Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Seige Of Donelson

The Bombardment by the Fleet.


(Correspondence of the Chicago Tribune.)

FT. DONELSON, Feb. 17, 1862.

The Stars and Stripes wave over Donelson. – I can only give you an outline of what has taken place to accomplish its reduction.  The telegraph has given you a few facts, but a few only.  Let me give a general review, leaving out a thousand incidents which would be of great interest, had I the time to give them.  First, let me try to give a description of the defences, for without some such attempt, all the features of the battle field will not be understood.

The current of the Cumberland river at Dover runs nearly north, but immediately at the town as you ascend the stream, it leads towards the east, not in an abrupt bend but a gentle curve.  The banks on the west side are quite elevated, but the hills are cut by numerous ravines.  The hills are about one hundred feet high, just such elevations as are to be seen in Egypt or along the Ohio.  About one half mile below or north of the town, there is a round knob cleared, and planted with corn the past season.  It is fully one hundred feet high, and the ascent on the north side is very steep – to steep to be plowed.  It was covered with a forest, which was cleared when the work of entrenching began.  There the rebels set up their batteries for the defence of the river.

Before describing these, I may say that there are three separate works – the water batteries, the fort, and the rear line of the entrenchments.  Commanding with the water batteries, low down close upon the bank, you see, as you stand in front of them, what appears to be a hole in the side of the hill.  Upon examination you find it to contain one 128-pound rifled gun from the Tredegar works at Richmond, and two 32-pounder howitzers.  The rifled gun is a fair piece of workmanship, as you  run your eye along the sights, you can easily imagine that it will sent a ball straight down the stream a mile and a half to the distant level, plump into any boat.  It is in an admirable position.

Right above it commences a trench which is dug to the side of the hill, or rather which runs up it in a diagonal, as if an attempt was being made to construct a road.  The hill is so steep that in ten rods’ distance there is room for eight 32-pounders.  At the upper end of the trench is a second 128-pounder.

Standing at any gun, you can see that all can be brought to bear upon any object down the river, that a gunboat approaching can be raked from stem to stern, and that shot can be poured straight into her bows, point blank from the lower guns, and upon her decks, a plunging fire from the big gun at the top of the trench.  The embankment is well constructed and from the nature of the ground it is almost a casemate. – A shot striking below or above would do no damage.

Now, transferring yourself to a gunboat, you would see that it would be next to an impossibility to reach the big gun at the upper end of this trench, for, turn your bow’s head on to avoid the shot, you would still be raked by some of the rebel guns.  This was the river defense, and a most admirable defense it was – almost impregnable, as we found, in the attempt to bombard it.

Ascending the crest of the ridge, you see Ft. Donelson – enclosing about five or six acres – an embankment with a ditch outside.  The ditch is narrow and the embankment thin.  It has a vast number of angles – nearly fifty, I should judge – the most irregular thing imaginable. – It’s like was never before constructed.  A little creek runs in rear of the hill, and on its southern side, a spring bubbles from the ground which supplied the surrounding camp with water.  At the northwest angle, a curtain extended to the southwest, running along a ridge of land, conforming to the undulations and variations of the ground, to a creek which empties into the river above the town of Dover.  It is simply a breastwork with a shallow ditch inside.  It runs through a forest all the way.  Still farther to the rear, is a second ridge upon which the rebels erected rifle pits near the creek, in the rear of the town, and protecting the road which comes in from the southwest on a river line – simply a breastwork.

It will be seen that the line was very extensive, and it needed but a glance to see that there had been defective engineering.  With the force they had there was too much ground to look after.  A more skillful engineer would have selected commanding points on the ridge and thus concentrated strength.  The creek defended the south side, although when they found it convenient to leave the place, it was in the way.  With this view we are ready to look at the operations.

After the capture of Fort Henry, Gen. Grant as soon as possible moved across the twelve mile strip of land between the rivers and invested the place by throwing McClernand’s division upon the right, at the creek – extending his pickets down to the river beyond.  Gen. Wallace occupied the centre, while Gen. Smith closed up all communications with the outside world to the north.  Our forces occupied a range of hills almost one mile distant from the enemy’s outer works – Gen. Grant’s headquarters being between Smith’s and Wallace’s commands.  The rebels still had communication with Clarksville by the river, and daily received reinforcements and supplies by steamers.

