. The overall Confederate commander, Albert Sydney Johnston, decided to bolster Fort Donelson in the hopes that it would protect Nashville. This move added 12k men to a garrison of 5k. With 17k men and a well-provisioned fort, the Confederate leadership hoped to at least stall the Union advance if not stop it. Unlike Henry, Donelson was a fort designed to do just that. 

 With a veritable rabbits warren of trenches and dugouts that amounted to miles of protected firing positions, just reaching Donelson was going to be hard. Earthworks, palisades, and stockades created superb killing zones and fields of fire. With criss crossing streams, gullies, and ravines, the man-made and nature-made combined to make a deadly dynamic duo. And that was just the landward side. On the river, defenses were even stronger. Unlike Henry Donelson, was a fort well positioned to control the river. The bluffs reached 100 ft above the water line and commanded the river for miles. Unobstructed fields of vision meant the guns of the fort could pepper any oncoming flotilla through its entire approach. And the gun batteries were themselves protected by being positioned in dugouts in the rock face of the bluffs. They were also staggered in a way that meant any ships down below would be taking fire from almost directly above. Donelson was ready for whatever the Union sent its way, by land or river.

Again Grant's plan was simple, but maybe this time it was too simple. He planned to repeat the Henry action almost to the letter. He sent Foote and the flotilla upriver ahead of his army. When they got into position, the army would attack while the ships bombarded the fort. Because the river route was 150 miles and the land route only 12 miles, Grant sent the ships first, planning to rest and ready the army. On the 7th, he rode out to reconnoiter the land around the fort. While within a mile of Donelson itself, he found a couple of roads large enough to accommodate his army. Grant loved to see for himself, he had an innate eye for terrain and collecting maps and guidebooks was a passion of his. Any chance he had to see the enemy position firsthand, he took. On the 11th, Foote sent word that his ships would take up their pre-battle positions on the evening of the 12th. 

Grant ordered his men to move out the same day, expecting to make the march in short order. The weather was working with the Union army, it was actually so nice and warm that one union officer said the "river, land, and sky shimmered with warmth." With the high spirits of a conquering army, Union soldiers broke into song and thoroughly enjoyed the march. MUSIC BREAK JOHNNY

So nice was the weather that men became overheated and decided to toss their overcoats and blankets to the side of the road. The naivety of the green Union soldiers is almost shocking and really shows how hopeful these men were for a quick, easy war. The army arrived outside Fort Donelson on the 12th, and while he waited for the gunships, Grant went about the business of settling in. Some light skirmishing occurred, and already the fight for Donelson was more deadly and challenging than at Fort Henry.

On the 13th, there were a few small engagements but nothing major. Grant specifically ordered his commanders to keep things quiet, he didn't want a battle until his ships were in place. The night of the 13th, the weather changed, and winter came charging back with a vengeance. Temps dropped to 12 degrees, and the rain that had been falling turned to sleet, then snow. Having tossed aside blankets and coats, many Union soldiers were caught in the open. It got so cold that wagon wheels and gun casements froze to the ground. Because of the active snipers from the fort, Grant forbade building fires for fear of bringing enemy attention. The 12th Iowa had men running in circles all night to stay warm. By morning there was three inches of snow covering everything, including any men that had slept on the ground.

 On the 14th, the two sides were in their battle positions. The Confederates were under the overall command of Brig-Gen John Floyd. The Confederate defenses looped out in a crescent moon formation with each tip anchored by water. On the Confederate far left tip was Floyd himself. In the center bulging out towards the union was his second in command Brig-Gen Gideon Pillow. Then on the far right tip was the best of the three but third in command, Brig-Gen Simon Bolivar Buckner. The cavalry was in the hands of the most gifted, maybe of the whole War, Confederate commander, Lt Col Nathan Bedford Forrest. Mirroring the defense, Grant had his old West Point instructor Brig-Gen C.F. Smith on his left. Brig Gen Lew Wallace held the center of the line, and on the far right tip was Brig Gen John McClernand. The union plan was to squeeze the defenders while the flotilla fired away from the forts’ rear. 

In the late afternoon, Foote and his ships steamed upriver. His four black ironclads were trailed by two timberclads, ships with the cannons and steam power of ironclads but without the armor. The men in Fort Donelson had heard about the pummeling of Fort Henry, and fear rippled through the defenders. The unknown and the imagination teamed up to play havoc on morale. Lt Col Forrest, according to Ron Chernow, said, "Parson for God's sake pray! Nothing but God Almighty can save that fort!" But outside of prayer, there was little to be done but wait for the coming onslaught and fire the guns when the alien-looking ships came into range.

