Civil War Book Review: Where The South Lost The War: An Analysis of the Fort Henry-Fort Donelson Campaign, February 1862

Editor’s Note: I realized yesterday while putting together a post on Fort Donelson Civil War books that I never actually posted this review and summary of a key book in the Fort Donelson literature here at TOCWOC – A Civil War Blog.  This review was originally written in early 2005, before I had started blogging.

Where the South Lost the War An Analysis of the Fort Henry Fort Donelson Campaign February 1862 GottThis is a summary and review of Kendall D. Gott’s Where The South Lost The War: An Analysis of the Fort Henry-Fort Donelson Campaign, February 1862 (Stackpole Books, 2003).  Gott’s book is a slightly revisionist view of the Henry-Donelson Campaign and was a very good read.  It contains 346 pages, of which 280 are text, with the rest dedicated to two appendices, notes, bibliography, and index.  Seventeen maps are included, and these go down to the Brigade level mostly, but some contain regiments here and there.  This is a solid entry in the study of the early War in the West, and I highly recommend it to anyone wishing to learn more about this area.

In the early part of the book, Gott summarizes the dire situation the South faced in the first year of the war in the West.  Jefferson Davis knowingly made the East a priority and had the West make do with what they had, which wasn’t much.  The result was poor weapons for the troops, and less troops overall to defend a much larger area.  Luckily for the Confederates, Kentucky’s neutrality made defending the borders a lot easier, as they didn’t have nearly as much territory to cover.  Unfortunately, Kentucky’s neutrality didn’t last long.  Bishop Polk was in command of the large Western Theater, and Gideon Pillow, soon to play a major role in the debacle at Donelson, figured highly in the command as well.  A brief overview of Grant was given as well, detailing his prewar activities and his appointments to first Colonel and then Brigadier General in charge of Southeastern Missouri.

Gott goes on to describe James Eads’ and Samuel Pook’s efforts to build ironclad river gunboats for the U.S. Navy on the Mississippi River.  He argued that although these boats had their flaws including poor steering, less than optimal power from their engines, and vulnerability to flank and plunging fire, these gunboats faced few serious challenges in the war and in fact allowed the Fort Henry-Fort Donelson Campaign to proceed.  Without them, argues Gott, the Campaign would have been impossible to wage.

As 1861 came to a close, General Polk violated Kentucky’s neutrality and occupied Columbus as a site to build fortifications.  Gott argues that this was a major blunder for several reasons.  First of all, maintaining Kentucky’s neutrality would have kept a buffer between North and South.  Secondly, Gott mentions Polk should have gotten permission from his superiors so a concentrated effort could be devised to occupy all of Kentucky.  Instead the State was almost wholly lost to an aggressive U.S. Grant and the Union, who immediately occupied Paducah.  And lastly, Columbus wasn’t that strong of a position, being easily flanked on the right.  As this was going on, A.S. Johnston was plagued with trying to find weapons and other supplies for his men.  He also seemed to take a myopic view of the situation and concentrated on his men at Bowling Green, acting as an Army instead of a Department commander.  As a consequence, work on Forts Henry and Donelson progressed slowly, and the General placed in charge (Tilghman), was not really known or endorsed by Johnston.  Amazingly, even though the Forts composed the center of his line, Johnston never once visited in person.  This was another major blunder according to Gott.  As 1862 dawned, this lack of preparation was about to haunt the Confederates.

In January 1862 Johnston continued to try to strengthen forts and begged for reinforcements.  During this time, Beauregard was assigned to the West as Johnston’s second in command, and the only reinforcements were Floyd’s Brigade from western Virginia.  Grant sent out a reconnaissance towards Columbus that had important results, because it made Polk believe that Columbus was to be the main point of attack and he became reluctant to send reinforcements elsewhere.  Gott states that Johnston made a few mistakes during the month.  One, he still did not oversee the construction of the forts along the Cumberland and Tennessee.  Two, he did not have a strategic reserve, able to move quickly to the most threatened point.  Instead, he attempted to move troops quickly from point to point using railroads.  Gott says Johnston overlooked Grant’s Army, believing his real threat was Buell’s much larger Army.  However, since it was winter, Buell was trapped in Louisville by muddy roads.  Grant was not because he had the Rivers to advance by, and Grant was preparing to do exactly that.

