Cauldron

Unconditional Surrender - Col. Heath at Fort Donelson

Episode Summary

Bonus Historical Fiction Series "Sleep poorly, you bastards..." grumbled Col. John Heath as he watched the Union officers trudge back down a snow-covered corpse-strewn palisade. The emissaries had, under a flag of truce, brought a message for whoever was in command of Fort Donelson. It was most likely an agreement to negotiate a surrender of the Fort. Yesterday's fight had started so well that, for a moment, Col. Heath thought they might just make it, they might just win even. But the South seemed to get a lot of tough breaks in the last 24 hours, mused the Colonel as he folded his arms against the chilly early morning air. There was no point in delaying the inevitable. He watched for a moment longer as the soon to be victors grew smaller, threw his cigar stub aside and began to head back. The HQ was in the ugly, long, and squat Dover Hotel right on the riverbank. Col. Heath wasn't sure who was in charge of the garrison anymore, but he knew whoever it was they'd be there.

Episode Notes

Unconditional Surrender - Col. Heath at Fort Donelson

 

"Sleep poorly, you bastards..." grumbled Col. John Heath as he watched the Union officers trudge back down a snow-covered corpse-strewn palisade. The emissaries had, under a flag of truce, brought a message for whoever was in command of Fort Donelson. It was most likely an agreement to negotiate a surrender of the Fort. Yesterday's fight had started so well that, for a moment, Col. Heath thought they might just make it, they might just win even. But the South seemed to get a lot of tough breaks in the last 24 hours, mused the Colonel as he folded his arms against the chilly early morning air. There was no point in delaying the inevitable. He watched for a moment longer as the soon to be victors grew smaller, threw his cigar stub aside and began to head back. The HQ was in the ugly, long, and squat Dover Hotel right on the riverbank. Col. Heath wasn't sure who was in charge of the garrison anymore, but he knew whoever it was they'd be there.

The gunboats the Yanks had brought down from Fort Henry proved more bark than bite. Col. Heath had heard from the men at that fight that these new technological monsters were impervious to artillery fire. The frightened faces from Fort Henry whispered about how that place had been pounded by shot so continuous that she fell in under two hours. Col Heath surmised there was likely more to it than just a couple of gunboats, but when the very same ironclads steamed into view, he had to admit they struck a fearsome figure. Of course, Fort Donelson was no pushover, and he knew it. More a ring of earthworks and heavy artillery, Donelson used the land to perfection. A warren of trenches, crisscrossed by streams and gully's, the landward side of Donelson was designed to play murder on anyone brave (or dumb) enough to attack. And the riverside of the fort wasn't much easier on the attacker.

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This week’s 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 -

Art - Bror Thure de Thulstrup

Episode Transcription

Col. John W. Heath

"Sleep poorly, you bastards..." grumbled Col. John Heath as he watched the Union officers trudge back down a snow-covered corpse-strewn palisade. The emissaries had, under a flag of truce, brought a message for whoever was in command of Fort Donelson. It was most likely an agreement to negotiate a surrender of the Fort. Yesterday's fight had started so well that, for a moment, Col. Heath thought they might just make it, they might just win even. But the South seemed to get a lot of tough breaks in the last 24 hours, mused the Colonel as he folded his arms against the chilly early morning air. There was no point in delaying the inevitable. He watched for a moment longer as the soon to be victors grew smaller, threw his cigar stub aside and began to head back. The HQ was in the ugly, long, and squat Dover Hotel right on the riverbank. Col Heath wasn't sure who was in charge of the garrison anymore, but he knew whoever it was they'd be there.

The gunboats the Yanks had brought down from Fort Henry proved more bark than bite. Col. Heath had heard from the men at that fight that these new technological monsters were impervious to artillery fire. The frightened faces from Fort Henry whispered about how that place had been pounded by shot so continuous that she fell in under two hours. Col Heath surmised there was likely more to it than just a couple of gunboats, but when the very same ironclads steamed into view, he had to admit they struck a fearsome figure. Of course, Fort Donelson was no pushover, and he knew it. More a ring of earthworks and heavy artillery, Donelson used the land to perfection. A warren of trenches, crisscrossed by streams and gully's, the landward side of Donelson was designed to play murder on anyone brave (or dumb) enough to attack. And the riverside of the fort wasn't much easier on the attacker.

 

The Fort stood high above the river, and Col Heath knew all along the rockface there were dug in artillery placements. When the Union ships chugged into firing range, the Confederate guns had them by the beard whiskers. Col. Heath had whooped and hollered along with his men as he watched shot after shot lance down upon the outgunned ships. The Yankee ships just couldn't tilt up enough to get any real accurate shots back, and after a beating, they floated back to where they came from. Col. Heath knew the battle hadn't been won, but it was a damn fine start!

 

 

As he continued walking towards the Dover to deliver the Union message, Col. Heath couldn't help but feel hot anger. Not with his men, hell, not even with the enemy! No his anger was for his "superiors." After the river success, they should have done something! Of course, the Union numbers soon swelled, and the Fort was totally encircled, but even then, there was a chance! The morning of the 15th Generals Floyd and Pillow surprised the sleeping Union right wing. What had at first been a mad dash breakout attempt had developed into a smashing victory. Had they pushed just a bit more, Col Heath thought they might have carried the day. Might have rolled up the entire Union position. But instead, like dullard that couldn't find victory with a map and two hands, the Confederate generals had called off the advance. By the end of the day, the positions of both sides were back to their starting points. Only difference was, now the Confederates were exhausted and even more outnumbered.