The Confederate prayers were answered. Because of the height of Donelson’s guns, the shots angled downwards, hitting the ships in their weakest spots. Instead of glancing blows to the thick side armor, the ironclads were taking shots from straight above like lance thrusts. They also had to run the gauntlet as the Forts artillery could fire as they approached. Then Foote compounded the issue by bringing his fleet in close to the bluff giving the guns above even better shots. Each round crashed into the ships. Direct hits split through the armor, making hideous screeching noises. According to one captain, "as lightning tears the bark from a tree." It was a deafening mind-numbing cacophony inside the supposedly impervious ships. And the poor Union vessels couldn't strike back at their tormentors above. The ship's guns weren't able to elevate enough to get off accurate or effective shots.

Like turtles on their backs, the Western Flotilla was almost helpless. Eventually, some Confederate shots began to really count. The flagship St Louis took a shot in its pilothouse that ricocheted around wounding several, including the Flag Officer Foote. In the chaos, the St Louis's steering and propulsion were wrecked, rendering her limp. Around the same time, the other ironclads are also hit and damaged. The ships that lost movement and steering began to flow with the current back downriver to where they started from. Each ironclad had taken 40 or more direct hits. It was a wonder and testament to the design that they were still afloat at all. In 90 minutes, 54 union sailors were killed, all the ships were back down river evacuating the dead or wounded and making emergency repairs where possible. The outcome of the duel on the river was a shock to both sides. 

The Confederates basked in their momentary glory. The excitement level was so high they sent a joyful telegram to Richmond detailing the day's success. The victory was sweet, but a glance around reminded the Confederate commanders that they were far from victorious. Grant, for his part, was disappointed but not defeated. He was a man of momentum, never one to stay in the same place long. Grant hated retracing his steps, and when he set out to take Fort Donelson, there was no second option, no backup plan. Because of that, Grant had to do something he rarely did; he had his men begin to dig in for the long haul. Figuring a siege of some time was in the offing Grant wanted to be ready. Digging in drained men of offensive energy, why expose yourself to death when you can stay in a safe hole? It also, on a more psychological level, gave the wrong impression to the men. He wanted them to believe they were an irresistible wave of moral right and martial strength. Stagnation felt more like a dissipation of energy to Grant, even when it made strategic or tactical sense.

Again on the night of the 14th, the weather was hard on the men. Snow and freezing temps made life miserable for both sides. But of the two, the Confederates fared worse. As the 14ht went on, the Union forces saw their numbers grow, even with the defeat on the river. Time was the ally of the North, much like Winter was the ally of Russia. Given time the multitudes from NYC, Boston, Chicago, and elsewhere would swarm South and suffocate the Confederacy. Oddly enough, the longer Fort Donelson held out, the less likely the Confederates would win. Around them was a steadily tightening vice that was just going to gain weight and power. The tight situation made the men jumpy and agitated and scared the hell out of the officers. With no rescue in sight, they knew how this ended; starvation and submission or death in the final assault. Generals Floyd and Pillow choose option three - breakout.

Around 2 in the morning of the 15th Flag Officer Foote, to injured to go to Grant, summoned the general to his flagship. At dawn, Grant rode out to meet with is flotilla commander. He ordered the Generals to stay put and not to engage the enemy while he was gone. Foote explained to Grant that he wanted to take his ships back to Cairo for a full refit. Grant seeing that it was needed but not wanting to lose the firepower convinced Foote to choose only the most heavily damaged to take back. The rest would stay put for the final attack. Having settled the matter, Grant started to head back to the line around noon. As he was leaving a pale face and frightened aide met Grant with shocking news. The Confederate army had attacked in the morning and was ripping the right-wing of Grant's army to shreds. McClernand was in full retreat, and it looked like the army might be dislodged, maybe even destroyed. 