As February 1862 dawned, Grant was the only Federal commander in the West ready to move.  Henry Halleck wired him his approval, and Grant’s newly assembled Army (which was to form the nucleus of the highly successful Army of the Tennessee in the future) sailed south toward Fort Henry.  Halleck tried to get Grant as many reinforcements as possible, but no help was forthcoming from D.C. Buell.  In the end, rising waters and the Union “City Series” ironclads were Fort Henry’s undoing.  Gott argues that Belmont, Fort Henry, and the various reconnaissances in between made soldiers of Grant’s Army in a way no simple training could.  He also mentions that Grant was always learning from his mistakes, while the Confederates kept making them on their side.  Beauregard had arrived form the East, and recommended Johnston abandon Bowling Green entirely and reinforce the Henry and Donelson garrisons, but Johnston refused.  Gen. Tilghman, in command at the forts, asked both Johnston and Polk for reinforcements, but none came.  According to Gott, Polk was convinced that Columbus was the target of an imminent attack and that Grant’s attack was just a feint.  Gott points out that Grant, by taking Fort Henry, had turned Columbus’ flank, thus making it indefensible in the future.

Immediately after Fort Henry fell, Grant sent his “Timberclad” gunboats up the Tennessee River south all the way to Florence, Alabama, destroying bridges and railroads, capturing steamers loaded with supplies, and even capturing the Confederate ironclad Eastport, still under construction.  Gott writes that the Timberclads were sent because the Union did not know what type of fortifications remained on the Tennessee, and did not want to risk the sinking or capture of any of his ironclads, which needed repairs after Fort Henry anyway.  He also comments that Johnston and the rest of the men in charge were extremely negligent in both failing to adequately prepare Ft. Henry, and also in failing to build a secondary fort farther south in case Henry fell.  The Timberclad Raid proved how vulnerable the Confederacy was at this stage.

In the second week of February 1862, Grant prepared to move on Donelson, but the high floodwaters forced him to wait.  He was receiving a lot of reinforcements, which Halleck worked tirelessly to provide Grant.  Meanwhile, on the Confederate side, Johnston sent, according to Gott, too few men to beat Grant, and more than he could afford to lose at this stage.  He also placed men in command who disliked each other and only added to the troubles facing the Confederates.  Meanwhile, facing no pressure on other fronts, he evacuated Columbus and Bowling Green and retreated south of Nashville.  At no point did he consider going to command the Fort directly.  Gott maintains that these numerous errors doomed the Confederates to failure.

On Feb. 12, 1862, Grant’s men began to approach Ft. Donelson from the west.  Forrest’s Confederate cavalry were sent out to oppose the advance, and first contact occurred.  The Union gunboats were moving from Ft. Henry down the Tennessee, and then back up the Cumberland to Ft. Donelson.  The Carondelet even shelled the Fort briefly before waiting for instructions from Grant.  Also sailing up the Cumberland were about 6,000 men, reinforcements sent from Buell to Grant.  Grant moved the men of McClernand’s and C.F. Smith’s Divisions into position astride the roads leading out from Donelson and the town of Dover.  Gott asserts that Grant planned to use the same method here as at Henry.  Namely, move infantry into position, and let the Naval guns and the land based artillery pound the garrison into submission.  The only problem was that the guns at Donelson were much stronger, they were higher above the Cumberland River, and the garrison was much larger.  In fact, at this stage, it outnumbered Grant’s besieging Army.  Gott states that Buckner, in charge while Pillow was away looking for Floyd, was under orders not to bring on a general engagement, and did not want to attack anyway, wanting only to withdraw his and Floyd’s Divisions back to Cumberland City farther south on the Cumberland.  Gott states that it would have been interesting had the recklessly aggressive Pillow been in command that day.  He also mentions that Grant chose not to entrench, as entrenching was looked down upon as a general rule.  Also, Grant’s Army was on ridges with ravines in front, good enough of a defensive position in Grant’s eyes that his Army did not need to entrench.  Unfortunately for Grant, he was outnumbered and did not have enough men to fully cover and besiege the garrison of Donelson and Dover.  Because of this, McClernand’s Division was separated slightly from Smith’s, and this put the Federals in a very vulnerable position.  Gott continues to rail at Johnston for not taking charge and telling Floyd what he expected of him.  Floyd could either hold Donelson with all available troops, or try to evacuate most and just hold out long enough for Johnston to evacuate Bowling Green, but he didn’t really know which he was supposed to do.  Gott places the blame squarely on A.S. Johnston’s shoulders.