Passing over all the skirmishing of Tuesday and Wednesday, we briefly notice the gunboat fight.


Thursday, Feb. 6th, had been marked by the successful bombardment of Fort Henry, an event that will live in the history in the list of brilliant naval achievements to the lasting fame of Com. Foote.

The gunboats which participated in this splendid action were the Cincinnati, St. Louis, Carondolet, and Essex; the Taylor, Conestoga and Lexington.  These came out of the engagement well nigh unscathed and ready for another encounter which has not been long delayed.

The Gunboats St. Louis, Louisville and Pittsburg, left Cairo on the night of the 11th inst. for the Cumberland river.  The St. Louis was the flag ship – the vessel on board which Commodore Foote remained.  On the way the Conestoga was met coming down the Ohio as a convoy to the Lexington, which had been the most damaged in the Tennessee river affair.  She was hailed and added to the fleet.  From Paducah the gunboats acted as a convoy to the sixteen transport vessels laden with troops for the reinforcement of Gen. Grant.

Thirty-five miles from Fort Donelson the fleet was met by an express steamer coming down to hurry up the transports, Gen. Grant’s dispatch stating that the fighting had commenced and re-enforcements were needed.  The fleet arrived within two miles of the Fort at 12 o’clock on Thursday night.  The Carondolet had been ordered to open the ball at 9 o’clock on Thursday morning.  She advanced within a mile of the Fort and opened fire.  She was quickly responded to, and after firing 188 shots was obliged to retire, having received a 42-pound ball through her port side, striking the main steam pipe. – She retired down stream a couple of miles.  In the afternoon, after repairing the damage sustained in the first sally, she was again ordered to attack.  She fired a number of shots, but without effect.

During Thursday night Gen. Grant had a conference with Com. Foot, and it was decided to make a more general bombardment the next day, Friday.  The gallant Commodore did not hesitate to declare to his fellow officers that a far more difficult task was before him than had been presented in the taking of Fort Henry. – Our readers will understand from the description of localities, elsewhere given, what these increased difficulties were.  Instead of the low batteries on the flanks of the Tennessee, scarcely higher above the water than the decks of the gunboats, the upper batteries of Fort Donelson frowned down from the bluff one hundred feet above the river.

Nevertheless, there was no hanging back, and Commodore Foote and his officers were called upon to restrain by stringent orders the ardor of their men, who burned to open the conflict.  On steamed the boats, and while at long range the enemy opened fire from their middle batteries – their first shots falling short – first a thirty-two, then a sixty-four.  Still all was silence on board of the gunboats, the dip of whose paddles alone broke the stillness of their approach.  Thus fifteen minutes passed, which seemed a tardy hour to the impatient gunners. – At last the point was reached, and precisely at ten minutes to 3 o’clock P. M., a puff of white smoke and the boom of her sixty-four came from the bow port of the St. Louis.  The other boats quickly followed suit.  Such was the difficulty of getting accurate range that our first shots fell wide of the mark; but this was remedied speedily, and the engagement became terrific.  The enemy poured their 32 and 64-pounders into our vessels with great effect, and our gunners returned with 8 inch shell and 65-pound rifle balls, with admirable precision, cheering as they fought their guns, and doing great execution to the enemy’s works, dismounting their guns on the lower batteries, and driving the rebels like frightened sheep from their pens.  But the diagram will tell our readers what the first glance at the locality itself declared to the experienced eye of Commodore Foote.  The gunboats were fighting against fearful odds, the long oblique middle range of heavy guns raked the fleet terribly as they came on, the angle giving them the least advantage from the plating and defenses.  At Fort Henry the boats came up, exposing only their bows as the smallest mark to the enemy, here their broadsides were exposed.  Soon after the fight commenced, a shot from the enemy’s water battery carried away the flag-staff of the St. Louis; almost the next shot took the chimney guys of the same boat.  But it was flag-staff or no flag-staff; a few minutes later away went the rebel bunting from the fort, its staff cut by a ball from the St. Louis, who thus avenged the indignity offered to herself.