Grant was a superb horseman, and at this moment, it showed. He rode back the seven miles to camp at a gallop. At any moment, rider and horse could have slipped on snow or ice, taken a tumble, and both been killed. Instead, fate or ability saw them through, and Grant was soon reunited with his lieutenants. On his arrival, McClernand said, "This army wants a head!" a not so subtle rebuke of Grant for being away during the attack. In response, Grant calmly stated, "It seems so. Gentleman, the position on the right must be retaken." In two sentences, Grant had chastised his general for the lip and clearly stated his aim. It was a brilliant bit of management. He knew McClernand had actually done well in the morning's fight, his men had fought hard until their ammo ran. Because of a lack of leadership, though, the right-wing melted once it became clear the enemy was out in force. McClernand had botched the follow-through, and Grant was reminding him who was in charge without saying those exact words. 

The second sentence about retaking the position is even more insightful. Chernow states that Grant came up with plans of "immaculate simplicity," and this is the proof. No micro-management here, no confused complicated maneuvers, just a simple goal and the freedom to go about achieving it. He could be wildly audacious at times, and he always played for the very highest of stakes, but he was at his best when being most blunt. James McPherson said of him, "Grant's determination sometimes led him to see only that which was in his own mind, not what the enemy might be intending, with unfortunate results. Still, boldness never brought Grant to disaster." This encapsulates Fort Donelson. His absence from the field never crossed his mind as being dangerous, and when things had turned his ability to boil the issue down to its core and then boldly plot a new course of action was impressive, to say the least. 

Controlling the madness swirling around him, Grant went around to the milling rudderless men giving calm, almost conversational orders. Slowly the panic seeped out of the Union soldiers, and they started acting the part again. It might be that Grants calm came from a life full of failure, for a man that had hit rock bottom many a time, things were never that bad. Aside from a calm demeanor, Grant had a highly inquisitive mind and wanted to gather as much information on the enemy as possible. Time and again, his knowledge of the land or an opposing general led to just the right move to lead to victory. One thing that puzzled Grant on the 15th was, why were the Confederates attacking at all? What was the objective? To that end, he inspected a captured rebel kit. Inside there were days worth of cooked food, which to some of the Generals was proof that the enemy intended to stand and fight, taking their food because they planned on staying put. Grant thought otherwise. He rightly surmised that the cooked food was actually meant to sustain men on the run. The whole thing was a breakout attempt, a confederate mad hope to slice its way free of the vice and run for Nashville. 

The enemy plan had almost worked too. At first, the Confederates had overpowered the Union positions, and then they had turned McClernand's flank. Applying enormous pressure, Gen Pillow rolled up the Union right all the way to Lew Wallace's position in the center of the line. But it was here that instead of redoubling the effort, Pillow froze. He halted, unsure of what to do with his own success. In the pause, Grant acted. "Some of our men are pretty badly demoralized, but the enemy must be more so, for he has attempted to force his way out but has fallen back; the one who attacks first now will be victorious, and the enemy will have to be in a hurry if he gets ahead of me." Grant was always better at sensing weakness in the enemy than strength, and like a hound with a scent, he was on it. Like the quote, in the beginning, this is the moment when both sides believed they had lost, but the side that attacked next would win the day.

"Fill your cartridge-boxes, quick and get into line; the enemy is trying to escape, and he must not be permitted to do so," said Grant, according to Ron Chernow's amazing bio. In these moments, he's formulating the winning plan and building up his men's morale. Grant had his gunships firing into the fort not so much to do anything but to further hype up his own armies spirit. Pillow was staggered by the casualties suffered, confused by the bombardment and sudden Union resistance, and was afraid that to push on would cost too much. Buckner saw how close victory was and the ultimate danger of falling back, and so he protested, but Pillow overruled him. The Confederate forces began a slow retreat to the river and the safety of the fort. Again sensing weakness, Grant ordered Gen Smith on his left to attack the Confederate right wing. Smith's men fought brilliantly, and by the end of the day, both sides were exhausted and battered, but somehow, the Union was in an even better position than it had started the day with. The Confederate army, on the other hand, was drained, demoralized, more outnumbered than before, and its commanders were about to bail.