Feb. 13, 1862 saw both land and naval operations.  The Carondelet shelled the lower and upper water batteries at long range.  She sustained two hits, and managed to damage one of the Confederate artillery pieces.  Meanwhile, C.F. Smith’s Division made a few probes here and there, but nothing serious.  McClernand continued to stretch to the right, and made an ill-advised attack with Morrison’s Brigade on the left center of the Confederate line.  It was bloodily repulsed.  Gott wondered why McClernand even ordered the attack, as he was under orders from Grant not to bring on a general engagement.  The reports of both officers tend to downplay the incident.  Meanwhile, Foote’s gunboats and troops transports arrived north of Donelson late in the day.  He prepared his gunboats for an attack on the Water Batteries on the 14th.  Also, the troops on both sides suffered as a winter storm moved in and dropped three inches of snow.  Gott writes that both sides were hurt by lack of blankets and tenting.  The Federals had left their camp equipage behind in order to more quickly surround the Rebel garrison, and many of the Confederates had left their tents behind when boarding transports for Donelson.  Neither side could build fires either as they were in close proximity to one another.  According to Gott, both sides learned quickly from their misery.  He also points out that the Confederates really did not challenge the tightening Federal grip around their works this day, and that they could have attacked at this point with a fairer chance of success than later.  As it was, Grant was receiving reinforcements from the troop transports and solidifying his positions opposite the Confederate works.

Early on Feb. 14, 1862, the four Confederate Brigadiers at Fort Donelson, Floyd, Pillow, Buckner, and Johnson, held a conference and decided to attack that day.  However, no exact plans for the time of the attack were determined.  Finally after noon Pillow rode out to lead the attack, but a sharpshooter hit a private near him, and he called off the attack for some reason.  Gott speculates that this was merely an excuse to postpone the attack, and that Pillow most likely wanted to wait to score an even bigger victory later with a larger attack.  Meanwhile, on the Union side, Thayer’s Brigade had finished unloading and combined with Wallace’s Brigade (newly arrived from Ft. Henry) to create Grant’s new 3rd Division under Lew Wallace (of Ben-Hur fame), whose Brigade was taken over by Charles Cruft.  Wallace took over the center of the line, and McClernand was able to shift even further right.  If Pillow had attacked, Gott states that he could have won a major victory, as McClernand still did not have his right flank anchored on anything solid.  Also on this day, the Union ironclads St. Louis, Pittsburg, Louisville, and Carondelet, followed by some Timberclads, assaulted the Confederate water batteries.  Foote’s plan was to close quickly.  After a long battle, the ironclads took heavy damage and were forced to withdraw.  This elated the Southern troops and demoralized their Northern counterparts.  Gott believes Foote should have stayed out of range of the numerous Rebel smoothbores, and should have instead fired at long range to prevent their use at all in the fight.  In any case, unlike at Ft. Henry, Union infantrymen would be called on to reduce Donelson.  The Confederates held another Council of War, and determined to attack at dawn on the 15th.  Unfortunately, each man came away with differing views on what was to happen.  Pillow believed the victory would be so complete his men would have time to go back and collect their gear before leaving.  Buckner, on the other hand, had his men carry their equipment and rations with them on the attack.  Also, no order of march was designated for the retreat.  This would lead to disaster later.

Pillow’s Division attacked McClernand’s Federals a few hours after dawn on Feb. 15, following a short delay in getting one tardy Brigade aligned correctly.  The attack hit home and drove around the Union right flank, opening up two southerly roads to allow the Rebels to retreat.  Grant had gone to visit Foote on the St. Louis, and when McClernand’s staff officers looked for him, Grant’s staff turned them away and said when Grant got back he could make a decision!  Gott believes that since McClernand was a political General, Grant and his staff tended to look down upon him and believed he exaggerated too many claims.  As a result, McClernand was left to fend for himself.  Lew Wallace, after repeated entreaties, finally sent Cruft’s Brigade to McClernand’s support.  McClernand’s Division was shattered for the most part, with W.H.L. Wallace’s Brigade being a notable exception.  Buckner was supposed to attack after Pillow got started, but delays on his part may have cost the Confederates a complete success.  As it was, only Wallace’s other Brigades, lined up perpendicular to the Wynn’s Ferry Road, managed to finally stop the Confederate advance.  Grant still did not know of the attack, and the way south was open.  Time would only tell if the Confederates would move in that direction.