A little later the Louisiana was struck by a 64-pound shot from the right of the middle tier of batteries, which broke her rudder post, rendering her unmanageable.  At this time the boats were all held under heavy steam, just stemming the current to prevent drifting.  Another shot killed William Hinton, the pilot, in the pilot house of the Carondolet, and a 32, nearly the same instant, came crashing into the pilot-house of the St. Louis, mortally wounding one of the pilots, F. A. Riley, injuring two other pilots, and also wounding the brave Commodore himself, across whose left foot a large fragment of a splintered oaken beam fell, severely crushing and bruising it.  Of the four in the pilot-house at the time only one escaped injury.

I will add here that Commodore Foote’s injury is of such a nature that care for the wounded member requires him to use a crutch, which the brave officer regrets, saying that but for this needed exposure no one would learn that he was hurt.  He will soon be on both pins again however.  This mischievous shot passed through the pilot house and knocked into pi one of the wheel of the St. Louis, which, like a sea bird with a broken wing, swung round and became unmanageable in the current.  Here then, were three vessels disabled – the Louisiana with her rudder post shattered, the Carondolet pilotless, and the St. Louis with her wounded wheel – all in a swift current under the fire of the rebel batteries.  To continue the fight longer was useless, and the rudderless boat must be called out of the fight.  The brave crews saw this necessity unwillingly and burned to continue their advantage gained.  Said commodore Foote, “If they had not crippled my boats, I should have had possession of the fort in ten minutes more.”  The gunboats had passed up to within two hundred yards of the fort.  The enemy had been driven from the lower battery, and their fire had slackened perceptibly.  But when disabled, the engines were stopped and the boats floated from their position.  The enemy saw what had happened, and they rushed back to their guns with the same speed with which they had deserted them, which is saying a great deal.  Their fire was redoubled, but our gunners did not leave without a parting shot.  One heavy shell from the Carondolet was seen to alight in the middle battery, and with its explosion away from its carriage went a gun, and into the air went dust, splinters and fragments of rebel gunners, and the spot of the carnage was distinctly to be traced when two days later the star[s] and stripes floated over the captured fort.

The fleet retired in good order and anchored a little over a mile and a half below the fort.  Old man-of-war’s men say the fight was the hottest they had ever seen.  Commodore Foote, who is no chicken, says the firing was the most terrific he had ever seen.

The army made no movement on Friday of consequence, but waited any demonstration the rebels might make.  They were elated with the repulsed of the gun-boats, and undoubtedly concluded that, they would either repulse the army or if not that they would cut their way through and escape to Clarksville.

Prepared to do either, as circumstances might decide, at six o’clock on Saturday morning they appeared in solid column upon the road, which seems partly parallel to the creek, at McClernand’s right.  It was a few minutes past six when our pickets exchanged shots with their skirmishers.

Perhaps a few straight lines, such as the printer can readily set up, will give an idea of the position of our forces.

The lines, of course do not represent exact positions, for you are to remember that it is a broken country – hills and hollows as irregular as waves of Lake Michigan – that a portion of McClernand’s force was on the right and side of the road, a portion east of it, and some troops in it; that when the enemy advanced they were just as they had been lying in their blankets in the open air, or getting ready for breakfast.

Immediately the whole division was astir, waiting for what might turn up.  As the rebels neared our forces they deployed and formed in line of battle making the most furious attack upon the right; also sending their Mississippi sharp shooters, as one of the Captains, now a prisoner informed me, to the left to throw the 11th and the 20th regiments into confusion.