The night of the 15th was a cold one for the Confederate generals. General Floyd, in overall command, was terrified of what might come next. He had been the Secretary of War under President Buchanan before the War. In the chaos before Sumter, Floyd had used his position to move arms and ammunition from Northern arsenals to Southern ones. This apparent act of treason made him a marked man, and he knew it. If he fell into Union hands, he feared, probably rightly, his trial and execution would be squeezed for every drop of propaganda juice. Gen Pillow, for less clear reasons, also dreaded the idea of falling into the enemy's hands. Both men played with the intention of another breakout attempt but were stopped cold by the protestations of Buckner. He believed any such attack would cost 3/4s of the men and that no general "had the right to make such a sacrifice of human life." Pointless suicide would achieve nothing, and thankfully Buckner's bravery and reason won out. Floyd and Pillow decided the next best course of action was to flee. In a comical, almost Monty Python-like moment, Floyd passed command of the Fort to Pillow, who turned around and gave control to Buckner, who solemnly or maybe sarcastically accepted authority. Rid of the cowards, Gen Buckner shows his real strength. Only his honor and pride kept him from running, and as the most sub-ordinant of the three, he had the least obligation to stick it out. Even the fearless and deadly Nathan Bedford Forrest boogied out when he saw what was coming. Finding an unguarded stream, he was able to ride out with his cavalry, a missed opportunity that the Union would soon wish they had back.

In the early morning hours of the 16th, Buckner sat down and wrote a letter to Grant. He requested an armistice and hoped that negotiation could be worked out between delegates of the two sides. The act of writing this letter again shows the conviction of character and moral Constitution of the Confederate commander. Buckner was fully aware that his surrender would be the first of it's kind in the Confederacy. He would become hated, persona non grata in his new country. To sacrifice his excellent reputation to save the lives of his men is a deed worth the remembering and retelling. The letter was brought by an emissary to the union lines and eventually found its way to an exhausted Grant. While resting in bed, he read the letter and asked his former West Point instructor, Gen Smith, how best to respond. Smith growled, "No terms to the damned rebels!". In his response, Grant not only starts his own legend but defines Union policy for the rest of the War. He wrote;

"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 obt. sevt. U.S. GrantBrig. Gen."

In one blow, Grant effectively gives the legal argument on how the North looks upon the whole War and makes it clear to the enemy of the present and any in the future - surrender is better than battle. From here on out it's clear to both sides that Grant and eventually all Union forces looked upon the South as having conducted an illegal rebellion. That negated any kind of rules of War or military etiquette; instead, it made the Southern leadership no better than criminals. It was, in the words of Chernow, "a powerful military message". It gave the North the moral high ground and made it clear to the South that they were fighting for their very survival, not as a nation but as individuals. 

On reading the response, Smith said: "It could not be better." Buckner received the message at his H.Q., the Dover Hotel, a long squat way station for weary river travelers. Buckner was blown away by what he read. The boorish, uncivil, unchivalrous response was unbelievable. He had expected the customary exchange of flowery phrases and genial pleasantries. What he got was a curt warning. If he didn't submit, totally, he and all his men were about to get steamrolled into the ground or pushed off the cliffs to their rear. Nothing more, nothing less. And as threats go, the ones delivered with steady frankness and with a Spartan's selection of words are always the ones to fear. Buckner wrote back a haughty rejoinder trying to save face, but he made damn sure that it was clear he was following Grant's orders to the letter. He wrote

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.

The whole exchange is summed up best by the titan of military history, my favorite, John Keegan. He attempted to understand how a man that so regularly failed and was an outsider even when he was the top dog could be so successful at War. For Keegan it was a matter of timing, Grant was a man of the modern age, of invention and reinvention, of imagination and determination. Keegan said of him, "It may have been the combination of his headstrong character with his total ignorance of the rules and practices of warfare which made him so effective." Whatever the recipe or concoction was, it worked.

The Union inflicted over 300 deaths and 1100+ wounded on the Confederate garrison. They also captured 13k+ men, the entire army, and the Fort itself with the command of the river below. It was the most massive haul of prisoners in North American history to that point. Grant's own losses were significant, higher than the enemies even, and this was a bit of foreshadowing. Union dead came to over 500 with almost 2k wounded and 200 dead or missing. Future victories would come just as costly for Grant, and it would haunt him for the rest of his life. The line of defense from Tennessee to the Mississippi was cut, and for a moment, the South was split. A wedge had been driven and aimed right for the Deep South. From Murfreesboro to Memphis, Confederate armies were spread out and separated by almost 200 miles. Grant had gained control of the Cumberland And Tennessee Rivers, most of Tennessee itself, and ensured that Kentucky would stay neutral/northern. The Mississippi was only held by the great fortress of Vicksburg. Soon that too would get in Grant's way.