At the height of Confederate success on Feb. 15, 1862, Gideon Pillow made the fateful decision to remove his men from their positions west of the escape route and retreat back to the trenches.  He was under the impression that the Confederates had inflicted such a terrible defeat on the Union that the Rebels could retreat with ease the next day.  Floyd was elsewhere and did not see what was happening until it was too late.  Buckner saw, but was overruled when he tried to intervene.  Meanwhile Grant had come back from his meeting with Foote and ordered Lew Wallace and McClernand to retake the retreat routes.  As Pillow had only left Drake’s Brigade in his newly won positions, the Union troops (three brigades, one from each Division) drove them back to the trenches, and the Confederates were right back to where they had started.  Grant also ordered Smith’s Division to assault the Rebel right, reasoning that they had weakened it for the assault on his own right.  Smith managed to capture the trenches, and Buckner’s men retreated back to the next ridge.  As the sun went down, The Confederates were again trapped, or were they?  According to Gott (and Nathan Bedford Forrest), the way was still open to Lick Creek, where the Confederates could have forded the stream.  Doctors mentioned that the loss of life would be fearful if the Rebels were forced to cross a three-foot high stream in the freezing weather.  Pillow wanted to still fight his way out, but Buckner had a “defeatist” attitude according to Gott, and Floyd caught it.  Forrest refused to surrender, and asked to allow his men to escape.  At this point, Floyd and Pillow turned over command to Buckner and escaped as well.  Gott points out that the Confederates could have held where they were, as a siege may have caused Grant to be relieved by a scheming Henry Halleck back in St. Louis.  Gott also mentions that even had the potential retreat turned into a rout where various squads showed up piecemeal in Nashville, it still would have been better than the surrender that followed.  Gott concludes that Pillow, while masterminding the successful assault, undid it all with his decision to retreat back to the trenches.  But Gott points out that evidence indicates that the Rebels really never did plan to retreat that day, but instead planned to assault in preparation for a retreat, which would come a day or more down the road.  Only Buckner apparently was under the impression they would retreat that day, and hence did not attack forcefully with his Division, which he believed would be the rear guard.  This also contributed to the defeat.  And lastly, Gott mentions that if Floyd would have been where he was most needed, near the attack, he never would have let Pillow fall back and lose all that had been won.

On Sunday, Feb. 16, most of the Confederate Garrison of Ft. Donelson and Dover surrendered to Grant’s Army.  But Nathan Bedford Forrest, along with most of his Cavalry Regiment and some artillerymen on horses, managed to escape over Lick Creek.  Lew Wallace, who was preparing to assault the Confederate trenches that morning, not block an escape, had not covered this easternmost road.  Gott asserts that most of the Confederates could have made good their escape during the night and could have been 8-10 hours in front of Grant before the Federals knew what was happening.  Floyd took his Virginia regiments off on steamers, and left the Mississippi regiment of his Brigade behind, for which he would earn their undying enmity.  So Buckner surrendered the Fort unconditionally to Grant, and over 12,000 Confederates eventually ended up in Union POW Camps in Indiana and Illinois.  Pillow was refused a new command by Johnston, as was Floyd, who was put in charge of moving supplies out of Nashville before the advancing enemy.  Forrest eventually had to take over this task due to Floyd’s bungling.  Meanwhile, Halleck, taking advantage of Grant’s success, tried to become overall commander in the West.  When this didn’t work, he tried to have Grant removed!  But fortunately for Grant, and possibly the Union war effort, Lincoln had taken an interest in him and wouldn’t allow the jealousy of Halleck to cause problems.  In addition, Lincoln had Grant promoted to Major General of Volunteers on Feb. 19 for his efforts during the Campaign.

