Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Battle of Fort Donelson – Breakout

Confederate attack of Grant's line
Even after their astonishing naval victory the previous day, the commanders at Fort Donelson were still pessimistic about their chances for success against Grant's army. They decided to retry the breakout attempt of the day before. General Pillow launched an early morning attack upon the right flank of the Union line. This flank was “in the air.” For a good defensive position, an army's flank must be anchored on a fixed position so that they can not be flanked. Their left was anchored on Hickman's Creek, but the right did not reach all the way to the Cumberland River. This gave the Confederates the opportunity to strike them on the side, where they would be much more vulnerable. The plan was for Pillow to strike the Union right and open sn escape hatch, and throw the Northerns back on their left. Buckner, who commanded the left half of the Confederate line, would strike them in the flank, and then abandon his position and fall back, while guarded by Pillow.

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.”
Smith's two brigades moved out quickly, and reached the outlying Confederate positions before Buckner had reoccupied them. Buckner formed a new defensive line, and repelled two hours of Union attacks. However, the position had been compromised. Floyd had thrown away his opportunity to escape from Donelson, and in the meantime he had his right seized by the Northern troops. The escape hatch had been closed, and it was clear that unless something was done to stop them, in the morning the Federals would use their superior forces to capture Fort Donelson.


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