“I am going over to attack Fort Donelson tomorrow,” Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant told a newspaper reporter. “Do you know how strong it is?” the reporter asked. “Not exactly,” Grant replied, “but I think we can take it. At all events, we can try.”
It was this almost casual attitude of Grant’s that caused his commander in St. Louis, Gen. Henry W. Halleck, to consider him rash and careless. President Abraham Lincoln, on the other hand, considered Grant’s willingness to engage in battle a rare trait not shared by enough of his generals. Lincoln would tell Grant detractors, “I can’t spare this man; he fights.”
Fort Henry, on the Tennessee River had falled to Union forces on February 6, 1862, but not before most of the Rebel garrison had retreated to the much stronger Fort Donelson, 12 miles away on the Cumberland River. Even though Halleck advised restraint, on February 11 Grant began the advance overland from Fort Henry to Fort Donelson. The four ironclad gunboats, commanded by Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote, that had battered Fort Henry into submission again steamed down the Tennessee to the Ohio River and then up the Cumberland River toward Fort Donelson.
By the afternoon of February 12, Grant’s 15,000-man force had arrived at Fort Donelson, formed its lines in a semicircle around the fort, and had begun waiting for the gunboats. The next day, 12,000 federal reinforcements bolstered Grant’s forces, and the first of the gunboats arrived and began bombarding the fort. The rest of Foote’s flotilla arrived the next morning and at midafternoon steamed toward Donelson with their cannon firing continuously. But Fort Donelson was much more formidable than Fort Henry had been, and the gunboats took a terrible punishment from the fort’s guns. The Rebels had placed their cannon on high ground and the plunging fire had soon disabled two of the ironclads and wounded Foote. Recognizing defeat, Foote ordered his gunboats to withdraw.
Fascinating Fact: Fort Donelson was named for Confederate Gen. Daniel Smith Donelson, the person who had selected the site for the fort.