In his conclusion, Gott points out that the Campaign was a perfect study in command breakdown from the Confederate side.  Johnston, according to Gott, was most directly to blame for the whole fiasco.  First, the placement, design, and construction of Forts Henry and Donelson were left to other people to finish.  That’s right.  The supreme commander in the West never even saw the Forts on the Tennessee and Cumberland!  Johnston also failed to designate sights further south for “backup” forts in case the originals fell.  What is worse, he allowed Gen. Tilghman, someone he had never even met, to take charge of the operation.  Secondly, instead of sending someone to the Forts to take charge after Tilghman was captured at Henry, Johnston instead left the command to whichever Brig. General happened to outrank the others at any given time.  He had many suitable commanders available including Hardee, Beauregard, or even himself.  And lastly, instead of making his fight for Nashville and ultimately the entire State of Tennessee at Donelson, he instead sent only a relative handful as reinforcements and basically surrendered an entire State, and all of its resources, without a serious fight.  Gott also castigates the Brigadiers present at Donelson to one degree or another.  He believes Pillow performed the best, since it was due to his efforts alone that Donelson had as many troops to defend it as eventually showed up.  Pillow redirected his own and Buckner’s Divisions to Donelson by ordering any troops passing through Clarksville to be immediately shipped downriver.  He also tried to actively defend the place, and his attack was a spectacular success.  And at this point, Gott states that Pillow made his largest mistake.  He withdrew from his line of greatest success and retreated into the trenches, allowing the Federals to close almost, but not all of the roads leading south to freedom.  Floyd was incompetent, indecisive, and let Pillow push him around, but Gott seems to think that since he was so incompetent, having Pillow in charge wasn’t such a bad thing.  He saves his harshest criticisms for Buckner, widely regarded as a brave soldier who did his duty in defeat.  However, Gott points out that while Grant’s Army was strung out between Henry and Donelson, Buckner was in charge of Donelson, and failed to attack, hoping only to leave Donelson with his Division as quickly as possible.  Pillow was gone in the first place because of this wish by Buckner, having sailed upriver to convince Floyd at Cumberland City to bring all available troops to the Fort.  And lastly, Buckner’s defeatism on the night of Feb. 15 led most directly to the surrender of the Fort the next day, and Gott makes a very good case that the Confederates could have done three things successfully without surrendering.  One, they could have simply holed up in the Fort and hoped for reinforcements or Grant’s removal from command, as they did have some supplies available.  Secondly, they could have used the road to Lick Creek that Forrest used to escape with his Cavalry.  No matter what Forrest said, he was unable to convince the Brigadiers that the way south was open and that the Yankees weren’t blocking the road.  And lastly, they could have attacked again at dawn over the same ground as on the 15th, at least trying to open the way over even more roads.  According to Gott, the troops were willing to try, and their morale was high up to the surrender.  Over on the Union side, Gott sees things in a much more positive light.  Grant, though outnumbered, took calculated risks and was a man of action.  When faced with these opposing commanders, he saw spectacular gains, capturing an Army and opening the South’s defense line right in its center.  He also sees Halleck in a positive light, as a commander actively interested in his subordinate’s plight.  Halleck did his utmost to get Grant reinforcements and stay in touch with what was going on.  His bickering with Buell and his scheming to replace Grant were about the only problems on the Union side.  Gott believes that Fort Henry and Fort Donelson were the beginning of a slow, painful downhill battle for the western Confederates.  As his title suggests, he truly believes that had Johnston taken the majority of the troops at Bowling Green and Columbus to Ft. Donelson, the war in the West and as a whole may have turned out very differently.  At the very least, Union efforts in the West would have been set back months or even over a year.  When one considers how close Sherman’s capture of Atlanta came before the 1864 Presidential election, this in hindsight becomes extremely important.

Gott includes a regimental level OOB with strengths, which to me should be standard in books like these.  He mentions that estimating troop strengths was difficult for the Campaign because very few records were kept, and if others were kept, they have been destroyed.  He mainly used the Official Records, but filled in some other strengths from personal accounts.  Where he is purely estimating, his strengths are in parentheses.  He calculates that Grant eventually brought to bear around 24,000 men on Fort Donelson, and lost around 2400 killed and wounded, while the Confederates had ~16,000, of which 12,000 surrendered, 2500 escaped, and the rest were killed or wounded.  A very interesting piece of research, IMO, is Gott’s estimates on the number of men that escaped and surrendered regiment by regiment.  Some footnotes are included to mention various things, such as reorganizations during the Campaign, and some technicalities over who commanded what.  Appendix B is a partial list of the transports Grant used to move his Army south for the Campaign.  All in all, these appendices are extremely valuable additions to the book, especially for the wargamers out there.

I thoroughly enjoyed Gott’s book.  He presents his arguments in a clear-cut way, and touches on each in detail.  He has a revisionist view of the Campaign in that Buckner and Johnston are more to blame than Pillow or Floyd, but he presents his arguments in a thought-provoking way and has led me to change some of my previously held views on Henry and Donelson.  The maps, 17 in all, 10 on Fort Donelson, are pretty good, going to Brigade level.  Gott’s writing style is very readable and he kept my interest throughout.  This book is at least the equal of Benjamin F. Cooling’s book on the same subject, and here I feel I owe it to prospective buyers to mention something I saw in John D. Fowler’s review of the book at (thanks to Drew Wagenhoffer for pointing this out).  Gott’s title chapters are extremely similar in wording to Cooling’s.  Whether this was some form of intentional tribute to Cooling, or was something else, is left up to readers to decide.  Fowler mentioned that in addition to the titles, Gott also had some passages in the book that may have paraphrased Cooling too closely.  I tend to believe that Gott is only guilty of slightly overusing Cooling as a source for his book.  Regardless, Gott draws some different conclusions from Cooling, and the result is an interesting read.  I would even recommend reading the two books back to back to see the differences.

© Copyright Brett Schulte 2005. All rights reserved.


One response to “Civil War Book Review: Where The South Lost The War: An Analysis of the Fort Henry-Fort Donelson Campaign, February 1862

  1. Steve Avatar

    I just finished reading Gott’s book, and I concur that it’s a great read. I’ll have to get Cooling’s book to compare now. I’m curious to hear his assessment of Johnston’s performance.

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