Sherman said, in the "hour of its peril" Grant had "marched triumphant into fort Donelson. After that, none of us felt the least doubt as to the future of our country." Lincoln signed an immediate order making Grant a Major General. From Donelson on he was known as Unconditional Surrender Grant, the pieces just fit too well. Almost overnight, Grant was the hero the North needed; with his pure confidence and more straightforward ways, the North fell in love. The people of Chicago went mad with relief and joy. One reporter wrote, "Such events happen but once in a lifetime and we who passed through the scenes of yesterday lived a generation in a day." The War was so young and the combatants and countries so blissfully ignorant of the horrors to come. 

The victory was soon squandered, and therefore the War prolonged. A series of jealous betrayals by Halleck and nasty, petty orders by McLellan befell Grant. He was a notorious binge drinker but not a forever drunkard. He was duly aware and afraid of the bottles hold, always conscious of the siren song. But nevertheless, the shadow of his trouble with drink reappeared, and though it was all just vicious lies and insinuation, Grant was again punished. Things would soon change, and Grant's story continues, but the legacy of Fort Donelson is more than the capture of an enemy position.

The real legacy of the battle lay in Grant's almost Mr. Deeds like ability to set the course of events practically unknowingly. In the aftermath of the fight Grant, walking the battlefield comes on two wounded men, one a Union L.T. the other a Confederate PVT. He shares his flask with both men and calls for a stretcher. The stretcher-bearers ignore the Confederate man, but Grant stops them and, according to Chernow, said: "Take them both together; the war between them is over." He hated what the War had done, how it had so clearly divided and shattered the unity of the nation he was so proud of. Beyond patriotism, Grant also hated the devastating human cost of conflict. Post battle he was overheard by aides quoting Burns. On seeing a line of wounded Grant said: "Man's inhumanity to man/ Makes countless thousands mourn." He recognized that someday down the line, they would all need to live as one again. To that end Grant forbade celebration and gave the surrendering Rebels their dignity in defeat. Here to he set the road for how Northern armies would deal with the issue of slavery. This early on he was still refusing to harbor escaped slaves but at the Fort he had taken 200 as captives. By rights he was supposed to return them to their owners as personal property, but Grant claimed them as contraband. This little legal dance kept the slaves in Union custody, as Grant found them work with and for the army. This turned into the first steps towards black soldiers playing a role in the outcome of the War.

Maybe the most important legacy was the bond created between general and president. After Donelson, Lincoln paid close attention to his shiny new Major General. He believed he needed Grant to win, not just for his fighting ability but for his reliability and his self-sufficiency. Lincoln soon realized he didn't have to babysit the man, and that was wonderfully refreshing. According to John Palmer Usher, Lincoln said of him, "General Grant is the most extraordinary man in command that I know of. I heard nothing directly from him and wrote to him to know why, and whether I could do anything to promote this success. Grant replied that he had tried to do the best he could with what he had: that he believed if he had more men and arms he could use them to good advantage and do more than he had done, but he supposed I had done and was doing all I could; that if I could do more he felt that I would do it.' Lincoln said that Grant's conduct was so different from other generals in command that he could scarcely comprehend it.' Lincoln was willing to overlook the possible failing of alcoholism and any other issue that might arise because "He doesn't worry and bother me. He isn't shrieking for reinforcements all the time….And if Grant only does thing down there—I don't care much how, so long as he does it right—why, Grant is my man and I am his the rest of the War!" In maybe the most famous show of faith for his general, Lincoln was told to cut Grant loose by Alexander McClure. In response, Lincoln quietly but firmly replied: "I can't spare this man; he fights."

Alright, that is our episode on Grant and Fort Donelson! I know I got carried away with Grant, the man, but he's fascinating, and Chernow's book is sooo good. Can't recommend enough, go pick this bad boy up! Next up, we have our What If theory cast Livestream that's at 8 on Instagram on Wednesday night EST. Pop in and tell me how you would have won the battle or just hang out and watch the show! Checkout twitter, Instagram, and Facebook for images and maps. Patreon has some cool tiers that you can get rewards for if you become a patron/producer! For all those, just go to the site and search cauldron. As always, rate/review/subscribe, please, it helps the show, and I like to see what you guys think.

Alright next up, we have the Holy Roman Empire, Swiss mercenaries, german Landsknecht, and the capture of a king at the battle of Pavia!