 

Col Heath knew things were getting desperate. He had heard grumbling from the men and even from some of the officers. Col Nate Forrest was telling everyone that cared to listen; he hadn't joined up to quit and that he'd die before he spent one minute in a Yankee prison! Col Heath wasn't sure how he planned on getting out of the trap, but he figured if any man could, Forrest had a fair enough shot. The man had an intensity Col Heath found unnerving, but he was sure happy to have the cavalryman on the side of the South.

 

The double porch of the Dover Hotel was dimly lit as Col Heath approached. The tired sentry's posted at the door pushed off the wall and called out a curt command. On recognizing either the Col. or his rank, they returned to quietly smoking and leaning. Heath entered the foyer of the hotel only to be met by darkness. He waited a moment as his eyes adjusted, and then he saw down the hall to his right, a golden line on the ground. He shuffled towards it and found the door handle.

 

As Col Heath entered the so-called war room, he was struck by two thoughts so fast he wasn't sure which came before the other. One was that the room was almost empty of people save for a lonely hunched figure sitting by the fire. The other thought was how marvelously warm it was! Quickly, Head saluted General Simon Bolivar Buckner and handed over the dispatch. He then peeled off his boots and collapsed into a chair near the fire, thrusting his sock covered feet as close to the fire as he dared.

 

Col Heath had expected Generals Pillow or Floyd to have fled. Both men were facing serious charges in the North, Floyd had even been a cabinet member for the previous administration. If caught, they faced trial and maybe death. But that they both had snuck out the back door surprised him. If for no other reason than to preserve their pride, he figured one might have stuck to the end of this nasty business. But it appeared not. Buckner was alone and in charge of a sinking ship.

 

Col. Heath liked the man, he was a good fighter, and he suspected if Buckner had been in charge all along, they might not have been in this situation, to begin with. But there was nothing to be done about that now. Watching the sole confederate commander now though, Col Heath, wondered if he was ill. Buckner was a well-built man, but he seemed hunched and older than when Col. Heath saw him last. As Buckner read the letter, he was absently ripping at his large bushy handlebar mustache, tugging so hard his head was jerking to and fro.

 

The news in it was never going to be good, but Col. Heath didn't think there was any need for such an outward emotional display. Buckner was lucky; it was only the two of them in the room. "Did they accept your request, sir?" Col Heath asked. Earlier, Buckner had sent a messenger to the Union side, inquiring about terms of surrender. The rules of war called for the two sides to send delegates to negotiate the surrendering of a Fort. It was just possible that the Confederates might be allowed to evacuate the fortress and live to fight another day. Nothing would be decided until the negotiations, though, and Col. Head hoped General Buckner was up to the task. At the moment, he looked unfit to shine his own boots, let alone negotiate terms with the enemy.

 

Shaking and pale, Buckner whispered more to himself than anyone. "We will be the first, and they will hate us. From Texas to Virginia, people will be cursing this army and the name Buckner too. How could he, that man! He's some kind of cossack or barbarian!"

 

Col Heath rose from his seat and went to Buckner, "Simon, what could he possibly have said! There is no shame in an evacuation; we save the army! People will understand!" Buckner slapped the letter into Col Heaths' hand and slid back into the chair he had been in when the Col first arrived. "Damn you! Read it for yourself..."

 

Col Heath was too flustered to take offense, he uncrumpled the paper and read.

 

"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. servt.

U.S. Grant

Brig Gen"

 

Col Heath slowly pulled out a flask of brandy, threw back a hearty gulp and handed the paper, and flask to Buckner. The soon to be labeled "most hated man in the Confederacy" put them both on the table and pulled out a pencil and pad. Col Heath watched him as he began to write a response that would undoubtedly meet Grant's demands. He had, too, to do otherwise would mean the deaths of 100's maybe 1000's, to no purpose at all.

 

Col Heath knew what this would mean for the cause. Buckner's would be the first army of the Confederacy to surrender. A key fort to control the West would be lost, and the new nation split more easily. And Buckner would bear the brunt of the public outcry. For some, he would be the object of contempt and hate as long as he lived.

 

But there was a more profound, more disconcerting idea that popped into the Col's mind. If the Union was willing to be this harsh with a little garrison on a river out West...what would they be like with the South as a whole? He didn't like where that line of thought brought him, so instead, he decided to focus on what was in front of him. By the time he'd gotten his boots back on, Buckner had finished his curt, indignant but ultimately acquiescing response. Without looking up, he handed it to Col Heath, and Heath left the room.

 

As he walked down the hall to the front door, the morning light came through the windows just enough so he could make his way without trouble. As Col Heath opened the door, he heard the soft murmur of an exhausted man's snores. One of the sentries was sleeping where he stood. As his friend reached over to shake him awake, Col Heath stopped the man and signaled for him to leave the sleeping man be. There would be many sleepless nights and tiring days ahead, let the poor soul have a few moments while he could.

 

As the sun started to pour over the hills and through the trees, Col Heath began to trek back towards the Union lines. He hoped he'd have a few moments to himself to enjoy God's beautiful morning and the rest of his cigar.