It was about seven o’clock, when the firing began on the right, and in a few minutes it was running like a train of powder on a floor, along the entire line.  The rebels advanced with determination – not in a regular line, but in the guerilla mode – availing themselves of the trees and the undulations of the ground.  Their design was to cut the division at the center, turn the regiments on the right, composing Ogelsby’s brigade up against the creek and capture them.  But their movements to that end were foiled.  The regiments at the center being pressed, after standing a hot fire begun gradually to fall back, which rendered it necessary for Oglesby to do the same as he separated, from the division, and the entire right wing of the division accordingly swung back, slowly at first.  Dresser’s and Schwartz’s batteries were brought into position as soon as possible, and for a while there was a very heavy fire, accompanied by continued rolls of musketry.  If one were to judge by sound alone, all battles would be terrific; but when a fight is waged in a forest, the trees high up the branches usually suffer more.  There, was however, considerable loss on both sides, at this point.

And now occurred one of those blunders common in warfare.  The enemy pressing hard upon our forces, Gen. McClernand sent Major Brayman for reinforcements.  He rode rapidly to the rear and came upon Col. Cruft’s brigade, who moved forward, and crossed the road, and came up in the rear of the 30th and 31st.  These regiments were lying down and firing over the crest of a ridge.  As Col. Cruft came in the rear of them they rose to their feet, not knowing whether the force in their rear was friend or foe.  The 25th Ky., supposing them to be rebels, poured in a volley, which did terrible execution.  It is not possible to ascertain how many fell under the fire, but it was sufficient to throw the entire division into disorder, and at once there was almost panic.  Some of them took to their heels, threw down their guns and equipments, and fled to the rear crying “All is lost!”  We are all cut to pieces!” and similar expressions.  Some of them even fled to Fort Henry, twelve miles distant, and immediately the woods were filled with stragglers.

The enemy improved the opportunity, and advanced upon Dresser’s and Schwartz’s batteries, capturing five guns, taking possession of Gen. McClernand’s headquarters, and driving our forces nearly a mile and a half.  They had opened the gap; and not only that, but had in the joust driven us, captured five guns and had reason to feel that the day was theirs.

But now they committed a fatal mistake.  Instead of adhering to the original plan, to escape, they resolved to follow up their advantage by pursuit, cut us up and capture the entire army.

The fight had lasted nearly four hours, and McClernand’s division was exhausted; besides they were out of ammunition.

At this juncture Gen. Wallace’s division was thrown in front.  They took up a position on a ridge, with Captain Taylor’s battery in the center at the road, commanding it down the ridge to the bottom of a ravine.  McClernand’s division was making up its scattered ranks, ready to support Wallace.  It was now just noon – nearly 1 o’clock.  The rebels formed upon the ridge which Gen. McClernand had occupied through the night.  They were flushed with success and descended the ridge with the expectation of routing the Yankees.  As they came in range, Taylor opened upon them with shell, grape and canister.  They quelled before it, advanced at a slow pace, came to a halt, and as the infantry opened, began to fall back.  Wallace improved the moment, moved on, drove them before him, regained the lost ground, recovered McClernand’s tent and occupied the old ground.

This is only a brief note – conveying a general idea.  I cannot speak of the prowess of the troops, of instances of individual bravery, although it is generally admitted that Taylor’s battery saved the day.

The rebels might have escaped when Wallace was driving them back, but by some faulty neglected the opportunity and were again boxed up.  This made two distinct fights, but the day was not to close.  There was to be a second display of coolness, daring and determined bravery of Union troops, fighting under the Stars and Stripes, resulting in a signal victory.

The Iowa and Indiana boys composing Lauman’s brigade of Smith’s division, were ready to do their part in crushing out rebellion, and Gen. Grant decided that they should have an opportunity to show their valor.  Directly west of Fort Donelson, and beyond the breastworks there was a second ridge of land running parallel to that on which the breastworks were erected.  The distance across from ridge to ridge, as near as I could judge by a somewhat minute survey, as about forty rods.  On this outer ridge were ten rifle pits, made of logs, with a shallow ditch behind and the excavated earth thrown up in front.  The western slope of the ridge was quite steep.  The distance to the base was thirty rods as I judged, opening upon a meadow and cornfield.  The slope had been forest but the rebels had used their axes and cut down the trees, forming an abattis not impassible because the forest was not dead, but a serious obstruction to the advance of an army.  It was desirable that the rebels should be driven out of their pits, for they in part commanded Fort Donelson, lying about sixty rods further east.

