|Confederate attack of Grant's line|
When the Confederates struck at 5:00 am, Grant was away from his camp. Not expecting to be attacked, he had left to meet on Foote's flagship. He had ordered that no attack be launched, and did not appoint anyone second in command during his absence. The Union troops were not completely surprised by the Confederate attack, as many of the soldiers were awake because of the harsh weather. They were shaken by the high-pitched, rebel yell, but were able to gather and put up a good defense. They “contested the field most stubbornly” in Pillow's words, and it took the Southern troops two hours before they began to make progress against the Union forces. Forrest's dismounted cavalry was instrumental in their flanking attacks. McClernand, the Union commander on the right, requested reinforcements, but the other officers were reluctant to give them because of Grant's orders against an attack. The Federals were beginning to run out of ammunition, but they had not yet broken into a rout.
The fight continued to be hotly contested, and finally by 12:00 the enemy were in the position at which Buckner was to attack them, but Buckner did not. Pillow got Buckner moving, but in the wasted time the Federals had been reinforced from their left. They formed a defensive line on a ridge, and successfully beat back three Confederate attacks. The Federal troops had been driven back two miles, and an escape hatch was opened. But for some reason Pillow and Floyd believed the enemy were being reinforced and decided to fall back to their trenches to reorganize instead of moving forward while they had the opportunity.
By this time Grant had arrived, having galloped seven miles from the gunboats when he received news of the attack. Realizing that an escape was being attempted, he said, “The one who attacks first now will be victorious. The enemy will have to be in a hurry if he gets ahead of me.” Grant moved his troops into the gap left when Floyd fell back, and ordered General C. F. Smith, the commander on the far left, “All has failed on our right – you must take Fort Donelson.”