The pits were defended by one Mississippi, one Kentucky, and one Tennessee regiment while other regiments were in position in the rear to support them.

Col. Lauman formed his brigade in the meadow, in plain sight of the enemy, just beyond musket range, and advanced.  The following diagram will represent the positions:

The 2d Kentucky held the center, Col. Head’s Tennessee Regiment the rebel right, and the 14th Mississippi the left flank.  The Kentucky regiment was one of the largest, best disciplined and drilled in the rebel army.

Col. Lauman gave the 2nd Iowa the honor of leading the charge.  They moved across to the meadow through a little belt of woods, came to the base of the hill, and met the leaden rain. – But they paused not a moment.  Then they encountered the fallen trees but instead of being disheartened they seemed to feel new life and energy.  Without firing a shot, without flinching a moment or faltering as their ranks were thinned, they rushed up the hill, regardless of the fire in the front or on their flank, jumped upon the rifle pits and drove the rebels down the eastern slope.  They escaped into their inner line of defenses.  Col. Lauman did not deem it prudent to follow, but halted his men and poured a deadly fire upon the foe, in force, with four cannon behind the works.

Then for Ten minutes the fire was exceedingly severe.  I visited the spot on Sunday afternoon and found the ground thick with bullets fired by the rebels.  The trees were scarred but bore the evidence on their limbs that the aim of the rebels had been much too high.  Col. Lauman called his men back to their rifle pits, and there they lay down upon their arms, holding the position through the night, ready with the first flash of dawn to make a breach in the line beyond.

“Oh the wild charge they made
Honor the Lauman brigade!”

I deem it perfectly admissible to alter Tennyson in making this brief note of a brilliant achievement.  Twenty-four hours after the fighting I visited the spot and saw ten of the brave ones whose lives had been given for their country lying upon the slope in front of the rifle pits.  Behind the pits were several of the enemy who had fallen in their attempt to flee.

There were numerous pools of blood upon the crest of the hill where the wounded had fallen but who had been taken to the hospitals.

Col. Lauman was apprised during the night that the rebels were about to surrender, by a negro who escaped his lines.  Soon after daylight an officer, Major Calsbry, appeared, being a white flag and a note from General Buckner to General Grant, proposing a cessation of hostilities and the appointment of Commissioners.  As the telegraph has given you the correspondence that followed, I need not insert it.

The Victory was won, and Fort Donelson was ours, with its seventeen heavy siege guns, its forty-eight field pieces, its fifteen thousand soldiers, with twenty thousand stand of arms, its tents and ammunition – all were unconditionally ours.

Wild were the cheers, loud were the salutes from the fleet and from Taylor’s batteries when the Stars and Stripes, the glorious old flag, was flung to the breeze upon the ramparts of Fort Donelson.

I cannot give you the sights or the incidents.  You must imagine them.  Neither have I time to tell of the appearance of the rebels in their snuff-colored, shabby clothes – their bed-quilts, pieces of carpeting, coverlids, sacking – but there they were, gloomy, downcast, humbled, apprehensive for the future; and yet I think that many of them were not sorry that there was to be no more fighting.  I made myself at home among them, talked with them freely, heard their indignant utterances against Floyd, who had sneaked away with his Virginia regiments, the 36th, 50th and 51st, and a host of stragglers – officers many of them – who did not hesitate to desert their men in the hour of adversity.  They went away at midnight after an angry altercation, as I was informed by a secession officer, between Pillow, Floyd and Buckner.  I am also informed that about five thousand rebels escaped, the boats being loaded to the guards.  Forest’s Louisiana cavalry escaped on their horses along the creek.  But the great bulk of the army is ours.  Fifteen thousand prisoners!  What shall we do with them?  We have indeed drawn an elephant.

– Published in The Burlington Weekly Hawk-Eye, Burlington, Iowa, Saturday, February 22, 1862, p. 2

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